On Being a Catholic for a Weekend


On Being a Catholic for a Weekend

A Report on the 2002 School of the Americas Watch Demonstration at Ft. Benning, GA

by Bob Thatch


 I just returned from a weekend of activities in which many of the participants identified themselves as Benedictines, Franciscans, Salesians, Ursulines, Sisters of the Precious Blood, and other Catholic orders.  Others were from Catholic colleges and universities such as Loyola, St. Louis University, and the University of Dayton.  I went to the annual protest against the School of the Americas, at Ft. Benning, Georgia, which is led by a Maryknoll priest, Fr. Roy Bourgeois.

Fr. Roy Bourgeois greeted one protester on Saturday

About 50 persons from Kansas City, and a total of more than 10,000 from around the country, went to Columbus, GA, for the event.  Of course, there were many non-Catholics there, and me, a lifelong Baptist.

In 1989, six Jesuit priests/theologians/educators and two of their women co-workers were massacred at the University of Central America, in El Salvador.  Most of the perpetrators of that terrible event (19 of the 26 attackers) had recently been trained at the School of the Americas (S.O.A.).  So each year, around the anniversary of that event, a demonstration is held at the entrance of Ft. Benning, where the S.O.A is now located.

The goal of the demonstration is to close the S.O.A. forever, and the notorious institution actually caved in to public pressure in 2000 and closed! But within days, another school opened, called the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (WHISC), using the same faculty, the same building, teaching the same recruits, with mostly the same curriculum as the S.O.A.  WHISC claims to be an entirely new school, unconnected to the abuses of the 55-year history of the S.O.A., because they have added a few (optional) classes in human rights.

There was a “pre-meeting” on Friday, Nov. 15, which was a “Teach-In on Colombia.”  Colombia currently sends the largest number of cadets to the SOA/WHISC, and, not coincidentally, Colombia has the worst human rights record in the Western Hemisphere.  Colombia is in the news because of the “Drug War” and “Plan Colombia,” so it was a natural for inclusion in the weekend activities.  For five hours on Friday, several hundred workshop participants listened to experts on Colombia, who told us about the military situation, social and political developments, and the so-called “War on Drugs,” which is being fought mainly by aerial fumigation of coca fields.

The most riveting presentation was from Marino Cordoba, the President of the National Association of Displaced Afro-Colombians.  We learned that about 25% of the population of Colombia are African-Colombians, who are descendants of people who were taken from Africa to Colombia as slaves. The Afro-Colombians, along with the indigenous Colombians (Indians) are suffering greatly at the hands of the government and rampaging paramilitary units. Marino told us that his town, Riosucio, in the department (state) of Chocó was attacked by boatloads of heavily-armed paramilitary who rousted the town’s leaders out of their homes at 5:00 a.m., handcuffed them and marched them through the town naked.  The town was later attacked by jet bombers, and the residents who were still alive fled to nearby forests and marshes, pursued by helicopter gunships.  Marino hid in a swampy marsh for three days, and then he made it to a neighboring town. Marino later made some speeches in other cities in Colombia, telling about the attack on Riosucio.  Then he learned that one of the death squads intended to kill him, and he fled his country, leaving his family behind.  He said to us, “now you are my family,” meaning those of us who listened and wanted to do something to address the drastic situation in Colombia.

A speaker from Witness for Peace read us a poem about the town of Pedregosa, in Cauca Department.  The poem had been written by one of the participants on a Witness for Peace delegation to Colombia.  The lines of the poem said that the visiting delegation sat all day on blue benches in a small church in the town of Pedregosa.  Then late in the day they learned that those same benches had recently been used to hold the bodies of several persons who had been killed in an attack on the town, as a funeral Mass was offered.

Partway through the Colombia Teach-In, the man and woman sitting next to me were introduced as being special guests from the University of Central America, where the massacre of the Jesuits occurred.  I shook their hands, hands that have touched Ignacio Ellacuria and the other martyrs.  It was a precious and humbling experience to be able to do that.

In a presentation later that evening, speakers from Pax Christi spoke about their work.  A woman sang the song “We who believe in freedom cannot rest,” and another speaker closed the session with a prayer in which he said to God, “We do not ask you to do what is ours to do.”

On Saturday morning the weekend activities began in full strength.  The Kansas City contingent went to the S.O.A.Watch Orientation/Logistics session at a large theater in downtown Columbus.  Everyone took the S.O.A.W. non-violence pledge, which says, in part:  “We will carry no weapons, we will not use or carry alcohol or illegal drugs, we will not vandalize, we will not swear or use insulting language. We will not assault those who oppose us, even if they assault us.”

