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Cover story

12,000 call for closing of SOA

Special to the National Catholic Reporter
Columbus, Ga.

María Rangel-Alarcón is only 17, but her passion for justice in Latin America has made her an eloquent witness in a growing student movement that swelled the ranks of the annual protest Nov. 20 and 21 here at the School of the Americas at Fort Benning.

At least two thousand college students gathered to join older protesters who have maintained the annual protests calling for the closing of the U.S. Army-run school for military officers from Latin America. Graduates of the school have been implicated in a long history of human rights abuses and atrocities in their own countries.

This year marked the ninth protest at the gates of Fort Benning and the 10th anniversary of the 1989 murders of six Jesuits, their housekeeper and her daughter, at the Jesuit-run University of Central America in El Salvador. Nineteen of the 26 soldiers involved in the murders were graduates of the SOA. It was the 1989 murders of the Jesuits that inspired Maryknoll Fr. Roy Bourgeois to begin his campaign against the SOA.

Rangel-Alarcón visited El Salvador in 1997, as part of a class at Archbishop Mitty High School in San Jose, Calif. While there, a Salvadoran friend her own age said he wanted to be a lawyer but knew that he would never have the resources to do that. “You must become a lawyer for me,” he said. A girl named Angel warned her: “Do not fall asleep in the American dream.”

“We are all waking up,” Rangel-Alarcón said in a speech during the demonstration at Fort Benning, “and our voices here today are the voices of those who cannot be here.”

Thousands risked arrest and imprisonment by trespassing onto Fort Benning property, but officials arrested fewer than 100, and cited only 23 for possible prosecution.

If the point of the protest was not made in large numbers engaged in civil disobedience, it certainly came through in the words and actions of those new to the protest.

The passing of the flame from one generation to the next was especially evident when two aging giants of peace activism took the platform facing some 12,000 people moments before the protest reached its climax with the symbolic funeral procession across the line into Fort Benning. Folk-singing legend Pete Seeger, 80, led the crowd in the songs of earlier movements, “Whose Side Are You On,” and “Down By the Riverside,” music that moved other generations in their struggles to unionize, for civil rights, for nuclear disarmament, telling the cheering crowd these songs now belonged to the SOA movement. Seeger warmed the stage for Jesuit Fr. Dan Berrigan, 78, who read a poem dedicated to the marchers, that they not lose heart or forget those they had come to represent. In remarks to NCR, Berrigan said, “The School of the Americas is only the tip of the iceberg. Closing it down would be a wonderful first step. But I will be ready to meet my maker when they close the Pentagon.”

Rangel-Alarcón, a high school senior, spoke to a gathering of young people in a large tent pitched along the Chattahoochee River near the convention center here. The gathering was sponsored by the Ignatian Companions, a network of former Jesuits who over the years have renewed solidarity with active Jesuits in the order’s many justice ministries.

Large student network

The Jesuit teach-in was only part of a much larger student network that has been slowly forming. Carol Richardson, who along with Bourgeois, has helped to bring the SOA protest from the first event nine years ago to the status of a recognized movement, said that an estimated 5,000 protesters, or almost half of the new arrivals this year, represent young people and organized labor.

Student and labor groups have brought an established network of communication and recruitment capable of reaching large numbers.

This year’s crowd, estimated by organizers at 12,000 protesters, included busloads of students from 242 colleges and universities in 42 states, from hundreds of high schools, representatives from labor unions in both the United States and Mexico, peace and justice activists, veterans groups, churches, clergy and sisters and a wide range of faith-based and other human rights organizations.

This year’s gathering showed many that young people, once dismissed as apathetic or too immersed in pop consumer culture to care about anyone but themselves, have emerged as more attuned to the global justice issues than their elders might have imagined. Students have become teachers, not just of their peers but also of adults, their own teachers and parents, who themselves were losing hope in meaningful social change.

“Young people are deeply concerned about the Third World sweatshops, and they see it simply, in terms of how other people are being treated,” said Marie Dennis, director of the Office for Global Concerns for the Maryknoll Missioners. “They see the connection between poverty and global debt, between militarism and economics.”

Dennis finds great hope in realizing that many of the youth passionately engaged in the SOA protest will also be in Seattle for the meeting of the World Trade Organization Nov. 30-Dec. 3, and in Washington to press for cancellation of the debts of impoverished nations.

“These are all expressions of the same commitment to righting our relationships with others,” she said. “Young people are learning to see the world through a different lens.”

The unexpected large number of young people heartened veteran protesters. In 1997, when the protest was made up mostly of graying activists from the religious community, the talk was whether the protest would outlive its members. In 1998, when the crowd suddenly jumped to over 7,000, with 2,300 entering the fort as part of a solemn funeral procession to mark the Jesuit murders, it was apparent that years of organizing and witness, including a packed schedule of speaking appearances by Bourgeois and others, when they were not in prison for their protests, was reaching into an awakening student population nationwide.

