Fort Benning, Ga. – Following the 1989 murders of six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper and her 16-year-old daughter in El Salvador by soldiers trained at the School of the Americas, a yearly protest has been held at the gates of Fort Benning, Ga.
Over the decades of its existence, thousands of Central and South American military forces have graduated from this U.S.-taxpayer-funded institute. Some of the SOA graduates have led coups against democratically elected governments in their home countries, engaged in torture, disappearances and massacres of Indigenous peoples, trade unionists and other civilians, and been responsible for other civil and human rights violations against students, women, and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender groups. The violence perpetrated by these SOA graduates has supported the control of oligarchical and undemocratic governments as well as the hold of multinational corporations, many from the U.S., on the natural resources of the continent, and ensured the deep poverty of millions of peasants and workers.
For the 23rd year, SOAWatch, the organization founded by Fr. Roy Bourgeois, successfully mobilized thousands of people from across the U.S. to stand at the gates of Fort Benning and through speeches, song, street theater and civil disobedience, demand its closing.
College students and youth make up a growing number of the demonstrators, along with trade unionists and community activists. Faith-based groups have always had a strong presence at SOA, particularly Catholic nuns who return year after year. The participation of survivors of torture, massacres and repression by SOA-trained soldiers intensifies the experience of the Saturday rally and the solemn procession on Sunday. For hours, while the names of the dead are read from the stage, the thousands attending respond “¡Presente!” and raise their hands high.
Beginning after 9/11 in 2001, the base erects a triple barbed-wire fence at the entry to prevent “crossing over the line” by protesters. This element of civil disobedience has been a hallmark feature of the annual protest. Since 1990, dozens of people have been charged with trespassing on military property and sentenced to six months in federal prisons. The fence, while an obstacle to the CD action, is turned into a monument to the martyrs of SOA violence, with thousands of crosses with the names of the dead, their pictures, flowers and signs affixed to the barricade .
Each year, fewer Latin American countries send their military to the school; only those most firmly in the grip of U.S. imperialism, such as Colombia and Honduras after the coup, continue to get such training. With each demonstration, the public pressure mounts by SOAWatch to get U.S. congressional support for cutting funding. A new effort is underway to force an executive order by President Barack Obama.
While the emphasis of SOAWatch is U.S. policy towards Central and South America, the program at the rally and workshops shows a breadth of opposition to U.S. militarism globally as well as attention to domestic issues of racism, workers’ rights and cutbacks. For more information, go to SOAWatch.org.