The Columbus, Georgia police estimated that on November 21, 1999 there
were nearly 10,000 at the front gate of Fort Benning protesting the School
of the Americas which is located on the base. SOA Watch believes the correct
number is 12,000.
The protest is held yearly on the anniversary of the murders of six Jesuit
priests, their housekeeper, and her 16-year-old daughter in El Salvador
by SOA-trained assassins. Father Roy L. Bourgeois, a Vietnam veteran and
Jesuit priest, founded the SOA Watch organization. The yearly demonstration
has become so large that this year the city’s tourism bureau helped arrange
hotel accommodations. Ten years ago there were only ten protestors.
In 1998, 2,319 protestors committed civil disobedience at Ft. Benning by
defying the law against holding protests on military bases. This year approximately
4,408 crossed onto the base, in a mock funeral procession, risking arrest.
As they crossed, the names of SOA victims, including the 1,000 villagers
of El Mozote, El Salvador, were sung a capella. The crowd responded after
each name by calling out, “Presente,” signifying that the dead were present
in spirit. Blood (red paint)-splattered coffins were carried by pallbearers
dressed in black shrouds also splattered with blood. When the funeral procession
got to the head of the line, the pallbearers dropped to the ground to be
dragged and carried off to waiting buses by security personnel. The remaining
protestors, well trained in the art of civil disobedience, engaged in a
carefully choreographed dance with the authorities each endeavoring to
be more polite and kind than the other. The military told the protesters
that they would not be prosecuted and could remain on the roadway until
they wished to voluntarily board buses to be taken off the base. More than
a few passed out from the heat, lack of water and food, and stress. The
vast majority finally succumbed to the stand off by boarding the awaiting
buses. The authorities arrested 65, 23 of whom are repeat “offenders,”
thus likely to be prosecuted. The military in the past has prosecuted protestors
many of whom were elderly priests and nuns. Those who were convicted served
6 months in federal penitentiaries and were fined $3,000, the maximum penalty
under law. Secretary of the Army, Lewis Caldera, announced plans to make
significant changes to the school’s curriculum in hopes of muting the growing
opposition, especially in Congress, which nearly voted to close the school
this past fall. Reverend Bourgeois said that we were not there to transform
the school, we were there to close the school.
The protest is really a debate about the nature of U.S. involvement in
Central and South America. The United States is an active partner with
repressive governing elites who are backed by their respective militaries.
Labor union organizers, human rights advocates, teachers, and religious
leaders have been massacred regularly over the years by those who were
trained at the School of the Americas, known as the School of Assassins,
with weapons provided by the United States.
Recently, President Clinton apologized to Guatemala for U.S. participation
in the 44-year-long genocidal campaign against the poor and indigenous
that took place after the U.S. provoked a 1954 military coup against the
democratically elected government. That government’s sin was to have expropriated
unused lands owned by The United Fruit Company so that the poor would be
able to grow food to feed themselves. Clinton promised it would never occur
again even though it was occurring, as he spoke, in Mexico and Columbia
and, again, with massive U.S. assistance including military training at
Major Jaime F. Linet, an instructor at the SOA, believes SOA training encourages
democracy and minimizes the possibility of U.S. military intervention in
those countries. Linet boasts that those trained at the SOA return home
to maintain stability. Major Linet went on to state that by training these
foreign soldiers the U.S. will not need to return to the interventionist
policies of Teddy Roosevelt.
If the southern elites are going to continue the unjust disparity between
themselves and the masses of poor, the productivity of their countries
must be geared to serve the economic interests of North America. For example,
the best land must be used to grow flowers for the U.S. floral market,
coffee, and bananas for the U.S. table, and beef for McDonald’s instead
of being used to grow food for the hungry indigenous populations. As more
and more poor are dispossessed by force from their land, their only alternative
is to work for extremely low wages, as in sweat shops, serving the export
market. As mentioned previously, if the poor try to better their miserable
lot, SOA-trained soldiers appear to quell the unrest with murder, torture,
and terror. Until the SOA Watch protests, the U.S. Army used manuals that
taught torture, summary execution, extortion, and false imprisonment.
American army lawyer, Major Antonio Raimondo, is proud of the fact that
human rights is taught at the school including a study of the American
massacre at My Lai during the Vietnam war. Obviously excluded from the
training, however, is that the American invasion of Vietnam was illegal
under international law and resulted in three and one half million Vietnamese
and 58,000 Americans being killed. What will therefore be gleaned by the
student soldiers is that it is a human rights violation for soldiers to
use rifles at point blank range to shoot women, children, and other civilians
but it is satisfactory to kill them at long range by artillery or by 500
pound bombs dropped from jets. The emphasis of the lesson plan is on technique
not illegal killing.
U.S. State Department Policy Planning Study 23 written by George Keenan
in 1948, two years after the founding of the school, declares that the
U.S. has control of about 50 percent of the world’s wealth but only 6.3
percent of the world’s population. Keenan says U.S. policy must maintain
this disparity and to do so we must dispense with concern for human rights,
the raising of living standards, and “democracy.” This policy study was
top secret when written and has not been abandoned or replaced.
It is ironic and sad that American tax dollars, about 20 million per year,
are being used to train foreign soldiers who will use what they learn to
help keep American workers in their “place.” This is why U.S. labor unions,
including UE and the AFL-CIO, are now calling for the school to be closed.
Many local Pittsburghers attended the demonstration including Anne Feeney,
folk singer and board member of The Thomas Merton Center, who sang her
new song, “If You Have Been To Jail For Justice Then You’re A Friend of
Mine.” Anne shared the stage with her old colleague Pete Seeger and others
who sang to close the school down. Father Roy Bourgeois promised that we
will keep coming back in greater numbers until the school is shut down.
Please join the movement; be at Ft. Benning in November 2000. Z