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Protesting at the fort

Special to the National Catholic Reporter
Columbus, Ga.

In a crowded coffee shop at the Howard Johnson motel on Veterans Parkway here, three young Argentinean women huddled in final preparation for a long day in the rain. Paula and Eva Urrita were just toddlers in 1977 when police burst into a coffee shop in Buenos Aries and shot their mother in the legs and took her away in a van. The youngsters never saw her again. She was one of 30,000 victims of the “dirty war” waged against civilians by the military under Gen. Leopaldo Galtieri.

The Urrita sisters, who now live in Canada as political refugees, work with a human rights group, known by the initials H.I.J.O.S., for the children of the “detained-disappeared.” Paula and Eva, along with another Argentinean, Veronika Mirales, whose family also fled to Canada, were here Nov. 17-19 with members of the Vancouver chapter of the Christian Task Force on Central America. The three joined an estimated 10,000 other protesters at Fort Benning, home of the School of the Americas, a U.S. Army training school for soldiers from 18 Latin American countries. Six hundred graduates of the school, including Galtieri, have been linked to human rights violations throughout the hemisphere.

“Our lives, our memories and personal histories were taken from us by the violence,” Paula later told thousands of protesters at the main gate of the fort. She said she had come as a witness to the long-term trauma inflicted all across Latin America by security forces, police and paramilitaries who have benefited from combat training at the school.

In 1990, a handful of protesters gathered here for a 35-day fast to call attention to the school, which was founded as an anti-commununist tool. Protesters have returned every November as part of a larger movement aimed at shutting down the school. In the past five years, the crowds have grown enormously as thousands showed up from around the country and overseas.

As in recent protests, this year’s symbolic funeral procession at Fort Benning again commemorated the 1989 murders of six Jesuits, their housekeeper and her daughter by Salvadoran commandos who had just returned from training at Fort Benning. School of the Americas graduates have been implicated in the assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero, the rape and murder of four U.S. churchwomen in El Salvador in 1980, and other documented human rights atrocities throughout Latin America.

Maryknoll Fr. Roy Bourgeois, a Vietnam veteran and former missionary in Bolivia, has been determined to close the school since the mid-1980s, when he first learned of the U.S. Army’s link to the violence in Latin America. He cofounded SOA Watch in 1990 and, when not in federal prison for his part in protest actions, has lived in a small apartment just outside the main gate at Fort Benning. Annual protests in Columbus and at the Pentagon and an intense lobbying effort nearly succeeded in getting Congress to cut funding to the school in 1999. Stung by the criticism and the threat to its funding, the Army last year proposed changing the name of the school to WHISC (Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation). The name change becomes effective in January, with administration shifting from the Army to the Department of Defense.

Calling the name change cosmetic, Bourgeois said his protest would continue. “New name, same shame. The school is still about men with guns providing the muscle behind the exploitation of our brothers and sisters in Latin America,” he said.

Strategy and counterstrategy

The decade-long standoff at Fort Benning has turned into a war of nerves and a contest of strategy and counterstrategy between SOA Watch organizers and Fort Benning. The fort, after years of pushing harsh prison sentences for trespassers and seeing that this did not deter the growing movement, in 1998 and 1999 took a different tack and began simply busing thousands off the base without processing anyone except a targeted few.

The city of Columbus, which has provided police to maintain safety at the protest site, showed signs of warming to the protesters, praising their cooperation, nonviolence and commitment and the fact that they leave the site litter-free at the end of the protest. Local media began calling the annual protest a festival and reported that local merchants were welcoming it as the largest “unofficial convention” Columbus sees each year.

But this year, continuous rain and temperatures in the upper 30s seemed to mark both a return to colder tactics by Fort Benning and a bracing rebaptism for the thousands who again gathered to listen to speeches and music at the makeshift stage near the main gate. The steady rain turned the grassy median and boulevards on both sides of the road into reddish mud. Hundreds of umbrellas sprouted over the swelling crowd, which sported all manner of color and costume, including trash-bag rain gear. Buses, vans and cars from Wisconsin, New York, California, Pennsylvania and Oregon and most other states poured newcomers into the mass of people converging on the stage.

