Shut Them Down

By Odile Hugonot Haber

Middle East Issue Committee

Wikipedia tells us that The School of the Americas Watch is an advocacy organization founded by Maryknoll Father Roy Bourgeois and a small group of supporters in 1990 to protest the training of mainly Latin American military officers, by the U.S. Department of Defense, at the School of the Americas (SOA). SOA Watch conducts a vigil each November at the site of the academy, located on the grounds of Fort Benning, a U.S. Army military base near Columbus, Georgia, in protest over myriad alleged abuses committed by graduates of the academy, including murders, rapes, torture and contraventions of the Geneva Accord. Military officials deny the charges, stating that even if graduates commit war crimes after they return to their home country, the school itself should not be held accountable for their actions.

Responding to mounting protests spearheaded by SOA Watch, in 2000 the U.S Congress renamed the School of the Americas the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (WHINSEC), rather than closing the academy.

For this year’s protest, some of us traveled from Ann Arbor, Michigan by bus, plane or cars to attend the demonstration. We came from all parts of the U.S. If we believe in changing U.S. foreign policy, this is probably the biggest protest that exists in the U.S. This year’s protest marked the 20th anniversary of the murder of six Jesuit priests in El Salvador by the U.S.-backed Salvadoran military. It came days after the priests were posthumously bestowed El Salvador’s highest civilian award, marking the first time the Salvadoran government has honored the priests since their deaths.

This year we were thought to be 17,000 in attendance; last year we learned that 22.000 attended. There were many Catholic schools participating, as well as some religious orders. A lot of young people were there. There were eight members of WILPF known to be there, including Rita Clavert, Carol Marujo, Cynthia Robert Hall, Mary Ann Craig, Sally Baldwin, Ellen Barfield, Odile Hugonot Haber and Alan Haber.

The program began at the Convention Center in Columbus, Georgia. There were many films offered during the three days such as: A call to Action, a documentary by filmmaker Joseph C. Stillman on Iraq veteran Jim Massey; Vietnam: American Holocaust, a film and discussion with filmmaker Clay Claiborne. There were also many workshops, such as Haiti: the SOA Connection, which covered the coup, the occupation and political prisoners; the Gaza March; the Peace Brigade International; Resisting Disappearance in “Peace Time” Guatemala; on Venezuela’s Bolivarian Revolution; Preventing the next SOA: Confronting the Private military companies Black Water, Triple Canopy, and DynCorp in Latin America.

Two American WILPF members living in Costa Rica were presenting a film Beyond Rangoon for WILPF, so the name of WILPF was on the program on Friday afternoon.

On Saturday morning the demonstration started in front of Fort Benning which had been completely closed on that side; there is a long road open that ended in front of the base’s fence. There a big stage was set up by volunteers on Friday. Along the road there were tables from many vendors and participating organizations. There were numerous speeches and songs offered and giant puppets parading.

On Sunday, “The Presente Litany” took place. This is a memorial litany in which the names of people killed in political repression (usually in Central and South America) are recited. It is so well known it too has its own Wikipedia entry: “The tradition of reading names of those killed by politically repressive regimes has a long tradition in Latin America. At the funeral of Pablo Neruda on September 25, 1973 in Chile, Hernán Loyala reports that mourners responded with ‘Presente’ (meaning ‘he/she (the victim) is here’) to the shouting out of Neruda’s name, as well as that of Salvador Allende, the recently deposed (and killed) president. This was the first public act of protest against the 14 day old regime of Augusto Pinochet.”

This reciting lasts for a couple hours while we did a slow march as a funeral procession; it is very sad and moving – many of the killed are children whose names and ages are read. People then hang their memorabilia, such as a white wooden cross or a Star of David, or the picture they had carried with the name of the assassinated person, on the fence of Fort Benning. Finally, the puppets on stilts take over and move the people towards a more rebellious stance. Then the stage is dismantled collectively. On Monday volunteers participated in a giant mailing for SOA Watch.

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