2000 protest, 601 arrested to close Army School of Americas
On November 16, 1997 601 people were arrested at Ft. Benning, Georgia in an act of mass civil disobedience to close the Army School of the Americas (SOA). The civil disobedience was led by pall bearers who carried eight coffins filled with more than 100,000 signatures supporting the closing of the SOA, including petitions from Italy, Japan and Latin America. Following the pall bearers were hundreds of mourners carrying crosses that bore the names of victims of SOA graduates. Marching solemnly two abreast, the silent procession stretched out nearly one full mile into the grounds of Ft. Benning where 10 buses were waiting to haul protesters away. Two thousand demonstrated for closure of the SOA.
The School of Americas is known worldwide as a training center for Latin American military personnel who, after graduating and returning home, have consistently bee linked with assassinations, human rights abuses, drug trafficking, torture and other forms of political repression. For this reason, the opponents of the SOA have dubbed it the "School of Assassins." According to Joseph Blair, a former member of the SOA faculty, a letter sent by two U.S. Congressmen from Columbus, Georgia on November 16 to president Clinton "acknowledged that just five years ago the El Salvador Army was still committing 2,000 human rights violations every month," and that "the entire officer corps in El Salvador was trained at SOA in the 1980's."
Every year since repression by SOA graduates was uncovered, activists have been agitating to close it down. Each year the annual November 16 protest has grown in numbers of protesters and civil disobedients. In 1996, less than 100 people were arrested for civil disobedience while in 1997 over 600 participated and were ultimately arrested. Twenty-eight of those arrested were charged with Criminal Trespassing because they were given a ban and bar letter for previous arrests there. Those 28 presently face six months in jail and are scheduled to go to trial January 20.
Among the 28 charge were three Floridian retirees, all in their 60s. There were also professors, students, a nurse, priests and ministers, all of whom had traveled from far corners of the U.S. to participate. This level of commitment to the closing of SOA has been built gradually over the years and is born of the facts that surround it. For example, SOA training manuals have been revealed to advocate and instruct on procedures including torture, execution, physical abuse, false imprisonment and blackmail. The manuals teach trainees how to repress progressive movements including labor organizing and movements towards democracy.
It costs taxpayers $20 million each year to keep the school open, while the government is cutting back on food stamp and welfare spending for those who need it. This figure represents one half-hour of the Pentagon's budget over the year.
Many feel that the time is coming soon when the SOA will be closed down. As awareness of what is happening at Ft. Benning spreads among Americans, public pressure is also mounting on Capitol Hill. In September 1997, the U.S. House of Representatives came within 7 votes of closing the SOA: 210 to 217. For 1998, there are two bills pending: HR611 and S980. One problem, according to the Fellowship of Reconciliation Panama Campaign, is that even if the school is closed in Georgia by public pressure, the U.S. military may reopen it in Panama under a different name. (The school was moved here from Panama in 1984). Presently dubbed the "multi-national counter-drug center", the proposed base would be made possible by a negotiation between the Panamanian and American government to keep U.S. soldiers in there after 1999. This is in contradiction to earlier promises included in the Canal Treaties of the past.
Although repression exists largely in the shadows of the public's conscience, if our government representative finally decide to practice true representative democracy in the case of Ft. Benning, then the SOA will close in 1998 for good.
School of Americas watch is planning a rally in Washington D.C. rally to close the SOA on Sunday, April 26  at noon-5 p.m. in Lafayette Park with a vigil and lobby action Monday and Tuesday, April 27-28,  10 a.m.-6 p.m. For more information call or write SOA watch, 1719 Irving Street NW, Washington, DC 20010. (202) 234-3440, www.soaw.org.
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