When the first School of the Americas, or SOA, mass protest was held in 1990, its organizers probably didn’t think they would still be at it 23 years later. But enduring social change typically takes many years or decades, especially if your goal is to shutter a facility that’s a lynchpin of U.S. geopolitics. Just ask groups like Witness Against Torture and the more recent Close Gitmo coalition, which have been conducting a full court press to shut the prison at Guantanamo Bay for over a decade. It remains open in spite of the fact that President Obama’s first official act was to mandate its closure within 12 months. That was five years ago.
From November 22 to 24, thousands of people took part in the annual SOA Watch vigil at the gates of Fort Benning in Columbus, Ga., where the SOA — or the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, as it has been renamed — is housed. They journeyed from across North and South America again to continue this nearly quarter-century protest exposing and resisting the training the school provides to troops from Latin America in counter-insurgency, social control, and (according to training manuals that have surfaced) torture and psychological warfare. Over a thousand soldiers and police officers from Latin America continue to train there every year. For decades, SOA graduates have committed documented human rights violations from Guatemala to Argentina, including the recent political violence unleashed by the 2009 coup in Honduras led by former SOA trainee Romeo Vásquez.
Over the years, several of my colleagues at Pace e Bene have made their opposition to these facts clear by crossing the SOA fence and earning six-month prison sentences, including former training associate Judith Kelly; former program coordinator Laura Slattery, a West Point graduate who hung her army jacket on the fence before crossing over; and Friar Louie Vitale, who has served two half-year jail terms. Pace e Bene folks have also led nonviolence trainings at the annual November gathering.
This year was my first time actually attending the vigil. With a helicopter hovering above, several thousand of us slowly marched to the gates, many bearing crosses with the names of those slain in past and present war zones spanning Central and South America. After a reader on the stage somberly pronounced each name, the assembled responded with one voice: “Presente!”— which is to say, she is with us, he is remembered, she lives despite the utter effacement that thrums at the heart of torture and assassination, despite the determination of systems of violence and domination to crush resistance and to blot out, disappear and expunge the resister.
There was a lilting, implacable fierceness in this call and response as we moved to the gates, and then processed past them. The time for speeches was past. The time for preparation was over — the nuts and bolts of organizing, the speaking tours drumming up support, the travel arrangements, the numerous workshops held nearby on Friday and Saturday. Now we were touching the heart of the matter, fusing the hyper-real (those were real soldiers, that was a real helicopter, there was a real training facility over across that fence) with the symbolic in a journey knitting together the living and the dead — past and present, violence and nonviolence. We were recommitting ourselves to the concretely transcendent goal of closing the SOA, and all the SOAs everywhere.
The procession wheeled back toward the gate a second time. Now we stopped and planted the thousands of crosses on the fence, reframing Fort Benning’s portal as a place of memorial, mourning and witness — but also, strangely, of renewal. Sober grief unexpectedly gave way to dancing, as if to say that the very act of resistance shakes us free from immobility and despair, freeing up a new sense of hope. Hope not simply for some far-off future when all the SOAs no longer exist, but for the present, as we conspire and stand against the mechanics of terror now.
The first mass protest at SOA in 1990 was sparked by the assassination of six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper and her daughter in El Salvador on Nov. 16, 1989. At the time, I was working in Washington, D.C., as part of the U.S. Central America peace movement. Many of us who were part of the movement and living in Washington took part that evening in a hastily organized service at a Jesuit parish in the shadow of the U.S. Capitol. Amid the shock and grief that washed over us that night, there was a renewed determination to dramatically increase nonviolent resistance to the policies that led to such carnage. A thousand demonstrations took place nationally over the next few weeks, and a year later Roy Bourgeois inaugurated the SOA Vigil and Action. Bourgeois was a Maryknoll priest who had already spent 18 months in prison for climbing a tree on the grounds of Fort Benning and broadcasting a tape recording of Archbishop Oscar Romero’s words calling on Salvadoran soldiers to lay down their arms.
Despite nearly a quarter of a century of resistance, the school remains open. One might ask: Has the annual event in Columbus simply become a routinized ritual like many other pilgrimages — personally powerful but not necessarily making the larger impact that it seeks?
It’s a fair question, but it reminds me of a book called The History and Strategy of the Campaign to End Nuclear Weapons Testing by Michael Affleck, which was written about the anti-nuclear testing movement at the Nevada Test Site. It chronicled the thousands who took action at the site during the 1980s but concluded that it had failed to meet its goal of ending testing after a decade of relentless resistance. A year and a half after this critique was published in the early 1990s, the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty was established — leading in short order to the end of most nuclear tests on the planet — which some of us then endeavored to show was directly connected to the anti-nuclear activism at Nevada and elsewhere, which earlier had been deemed a failure. (For more on this, see my book, Pilgrimage Through a Burning World.)
Similarly, it is possible that successful closure of the school is on its way, rooted in a number of strategies the SOA Watch has been pursuing.
In addition to the annual vigil in Georgia, it has also staged a spring demonstration in Washington, D.C., aimed at bolstering its lobbying of Congress, urging it to end the funding for the school. This past April, SOA Watch organized a national phone-in that flooded Congressional offices with calls and staged demonstrations in the city, including a die-in near the Capitol.
As a result of an SOA Watch lawsuit, a federal judge ordered the Pentagon to release the names of SOA graduates — this after a long struggle that included Congress adding an amendment to a defense authorization bill that demanded the Department of Defense to release the names.
SOA Watch has built powerful relationships with activists throughout Latin America, including in Honduras, where it had a delegation of observers on the ground during the recent election there.
Most significantly perhaps, SOA Watch has systematically lobbied Latin American governments to refuse to send their troops to the SOA. In 2012, Ecuador and Nicaragua joined Argentina, Uruguay, Bolivia and Venezuela in deciding to stop sending their personnel there.
All of these gains are rooted in and energized by the power of the annual November mobilization. As the SOA Watch website notes, this movement will continue to mobilize because silence is not an option, because justice has not been rendered and it must be demanded, and because the foundations of this violence must be dismantled.