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Despite call to postpone, protesters march on School of Americas

Columbus, Ga.

With a war going on in Afghanistan, the pressure on peace protesters got heavy. U.S. Army and city officials here were hard at work trying to persuade peace activists to skip this year’s massive protest effort to close the Army’s infamous School of the Americas at Fort Benning, Ga.

Twice before the Nov. 18 event, the local newspaper ran a full-page ad calling on protest organizers to postpone “indefinitely” the annual rally and march that culminates with civil disobedience on base property.

Using Sept. 11 as the impetus for restricting liberties, the city of Columbus went to court and got an injunction to stop the march, claiming the assembly could bring violence to the streets. Just two days before Nov. 18, a federal magistrate lifted the injunction, saying the annual event had an 11-year history of nonviolent assembly and the march could go on.

“I was sworn to uphold the Constitution,” said U.S. Magistrate G. Mallon Faircloth, who last spring sentenced 23 of last year’s protesters to prison. “I think I did that today.”

The School of the Americas, now renamed the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, serves as a training school for Latin American soldiers, many of whom have been implicated in human rights violations and murders in their native lands.

The annual protest is held each year to commemorate the Nov. 16, 1989, assassination in El Salvador of six Jesuit priests and their two coworkers. A Salvadoran Truth Commission revealed that 19 of the 26 soldiers responsible for the murders were trained at the School of the Americas.

Maryknoll Fr. Roy Bourgeois, founder of SOA Watch, which organizes the event, said he gave consideration to the wishes of the locals, but the word he got from activists around the country was “march on.”

‘People of peace’

The full-page ad in the Columbus Ledger-Enquirer, sponsored by “Americans Against Irresponsible Demonstrations,” said: “At this time of a clear and present danger of terrorist activities against our nation … we believe that these demonstrators are placing our neighbors and us and our soldiers at risk unnecessarily. … Out of respect for our community, its civil servants and military personnel, we encourage that these demonstrations be postponed indefinitely.”

One of the people who backed Bourgeois’ decision to go forward was North Carolina activist Gail Phares, a former Maryknoll missionary who spent a combined six years in Nicaragua, Guatemala and Panama.

“Clearly we’re concerned about things that happened in New York and D.C.,” said Phares, who was joined by her husband Bob and the couple’s grown daughter, Lisa. “It makes it more important than ever that we give our witness as people of peace, people of justice, people of concern. I had no doubt that we had to be here.”

Phares said she hopes Sept. 11 sensitized people to what the U.S. government is doing abroad. “I hear people saying, ‘Why do they hate us?’ or ‘Why are they doing this?’ and those are good questions,” Phares said. “So many people are not critically conscious, and they’re manipulated easily by the government.”

More than 10,000 people joined the two-day event that culminated with a solemn mock funeral procession to the fenced gates of Fort Benning. In past years, the funeral procession marched about half a mile onto base property. This year Fort Benning erected a fence and closed the gates.

Many marchers carried white wooden crosses, each bearing the name of a person martyred in Latin America. Others carried pictures of Latin Americans missing or killed. As they reached the gates, people placed the crosses and photos and other memorials on and around the fence, turning the long gate into what Bourgeois termed a “memorial wall.” The contents of the memorial were later scooped up into a dump truck by soldiers.

About 80 arrested

More than 50 marchers left the procession and went around the fence and entered the base. They were immediately taken into custody by military police.

About 30 others were arrested by Columbus police late that night after erecting a cardboard “global village” in the street in front of the gate.

By Tuesday, all of those arrested were released on bond or had accepted plea bargains. Most of the second group accepted a plea deal, received time-served and agreed to help serve a Thanksgiving meal to the homeless in Columbus, community service that Municipal Judge Haywood Turner encouraged but did not mandate.

For the past three years, the Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities has sponsored the “Ignatian family teach-in for justice” in Columbus on the night before the protest. In 1999 and 2000, all 28 member schools officially participated in the teach-in. In the wake of Sept. 11, several Jesuit presidents did not encourage students to come to Georgia this year.

Jesuit Fr. Charles L. Currie, association president, said some of the 28 school presidents who comprise the organization’s board did not give their support to the annual protest.

“Individual presidents were free to do what they thought best in their particular situation,” said Currie, who was one of the speakers at this year’s teach-in. “We had over 20 of the schools send representatives to Fort Benning. There was less official support, but the students were still free to come on their own.”

Benedictine Sr. Anne McCarthy, director of the Center for Social Concerns at Gannon University in Erie, Pa., said that after Sept. 11, it was “even more important to be here this year -- connecting the issues, connecting the terrorism, seeing it as the same roots. The United States is sponsoring terrorism in Latin America. The United States sponsored terrorism by training bin Laden, by arming Saddam Hussein. For a solution we have to get at the roots, and I think this provides a look at a solution, really looking at the terrorism that is being trained here and stopping it. If anything, this action is about hope, hope for the future, hope for the children.”

McCarthy is the former national coordinator of Pax Christi USA. She also sits on the boards of the Seamless Garment Network and Fellowship of Reconciliation.

‘We don’t train terrorists’

From the other side of the fence, Fort Benning chief of staff Col. Dale Vona, a Catholic father of four, said he was proud of his 29 years of service in the Army. He said the protesters are misguided.

“I’m in the Army, and I know what goes on, and I have no problems with what I see in the Army and what I participate in,” said Vona, who ordered the new fence to keep the protesters off the base. “If it were true what they were saying, yeah, I’d have a problem with it. But it’s not true. It’s simply not true. We don’t train terrorists.”

St. Bonaventure University freshman Maggie Morris came to the protest with a group of students involved in campus ministry. Morris, 19, said she felt “an urgency” to be involved in the effort to close the school, especially after Sept. 11.

Her Catholic faith has taught her that “everyone matters,” Morris said. “It’s not a question of country. It’s a question of humanity.”

Laurel Dykstra, a member of the Tacoma Catholic Worker in Washington, came to the protest with her newborn twin daughters, Harriet and Myriam. Her fifth or sixth trip to the annual event, Dykstra says she keeps coming back because she wants to live in a better world.

“I believe that it’s possible to live in a better world than this one, and I want to do everything that I can to make that happen,” she said. “I think that’s what the Kingdom is about.”

Patrick O’Neill is a freelance writer living in Raleigh, N.C.

National Catholic Reporter, December 7, 2001