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Record Crowd Demands Closure of "School of Assassins"

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January 5, 2005

Record Crowd Demands Closure of "School of Assassins"

by Philip Neatby

For me, November 20th began with an early morning plenary at a business convention centre in Columbus, Georgia. By 9 AM, the ballroom of the Centre was filled with about a thousand people. As the organizers of that day's protest explained what was planned, there was a hum of activity and noise as people came and went from the room, met with their affinity groups, lazed about on the floor and generally prepared themselves for the coming day of action. At one point, the mike on the stage was turned over to a young woman, Linda Aguilar, who was a student at the University of San Francisco.

"I've been coming to these protests for the past three years," she explained above the din of conversation, "but I have known about these atrocities even before I could understand them... my parents are from Guatemala and most of my family still lives there today.

"For the past two years I have been carrying crosses with the names of my two family members who were kidnapped and tortured in Guatemala. My uncle, Carlos Sandoval and my cousin, Michelle Sandoval were both kidnapped, shot in the head..."

She stopped for a moment, and began to cry.

"Both got their arms or legs broken before their bodies were thrown in the river..."

All activity inside the room had stopped. All heads were turned toward Linda Aguilar as she attempted to control her emotions while explaining how her uncle and cousin had been murdered by a US-financed military regime. She then explained her experience illegally crossing onto the base during a demonstration in November of 2002. This act would result in a $500 fine and a sentence of 12 months probation.

"Even as the cops pulled us away, I felt at peace."

So began the first morning of this year's protests and actions against the School of the Americas, a US military training camp located within Fort Benning, Georgia. These demonstrations have been taking place at the gates of Fort Benning for fourteen years. The SOA, recently re-named the Western Hemispheric Institute for Security Cooperation (WHINSEC), has trained soldiers from Latin America (and Canada) in counterinsurgency techniques, psychological warfare, urban warfare, and related topics for more than fifty years. Often, graduates of the school have gone on to commit massive human rights violations against the population of their own country. For example, Generals Efrain Rios Montt and Romeo Lucas Garcia, whose presidential terms of Guatemala extended from 1979-1983, were both graduates of the School of the Americas. It was during the presidencies of these two men that the atrocities, political killings, and massacres of Guatemala's brutal civil war reached a peak, and even rose to genocidal proportions, according to a 1998 report by the UN Truth Commission

The "school of coups" has also been implicated in military overthrows of governments throughout the hemisphere. In April of 2002 two SOA graduates, Efrain Vasquez and Ramirez Poveda, helped lead a failed coup in Venezuela against the democratically elected leader Hugo Chavez. Leading members within the cabinet of the Haitian dictator Raoul Cedras, who came to power in a coup in 1991 and remained president until 1994, received training at the School of the Americas. The majority of the members of the paramilitary force which overthrew democratically elected Haitian president Jean-Bertrand Aristide last February also received US military training within the last ten years, though outside of the SOA.

These are a few examples among thousands. The School has trained over 64,000 soldiers during its history, and most have gone on to commit massive human rights abuses in El Salvador, Honduras, Chile, Argentina, Panama, Mexico, and elsewhere. Colombia, whose government and military have the worst human rights record in the hemisphere, continues to send more troops to this military facility than any other country in Latin America.

US military officials have insisted in previous years that the training camp is simply an institution which promotes hemispheric defence. They point to the human rights courses offered to trainees as evidence of the positive values the facility instils in military personnel throughout the hemisphere.

* * *

At the heart of the yearly demonstrations against the SOA, organized by the School of the Americas Watch, has been an emphasis on non-violent civil disobedience. A total of 170 people, according to the SOA Watch, have served time for illegally entering into the base. Since 9/11, the penalties for such actions have become more severe. Crossing into the fort now carries a maximum prison sentence of six months.

Some have crossed onto the fort on multiple occasions. Cynthia Brinkman, a 68-year old woman from South Missouri, crossed the line in 2000 and was also arrested at last year's demonstration. She had just finished serving a six month sentence prior to attending this year's demonstrations.

"When our country says we have a war against terrorism... and then with the other hand we invite people up from Latin America to be trained as terrorists to go back and wage war on their own people, we cannot let that happen," she explained.

