November's 'School of the Americas' protest attracts 16,000
As planned, Dennis Apuan didn't get arrested at the annual demonstration protesting the U.S. Army's School of the Americans (SOA) at Fort Benning, held Nov. 20-21, 2004, in Columbus, Ga.
But just in case, Apuan, 39, a grassroots organizer with the Pikes Peak Justice and Peace Commission in Colorado Springs, Colo., wrote the legal hotline phone number on his arm with a felt pen. This was the sixth time Apuan (pronounced ap-wahn) had trekked east to join the protest.
Although the school's name changed in 2001 to the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, leaders of SOA Watch allege that the same kind of counter-insurgency techniques and human rights violations continue to be taught at the school. They—and the thousands who gather at the gate of Fort Benning every mid-November—want the school closed completely.
Investigations have shown that the track record of SOA graduates includes:
Two of the three officers responsible for assassinating Archbishop Oscar Romero in El Salvador in 1980 while he was saying mass;
Three of the five officers responsible for raping and murdering the four U.S. churchwoman in El Salvador that same year;
Nineteen of the 26 soldiers responsible for murdering the Jesuit priests, their co-worker and her daughter in El Salvador in 1989;
The man who assassinated Bishop Juan Jose Gerardi in Guatemala in 1989; and
The man arrested for murdering Bishop Isaias Duarte in Colombia in 2002.
In 2001, Apuan—a member of First Congregational UCC in Colorado Springs, Colo.—was one of 100 persons, including 18 UCC and three Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) members, who traveled to Colombia. They went to investigate for themselves the human right violations, the effect of the $1.3 billion in U.S. military aid and the refugee situation as a result of that country's ongoing internal conflict.
Since that visit, advocating for justice for Latin-American people has been "on a personal level" for him.
"I've seen first hand the struggles of the Colombians," he says, "and I've interviewed various Colombian military officers who had their training at the SOA."
Largest protest ever
November's protest, the 15th annual gathering, drew a record 16,000 persons. A Maryknoll priest, the Rev. Roy Bourgeois, began the protest with a handful of others in 1990 to commemorate the first anniversary of the murder of the Jesuit priests. Five years ago, the numbers reached 10,000.
Among this year's participants in the SOA protest were close to 100 UCC members, according to Sandy Sorensen of the UCC's Justice and Witness Ministries, which coordinated the UCC effort. The Rev. Graylan Haglan of Plymouth UCC in Washington, D.C., delivered a fiery speech on Saturday afternoon. "The blest of us must help the rest of us, until the rest of us become the blest of us," he said.
Other UCC participants included a father and daughter, the Rev. Gene Krueger of First Congregational UCC in Redgranite, Wis., and Leah Krueger of First Congregational UCC in Oskosh, Wis., who maintained an attitude of prayer in a tableau during the four hour procession. The Rev. Rendell A. Davis of Tucson, Ariz., and Pam Bridgeman of Zion UCC in Henderson, Ky., helped carry the UCC banner.
Other UCC members had traveled from California, Illinois, Montana, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Vermont and Washington state.
About 50 UCC members gathered on Saturday evening for dinner and worship, highlighted by two women who had fled from Colombia and who told stories of atrocities their friends had suffered. The two are being hosted by a UCC congregation, not named in this article because of death threats to the pair.
Despite the record numbers participating, only 15 persons were arrested. The Army made it more difficult this time, including erecting two chain-link fences at the gate to the base.
Although Dennis Apuan was not arrested in 2004, he had "crossed the line" in years past, thus risking arrest by military police.
The Rev. W. Evan Golder is editor emeritus of United Church News.