Protest organizers had promised new high-risk actions on the base in addition to the familiar funeral procession. Local officials let it be known they had undercover officers in the crowd and a special unit ready to move with pepper spray if needed. Watch organizers met in closed sessions with hundreds of people planning to take part in the high-risk civil disobedience, soberly reminding them that steep fines, long prison terms and criminal records were possible. Fort officials raised the specter of possible violence and beefed up security with 275 military police and Department of Defense police inside the base.

Bourgeois dismissed talk of violence by the protesters as a distraction from the core issue underlying the demonstration -- a nonviolent movement challenging a U.S. foreign policy that has sponsored military and economic violence throughout Latin America.

“We are determined to keep the edge,” Bourgeois said. “This protest is a sacred commitment to speak for the thousands who have lost their voices, who cannot be here themselves to say no to the ‘School of Assassins.’ ”

Bourgeois and other protest veterans, who may have been recently released from prison, spend the months between demonstrations visiting scores of churches, colleges and universities to promote the movement’s message that U.S. taxpayer money should not be used to provide lethal training to regional militaries.

Their efforts to educate the public have produced a new wave of younger protesters who join long-time opponents of the school among missionary sisters, priests and ministers of all faiths, church groups, veterans, peace and justice networks and labor unions who have seen firsthand the impact of the school’s training throughout Central and South America.

SOA Watch recruitment efforts were helped again this year when all 27 Jesuit colleges and universities and all the Jesuit high schools in the United States endorsed the protest. Among the 1,200 Jesuit-sponsored students in Columbus, Jason Sandoval, George Gantner and Matthew Steigerwald, all 16-year-old juniors at St. Ignatius Jesuit High School in Cleveland, said they decided to come after discussions and debates were held as part of the school’s curriculum. “This is our Jesuit responsibility,” Sandoval said. Under their clear plastic rain ponchos the three young men carried wooden crosses bearing the names of the murdered Jesuits, made for them by students at Magnificat High School, an all-girls school in Cleveland.

Ignatian Companions, an organization of former Jesuits started by California lawyer Bob Holstein, again provided a huge white tent in Columbus for speeches and prayer services for the students and other groups in advance of the protest.

Learning about globalization

Bourgeois said he has been especially heartened to find that students across the country were turning on to the broader implications of the use of the U.S.-trained militaries to protect economic interests throughout Latin America and other Third World countries. Like the discovery that sweatshops in Central America were being used to produce sportswear for college bookstores, learning about the school has given students a real handle on broader issues of globalization, Bourgeois said.

For Bourgeois, the core issues are simple. “The military is the muscle that protects the new conquistadors, agents of the business elites, multinationals, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. They show up in suits and ties with brief cases, but like their counterparts in the early conquest of the New World, the effect of their policies is the same -- exploitation of the poor. This school is a symbol of what we have done to Latin America, and it’s not a very pretty picture.”

The school’s commander, Col. Glenn Weidner, regarded even by his critics as a bright and articulate advocate for its work, counters that this is all in the past, and that the school is neither responsible for nor in control of its graduates once they return home.

Bourgeois responds that it is not up to the Army to say, “Let’s put all this behind us.”

“The families of victims of massacres still grieve. The people grieve over the loss of their brother, Archbishop Oscar Romero. The families of the four churchwomen still grieve. Those who committed these atrocities have never been brought to justice.”

Bourgeois argues that some of the worst violence is not in the past but is going on right now in Mexico and in Colombia, where paramilitaries linked to SOA-trained officers have killed thousands of political opponents, labor organizers, health care workers and farmers. Some contend that the U.S.-funded and controlled $1.3 billion “war on drugs” in Colombia is shaping up to be a Vietnam-style invasion of the southern part of the country, for years the stronghold of political and military movements who oppose the government. Almost 10,000 soldiers from Colombia, more than any other Latin American nation, are among the 60,000 graduates of the school since it was established in Panama in 1946 to oppose communist intervention in the hemisphere.

Weidner offered visiting reporters a two-hour, debate-style lecture with slides on the importance of the school to American interests and influence in the region. He acknowledged that past abuses have sickened him but said the school is not responsible for them. He said that one clear failure on the part of the school has been in the court of public opinion. Weidner, who plans to retire from the military to pursue a teaching career, called the protest a “smear campaign” and Bourgeois a “zealot.” He said the Army “has not gotten its side of the story out to the public.”