Part of the Kansas City contingent, at the Orientation Session

In case of our arrest, we were all given a small card with our legal rights printed on it as a reminder.  We were also given a local phone number to call for legal assistance, and it was recommended that we write that phone number on our forearm with a magic marker, so that we would still have it if our possessions were taken away.  I have seen a few persons with numbers on their forearms–numbers that were tattooed into their skin by Nazis–so I didn’t like that idea and I declined to write numbers on my arm, however prudent that suggestion might have been.

We were extremely disappointed to learn that the city of Columbus had won a case in federal court the previous evening, which permitted them to search every participant who entered the protest area.  The city had told the S.O.A.W. organization about their intentions only ten days earlier.  S.O.A.W. had immediately filed for an injunction in federal court, and the case was argued up until the last minute on Friday afternoon.  S.O.A.W. lost the case.  The city had stated that some of the demonstrators in the 2001 event had worn black clothes with red armbands, and called themselves “anarchists.”  The city and the Chief of Police told the federal judge that the presence of these participants in the march indicated that the 12-year-old movement was about to become violent, and the judge believed it.

In response to the court’s decision (which will be appealed), when we went to the demonstration site later in the day we submitted to metal detectors and searches, but we signed forms saying we objected to the search on the grounds of our constitutional protection against unreasonable searches.  Also, red armbands were distributed to those of us—thousands of us—who wanted to be in solidarity with the young participants among us who had been singled out as dangerous agitators.

We were a motley crowd, and proud of it.  There were lots of people in the crowd wearing more-or-less ethnic/artistic clothing, with scarves and bandanas and layers of . . . well, more layers.  Several people were barefoot, despite the coolness of the day.  Hair color tended to be . . . colorful.  There was one contingent of men in ballet tights and tutus.

The speakers and musicians conducted an enthusiastic rally without interruption Saturday, from 11:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m.  Their messages were sometimes inspiring and often heartbreaking, as we learned of some successes of the peace movement, and we also heard horrible stories of murders, rapes, torture, and other human rights abuses in Latin America.

On Saturday evening there was a Jesuit Mass offered in a huge white circus tent that had been set up in a city park.  About 2,000 persons attended, including many of us who listened while standing in the rain outside the entrances for the whole service.  It was well worth it.

Several songs were included in the Mass, and the chorus of one song was very simple and very effective.  It was just a parallel pair of descending melody lines in a minor key, to the words “Miserere nobis, Dona nobis pacem” (Have mercy on us, Grant us peace.)  It was sung over and over by the congregation, as a soloist added additional words in a soaring melody above us.

Then on Sunday it was time for the solemn funeral march.  There were speakers and musicians again, but the “main event” was a memorial procession to honor persons killed by S.O.A. graduates.  It took about three hours for everyone to walk in a big U-turn, approaching the gates of Ft. Benning on two lanes of the roadway, and then turning and leaving the gate area via the other two lanes. We placed photos, signs, flowers, and crosses below and in the fence, and then walked away.

Demonstrators add items to the makeshift memorial on the Ft. Benning fence.–Vendors offered    t-shirts, CDs, etc.

For the entire three hours, singers on the stage sang out the names of victims of the S.O.A.  Some were prominent persons, like Archbishop Oscar Romero and Bishop Juan Gerardi, but most of the names were unfamiliar, apparently drawn from the list of 700+ victims of the El Mozote massacre in El Salvador.  Each name would be sung in a lilting line like “Cesar Ordoñez, day laborer, forty-two years old.”  Then ten thousand demonstrators would sing back in a three-note pattern, “Presente,” meaning that person was present in our midst, calling for justice.  Then the next name would be sung, such as “child, one year old, name unknown, daughter of Maria Rosende.”  And we would raise our white stick crosses in the air, choke back a few tears, and sing softly “Presente.”  (By the way, the thousands of shell casings that were left on the ground at El Mozote were all stamped “Lake City Arsenal,” the now-closed munitions plant on 291 Highway, north of Independence, MO.)

People left various things on the fence that were significant to them, in addition to the names and photos of the victims of S.O.A. graduates.

Someone had placed a Bible beside the fence.

There was a large sign, identified as being from the Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America, which said “Stop Training Terrorists!”

There was an 8”x10” photo of a small bedroom, showing a long smear of blood on the floor, where a body had obviously been dragged out of the room. It was a picture of the bedroom of one of the Jesuit priests killed in 1989, and below the photo it said “The Blood of Martyrs.”

Someone had hung their military uniform on the fence.  It was a Marine Sergeant’s uniform, on a hanger, neatly pressed, with eight different ribbons above the left breast pocket.  (The Veterans for Peace have always been well represented at S.O.A.W. events.  One of their signs on the fence said, “If you are not a Veteran for Peace, what are you a veteran for?”)

