School of Americas

20th anniversary of slaughter

By Bill Cullen

More than 10,000 activists from across the country gathered at Fort Benning, Ga., Nov. 20-22 to press Congress to close the infamous School of the Americas.

It was the 20th anniversary of the brutal murders of six Jesuit priests at the University of Central America, their housekeeper and her 16 year-old daughter in San Salvador, El Salvador, and the 19th commemoration of that event during the School of the Americas Watch Vigil.

In 2001, after 19 years of protest at the school for the horrors it taught, the US government renamed the center the “Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation” (SOA/WHINSEC).

School of the Americas Watch ( bills itself as “an independent organization that seeks to close the US Army School of the Americas, under whatever name it is called, though vigils and fasts, demonstrations and nonviolent protest, as well as media and legislative work.”

Over that weekend, I had the good fortune to join 46 others on our Dubuque bus trip to Fort Benning. It was my third trip (see “Protests Continue at SOA,” 12/15/03 TPP), and once again this vigil weekend enriched and inspired. Briar Cliff University senior John Konz, of Adrian, Minn., expressed this in telling me, “It was nice to see so many united by a common purpose and driven to accomplish a common goal.”

Konz and fellow Briar Cliff students were affected by the fallout from this summer’s military coup in Honduras. For the past five years, groups from Briar Cliff had performed service work in the impoverished Central American nation, but their plans got changed after the June 28 coup.

Honduran Gen. Romeo Vasquez, who led the military coup against President Manuel Zelaya, attended School of the Americas in 1976 and 1984. Gen. Vasquez was aided in the coup by the head of the Air Force, Gen. Luis Prince Suazo, who studied at SOA in 1996.

The SOA Watch Vigil at Fort Benning is “The Convergence of Hope and Resistance.” Events occur at the downtown Convention Center and just outside Fort Benning on Fort Benning Road.

On Saturday as Fort Benning Road is closed to traffic and the main stage is in place, one encounters dozens of information and sales tables staffed with activists of all manners of progressive causes, including the Beehive Community of Machios, Maine, and the “Bread and Puppets” puppetistas of Glover, Vt. The main stage features the testimonies of those who have suffered, the torture of self or a close family member’s torture or death. There are also workshops and speakers, musical entertainment and poetry, along with the many information tables.

On Saturday evening in the Columbus Convention Center, a large auditorium filled with over two thousand souls to celebrate the Catholic Mass in spirit and scriptures and song and communion this feast of Jesus Christ the King. I wondered how many others were moved to tears as I was during this evocative Mass.

The Sunday commemoration vigil is a mystical communion with the deceased who suffered under the SOA graduates during their lives on earth. In the morning rally and march, as each name is recited, thousands declare, “Presente!” followed by a solemn drumbeat. This vigil and march to the gates of SOA at Fort Benning continue for three hours as participants place thousands of small white crosses of victims on the fence, and the Puppetistas actors perform the apocryphal transition from terror and oppression to faith and beauty and life.

A few participants are compelled to perform nonviolent direct action by crossing onto the fort property. This year four human rights defenders were arrested and are being processed by authorities for incarceration in federal prison. The four are: Nancy Gwin, Syracuse, N.Y., Ken Hayes, Austin, Texas, Rev. Louis Vitale. Oakland, Calif., and Michael Walli, Washington, D.C. Their trials will commence on Monday, Jan. 25, 2010.

On the Sunday afternoon, I spotted a man wearing an Open Door Community in Atlanta, Ga., T-shirt, inscribed “No War! Our God is Love. Our Gospel is Peace.” When I complimented him on it, he pulled it off and gave it to me! He said his name was Kenny, and he walked away and didn’t look back.

Sister Ginny Heldorfer, OSF, helped organize the bus trip, and observed, “This was my first experience at the SOA Watch. I was shocked that it took three prayerful hours to proclaim the names of the people who have been killed by those trained at Fort Benning. The circling helicopter during the prayer led me to ponder the lives of children who grew up or are growing up without parents in those countries. My plea for peace was certainly intensified due to the thousands of crosses that were placed in the fence protecting Fort Benning.”

Legislation to close SOA, HR 2567, sponsored by Rep. James McGovern (D-Mass.) is in the House with 88 co-sponsors. SOAW legislation organizer Pam Bowman explained that they hope to have 100 co-sponsors in 2010.

Readers are encouraged to visit the website, for more information and photos.

Bill Cullen is a member of Teamsters Local 120 in Dubuque, Iowa.

From The Progressive Populist, January 1-15, 2010

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