This year’s demonstration held special significance for Jesuits, because of the murders in El Salvador 10 years ago. Bob Holstein, a former Jesuit and now a lawyer in California, met last year with Jesuit Fr. Charles Currie, president of the Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities, and campus ministers from the 28 Jesuit colleges and universities, representatives from the Jesuit Volunteer Corps and the order’s many high schools and parishes.

The result was a nationwide effort that brought almost a thousand young people from Jesuit schools to Georgia.

Jesuit Fr. John Dear, longtime peace activist and executive director of the Fellowship of Reconciliation, said this year’s protest reflects something new in Jesuit education, a public commitment to use its institutional influence in the United States to oppose a militarism that supports the kind of free market capitalism being advanced throughout the developing world as synonymous with democracy. This is something new, Dear said. Jesuit schools with deep ties to corporate America and the U.S. military establishment, he said, are challenging the premise of American foreign policy around the world, that we will provide military training and support to countries that protect our access to cheap labor and resources.

“A new generation of students is helping us to rediscover our Jesuit mission -- that education is about justice. I never thought I would see this historic moment. This is new.”

The momentum that has been growing around the protests in Georgia has apparently had an effect in Washington. In a show of support that stunned the Pentagon, the House of Representatives voted in July to cut $1.2 million, or nearly half the SOA’s budget. Though the money was restored in a close conference committee vote, it sent a strong message that the growing protest was reaching the media and broad public opinion. On the eve of this year’s protest, the Pentagon announced that it was considering changing the name of the School of the Americas and the curriculum to draw more civilians to its courses.

In August, the executive council of the AFL-CIO unanimously passed a resolution calling for closure of the School of the Americas. A similar resolution was passed by the Sixth District of the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers, representing some 35,000 workers. Union support has grown since the passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement, which shifted thousands of U.S. jobs south of the border.

Maryknoll’s Dennis said that all the years of passionate but steady resistance by the religious community to Pentagon involvement in Latin America, where hundreds of Maryknoll priests and sisters have served, has shaped a commitment to see this through. “The SOA protest is not some knee-jerk cause but represents a deeper connection with the people of Latin America whose suffering has touched so many of us directly.”

The staying power of groups like Maryknoll, and the effectiveness of the books and videos they produce about Latin America, are having an effect. The video “School of the Assassins” and Jack Nelson-Pallmeyer’s book of the same name have reached large audiences through public television and by being handed off from one student group to another. The result appears to be a kind of rebirth for the peace and justice community at the precise moment when its veterans, weary of prison, marches, meetings and sometimes even of each other, had started to ask if they had failed to get their message across.

Students as organizers

Among the thousands of students at the protest were 20-year-olds who are already skilled organizers. Jacqueline Downing, a sophomore at Oberlin College, after doing a research paper on the SOA, helped attract 100 students to the SOA protest. She told a crowd of thousands that young people were surprising even themselves. “People don’t expect this from my generation and, even worse, we didn’t expect it of ourselves.” Downing said that something is happening to a whole generation of youth. “We are not poster children for a self-centered, apathetic generation,” she said. We have seen and felt in our own lives the effects of the great line of disparity separating the world into haves and have-nots. “We are not here to cross that line, but to abolish it.”

Downing said that her group is connected with hundreds of other groups around the country via the Internet, using e-mail to stay in touch and coordinate their efforts.

For 23-year-old Eric LaCompte, a Chicago native and a graduate of St. John’s University in Minnesota, the greatest challenge is how to capture and extend this youthful energy beyond a weekend of protest or even the focused but temporary community college life sustains.

LeCompte said he took part in a moving retreat experience led by scripture scholar Ched Meyers sponsored by Pax Christi USA and held during the Jubilee Justice gathering last June in Los Angeles. He and other participants convinced Pax Christi and several other national justice organizations to sponsor another retreat before the SOA protest. Sponsors included Catholic Worker and other houses of resistance in the Atlantic Life Community, American Friends Service Committee and the Fellowship of Reconciliation.

The retreat for about 150 young people between the ages of 14 and 28 was held at Koinonia Farm in Sumter County, Ga., long regarded as the birthplace of the civil rights movement in the South. LeCompte described the meeting as a powerful dialogue among faith-based and other justice groups representing a variety of causes.

Dave Robinson, program director for PAX Christi USA, said that the meeting represented a new organizing effort that brought together four long-standing organizations and their agendas, infusing them with a new openness and energy.

If the protest could claim celebrities -- a repeat appearance by activist and actor Martin Sheen, star of NBC network’s series “The West Wing,” who led this year’s memorial funeral procession with Berrigan -- it also offered the sobering presence of two eyewitnesses to the violence in Latin America.

