Commentary

I’ll be honest: I usually sleep as late as possible on Sunday morning. So it was a major struggle to pull myself out of bed when the alarm went off at 4:45 a.m. Groggily, I wiped the sleep out of my eyes and remembered why I was awake — to make the two hour trip from Atlanta to Fort Benning in Columbus, Ga., for the annual School of the Americas protest and vigil Nov. 21.

In the pre-dawn darkness I dressed, packed a lunch, and headed to campus where I met with a large group of students organized by a local Amnesty International chapter. Though I’ve known about the School and SOA Watch’s activities for many years, this was my first time participating and I wasn’t sure what to expect.

Arriving in Columbus, we parked in an aging strip mall populated by fast food and discount stores and joined the stream of excited people making their way to the base. The protest took place on a long stretch of road, which the police had closed to traffic, leading up to Fort Benning.

At the end of the road there was a small stage and behind it a new 10-foot-high, chain-link fence in front of the base property. Many regular attendees complained about their lack of visibility to the people on the base.

We arrived just in time for the opening ceremony — a traditional Mayan prayer saluting the four directions and giving thanks to the Earth and Creator for sustaining us. The mood was peaceful and reflective as thousands of people stood silently. We then recited a pledge of nonviolence.

Soon several activists came onstage and testified about their experiences in Latin America. Many had been the victims of torture by graduates of the School of the Americas. Particularly moving was a woman who, her voice broken by sobs, told of being tortured until she miscarried.

The vigil was followed by a funeral march, led by a large mourning puppet and a group of people dressed in black robes carrying coffins. They solemnly recited hundreds of names of the dead, victims of U.S.-trained assassins and torturers. Between drumbeats, the name and age of each victim was sung and the crowd responded by chanting the word “Presente!” and raising crosses, banners, signs, or their hands into the air.

As we neared the fence, people placed their crosses and other symbols into the chain-links, and to pray and reflect. The fence, minutes before a symbol of military might, had become a beautiful makeshift memorial.

From a distance we began hearing intermittent bursts of applause. I asked someone what it meant, and was told that activists were “crossing the line” over the fence and onto federal property to be peacefully arrested. Crossing the line is a powerful statement of commitment to the cause and requires planning, sacrifice and patience. Even first-timers can be prosecuted and given fines, probation or serious prison sentences.

According to School of the Americas Watch, 20 people were arrested this year in acts of nonviolent civil disobedience.

The march was the culmination of the entire weekend’s activities, and with an estimated 16,000 participants, it took over two hours to complete. Afterward, my friends and I lingered, taking photos and digesting what we had just experienced.

People of all ages, races, and faiths had joined together in solidarity to remember the dead and to fight torture and exploitation, not just for a day or weekend, but a lifetime of commitment that would last far beyond our goodbyes that evening. The protest had exceeded all my expectations, and I felt emotionally renewed and eager to continue the struggle.

For more information, including photos and audio clips from the protest, visit www.soaw.org. (See related story, page 15.)

Laura Massey is a college student. She can be reached at white_tree@gmail.com.click here for related story

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