Another woman, 48-year old Alice Gerard, crossed onto the base this year for a second time. She had just finished serving a three-month sentence for "illegal entry onto a United States military reservation" for crossing onto the base at last year's protest.

She explained her reason for going through the prison system once again: "I was in language school in Guatemala in 1987... and one of my friends was a fellow student... and her name was Sister Diana Ortiz. Two years after I met her, she was brutally tortured. And some of the people who tortured her were graduates of the SOA."

The organizers have largely been rooted within Catholic, Jesuit, and other religious traditions. Most of those who have been arrested for crossing onto the base seem to have been over the age of 40.

This year, however, acts of civil disobedience were deterred by the presence of a new "security fence" surrounding the outer wall and running up both sides of the road leading to the fort. The sign in front of the gates, which would normally declare "Welcome to Fort Benning" had also been enclosed by the fence and was newly covered over with a tarp, presumably to avoid the negative press which would result from photos of this iconic sign surrounded by protestors. In addition, the mayor of Columbus, a small town nearby, whose landmass is actually smaller than that of the Fort, had organized a "God Bless Fort Benning Festival" to coincide with the protests. The economy of Columbus is totally dependent upon Fort Benning, which is one of the biggest military bases in the United States.

* * *

Saturday's rally outside of the base was attended by more than 10,000. It featured speeches by actress Susan Sarandon, author Helen Prejean, members of the Guatemalan youth activist groups H.I.J.O.S. (Sons and Daughters of the Disappeared), and Elizabeth Corrie, sister of Rachel Corrie and a member of the group Atlanta Palestine Solidarity. Organizers also played a recorded message of solidarity from jailed US political prisoner Mumia Abu-Jamal.

The main day of action occurred on Sunday, November 21st. Outside of the gates of Fort Benning, 16,000 pairs of vocal chords read out the names of thousands of men, women, and children who had been killed by SOA graduates in countries throughout Latin America. Each name was followed by the Spanish (and very catholic) chant of "presente!" by the crowd. Everyone carried a cross bearing the name of a victim of US-sponsored repression in Latin America. The whole assembly formed a massive funeral procession up and down the road leading into the base. By the time my end of the procession arrived at the gate, every available surface of the fence had been covered, jammed with crosses bearing the names of dead men, women, and children. Palestinian flags were also everywhere, as a show of solidarity for other victims of US militarism. A number of people dressed in black robes with white masks staged a die-in in front of the fence. Their faces and hands were splattered with fake blood, and most lay beside black coffins adorned with names, slogans, and roses.

The crowd cheered as people climbed over the two layers of barbed wire fence, and entered the military base. My friend Sarah witnessed a 65-70 year-old man, who had been blind since birth, make the climb. He was arrested and escorted away by several officers. He would later demand that he be charged after accusing a county judge of discriminating against him due to the fact that he was blind. The judge eventually released him without charge.

The whole event existed somewhere between a mildly disobedient vigil, a human rights conference, and a counterculture festival. There were speeches on Sunday from Martin Sheen, SOA Watch founder Roy Bourgeois, and torture survivor Neris Gonazalez. There were a number of musical performers, such as Amy Ray of the Indigo Girls. There was also a performance by the 200-member Puppetista troupe, which culminated in the raising of a massive head in front of the stage. Throughout all of this, people kept kneeling, praying, crying, and staging theatrical die-ins in front of the fort.

The SOA watch is now reporting that 15 people were arrested for entering the base, although 3 others were detained for other reasons. One man was arrested as a result of a Georgian law which prohibited the wearing of masks.

Although this year's event was the biggest to date, it likely did not rattle too many feathers among the military leadership of the base. The Columbus chief of police would describe the whole thing as being "nice and quiet" in the local newspaper the next morning.

A congressional vote on whether to close the school is expected to occur early in 2005. At present, there are 131 congressional signatories to the bill. To coincide with their lobbying effort, SOA Watch organizers are calling for two days of action against the SOA/WHINSEC on Feb. 21-22 in Washington DC.

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The Dominion is a monthly paper published by an incipient network of independent journalists in Canada. It aims to provide accurate, critical coverage that is accountable to its readers and the subjects it tackles. Taking its name from Canada's official status as both a colony and a colonial force, the Dominion examines politics, culture and daily life with a view to understanding the exercise of power.

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