After the long, slow procession, a more festive session began, with louder music and dancing and a performance by the now-famous “Puppetistas.”  Huge paper-maché puppets on poles had been made, and they were paraded around, acting out a narrated story about the struggles of the peoples of Latin America.

Here come the Puppetistas!

One of the songs began, “No mas–no more–say the hills of Salvador.”

T-shirts worn by an SOA Watch group from Oregon group said “I will not raise my child to kill your child.”

One person’s sign apparently referred to the recent Patriot Act passed by Congress, and the proposed Homeland Security Department by saying, “I wasn’t using my civil rights anyway.”

Another sign said, “Can you spare some social change?”

The most well-known performing group was the singing duo The Indigo Girls, who sang a song saying, “Raise your hands high.  Don’t take a seat.  Don’t stand aside this time.”

Another song traced a family history of activism, starting with the line, “Grandma was a suffragette.”

Throughout the day, I carried a large sign, hanging by a string around my neck. It has pictures of the six Jesuits who were murdered by members of the S.O.A.-trained Atlacatl Battalion, along with pictures of the two women who were killed, a picture of Archbishop Oscar Romero, and a few verses from Luke 4 about “freeing the oppressed.”  I had some interesting encounters this year as I wore my sign.  One woman looked at the sign for a moment, and said, “I knew the names of the two women, but I did not know which was the mother and which was the daughter, so now I know.”  A man was passing me, and he stopped to look at the sign.  He didn’t say anything, but just placed his hand flat against the middle of the sign for a moment, looked me in the eye, and then walked on.  One woman looked at the sign, and then looked at me and asked “Are you Jesuit?”  I said, “No, actually I’m a Baptist,” and she said “Well, God bless you.”  I don’t know if I have ever been so highly complimented as to be asked if I were from the same community as those men.  One woman was a photo-journalist, and she asked if I would stand still for a minute so she could take a picture of my sign.  Of course, I was happy to do so, and then she said, “I think I remember that sign—were you here last year?”  I told her “yes,” and it made me feel very good that someone knew about me making a multi-year commitment.

One song performed later in the day was said to be from the old “Wobblies” union movement, and it had verses that quoted various government statements.  Then the chorus said “Put in the ground, spread it all around, dig it with a hoe, it will make your garden grow.”  Even though the song was written about unions in the 1930s, it also fit many current government statements about Latin America.

The theme song for the weekend seemed to be the simple old chorus “This Little Light of Mine–I’m gonna let it shine.”  Using dozens of new verses, the song was made to refer to things like the Zapatista movement in Mexico.

There is an old saying, “The Lord works in mysterious ways.”  Like the acts of Joshua and Gideon in the Old Testament, maybe we can use non-traditional approaches to bring down a harmful institution.  Instead of blowing trumpets or throwing out a fleece at night, we walk, cry and sing “presente” for our lost brothers and sisters.

The School of the Americas needs to be closed.  It is an embarrassment to the Army, a dirty smudge on the reputation of the U.S. military forces.  In the training at the S.O.A., participants are psychologically programmed to be able to go back to their own countries and torture and kill their former neighbors.

Organizations like Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and Americas Watch provide the official reports about abuses committed by S.O.A.-trained soldiers in Colombia, Guatemala, El Salvador, Chile, Argentina, Paraguay, Bolivia, and many other places.  The graduates of the program at the School of the Americas are trained to see any voice of opposition as their “enemy,” often including priests, nuns, educators and elected politicians.  The old S.O.A. training manuals actually recommend the assassination of those individuals, or the kidnapping of their family members as a methods of controlling any dissent.  There was quite a flap a few years ago when those manuals were reveled to the public, so the newer books probably avoid putting that information in print.

The poor of Latin America are extremely poor, often living in huts, with the walls made of mud-daubed sticks, and either a tin roof or a roof made of leaves or grass.  Their houses have dirt floors, and do not have water or electricity. Then, in addition to the lack of housing, education, medical care, and jobs, they are often violently set upon by soldiers trained at the School of the Americas, because someone from their community has had the audacity to ask for something to be changed.

The School of the Americas should be closed immediately, no matter what name it currently uses.  If more citizens of the U.S. knew the history and practices of the institution, there would be ten million demonstrators at Ft. Benning instead of ten thousand.  It is time for good persons to stand up for what is right, as a symbol of sympathy and protection for our suffering brothers and sisters in Latin America.

  My roommates for the weekend, from Chicago

The Indigo Girls in performance—honest!


This shows part of the participants in the Sunday march, estimated at 10,000-12,000 by some observers,

and reported in the Columbus, GA, paper the next day as 6,500.


There were lots of  students in the march and lots of senior-citizen types.  Not as many in the middle age range.

(A copy of the sign I carried.)


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