In what has become the nation’s largest annual gathering for peace and human rights, over 20,000 people protested outside the gates of Fort Benning, Ga., on Nov. 18. Eleven people were arrested on federal criminal charges and face up to six months in prison.
Fort Benning is the site of the internationally notorious U.S. Army training school for Latin American military and security personnel. For decades it was called the School of the Americas (SOA). It is now called the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (WHINSEC).
The school has graduated hundreds of military officers who have lead or participated in nearly every human rights atrocity in the hemisphere. Organizations across the world, including Amnesty International USA, have called for its closure since discovering copies of torture manuals used at the school.
In June 2007, 203 members of the U.S. House of Representatives voted to close the scandal-ridden school, six votes shy of the margin of victory.
This year thousands listened quietly as Adriana Portillo-Bartow told how her father, stepmother, sister, sister-in-law and two daughters, ages 9 and 11, were “disappeared” in Guatemala in a war directed and carried out by graduates of the U.S. Army School of the Americas.
Thousands moved towards the gates of the Fort Benning compound and called out “presente!” as the names of hundreds of other victims of graduates of the school were sung out.
Veterans of World War II, Korea, Vietnam and the never-ending Gulf wars marched side by side with Catholic sisters and Buddhist monks. Flowers, posters, pictures and thousands of small white crosses bearing the names of people executed by graduates of the school were put on the closed padlocked gates topped with barbed wire.
Thousands of college and high school students chanted and prayed alongside Grandmothers for Peace as military loudspeakers blared warnings and law enforcement helicopters hovered overhead. Huge puppets, singing children and drum circles alternated with the spirited calls of priests and rabbis and ministers of many faiths and races. Songs in many languages, indigenous chants, guitars, horns and mountain flutes filled the air.
The 11 people who crossed onto the grounds were arrested by military police. The eleven, ranging in age from 25 to 76, are scheduled for federal criminal trial on Jan. 28 for trespass punishable up to six months in federal prison.
Over 200 people have served federal prison time for civil disobedience at prior protests; dozens of others arrested have served years of supervised federal probation.
The movement to close the school started in 1990 when about 20 people held the first protest outside Fort Benning.
Even if the U.S. government is reluctant to close the school, Latin American countries look like they will do it themselves. Argentina, Bolivia, Costa Rica, Uruguay and Venezuela have announced they are withdrawing their militaries from the school.
Crimes by graduates continue. Colombia recently arrested five high-ranking military officers who received training at the U.S. Army School of Americas and two additional officers who were instructors at WHINSEC. All are charged with providing security and troops for the major drug cartel in Colombia.
Simultaneous protests occurred in Santiago, Chile; Tucson, Ariz. outside of Fort Huachuca (where three people were also arrested and face federal criminal charges); Toronto, Canada; as well as Berkeley and Monterey, Calif.
For more on the movement to close the School of the Americas, visit www.soaw.org.
Bill Quigley is a human rights lawyer and professor at Loyola University New Orleans College of Law. He is also a member of the legal collective of School of Americas Watch.