“What this is about is people turning on their TVs Sunday night and seeing big MPs arresting well-meaning Americans who support social justice,” Weidner said.

As if to underscore the effort to deny the protest such potent images, the base moved this year to restrict media access from areas where arrests were likely to occur. For the first time, a tape barrier inside the fort was intended to keep reporters and TV crews from following the procession to the point on the road where in past years it has been stopped by Department of Defense police. Fort Benning’s Public Affairs Officer Monica Monganero said the new press restrictions were because the media had “gotten in the way of arresting officers” in previous years.

But, as if to illustrate the kind of strategic maneuvering that has come to characterize the highly emotional stand-off, instead of moving forward to meet the police, this year the procession, directed by SOA Watch “peacekeepers” wearing headsets and using cell phones, stopped at the press barrier and carried out its planned re-enactment of a massacre, forcing police and MPs to come to them to begin the arresting process.

Police move quickly

Similar to the 1999 demonstration, the lead “high-risk” group of casket-bearers, wearing black shrouds and white death masks, splattered themselves and each other with red dye and fell to the road. Police moved in quickly to arrest them, using color-coded plastic wristbands to indicate levels of resistance and other possible offenses while this first group was photographed, put on stretchers and carried to waiting rows of buses.

A large group of families with children was then loaded onto buses for transport off the base. The main procession, led by actor Martin Sheen, moved forward onto the buses. Sheen, who has crossed the line three times, was processed for the first time this year. Protest organizers later said that of the 3,600 protesters taking part in the illegal procession, 1,700 were processed and given 5-year ban-and-bar letters, which prohibit them from returning to the site under threat of stiffer penalties. Press reports said at least 21 of those processed would be turned over to the U.S. attorney’s office for possible charges.

Approximately 1,400 protesters chose to turn around and walk back to the main gate, where other protests, in a second wave of actions -- including a reenactment of a recent massacre in Colombia -- were underway on the road just inside the base in full view of the crowd. Marchers from the original procession spread out, planting thousands of white crosses along the grassy terrain and in the trees.

One “affinity group”-- a smaller group of protesters -- moved to another location near the main gate and began digging graves for dolls wrapped in tiny shrouds to commemorate the deaths of children in massacres like the one at El Mozote in 1981, where 900 civilians, including scores of infants and children, were killed by Salvadoran soldiers who had trained at the school. Plainclothes security officers, both men and women, moved in to quickly arrest the protesters, laying them out on the wet road face down with their hands secured behind their backs with plastic cuffs.

Small groups of other protesters went onto the base at other entrances and were arrested. Two hours after the first procession, 200 youthful demonstrators carrying giant protest puppets paraded across the line at the main gate, marching and dancing to drums, chanting slogans and singing as they moved a half-mile onto the base toward the buses and arrest.

By Sunday night the protest was over, its rituals and symbolic actions never more than the faintest glimpse of the high-risk realities they commemorated. Something of that reality for the people who live in Latin America was conveyed to the crowd in Columbus by a group of 300 peace activists in Chiapas who prayed and fasted in solidarity with the Georgia protest, then entered a military campground and planted corn in a coordinated symbolic action.

The hopes expressed in many places bound together by the common goal of closing the School of the Americas were also conveyed to a silent crowd just before the solemn funeral procession made its way onto Fort Benning. Sr. Diane Pinchot spoke about her Ursuline sister, Dorothy Kazel, one of the four churchwomen killed at the hands of the Salvadoran national guard soldiers in 1980. The killings sparked outrage and shock that continues to touch people two decades later.

“Dorothy’s death pierced my heart, and pierced the heart of my community,” Pinchot said. “Her death made us vulnerable to the fate of so many of our sisters and brothers in Latin America. She would be here today asking the same unanswered questions that are her legacy.”

Kazel wrote a letter two months before her death to then President Carter, describing a brutal massacre she had witnessed in one of the villages where she worked.

“What I find most appalling,” Pinchot told the crowd, “is that I am a North American, and 20 years later the violence against the poor continues, in Chiapas and in Colombia. How do we reconcile all this? We are challenged by the poor of Latin America, who say to us, ‘Our voices are helpless. Your voices are so strong.’ We best remember Dorothy and the others by taking these words to heart,” Pinchot said.

Pat Marrin’s e-mail address is patmarrin@aol.com

National Catholic Reporter, December 8, 2000