Carrie | March 14, 2004
“Presente, Presente” was the chant that cut trough the solemn aura of the crowd of the thousands of people lined up to protest the School of Americas. Among these thousands of people, there were approximately 40 students from the Tri-College Consortium, Swarthmore, Bryn Mawr and Haverford. Some carried drums, but most carried white crosses bearing the names of individuals who were victims of graduates of the SOA.
The Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation or WHISC formerly known as the School of the Americas is a federally funded training camp supposedly teaching “proper” international relations. In truth, students of the school learn techniques for various forms of torture and gorilla warfare. Students learn, for example, the “proper” way to electrocute a man without killing him and the best way to execute a man. Graduates from the school have gone on to torture and murder hundreds, if not thousands, of innocent Latin Americans. They have been connected with the rise of several of the despots that have plagued various South and Latin American countries. Sometimes the graduates even become the despotic rulers.
The school has been protested annually for several years, but has yet to reach its ultimate goal: a complete shutdown of the operation. A few years back, legislators voted to shut down the School of Americas only to later reopen the School as WHISC. Unfortunately, the military has kept its teachings a secret, not even allowing legislators to know what is being taught. As of now there are over 100 legislators that have pledged to vote for a complete shutdown of the school. More on the school and the history of the movement can be found at www.soaw.org.
As these thousands of concerned people gathered in Columbus, Georgia in late November, they were met with increasing opposition. As the protestors attempted to enter the rally they were forced to line up for over a quarter of a mile. Each individual entering the premises was forced to have their belongings and bodies searched as they crossed through metal detectors. Despite the unwillingness to be searched and the voiced opposition to it, protestors were searched and herded through like cattle.
Upon entering the protest, there were booths lined up along the street with lobbyists, interest groups and various campaigns. The atmosphere was almost festival like on Saturday. There were people dancing, talking, laughing, bands playing and speakers speaking. There was even the infamous Puppatistas performing their good conquering evil show. Protestors had an opportunity to join in the show by banging drums, trash can lids, and buckets, while wielding a puppet with food or various resources written on it. There was an overwhelming sense of fraternity as everyone gathered for a common cause. Between the nuns and priests, the anarchists and the average middle-class family, it seemed as if everyone was there.
Unfortunately, the members of the military had set up loudspeakers right outside their gates. Attempting to overpower the speakers and performers on the stage in front of the gates, they blared a 5-song loop over the crowd. Wonderful American classics, such as “God Bless America” and “Proud to be an American” were attempting to cover up the festivities of the protestors. Luckily, the rally went on as planned ignoring the military’s attempt to interfere with the protest, and the military had the decency to stop playing the music on Sunday, the day of remembrance.
Sunday the festivities had quieted and the mood had become reflective. The thousands of people lined up about ten across and began to march on the gates. Many were bearing the white crosses carrying the names of the not-forgotten. On the stage, presenters called out one-by-one the known victims of graduates of the School of the Americas. From 60-year old grandfathers to 6-year old sons, the crowd remembered the pain and untimely deaths they had suffered by raising their fists and crosses into the air and chanting “presente.”
This unity in remembrance by so many people was one of the most amazing sights I have ever seen or experienced. So many different people, with different goals, lifestyles and backgrounds recognized an undeniable evil and attempted to display their concern together as one voice. It amazes me how the human spirit prevails. In spite of numerous attempts to be quieted, people still spoke out. From singing about rising up while being searched to continuing the rally over the military’s poor song choice to lining up and marching up to place crosses in remembrance of the dead on the gates to actually climbing the gates to be arrested and sent to prison for 18 months, everyone was together for a common goal. Each recognized that some could not participate in the same way and supported each others form of protest.
This year over 29 people crossed the gates to eminent arrest and were charged for trespassing on federal property. Most will serve months in federal prison for their actions and many are still serving today for past actions. In all 45 individuals were arrested for civil disobedience, refusal to submit to a police search, and accidentally driving into Fort Benning. Support for these individuals and for the movement in general can be given through the National SOA-Watch at www.soaw.org. The protest will happen next November and the next until the government hears our concerns and closes the School. Each year more and more people join the cause and visit Fort Benning to voice their concern.