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24-year-old finds unity, hope in demonstration

Special to the National Catholic Reporter

Just before I left for Fort Benning, Ga., a well-meaning friend said, “Do some good, but I hope you don’t get arrested.”

At the time, I knew I would participate in the demonstration to close the School of the Americas, but I was unsure whether I would cross the line and risk arrest.

Although I am a 24-year-old rookie at this kind of thing, the reality of the SOA has been part of my memory since childhood. Family friends, refugees from Chile, had suffered torture and exile at the hands of soldiers trained in the United States. While working as a volunteer in El Salvador, I witnessed the devastation caused by death squads trained on American soil.

Despite this knowledge, I left for Georgia uneasy about defying the U.S. government by crossing the line. I felt uneasy about answering yes on future job applications when asked if I had ever been convicted of a crime.

The first activity I took part in when I arrived on Friday was a civil disobedience training session for anyone considering crossing the line into Fort Benning. As the meeting began, people called out their home states. Some had driven from as far away as the state of Washington. As I looked around at the 150 people jammed into the room, I saw sweatshirts from many colleges. I saw people who couldn’t talk firsthand about Watergate and others who talked about “the old days, when compact disks didn’t exist.”

On Saturday an estimated 1,200 people gathered at the gates of Fort Benning to show solidarity with the thousands upon thousands of Latin Americans who have been victims of atrocities committed by SOA graduates. We held signs, we prayed, we sang, we shared our stories with each other, and most of all we cried out with one voice for the closure of the SOA.

I was overwhelmed. Never had I encountered such unity of purpose with so many people. I felt at home. No one smirked when I talked about why I don’t eat grapes and why I don’t buy Nike products.

I was inspired as I listened to college students talk about how their faith drove them to call for the closing of the SOA. It excited and inspired me to be around people living what they believed. Students talked about other protests they had participated in and the social activism they were involved with back home. One college freshman said to me: “I sometimes wish I didn’t know what I know. Life might be a lot easier.”

On Sunday as the group that would cross the line began to assemble, I felt powerful. The line was so long, I couldn’t see the front of the symbolic funeral procession that would deliver the nearly one million signatures calling for the school’s closing.

When I need a job, maybe one of these people will understand my criminal record, I thought to myself.

Hundreds of wooden crosses had been distributed to marchers, each one carrying the name of someone in Latin America who had died at the hands of graduates from the SOA. My cross read “Ana Maria Sierra, 23, El Salvador.” What had been her crime? Picking beans for 20 cents a day? Teaching? Asking where her missing family was?

While listening to speakers cite horror after horror committed by SOA graduates, I thought of my Chilean friends who will never be able to have children because of the torture they suffered. As the son of a Chilean mother, this reality appalled me.

Mostly I thought about the 120 orphans that I had the opportunity to teach, learn from and live with in El Salvador. Many of them had been orphaned by death squads during the 1980s.

This was not civil disobedience but, as someone observed, divine obedience. How could I not cross the line?

Slowly, solemnly and to the beating of five-gallon buckets and a litany of names of SOA victims, almost 600 people began to march into Fort Benning. Our procession was halted by the military police and the Department of Defense police.

Peacefully, we filed onto one of the 12 buses that carried us to the base’s military police station. All first- time “offenders” were given a “ban and bar” order to prohibit us from entering Fort Benning for a year. To my knowledge no one’s vacation plans were ruined.

After a few hours, the buses dropped us off at a bowling alley outside of the base. As I said my farewells to my fellow criminals, I felt grateful for their presence, their passion. In addition to my ban and bar order, I carried home with me the spirit of the people I met at the demonstration. I also carry with me the spirit of those who have been tortured, raped, exiled, widowed, orphaned and murdered in Latin America by those trained at an institution that I support with my taxes.

I am hopeful that we will not have to return to Fort Benning next year. But if necessary, I will. And I know that I am not alone.

Marvin Grilliot, a National Catholic Reporter Publishing Company employee, will leave in December to travel in Latin America.

National Catholic Reporter, December 5, 1997