Rufina Amay was one of only two survivors of the massacre of over 800 civilians at El Mozote, El Salvador in 1981. Adriana Portillo-Bartow, a Guatemalan mother, lost most of her family during the war against the Indians there that claimed over 200,000 lives. Portillo-Bartow told the crowd of a terrible dream she had the night before the SOA protest: “I dreamt that as we walked into the fort, the road was completely paved with the bones and skulls of the children. No matter how carefully we walked, we could not help stepping on and crushing them.” Portillo-Bartow, in a roll call of the disappeared and killed in the countries throughout Latin America, called on the spirits of the dead to be with the protesters.

Crossing the chalk line

The procession “across the line” -- an actual chalk line on the highway beyond which all partisan political speech is forbidden on the military base -- was led by some 60 protesters wearing black mourning robes and white “death masks” and carrying mock adult and child-sized coffins. They followed three protesters, one dressed as a red-robed celebrant carrying incense and the others dressed as acolytes. As this advance group, referred to as the “High Risk 100” before the march, reached a point on the highway about a half-mile inside Fort Benning, they poured bottles of blood-red fluid on themselves and fell to the road among the coffins.

Waiting Department of Defense police and journalists surrounded the fallen protesters. The officers courteously asked the protesters to get up and proceed to the long lines of buses waiting to carry them to a processing center inside the fort. When it was clear that the protesters would have to be carried, an Army official, after talking with some of the hundreds of “peacekeepers,” SOA protesters who had been trained to walk with the marchers, called out “Will the corpses please move to the side of the road so the rest of the marchers can get on the buses?”

By 5 p.m., 4,408 protesters had relinquished the main road after peacefully occupying it for over four hours. Circling buses carried them off the base by another exit, releasing them without formal processing to walk back to the main protest site. Fort officials, who said before the march that they intended to process for possible prosecution every repeat offender, arrested only the first 65 protesters, releasing all of them but citing 23 with summons to await future court dates. These individuals could face prison terms of 6 months and fines of $3,000 for trespassing.

Fort Benning officials stepped up their efforts this year to get more favorable media treatment. SOA Commandant Glenn Wiedner acknowledged that the protest goal has moved beyond just closure of SOA to a much broader challenge to American foreign policy being supported by the military.

Wiedner steadfastly denies that the School of the Americas has contributed to anything but greater democratization in Latin America through its human rights training and by exposing its yearly class of about 800 students to the U.S. system of military under civilian control. Weidner concedes that a small number of SOA graduates have engaged in atrocities in their own countries in the past, but that the school cannot be held responsible for this. The protesters, Weidner said, are simply misinformed.

The school got a boost in religious quarters last month when Bishop Francis X. Roque, an auxiliary bishop with the U.S. archdiocese for the military services, called the school a “precious asset.” Fort Benning was happy, Weidner said, that another Catholic military bishop, Joseph Madera, had accepted an invitation to officiate at a First Holy Communion service for Spanish-speaking children and their families on the base this same weekend. Weidner denied any connection between the religious service and the protest, scheduled for the same hour. “I am saddened that this event is marred by the presence of the protesters,” Wiedner said. Madera spoke briefly with NCR after his arrival at Fort Benning. The soft-spoken 70-year-old bishop, who was raised in Mexico, said that if he had concrete evidence directly linking the SOA to human rights abuses in Latin America, he would speak out against it. He supports the school as a good influence in Latin America.

Madera attended the Nov 14 and 15 meeting of Catholic bishops in Washington at which a resolution calling for closure of the school was circulated and signed by 140 of the 250 bishops in attendance. “I cannot judge their hearts,” Madera said of the bishops who signed the resolution, “but perhaps they are not well informed.”

A difficult invitation

Columbus, Ga., is not an easy place to live if you don’t support Fort Benning. Many of its citizens have strong ties to the U.S. Army and its place in the local economy.
Rev. Joseph Roberson, pastor of South Columbus United Methodist Church, knows well the difficult line the city has walked over the past decade.
When Carol Richardson, one of the protest’s organizers and herself a United Methodist minister, called him two years ago, Roberson saw a chance to extend both Southern and Christian hospitality.
The mostly African-American church became the only church to house students and adults coming to Columbus for the protest, Richardson said.
Roberson knew that many church members were apprehensive. “I decided not to articulate a position that could divide us, but that we could educate ourselves, not with books, but by opening ourselves to experience these people. We learned that many were not just outside agitators but committed Christians just like us.”
Though the SOA protest is notable for the absence of African-Americans, Roberson said he thought this could change.
“There has to be more dialogue between the SOA Watch leaders and the leadership of civil rights groups, and not just among clergy but political leaders as well.” An understanding could be forged with civil rights organizations such as the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and PUSH (People United to Save Humanity) with leaders like the Rev. Joseph Lowrey and Rev. Jesse Jackson, Roberson said.
“Very little education has taken place in the black community on this issue. We have to do more to educate our own people that our struggle for civil rights is the same struggle people in Latin America are engaged in,” Roberson said.
-- Patrick Marrin

National Catholic Reporter, December 3, 1999