This year, Miriam Spencer, CSJP, and Kathy Rowland, a CSJP Associate, were our companions throughout the journey.
At the 9 a.m. Plenary Session, which was held at the Columbus Convention Center, the large ballroom filled with people as we listened to the beautiful song of hope, Resucito. We recognized and greeted many people we had met at other SOA Watch events or knew from other organizations.
Sr. Maureen Newman, who served three months in federal prison in 2003 for crossing the line onto the military base, was exceedingly busy meeting fellow prisoners of conscience.
The plenary session was designed to orient everyone to the history of the School of the Americas and of the School of the Americas Watch, and to prepare everyone for the events of the two days.
Speakers included victims of violence
Among the speakers were individuals who shared moving personal stories of the effect of experiencing their own families as victims of violence at the hands of graduates of the SOA. Two of the young Latina women who spoke, one from Guatemala and one from El Salvador, had served time with Sr. Maureen in the Columbus County Jail.
The role of the Peacemakers at the rally and vigil service was described, along with the non-violent behavior expected of everyone, characterized by love, respect, mutuality, compassion, and interdependence of all life. All participated in saying together the pledge and prayer for non-violence. This was repeated at the gate of Fort Benning both Saturday afternoon and Sunday morning.
One of the SOA Watch working groups reported on efforts to assure that all people felt included in all activities, such as having Spanish translation headsets, multiple language translators, Braille and large print programs and ramps to the hospitality apartments. They emphasized how important it is for social movements, including SOA Watch, to assure that they examine their own practices to discover and eliminate oppressive practices.
Some of us attended an insightful, powerful film sponsored by this working group, titled Color of Fear. It dealt with the state of race relations as seen through the eyes of eight North American men of Asian, European, Latino and African descent.
In a series of intelligent, emotional, and dramatic confrontations among the group, the men revealed the pain and scars racism has inflicted. We recognized that we each need to explore our own fears and discover the hidden racism in our lives and organizations.
More than 10,000 protesters
After the Plenary Session, we traveled to Fort Benning, where more than 10,000 women, men, and children gathered for a rally outside the gates. There we learned more about the school and its actions, and we sang, prayed and heard more stories.
Eight-foot-high chain-link fences had been erected alongside the road, a new addition since last year. Only three, 6-foot-wide access points to the road that leads to the main gate were available. Sawhorses blocked all other streets, with many police standing guard to prevent access.
A federal court of appeals had ruled unanimously that the city’s policy of searching each attendee is a violation of the First and Fourth Amendments, so the fences and heavily guarded access points were a new tactic to “control” this peaceful group, which has a 14-year history of non-violent demonstration.
Sr. Helen Prejean, author of “Dead Man Walking,” was among the inspiring speakers at the rally. She introduced actress Susan Sarandon, who shared her prayers and sincere support for the closure of the SOA.
We were reminded that in its 58-year history, this U.S. Army School has trained more than 60,000 Latin American military and security forces. Its graduates are known for murder, torture and rape, including the assassinations of Archbishop Oscar Romero, six Jesuits, their housekeeper and her daughter, and the four North American churchwomen.
In addition, they are connected to the death and disappearance of thousands of women, men and children throughout Central and South America. Military officials deny these claims.
A telling analysis
Kate McCoy, a Maryknoll Lay Mission Associate, recently reported the results of her statistical analysis of the human-rights records of approximately 12,000 graduates of the SOA, (today known as the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation).
The study involved six countries (Argentina, Brazil, Guatemala, El Salvador, Panama and Peru) over a 40-year period, from 1960-2000). The findings showed that:
- more SOA training makes people more likely to commit human rights violations;
- officers who attend the school are more likely to violate human rights than enlisted persons; and
- the school failed to show any improvement in human rights over time. The name change has not changed the nature of the school, unfortunately.
After the rally and a quick dinner, we attended a beautiful liturgy sponsored by the Jesuits in a huge tent filled to overflowing with 4,000 people. The Jesuit universities, colleges and high schools gather each year for a social justice TEACH IN on the Friday and Saturday before the SOA Watch vigil. Seeing so many young people praying together, preparing together to witness to their faith seeking justice, gives us great hope for our future.
The students did everything at the liturgy but preside and deliver the homily, which was done by the Jesuit president of the University of San Francisco.
We were impressed and inspired all weekend by the youth and young adults and their commitment to social justice, their enthusiasm, energy and sincerity as they swelled the ranks of participants. They understand that faith must be put into action and were intent on learning how that action can be most effective.