Written by J. Bennett Guess
UCC members protest the School of the Americas ? Clockwise, from left: UCC members from Duluth, Minn.; Oscar Varnadoe of Trinity UCC, Chicago; Bryan Rivera of Buenas Nuevas UCC in Cleveland; Ron Steif, director of the UCC's Justice and Witness Washington office and UCC seminarian Holly Miller; and Teresa Lever and Helen Jean Reindel from Bethany UCC in Montpelier, Vt. Sandra Sorensen photos.
At least 100 UCC members participated in the annual protest weekend, Nov. 17-18, calling for the permanent closure of the School of the Americas at Ft. Benning near Columbus, Ga.
When Atlanta's Hartsfield Airport closed and left many would-be protesters stranded in other cities, Oscar Varnadoe would not be deterred. Varnadoe, a member of Trinity UCC in Chicago and a regional organizer with the UCC's Justice and Peace Action Network, flew to Birmingham, Ala., and then rented a car for the four-hour drive to the protest.
"The spirit was saying, "Oscar, you need to be there!'" he said.
The Rev. John Pegg, a UCC minister who works as a regional coordinator for Witness for Peace, drove a van load of UCC members from Deluth, Minn. Pam Bridgeman, a member of Zion UCC in Henderson, Ky., joined the protest by taking a brief detour while en route to visit her son in Florida for Thanksgiving.
Helen Jean Reindel was determined not to let illness stop her from attending. Despite a viral infection, she and Theresa Lever, both members of Bethany UCC in Montpelier, Vt., traveled to their first-ever SOA Watch vigil.
Between 7,000 and 10,000 persons participated in the gathering, organized by SOA Watch, according to estimates by local police and protest organizers. Protesters want the school closed because they contend that its graduates are linked to widespread acts of brutality and murder throughout Latin America.
The city of Columbus had sought an injunction forbidding protesters from taking part in the protest this year, but Federal Magistrate G. Mallon Faircloth denied the request, saying that even war cannot remove safeguards for civil liberties. "It was a question of First Amendment rights, and you can't play with that. I am sworn to uphold the U.S. Constitution. I think I did that today," said Faircloth.
"It was an incredible experience. The UCC group had worship together right before the protest on Sunday, and we blessed the crosses that we would be carrying," said Bryan Rivera, 18, a member of Buenas Nuevas UCC in Cleveland.
Each protester carried a white wooden cross bearing the name of a person murdered by SOA graduates. As the names of the victims were read over a loud speaker, the crowd raised their crosses and shouted, "Presente!" "We covered the fence with our crosses and decorations. It was very touching," Rivera said, adding that he is committed to educating members of his congregation about the School of the Americas.
Varnadoe said he hopes legislative redress will be the ultimate outcome of the protests.
"We hope some pressure will be put on Congress to finally close down the SOA for good. It's an atrocity. It's wrong for our society," he said. "But it's a good thing that as a religious group, we can step up, be on the cutting edge, and speak the truth."
Because of public outcry against the School of the Americas, Congress symbolically closed the school last year. However, it was simultaneously re-opened under a new name, the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation. "Different name, same shame" was one of the refrains chanted by the protesters.
Since 1946, the School of the Americas has trained tens of thousands of Latin American soldiers in counter-insurgency tactics. Human rights organizations have linked hundreds of SOA graduates to widespread terrorism, including civilian-targeted torture, disappearances and killing.
During this year's protests, SOA Watch said that 80 protesters were arrested by military police for participating in a solemn funeral procession to commemorate the anniversary of the 1989 massacre of six Jesuit priests in El Salvador by SOA graduates. Thirty persons were arrested by the Columbus, Ga., police for sitting in a circle at the main entrance to the base.
The UCC's General Synod passed a resolution in 1997 calling for the School of the Americas to be closed.
For more information, visit School of the Americas Watch at www.soaw.org.
The Rev. J. Bennett Guess is minister for communication and mission education for the UCC's Justice and Witness Ministries.