COLUMBUS, Ga. – Despite apprehensions that they would be labeled “terrorists,” at least 10,000 people from across the country gathered at Ft. Benning to protest the School of the Americas (SOA). Recently renamed the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, the SOA is responsible for training soldiers, mostly from Latin America, in torture techniques, assassination and psychological warfare.
“Money and resources that go into this school create injustice and oppression,” said Tom Strunk of United Students Against Sweatshops. “This school is not a force for democracy and freedom.”
Established in 1946, the SOA took on a Cold War focus in 1963 and moved its location to Georgia from Panama in 1984. Among the graduates of the school are dictators such as Manuel Noriega and Hugo Banzer Suarez, as well as hundreds of torturers, assassins, terrorists and death squad leaders.
Baldemar Velasquez, of the Farm Labor Organizing Committee, told the crowd at a Nov. 17 rally at Golden Park, “When we have economic, political and social institutions who have such a disregard for human life … this becomes a struggle about life and death.” He also asked the U.S. government to “stop training Osama bin Ladens.”
The next day, protesters marched to the eight-foot high chain-link fence, separating the SOA from the rest of the community, and placed thousands of crosses, flowers, wreaths and banners on the fence. Some protesters climbed the fence, while others lay in front of the gate entrance.
Throughout the day the names of those murdered in Latin America – peasants, workers, clergymen and children – were read aloud. After each name thousands of crosses were lifted into the air.
Most of the protest was without incident. Sunday evening around 30 protesters set up a peaceful blockade of the SOA compound. Police in riot gear surrounded the demonstrators and arrested them. They were charged with unlawful assembly, obstructing justice and obstructing a public highway.