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600 arrested at School of Americas protest

NCR Staff
Columbus, Ga.

Lil Corrigan, a 74-year-old grandmother from Marietta, Ga., struggled mightily all weekend deciding whether to risk arrest by crossing the line at Fort Benning, home of the School of the Americas.

She and about 2,000 others here joined in a Nov. 14-16 demonstration against the U.S. facility that has trained some of the most notorious human rights violators in Latin America.

As she (and hundreds of others) struggled with their decisions, she recalled the beginnings of her activism. She and her husband, Bill, 77, who has already spent two months in jail for an earlier protest, took a trip in 1987 to Honduras and El Salvador.

“The poverty and the suffering in the resettlement camps shocked me,” Corrigan said. “I carry a picture in my mind of a crying young mother with a child on her lap, of another mother who had lost five sons and had only one small child left. Every time I go to Mass and communion I see their faces.”

Fr. Roy Bourgeois, a Maryknoll priest and founder of School of the Americas Watch, had predicted that 1,000 activists, twice the number that converged on Fort Benning in 1996, would show up this year for the protest to close SOA, dubbed the “School of Assassins” because its graduates have been linked to so many human rights atrocities in Latin America.

Bourgeois had also promised that as many as 300 protesters, or five times the 1996 total, would enter the fort on Sunday, Nov. 16, the eighth anniversary of the 1989 murders in San Salvador of six Jesuits, their housekeeper and her daughter by SOA-trained soldiers.

By Sunday, Bourgeois would greet nearly 2,000 people jammed along Fort Benning Drive, including 600 ready to join the solemn but illegal funeral procession behind eight coffins carrying a million signatures demanding that the SOA be shut down.

Among the early protesters to arrive in the drizzle on Thursday was 64-year-old George Baldwin, a United Methodist minister who had walked 800 miles from Washington, D.C., to attend the demonstration. Baldwin, who spent 12 years in Nicaragua, said he was there because he had seen first hand the results of the training given to some 60,000 Latin American military personnel at the school. During his month-long trek, Baldwin said he had talked with anyone who would listen about the reality of U.S.-trained soldiers “murdering and torturing their own people.”

As the crowd grew on Friday, so did the number of burly Department of Defense security officers and Columbus police, who directed traffic and reminded protesters to stay off the road and behind the white line.

Among the many rituals that would give form to the weekend was the daily appearance of an Army official who warned the protesters that “partisan political activity” on a military installation was illegal and that anyone who entered Fort Benning for that purpose would be arrested.

Other rituals followed; songs, prayers, speeches, street theater and announcements. Carol Richardson, director of the SOA Watch office in Washington, regularly mounted the small platform with podium located just this side of the white line and asked where people were from. By Sunday, cheers made it clear that every state was represented except Hawaii (“Volunteer needed!” Richardson shouted), plus visitors from many Latin American countries, a one-man video crew from England and a former ANC (African National Congress) officer from South Africa.

Christine Reichman, the lone Alaskan, told NCR on Friday that she had come “because it was time.” The distance in miles was only a sign of an even longer journey of awareness guiding her toward greater direct involvement in justice issues, she said. “I’m still not sure I am ready to take part in civil disobedience. I will wait and see.”

Veterans of past civil disobedience actions counseled potential first-timers that they were likely to be arrested, charged with misdemeanor trespass and released under an order banning them from entering the fort again. Repeat offenders, especially those prosecuted in earlier acts of civil disobedience at the fort, would face heavier penalties.

Bourgeois and scores of others who have been arrested in past actions, one as recent as September 29, were preparing to defy the ban order again.

Bourgeois, 58, a Vietnam War veteran who has spent about four of the past eight years in prison for his opposition to the SOA, addressed the crowd throughout the weekend. He spoke of the early days in the SOA Watch as “a lonely time when we wondered if anyone was out there listening.”

“Your presence here in solidarity with the people of Latin America is such a joy,” Bourgeois said. “You give us hope. When we first came here in 1990 and began our research, we found a school hidden behind a wall of secrecy. Whenever its graduates returned to their own countries, they left a trail of suffering. Now that wall is cracking and word is getting out. We will not sit in silence any longer.”

John and Martina Linnehan, veterans of nonviolent civil disobedience in the antinuclear movement, conducted several training sessions for those planning to take part in the procession onto the fort. John Linnehan, 69, told one group packed into the meeting room at a nearby Day’s Inn that nonviolent civil disobedience was a step people often took after they had tried everything else -- the letter writing, petition signing, the phone calls.

“This can be a life-changing event,” Linnehan said, “a way of taking responsibility for our own lives.

“We cross a line our whole cultural experience has conditioned us to respect as the legitimate authority. The decision to act is hard because, while you can be of two minds on an issue, you only have one body. By crossing the line you are speaking with your body, putting it on the line. In this issue we are on the right side of history. President Clinton and Congress are on the wrong side. Our goal is not just to close the School of the Americas, but to challenge a policy of the United States that has been so cruel to so many people,” Linnehan said.

Early on, it looked like the protest was going to be carried mostly by graying veterans of the antiwar and civil rights movements. Among the many activists from across the ecumenical and political spectrum, many congregations of Catholic sisters, who now have more than 900 women serving in Latin America, sent seasoned representatives.

But as Sunday approached, the median age plummeted as hundreds of young protesters began to arrive, representing political organizations, colleges, peace and justice groups. They joined veterans, tax resisters, environmentalists and nuclear activists.

Carol Rave, a Winnebago Indian from Tacoma, Wash., blessed the gathering with smoke and declared the site sacred ground.

The art of networking has clearly gone electronic, as group after group told NCR they had kept in touch with the SOA Watch and with one another via the Internet.

Among the many speakers was Michael Katz Lacabe, who maintains the SOA Watch website from his home in California (Keyword: SOA Watch). He proclaimed the gathering “the best intergenerational protest I have ever witnessed.”

Among the younger protesters were Audrey and Jessica Stewart, 18-year-old twins who had just “crossed the line” earlier in a nonviolent protest at a shipyard in Bath, Maine. They had used floor plans for the Aegis Class cruiser displayed on the Navy’s website to enter and pour blood on a missile-carrying ship.

Angus MacDonald, 85, Syracuse, N.Y., was quick to point out that a 91-year-old had taken oldest honors at the protest. He said his decision to join Sunday’s procession would mark the first time he had ever been arrested.

MacDonald said he had never protested before because other people were depending on him. After his wife died last January, he realized that now he was only risking himself. “Through the SOA, our country is engaged in atrocities,” he said. “I want to be proud of my country again.”

The procession MacDonald joined was solemn and silent, its mourners offering themselves, their wooden crosses and eight coffins to the Department of Defense security force waiting up the road inside the fort.

Christine Reichman was with them. Lil Corrigan chose not to go this time, saying that her energies would go toward convincing her congressman, Rep. Newt Gingrich, to support legislation to cut funding for the SOA.

“Fr. Roy promised to get me canonized if I could get Newt to change his vote,” she said. “I wrote him a letter asking him not to deny me the chance to be a saint.”

For most of the 601 trespassers, crossing the line was an interior first-step, a “baptism” one called it, into greater solidarity with victims of both official violence and the economic injustice it protects.

For Roy Bourgeois and 27 others, the same ritual act will mean entering, for a time, into the silence of prison, where they will have to depend on the newest converts to keep getting the word out.

National Catholic Reporter, December 5, 1997