Traveling on an overnight bus ride for 20 hours, albeit with 54 of the world's best people, is still a challenge, especially when legs are involved. But the trip from Dubuque to Fort Benning, Ga., to rally with others to close the School of Americas on the weekend of Nov. 22-23 was very much worth every minute and every mile.
Even as I waffled on going to Georgia up until the last week, I kept seeing this reminder in my mind from Howard Zinn, published in The Progressive (October 2003): "We need to engage in whatever nonviolent actions appeal to us. The history of social change is the history of millions of actions, small and large, coming together at critical points to create a power that governments cannot suppress. We find ourselves at one of those critical points."
Organized in 1990 by missionary priest, Rev. Roy Bourgeois, MM, the School of Americas Watch (www.Soaw.org) protests the presence of this infamous "School of Assassins," whose graduates are linked to the worst atrocities of murders, disappearances, and tortures in inestimable numbers in numerous Central and South American nations during the past six decades. [See TPP, 3/1/03, "Anti-Terror Protests Send 25 More to Prison"]
The school received a cosmetic change in 2001 when it was renamed Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation but it continues to provide the same training leading to the same large-scale human rights abuses. Opponents of the school point to the current international campaign to fight terrorism. "President Bush keeps saying we have to go after those terrorist training camps wherever they are," noted Fr. Bourgeois.
Legislation to close the SOA, HR 1258, is currently gathering sponsors, and readers are urged to contact their House member to sign on as co-sponsor.
This year, in response to SOA Watch, base personnel blasted loud anthems and martial music from huge loudspeakers just inside the fence onto the demonstrators who gathered on Saturday for education and non-violence training. The disruptive noise was unnerving all day but was most offensive when three victims whose family members had been tortured and murdered by SOA graduates appeared on stage and attempted to speak but were largely drowned out. SOA Watch leaders called this move "psychological violence" and vowed to file suit against the Army. The base loudspeakers quieted late Saturday afternoon.
On both Saturday and Sunday we heard from speakers and musical performers, including authors Starhawk, Jack Nelson Pallmeyer, Sister Helen Prejean and Kathy Kelly, along with Pete Seeger, the Musicians Collective from Philadelphia, and many other musicians and activists.
Both days included hundreds of participants of all ages in the impressive "Puppetista Puppet Pageants," which foretell the end of SOA and repression and the dawn of justice and peace and human rights.
On Sunday morning Pete Seeger, introduced as "spiritual father to the movement," performed several songs and as always involved audience participation. "Amazing Grace" never sounded better!
On Sunday over 10,000 attended the solemn funeral procession and the reading of names of several hundred victims of graduates of SOA. It was an especially emotional event for a friend who had lived in Argentina and recognized names of people he'd known, including a professor and friends who had been murdered. He recalled their features, in some, their laughter, and in all, their influence.
During the 13 years of nonviolent demonstrations, over 210 people have committed actions of civil disobedience of crossing the line into the fort and been arrested. Even first-time offenders have received federal prison sentences ranging from three to six months. This year 51 protesters were arrested during the vigil and non-violent direct action for trespassing on federal property. These individuals sacrifice much in accepting prison dehumanization in the interest of justice and human rights protections that all deserve.
SOA Watch organizers coordinated their event with organizers of the protest in Miami against the Free Trade Area of the Americas and with organizers in London who protested the invasion and occupation of Iraq. "Our struggles are interconnected," observed Fr. Bourgeois, "From the SOA, to FTAA, to the invasion of Iraq our government's foreign policy is serving the interests of a few, and making us a lot of enemies."
Mark Engler, commenting in the 11/15/03 TPP, writes, "This fall, as we reap the harvest of activism, we should take time to appreciate the efforts that have kept our agenda alive. And we should draw hope from them -- because it's hope, after all, that will sow the victories of seasons yet to come."
As fall moves into winter, actions have continued in Miami, London, and Fort Benning. In Dubuque, organizers decided it is time to revive our anti-war demonstrations downtown in Washington Park on Monday afternoons. It's Monday; it's time to go downtown.
Bill Cullen is a Teamster who lives in Dubuque, Iowa.