School of the Americas
The weekend of November 17-18 marked the 11-year anniversary of the assassination
of 6 Jesuit priests, their co-worker and her 13-year-old daughter. A UN
Truth commission later found that 19 of the 26 responsible for the killings
were graduates of the U.S. Army’s School of the Americas (SOA) in Fort
Benning, Georgia. Although this was just one in a number of atrocities
committed by SOA, it brought together a committed group of people at the
gates of Fort Benning to commemorate the assassinations and protest the
continued training of Latin American soldiers in counter-insurgency, torture,
and execution. Since the initial gathering of 12 people in November 1990,
the numbers have grown dramatically, to an estimated 12,000 people last
year and close to that again this year. (For more information on the SOA,
see the School of the Americas Watch’s website at www.soaw.org.)
Originally founded to quell the “threat” of communism in Latin America,
the rhetoric of the SOA has changed significantly in the past ten years.
Now its primary mission is to train Latin American soldiers to protect
the interests of corporations, fight the drug war, and maintain the status
quo, which has meant terrible oppression of the poor—particularly the indigenous
communities of Colombia, Mexico, and Guatemala.
Despite the rain and cold, thousands gathered at the main entrance to Fort
Benning to stand in solidarity with the poor of Latin America and mourn
for the 4,000+ who have died at the hands of SOA graduates. On Saturday,
powerful testaments from Mexican (Chiapas) and Colombian community leaders
interspersed with live music from Pete Seeger, Bruce Cockburn, and the
Andean group Llajtasuyo made for an educational and inspirational afternoon.
Following more music and addresses Sunday morning, the funeral procession
began, in which 3,400—each carrying a cross with the name of a person killed
by SOA graduates—crossed the line onto Fort Benning.
The military police stopped us about a mile inside the base and gave us
two options: (1) turn back, walk off the base, and not be arrested or processed;
or (2) board buses to be taken to the military processing center to be
fingerprinted and photographed. Approximately 2,100 chose the second option,
because a big part of this movement is civil disobedience.
The buses took us to the MP headquarters in an airport hangar where we
were kept on the bus for several hours, then moved to a tent, and finally
taken into the processing center. Our group, in addition to many others,
was intentionally split up to foster a sense of confusion and separation
during the process. Yet it was inspirational to meet a whole new group
of people and hear the reasons why the nuns, Veterans for Peace, school
teachers, college students, grandmothers, etc., chose to come to Fort Benning.
After we were fingerprinted, photographed, and given a letter barring us
from returning to the Fort Benning premises for a five-year period, the
MPs loaded us onto buses and dropped us off at a city park a couple of
miles from the entrance to Fort Benning.
Just after the main funeral procession crossed onto the Fort Benning premises,
another wave of civil disobedience—marked as “high-risk”—began. Groups
buried coffins, planted corn, and ignored police orders. A “puppet invasion”
occurred, which ended in a rather short-lived, yet tense, encounter with
MPs a mile inside the base. At a different Fort Benning entrance, a group
also staged a massacre and locked arms and legs to block traffic and resist
The recent protest at Fort Benning is just one of number of growing resistance
movements across the country and around the world. As economic globalization
and policies that put profits over people continue to exacerbate the gap
between the rich and poor, these movements will only increase in size,
frequency, and influence. It is an exciting and distressing period, as
there are seeds of hope beginning to sprout in spite of the structural
realities that continue to deepen injustice. Z
Baker Perry is a doctoral student in geography at the University of Washington.