Father Roy Bourgeois, the charismatic Maryknoll priest who has, since 1990, led the annual protest against against the United States’ most infamous military training facility, wasn’t sure it would happen this year. But in mid-September he called around to assess the resolve of the movement. Response was unanimous.
“It’s very important that we be here, because at the very core of this issue is violence,” said Bourgeois. “We’re going to mourn the thousands killed on September 11, but we cannot forget the 75,000 in El Salvador who were victims of terrorists trained at the School of the Americas.”
Graduates of the school implicated in human rights abuses are legion. Human Rights Watch reported last year that seven graduates were connected to Colombian paramilitaries, including Brig. Gen. Jaime Canal Albán, who has been tied to the displacement of 2,000 peasants and at least forty extrajudicial executions.
This year’s protest against the School of the Americas–renamed the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (WHISC)–marked a standoff between the recently galvanized peace movement, and the continuing militarization of US foreign policy. But considering the current climate, the massing of 10,000 on November 18 was a significant statement of informed dissent.
Located on the grounds of the Army’s Fort Benning, the facility has remained a potent symbol and a critical mechanism in the vertical integration of the national security apparatus across the hemisphere.
To the veterans of the Central American solidarity movement and the recent crop of globalization activists who want to shut down the facility, the heightened patriotic rhetoric of the past two months has only strengthened their opposition to what they consider a terrorist training camp.
The recent passage of the USA PATRIOT Act made the protests an important test for exploring the boundaries of dissent. The city of Columbus had hoped to block the demonstrations, citing the threat of trespass from multiple entry points and the expectation of “more dangerous groups” than the nonviolent SOA Watch–evidence perhaps of the e-mail surveillance component of the PATRIOT Act in action.
Despite apprehension on both sides, the protests held to a traditional model of nonviolent civil disobedience throughout the weekend, with a peaceful funeral procession in front of the base’s closed gate and more than 100 arrests of protesters who symbolically breached the line.
The gate was gradually festooned with wooden crosses, flowers and photographs as the protesters sang a litany of the names of the disappeared, each name accompanied by the invocation: “Presente.”
The larger part of the protest was made up of parishioners and students, but groups as varied as Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC) and Veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade were also in attendance. The protesters cut across a broad constituency embracing liberation theology and militant anarchism, with all adhering to a tight set of protest ground rules.
The South is central to the military economy of the country. The region is host to 56 percent of enlisted soldiers stationed on American soil and receives more defense dollars per capita than any other. But residents of this small city of 185,000 in the scrub pines of Georgia–economically dependent on the consumer dollars of Fort Benning?s floating troop population–are far from unanimous in their attitude toward the protests.
FLOC organizer Nick Wood told of being approached in a hotel bar by an active-duty soldier who asked why he was protesting. Wood gave his reasons and the soldier responded, “Thanks, I’m glad to know.” As he was leaving, the female bartender who had been listening told Wood, “Good luck and God bless you.”
What are the prospects for Congressional action to close the Institute? “It’s going to be an uphill battle” admitted Bourgeois. The shaken legislative coalition–last year’s House resolution fell ten votes shy of passage–may not be able to push through a bill in the next session. But the Maryknoll priest is confident that the critical mass of the movement will soon bear fruit. “At some point, they’re going to have to ask, ‘Is it worth it?'”