My Third Year at the S.O.A. Watch

 

My Third Year at the S.O.A. Watch

by Bob Thatch

 

Crossroads Brothers and Sisters-

I participated in the annual demonstration against the School of the Americas at Ft. Benning, GA, Nov. 21-23, along with 10,000 others from around the country.  In past years, when I returned, I communicated my experiences in lengthy reports.  The first one ran several pages in the church newsletter, and the second report is still available, along with photos of the 2002 event, on the church website here. I will make it a bit shorter this time.

For those unfamiliar with the issue, the School of the Americas is a U.S. Army training facility located at Ft. Benning, GA.  The school trains Latin American military personnel.  Over the 50 years of the school’s existence many of the “graduates” of the program have returned to their various countries to commit human rights offenses against their own citizens.  For the past 14 years, there has been an annual demonstration outside Ft. Benning, with the goal of permanently closing the School of the Americas.  (The training center was recently renamed the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, in an effort to try to escape the shameful history of the S.O.A.)

The main activities were on Saturday and Sunday, and a series of classroom-type workshops was offered on Friday for those who wanted to come a day early.  Here are some of the memorable moments of the weekend:

At nearly every gathering, the participants read aloud the half-page “SOA Watch Nonviolence Guidelines” as a pledge.  We jointly promised to “carry no weapons,” “not use or carry alcohol or illegal drugs,” “not swear or use insulting language,” and a series of other statements.  The most thought-provoking item on the list is “We will not assault-either verbally or physically-those who oppose or disagree with us . . . even if they assault us.”  We expected a big counter-demonstration this year, which the local newspaper predicted would have 2,000 participants.  They had a big tent and large, professionally-made signs, but the counter-demonstrators never arrived.

Despite the frequent repetitions of our pledge, as was done in previous years, the Commandant of the school, Col. Richard Downie, had a front-page article in the Columbus, GA, newspaper on the day of our arrival, in which he speculated about possible violence at the event.  In all the years of the demonstration there has never been any violence, and his suspicions seemed to me to be a justification for the extremely heavy-and mostly unnecessary-police and MP presence at the event.

I attended a “Colombia Teach-In” on Friday, where speakers told us how many millions of dollars were being spent each day on “Plan Colombia,” how many persons die each day in political violence there, and how many hectares (equals 2-1/2 acres) are being sprayed with glyphosate to kill drug crops (and other plants and animals).  We heard about violence directed at union leaders, with Colombia having six times more deaths of union leaders than the rest of the world combined.  It is not teamsters and mineworkers who get killed, but it is members of the schoolteachers’ union that are the most frequently killed or threatened.

There was an interesting dramatic performance late in the afternoon titled “Voices From the Communal Womb.”  Two young American women spent several months in Mexico and Guatemala, collecting first-hand statements from women there, and they pieced those statements together into a 15-minute series of monologues.  The accounts told of rapes and murders, and the bombings of rural villages.  A typical story told about a gang of men who grabbed a family, and forced the husband to watch as they raped his wife and daughter.  Then they killed the husband by hanging him from a tree.  There were many such stories.  The performance ended with the statement from an indigenous woman: “Yo no puedo callar” which translates “I cannot be silent.”  Sometimes it is possible for a song or poem or a dramatic presentation to carry more truth than stacks of statistics and official investigations.

On Saturday, there were dozens of speakers and musicians at an all-day rally, and we were told that Pete Seeger would perform.  It was a thrill to see the 84-year-old icon of folk music and social protest take the stage.  Unfortunately, for most of the day the Army blasted military music from their side of the fence, trying to overwhelm our music and speeches.  It was difficult for the audience to hear Seeger, and he was obviously distracted and confused by the sound barrage.

The Army blared out Sousa marches and songs like “Anchors Aweigh” (but isn’t that a Navy song?).   Then they played and replayed brassy, extended versions of “God Bless America,” “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” and, of course, Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the U.S.A.” It seemed sacrilegious and blasphemous to me, since they were using references to God as a means to squelch someone like Pete Seeger.  A few minutes later, a diminutive woman from El Salvador took the stage, to tell the painful story of when she was gang-raped by Salvadoran soldiers at age twelve.  And the Army tried to prevent her from being heard by playing their “patriotic” music louder and louder.  It made me wonder what our country has come to, when the U.S. Army decides to spend some of their $400-billion-plus in annual funding to drown out the statement of a torture victim.

A singer named David Rovics later offered a song that included the lyrics “Who would Jesus bomb?”  And I saw someone in the crowd with a t-shirt saying “Who would Jesus torture?”  Another t-shirt read “If you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention,” and one said “If the people will lead, the leaders will follow.”

On Saturday evening I attended a Catholic Mass at a huge circus tent in a park.  I estimate there were 2,000 attendees under the tent, and since the weather was good they rolled up the side walls, and another thousand-or-so persons circled the tent, standing for the whole service.  Near the end of the service I got to join hands with 3,000 persons to recite the Lord’s Prayer.

Sunday was the main event, in which we all participated in a solemn memorial march commemorating the massacre of six Jesuit priests/theologians/educators and their two women co-workers in 1989.  We walked in rows of 10, and it took three hours for us to all pass around in a big U-turn at the main gate of Ft. Benning.  As we passed the gate, most of us left crosses or banners or photographs on the fence as a commemorative.  One person left his army uniform, with the nameplate “Stewart” still attached, along with several rows of medals.

There were hundreds of police and military personnel surrounding the demonstration area, which is a ten-block stretch of a four-lane road.  They all had a gray bag slung from their belts, and I thought it was a container of extra plastic handcuffs.  I learned later that they all carried gas masks.  Apparently they anticipated using tear gas or pepper spray on the thousands of protesters.

The entire area was ringed with yellow plastic tape that said “Police Line-Do Not Cross,” and all the demonstrators were funneled into chutes so we could be scanned with metal detectors before entering the area.  One demonstrator got a piece of the yellow tape and wrapped it around his head, so that it just said “Do Not Cross” on his forehead.

If you are interested in this issue, please write to your representative in Congress, asking him/her to co-sponsor H.R.1258, which is this year’s bill to close the School of the Americas.  There are over 100 co-sponsors so far.  Some day, the institution will be shut down and the poor people of Latin America will be greatly relieved.  The right-wing dictators of Latin America will lose the free training for their “death squads,” and a nasty chapter in U.S. relations with our neighbors to the south will finally come to an end.

For more information, check the website: www.soaw.org

Bob Thatch

 

 

 

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