Honoring the murdered of the SOA
Bob Sh'mal Ellenberg
This was the third year in a row that I've attended the demonstration to shut down the School of America's, SOA, also know as the School of the Assassins and mis-renamed a few years ago, by congress, the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation. Fifteen years ago, Father Bourgeois, a Jesuit priest, felt compelled to do something about the SOA which trains visiting Latin American soldiers to be more efficient in their terrorist and assassination techniques. They return to their home countries to carry out the murder of innocents. That year, he and fifteen other people of faith and conscience stood by the chain link gate of the base protesting what our tax money was doing in countries south of our border.
Since that first protest, this movement has spread; 2004 on November 21st 2004 an estimated 16,000 people walked to the chain link fence of Ft. Benning, placing small wooden crosses in the fence with the names of thousands of children, women and men who have been killed, directly or indirectly, by those trained at SOA.
As the 16,000 mourners solemnly walked, eight abreast, the names and ages of the dead are called out from the stage. The walkers respond with the word, "presente" a Spanish word meaning we are honoring and presenting them before the world, that all should know. Although these people have been murdered over many years, the procession is symbolically a mass funeral in the now. Hearing the names of children, infants, those about to be born, killed along with their mothers was especially hard.
Attended by many religious and spiritual groups and thousands of regular ole peace on their mind and in their hearts people, there are dozens of tables with peace and justice information. This is a peaceful, sacred and joyous, tribal gathering; one that is an honor to participate in. On Saturday, there is a colorful, parade of music, puppetistas, stilt walkers, drums, dancers, singing, and yelling, that marches through the throng. There are also speakers and music from the stage, going on both Saturday and Sunday. What left a strong impression was all the youth, many under 20, including 125 students from Boston College with many other colleges being represented.
Unfortunately, the city officials of Columbus, Georgia don't trust the peacemakers, and every year there are over a hundred police, positioned around the gathering. This year there was an injunction against the police using metal detectors, as they did the past two years, as we entered the gathering area, but there was an added chain link fence on either side of the street leading to Ft. Benning. The fence was totally stupid, with large gaps in it by driveways, and with the police allowing people to be on either side of one of the fences where they walked every year anyway. It made no sense, except a feeble attempt at intimidation.
What was even more stupid was the presence of a helicopter that hovered, off an on, another weak attempt of intimidation over the staging area for hours on Saturday. Much worse, and disrespectful, the helicopter returned on Sunday. I didn't think it would happen, doing the same thing over the heads of 16,000 people of peace, carrying crosses and grieving. Because we are there to create more peace, the police, the fence, the helicopter, although seen, are mainly ignored.
The President of the United States also attended, but as actor Martin Sheen, from "West Wing," leading the 16,000 marchers, in the three memorial hour walk to the gate. To his credit, he said, "you know me as an actor, but this is who I really am." He preceded our mournful "presente" walk with an impassioned prayer, in part, asking the "Creator to hear our prayer, let the peace makers be strong, to be an instrument of thy peace, and for the SOA to shut down."
And as happens every year, a number of people climbed over the chain link fence, or went around it, to be arrested, knowingly facing up to six months in jail. As they are performing their courageous act of civil disobedience scores of people are cheering them on. Saturday evening we were treated to a music concert along with the presentation of a few of those who previously did jail time for breaching the fence of this federal assassination camp.
For all of us who attend rallies to bring peace and justice to our country and the world, this one is inviting. Everyone should give themselves the opportunity to share in this gathering to shut down the SOA.
SOA Watch is a nonviolent grassroots movement that works to stand in solidarity with the people of Latin America, to close the SOA/WHINSEC and to change oppressive U.S. foreign policy that the SOA represents. We are grateful to our sisters and brothers throughout Latin America for their inspiration and the invitation to join them in their struggle for economic and social justice.
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