Revolutionary Worker #1177, December 1, 2002, posted at http://rwor.org
Fort Benning in Columbus, Georgia, is the site of the U.S. Army's School of the Americas (SOA). To many people, this school is more fittingly called the School of Assassins--whose "graduates" have become vicious soldiers, death squad killers, and cold-hearted torturers for pro-U.S. governments throughout Latin America.
On November 16 and 17, over 11,000 people--mostly youth and students--poured into Columbus to demand that the U.S. School of Assassins be shut down. This was the largest turnout in the 12 years of protests against the SOA.
The School of the Americas is a U.S. Army combat school that trains Latin American soldiers in counter-insurgency, infantry tactics, spying, and other military subjects. More than 60,000 members of Latin American militaries have attended the school since 1946.
The SOA has been an important element in the propping up of pro-U.S. regimes in Latin America. Hundreds of thousands of people in Latin America have been tortured, raped, assassinated, "disappeared," massacred, and made to be refugees by reactionary armed forces that went through SOA training. SOA graduates were involved in the failed coup this past April in Venezuela, the Uraba massacre in Colombia, the El Mozote massacre of 900 civilians in El Salvador, the assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero in El Salvador, the La Cantuta massacre in Peru, and countless other killings and massacres. This year's protest was held on the anniversary of the 1989 assassination of six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper, and her daughter in El Salvador by SOA graduates.
Because of growing protest, the Pentagon was forced in 1996 to make public the training manuals used at the school. The manuals showed that the SOA trained Latin American military officers to carry out surveillance, torture, and execution of people active in movements against poverty and repression in those countries. In 2001, the U.S. government tried to deflect the widespread exposure and denunciation of the SOA by renaming it the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation. But protests have only gotten larger since that "change."
This year, the authorities tried to clamp down on the protest even before people began arriving. In a hearing before a U.S. district judge, Columbus police officers justified harsh security measures by claiming that the SOA protesters were growing more "extreme" and had the potential "to go over the top" to violent actions. Lawyers for the group SOA Watch pointed out that past demonstrations have not been violent. But the federal judge ruled in favor of the police.
Backed by the federal judge's ruling, the police set up checkpoints with metal detectors that all demonstrators were forced to go through before entering the protest area near the gates of Fort Benning. The police searched everyone and even seized crosses that many demonstrators carried to commemorate the people killed by SOA graduates. Crosses longer than 18 inches were confiscated and thrown away by the police.
As a form of protest, people forced to go through the searches gave the police sheets of paper declaring that they were being searched unwillingly. Activists plan to file a class-action lawsuit against the searches. One protester who refused to be searched was arrested and jailed. Aside from the checkpoint and the searches, the police mobilized in huge numbers against the protesters.
The two days of protest began with a rally on Saturday. Father Roy Bourgeois of the SOA Watch welcomed everyone and said: "Once again, we gather at this main gate to keep alive the memory of our brothers and sisters who were killed by graduates of a school... We are here to call for the closure of this school." Father Bourgeois proclaimed that the training at the SOA and the killing by its graduates are "not in our name." He also honored the 26 people from last year's protest who received prison sentences of six months or more, calling them "prisoners of conscience."
Among the many speakers during the two days of protest was Reverend Graylan Hagler, pastor at Plymouth Congregational Church in Washington, D.C., who spoke out against the U.S. war on Iraq and the so-called "war on terrorism." Jeff Guntzel from Voices in the Wilderness spoke about the suffering and death among Iraqi people caused by U.S. sanctions and military actions. Other speakers included Bishop Thomas Gumbleton from Detroit and Ibrahim Ramey from Muslim Peace Fellowship. Solidarity statements came from Pete and Toshi Seeger, Martin Sheen, Bonnie Raitt, Congressperson Barbara Lee, Susan Sarandon, and others. The Indigo Girls were among the many musical performers.
After the rally on Saturday, a parade to the gates of Fort Benning featured the puppetistas. There were huge and colorful puppets, stilt walkers, and several hundred people chanting, drumming, and demanding that the SOA be shut down. The first contingent carried a giant blue puppet representing the "Mothers of the Disappeared"--followed by protesters carrying bird puppets emblazoned with the names of the disappeared, the victims of the death squads who remain officially unaccounted for.
Next came a contingent celebrating the current struggle of the Argentine people, led by a giant red puppet representing the spirit of resistance. They banged on pots and drums, chanted "resist!" and "rise up!" and waved bright red flags with the word "resist." The third contingent was led by a giant puppet with a sunburst face and the slogan "Imagine! A better world is possible!" The last contingent carried a banner reading "Anti-capitalism" and waved anarchist flags.
The puppetista contingents dramatized people's resistance and inspired the thousands who came to shut down the SOA.
Sunday morning began with a solemn funeral procession. Thousands marched, listening to the names of School of the America's victims. After each name was called out, the people chanted in unison "Presente." Lines of marchers carried crosses with the names of victims and their ages. At the gate to the base, people stuck the crosses, pictures, and posters in the fence.
As people looked at the hundreds and hundreds of crosses and the names, it was clear that there was a deep sadness for the victims--but also a determination to oppose the many crimes of this "school." Ninety-five protesters were arrested as they went over, around or through the fence onto the grounds of the army base. They were charged with unlawfully entering a military installation. Two were arrested for cutting the lock on the gate in an attempt to open the way for the whole march to enter the base.
According to one of those arrested, the protesters were interrogated by Army officers, who fingerprinted them and took their photos. The protesters were then turned over to U.S. marshals--and made to go through the whole process again of being interrogated, fingerprinted, and having their photos taken. After that, people were put in shackles and leg chains and taken to Muskogee County Jail.
At the arraignment the federal judge came down harder on the protesters than in any previous years. While protesters were released on their own recognizance in the past, this year the judge set bond at $5,000 for the 95 who crossed the fence. Those who were arrested for the same offense last year received six- month prison sentences.
On Saturday two students from Ohio who accidentally drove onto the military base were arrested and charged with criminal trespass and evading. The driver was held and arraigned on $5,000 bond while the passenger, a young woman, was driven off the base that night and dropped off in a rural area.
The huge turnout this year for the protest at the SOA is significant and inspiring--especially in the face of the government's clampdown on protests and branding of anyone who doesn't go along with the whole program of war and repression as "unpatriotic" or even "standing with the terrorists." Throughout the two days of protest, there were many signs and speakers denouncing the U.S. plans to invade and occupy Iraq.
At one point towards the end of the two days of protest, a group of youth with drums and banners went right up to the police line. Challenging the authorities with their energetic dance of dissent, they yelled, "We'll be back!"
This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
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