On November 18, nineteen residents of Champaign-Urbana joined over 10,000 people from around the country who had traveled to Columbus, Georgia to call for the closing of the School of the Americas, recently renamed the Western Hemispheric Institute for Security Cooperation, or WHISC. Despite fears that the attacks of September 11 and the subsequent curbing of civil liberties would hamper this year’s demonstration, it was the largest gathering in the 11 years of protests coordinated by the School of the Americas Watch organization. The city of Columbus had originally denied a permit for this year’s demonstration at the gates of the School, citing the current war in Afghanistan as its reason.
But in the end, a federal judge upheld the First Amendment right of the demonstrators to use the roadway as a forum for political dissent.
The day following this ruling, thousands marched in a solemn funeral procession to the gates of the Fort Benning army base, which houses WHISC. The procession is held annually on or around November 16, to commemorate the date that six Catholic priests and two women were murdered in El Salvador in 1989. A U.S. Congressional task force, which investigated the murders, found that those responsible were trained at the School
of the Americas, the Army’s school for soldiers from Latin America. More recently, a 1993 United Nations Truth Commission report revealed that SOA graduates were also involved in the assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero, the rape and murder of four churchwomen of the Maryknoll order, and the massacre of an entire village of 900 in El Mozote,
El Salvador, as well as a number of other atrocities.
During the funeral procession, protesters chanted the names of victims of massacres linked to SOA graduates – a list which took over two hours to complete.
Several dozen people attired in funeral garb and carrying coffins enacted a mass “die-in” outside the gates of the army base. Military police filmed participants as they risked arrest to decorate the gateswith crosses bearing the names of victims. Two girls tied a weaving to the gate.
Each strip of cloth bore the name of a victim of the El Mozote massacre. A young man scattered corn seed through the holes in the fence, explaining his gesture as an act of “solidarity with those in Chiapas who are taking over military bases and planting crops where there should be crops.”
Laura Slattery, as her memorial to the victims of the SOA, hung her U.S.
Army uniform on the fence, complete with badges and insignia of rank. Slattery served during the invasion of Panama and the Persian Gulf war, and was briefly stationed at Fort Benning. As she placed her uniform alongside the crosses and peace cranes she quietly made a statement.
“I said that I was refusing to continue to believe that a military solution is any solution at all, or that bombs and guns do anything more than kill my brothers and sisters. I spent some time in El Salvador and I witnessed first hand some of the effects of the School of the Americas. I wanted to do something to stop that,” Slattery explained.
In the face of its record of human rights abuses, officials of the Western Hemispheric Institute for Security Cooperation insist that WHISC is a different institution with different training and priorities than its predecessor, the School of the Americas. Colonel Downie, the commander of WHISC, argues that “the School of the Americas was focused on the
challenges of the last century. Our focus is on the challenges of the 21st century. What are those challenges? It’s peacekeeping; it’s disaster relief; it’s counter-drug operations. It’s those kinds of operations that require police forces, military forces, and civilian agencies to work together.” Downie insists that counterinsurgency techniques are an “old threat” and no
longer relevant to the school.
Despite these changes, SOA Watch founder Father Roy Bourgeois maintains that the military training school has “a new name, but the same shame. It is still a school
for terrorists. It’s still a school for death squad leaders. It’s still a school for soldiers who are armed and trained in commando operations, psychological warfare, and counter-insurgency techniques to go back to Latin American and provide the muscle for U.S. corporations and U.S. foreign policy.” Bourgeois focuses his current criticism of WHISC on its role in the
U.S. intervention in Colombia. Ten thousand members of the Colombian military were trained at WHISC in the past year, making up the bulk of trainees.
During the demonstration, fifty members of a group called the Christian Peacemakers dutifully “washed the American flag of its sins”, while singing of and
confessing their own “complicity” with the U.S. attempt to “wash away its sins” by merely changing the name of the SOA, they explained. Eighteen of the fifty proceeded to climb underneath the fence and onto the base. Walking on their knees, they presented the cleansed flags to
the military police who arrested them. Other clusters also performed slow, composed acts of civil disobedience while crossing onto the base. A total of eighty were taken into temporary custody by military police, and received orders barring them from returning to the base. Of those who had previously been barred, fourteen face up to a year in federal prison f
or their return.
Outside the gates, demonstrators constructed a “global village” complete with composting toilet and cardboard hospital. The village was erected “to demonstrate a desirable world community free of violence,” one villager explained. Thirty-one participants were arrested when they refused to clear the street. Those arrested fasted until they were released two days later with no fines and credit for time served. Twenty-six particip
ts in previous protests against the SOA remain in federal prisons, serving terms of three months to a year.
In 1999 the U.S. House of Representatives voted to cut the SOA’s funding, but this vote was narrowly overturned in a House-Senate Committee. Currently there is a
resolution to close WHISC, the successor of the SOA, and to create a task force to assess appropriate training and education for Latin American military personnel. House Reso
lution 1810 has 87 co-sponsors in the House. Last May an Executive Comment on the Resolu
tion was requested from the Department of Defense. There has been no formal movement on the resolution since.
The author has created a radio documentary of the SOA protests for the IMC Newshour(Mondays at 6 pm on WEFT 90.1 FM), which is also available on CD at the
Urbana-Champaign IndependentMedia Center.