Confronting the School of Assassins

Against the Current, No. 90, January/ February 2001

Peter Olson

MORE THAN 10,000 people assembled at the gates of the Fort Benning military base in Georgia on November 19th as part of an ongoing campaign to shut down the notorious U.S. Army School of the Americas (SOA).

Protestors have gathered at the base annually since a small group of founding activists of School of the Americas Watch staged an action there in 1989—shortly after the brutal killing of six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper, and her daughter by members of the Salvadoran military trained at the SOA. This year, the protest was linked to a joint action in led by 300 members of Las Abejas from Chiapas, Mexico.

Over 57,000 Latin American troops have been trained by U.S. military officers in SOA’s counterinsurgency tactics, psychological operations, sniper fire, and military intelligence.  Graduates of the school are responsible for an almost endless list of atrocities during civil wars and military dictatorships in Central and South America in the 1970s and `80s.

The SOA’s bloody crimes are hardly a thing of the past. Mexico has become one of the SOA’s main clients, as the military and its paramilitary partners have stepped up repression against popular movements in Chiapas and elsewhere.  And Colombia, which was recently granted a $1.3 billion U.S. aid package as part of the “war on drugs,” has sent more troops to train there than any other country.

Two Generations of Activists

This year’s protest brought together veterans of the anti-SOA campaign, including many religious and pacifist activists, with a new generation of activists experienced in Seattle-style direct action.  The organizers acknowledged and embraced this development by incorporating new forms of action into the nonviolent civil disobedience framework they have established over the years.

Traditionally, the centerpiece of the Ft. Benning action has been a solemn funeral procession in which participants risk arrest by “crossing the line” onto the base. This year, around 3400 people marched across the line in a cold rain, responding en masse with a sung “¡Presente!” to the amplified litany of names of those tortured, murdered, and disappeared at the hands of U.S.-backed military violence.

The funeral procession was followed by a “second wave” of about 200 people carrying giant puppets (including a two-headed Bush-Gore monster!), chanting, and beating on plastic bucket drums.  They made their way up a smaller road which was visible on top of a steep hill parallel to the funeral procession, energizing the thousands of marchers below.

At certain moments, the solemn atmosphere gave way to chanting, dancing, fists in the air, and loud cheers of approval.  Some in the crowd yelled “Shame! Shame! Shame!” as the limp bodies of the second wavers were dragged away by military police and loaded into buses.

There was an element of culture clash, as some of the funeral marchers and peacekeepers tried with mixed success to restore calm and quiet, but ultimately the two strands of protest merged in what most people seemed to feel was a welcome synthesis.  As one puppetista wrote, while the funeral procession aimed to respectfully mourn those who had died, participants in the second wave and other small affinity group actions that took place aimed “to act out the triumph of Revolution over the evils of the School of the Americas.”

Some marchers chose to walk back out the entrance of the base, where the thousands who had not crossed the line were waiting.  Many others chose to board military busses, unsure whether they would be arrested.  In past years, buses simply deposited most activists in a park off-base without processing them. But this year the authorities went on the offensive, bussing 2100 protestors to an on-base processing center, where we were detained for up to eight hours.

Many were stuck on buses for hours before being unloaded into tents guarded by uniformed MPs. Spirits in the makeshift camp stayed high into the night, as we were fed MREs (meals-ready-to-eat) and fraternized with the more sympathetic MPs and soldiers.  The detention period also gave activists a chance to trade experiences, talk about our reasons for coming to Georgia and crossing the line, and exchange ideas for building the campaign after returning home.

Eventually, everyone was searched, photographed, fingerprinted, and given a letter stating that we were banned from the base for five years and would risk imprisonment and heavy fines if we returned.  It’s unclear how many of the 2100 who were processed will be prosecuted, although those who had previous “ban and bar” letters on record will undoubtedly be targeted.

New Name, Same Curriculum

In May 2000, Congress approved a measure that will “close” the SOA and re-open it under a different name, the “Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation.” The SOA clone will have no fundamental differences with the old SOA in terms of curriculum or accountability.  It has long been clear that additions of “human rights training” to the school’s curriculum represent a lame and empty attempt to respond to criticism and derail any Congressional attempt to pass substantive legislation.

As SOA Watch leaders Fr. Roy Bourgeois and Carol Richardson put it, “Congress may have been fooled, but the people are not. The SOA has a new name, but the same shame.  We will be at Ft. Benning by the thousands again this November, and we will be in the halls of the new Congress in January.  We will keep coming back until we shut down the “School of Assassins” — whatever they call it.” The next national mobilization against the SOA will take place in Washington, D.C. this March.

Peter Olson is an activist in Pittsburgh and a member of the Youth Caucus of Solidarity.

ATC 90, January-April 2001