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by Matt Olson
Wednesday, Nov. 21, 2001 at 7:33 PM
Dubbed the school of the assassins by its critics, the SOA has hosted some of Latin America's most vilified despots as students, and the people standing on the road outside the gate chanting on the Sunday before Thanksgiving see the SOA as a symbol of all that is wrong with American foreign policy as the US begins it's latest overseas military action.
Columbus, GA-On a blindingly clear day in the pine flatwoods of Columbus Georgia, 15,000 thousand people stand on an access road in front of Fort Benning, longtime home of the US Army School of the Americas, listening intently as a speaker reads off the names of those allegedly murdered by the school's graduates. "Alicia Rodriguez, 22 years old," announces the speaker with a cantor's wail. "Presente" responds the crowd in unison, as if their voices will create a connection to the spirit of the deceased. This goes on for hours, as thousands of names are read. The members of the crowd are from far flung places-Arizona, Ohio, South Carolina, Pennsylvania. One hundred and fifty of them are from Wisconsin. Forty are from Madison. They range in age from 13 to 77, and have traveled 17 or more hours by bus or car to speak out against the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (WHISC), or School of the Americas (SOA). Dubbed the school of the assassins by its critics, the SOA has hosted some of Latin America's most vilified despots as students, and the people standing on the road outside the gate chanting on the Sunday before Thanksgiving see the SOA as a symbol of all that is wrong with American foreign policy as the US begins it's latest overseas military action.
"It's pretty ironic that our President has told us that we are to hunt down terrorists and remove terrorism from the face of the earth, while here at Fort Benning, the Army School of the Americas or WHISC, has trained people to be terrorists, unfortunately," says Sister Maureen McDonell, 58, a Dominican Catholic nun who came down to Columbus with Peace Action Wisconsin. To her and others on the street this morning, the existence of the SOA is a blatant hypocrisy in the context of the war on terrorism. "Their manuals and texts have shown their emphasis on terror and repression," says McDonell, "so to me, this school is a masthead symbol of the whole militaristic system that we are a part of and that we as taxpayers support-and many people have no idea what is going on here."
Many of the people who came down to Columbus are, like Sister McDonell, people of faith. The protest itself is reminiscent of a requiem mass or Kol Nidre service. And this gives the protests a cast that is missing from other protest actions. "The people who don't want to act out of a faith base-which is fine-might be turned off by the faith component of the message. But this group is wide enough that you don't have to have a faith to participate, and it is possible that the faith basis of the message might help some people to hear the message of peace out here that might not otherwise be listening."
Notably, no counter-protesters were visible at any point over the weekend.
The protests here at Fort Benning have been going on since 1990. That year, 13 people stood in silent protest at the gates of Ft. Benning. Last year, an estimated 12,000 people showed up. The protests have drawn international attention and the effect of the publicity has been marked. In last year's federal budget, opponents of the SOA came within five votes in the House of pulling funding for the school entirely (a compromise allowed the school to stay open with a different name and a modified curriculum), and the commandante of the SOA, Colonel Richard Downie, has met repeatedly with the leaders of SOA Watch-the group which organizes the annual protests-to discuss modifications to the SOA curriculum.
According to the Army, this attention has caused a sea change in the way the SOA is managed. "Thanks to the protests, the School of the Americas was closed on December 11th of last year, and the new institute, WHISC, which opened in it's place is much different," says Lee Rials, LTC (ret), Public Affairs Officer for the new WHISC. Among the changes are an increased emphasis on human rights training, increased congressional oversight, and a broader base of instructors. "All of our classes used to be taught by the Army," he says, "now the focus of the courses has shifted away from combat training and we have a much greater civilian presence. Our courses now better address the needs of countries as they develop and democratize." He respects the vigilers in the streets, calling them "calm and respectful, and passionate in their beliefs," but he says their criticisms of the SOA are overblown. "Of all of the 63,000 students that the SOA has trained, only 500 or so have been accused of these crimes-that's less than one percent."
The people in the street are skeptical. "Different Name, Same Shame," was a popular slogan on signs and banners. "Even though recently they have changed the curriculum and required human rights courses, the changes are miniscule," says McDonell, "it's such a limited number of hours compared to the rest of what they teach." There is evidence to support that skepticism. Colonel Mark Morgan stated at a Defense Department briefing in May 2000 that "The School of the Americas would still be able to continue its purpose," under the then-proposed changes, and the late Senator Paul Coverdell (R-GA) stated in an April, 2000 interview with the Columbus Ledger-Enquirer that the proposed changes to the SOA were "basically cosmetic."
Despite the changes the school, the protests continue. And for the protestors, their opposition has a greater salience given the tragedies of September 11th and the subsequent military action in Afghanistan. They are sensitive to the argument that their calls for peace are out of touch with the greater populous and respond in kind. "The people who are out of touch are the ones who are calling for violence, not the ones who are calling for peace," says Cecilia Zarate-Laun, SOA Watch advisory committee member and program director of the Madison-based Columbia support network. "We are bringing the message that change can occur without violence. Unfortunately, after what those people did in New York, the Pentagon and Pennsylvania, it brought out the most primitive feelings in our people. But when you think rationally about it, the only response is to create a foreign policy in the US that is humane to the third world in general."
And even as the cynics question the effectiveness of mass protest actions like this one, the protesters are firm in their resolve. "this action keeps alive the solidarity between north and south and shows that the American people care about justice and democracy. This is the real spirit of the real United States--the way it should be," says Zarate-Laun, "it creates a sense of brotherhood, rather than a sense of domination and control." And beyond this metaphysical benefit, there is a sense of genuine progress. "The protests here have gotten our Congress to within five votes of removing the funding for the school. We have made tremendous progress, the number of people out here has grown, and it's a great example of the power of the people," says McDonell. "Three or four generations are present here today. And it has ripple effect that is important, especially as the young people who are involved in this and other social justice movements become leaders."
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