FORT BENNING, Ga. — Marching slowly to the pounding of a Native American tribal drum, UF students and other local human rights activists joined 10,000 non-violent protesters in a mock funeral procession to demand the closure of a controversial military training school Sunday as soldiers’ children celebrated their first Communion just a few hundred yards away inside the base.
Protesters chanted the names of murdered civilians, held hands and carried crosses and full- and child-sized caskets, some splattered with fake blood, as they risked arrest by marching by the thousands into Fort Benning, home of the U.S. Army School of the Americas, which they say is responsible for training Latin American soldiers to commit human rights atrocities in their home countries. The event was roughly scheduled to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the Nov. 16, 1989 slaying of six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper and her 15-year-old daughter by soldiers trained at the school.
The tone of the march was somber — a solemn procession marked by a Mayan blessing, hymns and a roll call of those killed by military personnel associated with the school.
"It had to be spiritual to balance out what we were up against. It is a cross-issue fight for women's issues, women's rights, labor rights and indigenous rights," said community development and political science senior Melissa "Sand" Wrenn, one of nearly 50 locals who participated in the protest. "The organizers who put this on mimic that in a cross-cultural spiritual base."
The process of protest
That spiritual base, and a wider-reaching demographic base unlike that of any other protest movement, is largely responsible for the momentum the anti-SOA movement has picked up. A quick glance at the crowd swelling outside Fort Benning's gate on Sunday is enough to know that the people behind this effort are a far cry from the radicals typically associated with activism. A strong contingent of college students attended the march, along with the Catholic peace group Pax Christi, Sisters for Peace and Veterans for Peace, all of which contributed to the diverse cross-section of soccer moms, union members, religious leaders and young children.
Participants received non-violence and civil disobedience training twice — once in a locally organized session, then again the night before the march. The movement's religious roots — it was started by Father Roy Bourgeois, a Maryknoll priest, in 1990 — help enforce its non-violent ideals, seeking solutions through vigils, fasts and demonstrations rather than threats or intimidating tactics, and in the past have led protesters to bless the military police officers who were arresting them.
"The fact that it's a funeral procession to commemorate those who died really is the foundation of keeping it in a reflective tone instead of an angry tone," said Wrenn, who also is the co-coordinator of the recently formed Student Peace Action group at the University of Florida. "It is a way for this generation to plug right into a movement that is already learned and experienced and for us to carry that torch."
The school's history
The SOA originated in Panama in 1946 as the Latin American Training Center and was given its current name in 1963. Under the provisions of the 1977 Panama Canal Treaty, it was relocated to Fort Benning, Ga. in 1984 and designated an official U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command school.
Dubbed the "School of Assassins," the facility lists among its graduates former Panamanian leader Gen. Manuel Noriega and 10 of 12 soldiers cited by the United Nations for the 1981 El Mozote, El Salvador massacre in which 900 civilians were killed. Roberto D'Aubuisson, who ordered the assassination of Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero in 1980, also attended.
The school is not only known for these "bad apples," however. Two of its graduates — Col. Luis Alberto Coquet of Argentina and Col. Armin Lopez Palaez of Chile — were praised for their key role in negotiating a peace accord between Ecuador and Peru.
The recurring theme through the past nine years of protest has been the contention that the school is responsible for human rights violations throughout Latin America.
"They say that the School of the Americas teaches soldiers democracy," said Wrenn, spokeswoman for the Gainesville Committee for Democracy in Mexico. "However, they don't teach soldiers to defend their own borders. They teach them to make war on their own people."
U.S. Army Public Affairs Officer Nicolas Britto said it is a common misconception that only Latin American soldiers are trained at the school. Instead, he said, the population is a roughly equal percentage American and Latin American, and students include members of the Marine Corps and the U.S. Air Force.
He also said the protest is a personal affront to soldiers everywhere, not just at the school.
"We are willing to give our lives for our country. When someone accuses us of being killers, murderers and rapists it goes against everything the United States stands for," he said.
Of the school's 60,000 graduates, opponents say about 500 have been implicated in various human rights violations throughout Latin America. A United Nations panel found 19 of the 26 soldiers involved in the priests' killings had been trained at the school.
In 1996, the Pentagon revealed the school used training manuals with instructions on torture, extortion and using truth serum. School officials respond that the manuals were removed as soon as they were discovered in 1991, and before then had only been distributed as supplemental reading.
That discovery, more than anything else, fueled the movement to close the school.
At the 1995 protest, 13 people walked onto school grounds and were arrested. But in 1996, after the revelation about the manuals, 60 entered the base while about 500 rallied outside the gate, according to tallies by the School of the Americas Watch, the group behind the movement to close the school. Police arrested all 601 who crossed the line in 1996, but none of the 2,319 who crossed in 1998 was arrested.
Activists say their strong showing "out-bureaucratized" the police who have traditionally arrested anyone who steps onto the base to protest.
"They didn't expect that Americans of every age and faith could gather in solidarity and defeat them," said nuclear engineering senior Mary Pfaffko, one of 19 locals who risked arrest by crossing the line.
The SOAW reported 4,408 of 12,000 protesters crossed the line this year; the Columbus Police Department puts the numbers at 3,100 out of 7,500.
Britto said the school's opponents paint an unfair portrait of Latin America by neglecting to mention democratic advances that have occurred there, such as the election of female presidents in Nicaragua and Panama.
"Those are two countries in Latin America that have done something for the democratic process that no other country has done," he said, adding that opponents also overlook such border conflicts as those between India and Pakistan or Korea and North Korea to emphasize problems in Latin America.
"If you compare Latin America to other countries, Latin America is a great place to live," he said. "The fact here is that the school is not really the issue. The issue is the United States' foreign policy in Latin America. They want to change foreign policy in Latin America."
Wrenn agreed, but noted that the school's history as a training ground for soldiers who go on to commit human rights atrocities makes it a viable focal point for the protest.
"Since the movement to close the School of the Americas, they're starting to slowly shift the number of Latin American soldiers to other schools. As we come closer to closing the school, they'll bleed soldiers out to other schools," she said.
Adriana Portillo-Bartow, a Guatemalan human rights worker from Chicago, said the matter at hand is not the school itself, but the ideals and policies it teaches.
"We are telling the leaders of SOA that they can change their name and move the school, but we are not going away. Where they go, we will go. We will not rest," she said, referring to Army Secretary Louis Caldera's announcement last week that the school's name and mission will soon change.
But voices from all sides know these changes will not stop the debate surrounding the school, even with across-the-board acknowledgements that the school is trying to clean up its image. In 1997, a bill introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives that would have forced the school to close was narrowly defeated. The House voted in July to cut $2 million from the school's scholarship budget. Though the money was restored in conference committees, the mere existence of a legislative action against the school rings like music to these protesters' ears.
"Even if it does take another year, it will only be one or two. We were so close last year when the vote to de-fund the school came through Congress. That was with 7,000 people protesting," Wrenn said.
"This year we'll come even closer."
Pfaffko said the spirit of hope, peace and justice at the demonstration was empowering, and attributed much of the protest’s success to it.
"I know that if everyone except the military is behind me, I must be doing the right thing," she said. "The School of the Americas will not be there next year."