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Under duress, we kept the peace, called for end to notorious school


I went to Washington recently to protest our government’s policy in Colombia and to request that the notorious School of the Americas be closed.

After a weekend of lectures and concerts, Monday, April 22, was to be the day for our march. Our group had a permit to gather in Upper Senate Park, located between the Capitol and Union Station. But we wanted to have our message seen by a larger audience, so 2,000 demonstrators met at the Washington Monument to march -- blocking rush hour traffic at times -- the mile and a half to Upper Senate Park.

As with all events sponsored by School of the Americas Watch, we began by reciting a nonviolence pledge. One person at the front read it, sentence by sentence, over a bullhorn, and the crowd repeated each phrase. It is a half-page list of things such as: We will carry no weapons; we will not carry or use drugs or alcohol; we will not run or act in a threatening manner; we will not vandalize; we will not use abusive language toward any opponents; and we will not assault anyone, even if we are assaulted.

When we finally arrived at the gate to Upper Senate Park, the entrance to the park was blocked by a tight row of mounted police. The march stopped. A leader at the front of the march announced through a bullhorn: “We are not being allowed to enter the park for which we have a permit.” He got louder. “The police have lied to us! They gave us a permit saying we could hold a rally in Upper Senate Park, and now they won’t let us in!”

We waited. Nothing happened. Then the spokesperson said: “This entire area has been surrounded by police.” As he spoke, double lines of riot police formed all around us, with fiberglass body armor on their chests and legs, and helmets with the face shields lowered. Every few minutes the ranks of police took several steps forward, closing us into a smaller and smaller area.

Our leader directed his bullhorn to the police, saying: “Are we going to be arrested or are we free to go?” He repeated it several times but got no response.

The double lines of police stepped forward again. It was uncomfortable. If we were to be arrested, how long would it take to get bailed out of jail? Would I miss my flight and miss an important appointment the next morning? Why didn’t I listen to the more experienced marchers, who had advised us to write a certain telephone number in permanent marker on our hand, so we would know where to direct our one phone call? Would I end up with an arrest record that would follow me all my life?

I had made the trip with 45 persons from the Chicago Religious Leadership Network, and I stuck close to my group. Extremely close! The leader of the Chicago contingent was Gary Cozette, who stood firm and calm.

Time passed. Every few minutes the police ranks quietly moved forward. I was scared. No police officer had spoken a word since the standoff began, and they wouldn’t look us in the eye when we asked questions.

After more than a half-hour of increasing anxiety, we heard the guy with the bullhorn say: “The police have agreed to allow us to enter the park. Everyone come this direction.” I exhaled and followed the instructions.

The mounted police drew their horses back slightly and we walked through the gap, entering a large, open park. A stage and a sound system had been set up, and music started playing. The police did not follow us and the exits on the far side of the park were not blocked. After two hours of music and dancing and a performance by huge puppets, we strolled away, got our bags from the hotel, went to the airport and took a flight home.

In the Associated Press report of the march, which ran in our local paper the next day, District of Columbia Chief of Police Charles Ramsey is quoted as telling a reporter that morning, “People are being very peaceful, and I appreciate it.” He should have added: “… especially considering the duress under which we placed the group.”

Throughout the march and the confrontation, I wore a sign around my neck, with photos of the best known of El Salvador’s martyrs: Archbishop Oscar Romero, the six Jesuit priest educators and their two women co-workers. Most of the persons who planned and committed these murders were trained at the U.S. Army School of the Americas, and it must stop.

The School of the Americas, recently renamed the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, must be closed, and we must avoid committing the same grievous errors in Colombia that we made in El Salvador and Guatemala. It must stop!

Robert Thatch lives in Kansas City, Mo., and is a member of the Colombia Support Network.

National Catholic Reporter, May 17, 2002