FT. BENNING, Ga. – Students, retirees and children made pilgrimages to this U.S. Army post just outside Columbus, Georgia, the weekend of Nov. 21-23 to protest the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, also known as the School of the Americas. Some who made the trip traveled all the way from California, others drove by car for many hours from surrounding states. All who came want the school permanently closed and want the atrocities performed by School of the Americas graduates to be remembered.
Members of dictator Augusto Pinochet’s army in Chile, generals who fueled El Salvador’s civil war and murderous paramilitaries in Colombia’s drug war have all been trained at the school with U.S. tax dollars. (A complete list of School of the Americas graduates and their activities can be found here) The towns of Ft. Benning and neighboring Columbus show signs of extreme poverty, where these same tax dollars could be invested in local schools and infrastructure. The annual protests have been a brief shot in the arm for local businesses catering to thousands of out-of-town visitors.
Demonstrations have been occurring for 25 years at the gates of the SOA/WHINSEC. This year’s actions occurred only a day after President Obama announced his executive order expanding temporary deportation relief to 5 million additional undocumented immigrants in the U.S., an order welcomed by activists here. Organizers and participants in the “School of the Americas Watch” actions see closing the SOA/WHINSEC as central to comprehensive immigration reform, as many immigrants flee Latin America as a result of U.S.-sponsored violence in their home countries.
Highlighting the connection between closing the SOA/WHINSEC and immigrant rights, 1,000 of those who had arrived in the area by that Saturday morning began the weekend with a rally to “Expose and Close” the Stewart Detention Center in Lumpkin, Ga. SDC is a for-profit prison owned by the Corrections Corporation of America. The prison incarcerates 1,800 men awaiting deportation in deplorable conditions that have led to the death of at least one detainee. Five members of the protest at SDC were arrested in an act of civil disobedience, while the crowd sang the famous spiritual, “We Shall Overcome.”
Later that same Saturday, crowds gathered along the road leading into the gates of SOA/WHINSEC. Local police were present in large numbers. In September, organizers had a struggle with local authorities to obtain this year’s permit for the protest outside the military base, but now the police carried themselves in a peaceful manner.
Along the road leading into the military gates was a long row of tables, where different organizations provided information relating to the protest at SOA. One table included information regarding a trip to visit Colombian farmers who are caught in the middle of the drug war. The Young Communist League and Committees of Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism also had a table, offering temporary tattoos that were an SOA symbol with a red line through the middle. A third table included information regarding the 43 Mexican students who disappeared at the hands of Mexican police from Ayotzinapa, also known as the “Ayotzinapa 43.”
SOA/WHINSEC has trained many of the Mexican authorities responsible for the widespread murders and disappearances in Mexico since the “Plan Mexico” drug war was introduced in 2006. According to the School of the Americas Watch website, over 250,000 have disappeared and 100,000 have been killed since the implementation of this program. Thousands more people are fleeing Mexico and attempting to cross into the U.S. as a result, including the scores of unaccompanied children that are being held at the border.
Arturo Mendez is a student who recently arrived in the U.S. from Mexico, and was present for this year’s protests. Mendez explained a shocking trend regarding the police that are sent by the Mexican government to SOA/WHINSEC for training: upon their return to Mexico, many SOA graduates end up leaving police forces and starting their own drug cartels, because they find the latter more profitable.
On Dec. 3, people in 43 cities across North America will protest the U.S. government’s funding role in the expansion of disappearances and violence in Mexico. The campaign, called #USTired2, is a sister to the Mexican students’ campaign, called #YaMeCanse, or “I’m tired, enough already.” In early November, Mexican youth made this slogan their rallying cry for peace, after Mexican Attorney General Jesus Murillo used the same phrase to avoid further questioning at a news conference regarding the fate of the Ayotzinapa 43.
As the activists in Ft. Benning browsed the organization tables, various cultural performers and speakers took to a stage that had been erected immediately outside the gates of the military base. Hip-hop artists, Andean flautists, and folk singers were among the musical performers. One woman who spoke from the stage had lost her husband to the violence of SOA graduates in Guatemala.
That same evening in the town of Columbus, workshops were held for those who were participating in the School of the Americas Watch weekend. Topics included more information regarding the U.S. role in the spread of violence in Latin America, the growth of the international youth movement attempting to curb imperialism, the progress of peace talks in Colombia, and others. Also, poetry and theater workshops were offered.
Perhaps the most momentous activity of the weekend was the martyrs’ procession on Sunday morning. The skies were appropriately gray as over 1,500 protesters marched along the road in front of the School of the Americas, holding crosses that bore the names of those killed at the hands of SOA graduates. Some marchers carried photographs as well. Some also had dressed in funeral procession costumes, representing the tragic magnitude of deaths that the SOA/WHINSEC has caused. As the participants walked slowly together, names of people who had been killed were read over the microphone from the stage. After hearing each name, the marchers held up their name-bearing crosses and declared, “Presente!” or present, here with us.
At the conclusion of the procession, participants placed their crosses and photographs in the gates of the School of the Americas. One resident of Americus, Ga., Nashua Chantal, scaled the gates of the school and crossed over into the military base, at risk of arrest. This was Chantal’s third time crossing this fence, and was placing himself at risk of a six-month prison sentence for doing so. Fully donned in clothing and even face paint that read, “Study War No More,” Chantal made it successfully across the fence, and began to expose the entrance sign to the school, which was covered in a heavy canvass. Shortly thereafter, military personnel and police arrived to arrest him. The crowd chanted, “We’re with you Nashua!” and “Close down the SOA!” Before crossing the fence, Chantal had stated, “This is a serious thing to me. For the past month, I have been studying the atrocities on the Amnesty International website and the SOA Watch website. I cry for all the Latin American people. I walk beside them in my hometown. I go to the courts with them. My heart will be with all of you.”
Rain began to fall hard. Some stayed and broke into spirited dance and song in front of the protest stage. Others made their ways to cars or nearby corner stores for shelter. However, all those who had made their way to protest in Ft. Benning that weekend seemed to leave with a sense of unity and urgency.
To tell your representative in Congress to close the School of the Americas, click here.
To find a Dec. 3 action with #USTired2 near you, click here.
Photo: Lisa Bergmann/PW