Seventeen years ago, Maryknoll priest Roy Bourgeois organized a demonstration at the gates of Fort Benning, Ga., home of the School of the Americas. His goal was to call attention to that training base for Latin American military leaders, and to close it down.
The occasion was the first anniversary of the murder in El Salvador of six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper and her teen-age daughter by military personnel trained at the school.
Ten persons took part.
Seventeen years later, 22,000 demonstrators marched and chanted at Fort Benning's main gate in November 2006, while simultaneous demonstrations were taking place in seven South American countries.
In the years in between, the U.S. government changed the name of the school to the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (WHINSEC), three Latin American countries (Venezuela, Uruguay and Argentina) stopped sending soldiers to the school, and Congress came within 15 votes of denying funds to run the school.
Why has this movement grown so dramatically?
"I think people are looking for hope, especially today with what we're doing in Latin America, and with this war in Iraq," says Bourgeois. "People are really seeking hope."
"This is where the peace movement resides," says the Rev. Jon Moody, a UCC minister and Hiram (Ohio) College ethics professor. "I come every year because this is the peace movement that I joined in the '60s, the annual party where we gather to remind ourselves of our commitment to peace."
Others come because the school's activities still continue, and because there is the real possibility of "winning" and getting the school closed.
"It breaks my heart to know about the continual murders and disappearances of countless people in Latin America," says Cathy Webster, a grey-haired activist from Chico, Calif. Webster was one of 16 persons arrested for crossing onto the army base itself.
Feeling of solidarity
The nature of the experience itself has brought Jane Hare from Chapel Hill, N.C., to the demonstration nine times. As names and ages are read aloud of each person murdered by SOA graduates or those under their command, the crowd chants, "Presente."
"Lifting up the crosses is a very moving experience," she says. "When we lift the crosses and sing, 'Presente,' it means they are here with us."
Cathy Webster organized "1,000 Grandmothers" to march in the Sunday morning processional. Each one wore a white kerchief, symbolizing their solidarity with the mothers and grandmothers in Buenos Aries, who still demonstrate weekly, seeking news of their children and grandchildren who "disappeared" during Argentina's so-called "dirty war" from 1976 to 1983.
"As a grandmother, I feel deep compassion and an urge for protection for the vulnerable, the young, and families," she said.
Bourgeois, who went to Vietnam as a naval officer and returned to become a missionary to Bolivia, feels this solidarity strongly.
"Our movement is continuing to grow because of connections to our sisters and brothers in Latin America," he says. "We are here in solidarity with the movement for justice in Latin America and we are inspired by them."
He adds, "This school is really an obstacle to democracy. It has caused untold suffering and death, and we're connected to that."
Check the numbers
"I'm bothered that the activities of the School of the Americas in Latin America continue," says the Rev. Roger Knight, a former UCC conference minister who traveled by bus to Fort Benning with a group from Tennessee.
"This particular demonstration keeps growing because the school is still here, because the violence that is learned here doesn't cease, and because the administration of our nation keeps making stupid mistakes that strengthen our resolve to change things," he says.
In 1993, a U.N. Truth Commission Report on El Salvador put numbers to what many suspected.
When Roman Catholic Archbishop Oscar Romero was gunned down on March 24, 1980, in El Salvador while serving communion, the man who planned it and two of the three who actually killed him had attended the School of the Americas.
When the four female church workers were raped and murdered in December 1980, three of the five accused were SOA graduates.
When the Salvadoran army butchered more than 900 men, women and children at El Mozote, El Salvador, in December 1981, 10 of the 12 officers responsible came through the SOA.
And when the six Jesuit priests and their housekeeper and her daughter were killed in El Salvador in November 1989 - the event that these annual demonstrations at Fort Benning commemorate - of the 26 Salvadoran soldiers cited for this atrocity, 19 were SOA-trained.
Victory is in sight
Students, many bused in from Catholic schools, comprised a large percentage of the demonstrators.
"These students are being mobilized and it gives them a cause beyond themselves," says Knight. "They're learning to make the connections between this demonstration and other peace and justice efforts."
"Look," says Bourgeois, "when we gather, we gather in the name of peace, and we're young and old, and there's a lot of college students, a lot of seniors, military veterans, and parents with their children. This is where we find hope. This is where we meet kindred spirits. This is where we find this joy that we're all looking for."
Addressing the rally later, Bourgeois opined that this might be the last rally needed to close down the school. Congressman Jim McGovern (D-Mass.) agrees. In 2006, he sponsored the amendment to deny funding to the school.
"Now is the time for us to close the School of the Americas," he says. "I will reintroduce the bill to do that early in 2007, and I am hopeful - more hopeful than I've been in a long time - that a new majority in Congress will result in a new policy."
The Rev. W. Evan Golder is editor emeritus of United Church News.
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