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Lessons in Democracy for
US Military 'School'

by Monica Gfoeller

Human rights activists are outraged by reports which consistently find atrocities linked to graduates of the School of the Americas. Rep. Joseph Kennedy II (D-MA) circulated a letter to other members of Congress citing a report from human rights group School of Americas Watch: "At least 13 SOA graduates who are now top military officials have played a key role in the conflict in the southern Mexican states." Recently, a lieutenant colonel in the Mexican Army who graduated SOA in 1981 helped head an operation in Jalisco state which killed one man and injured many more.

A Prism volunteer talked with some of the many people who came from around the country to demonstrate in favor of closing the "School of the Americas," notorious for training many of Latin America's worst human rights violators.

Protestors An estimated 2200 people assembled at the gate of Ft. Benning in Columbus, Georgia, on the climactic final day of activities aimed at closing the School of the Americas (SOA). Protesters and observers alike stood behind the barricades which flanked both sides of the entry way to Fort Benning, while several hundred of their number crossed over the military reservation's boundary line and into the realm of Ghandian civil disobedience.

Most crowd members came to protest the existence, funding and operation of SOA, and to remember victims of human rights abuses attributed to some of the school's graduates. Protesters came from as far away as Minnesota, Wisconsin, Ohio and California. The Triangle was well represented by individuals and organizations such as Carolina Taskforce on Central America (CITCA).

Some of the signs fluttering next to protest banners were for the School of the Americas Support Group, a local organization dedicated to continued operation of the SOA.

However, all faces were upturned in the bright sunshine to the speaker podium in the boulevard's park, and all listeners paid rapt attention as speaker after speaker condemned the SOA and its progeny. Prayers of remembrances alternated with songs. Bread was blessed, broken and shared.

The US Supreme Court has ruled that a military installation does not constitute a public forum for assembly. That ruling, however, did not stop over 600 protesters from crossing the boundary line separating Fort Benning from Columbus at 1:25PM. They carried coffins in memory of persons tortured and murdered in Central America. Their destination: the SOA itself, approximately three miles inside the gate.>

While the gate crowd waited in anticipation, the marchers advanced to a line of law enforcement, where they were arrested. Boarded onto buses, the marchers were driven to the military police station on post. They were patted down and temporarily deprived of such items as pens and pins. Once Criminal Trespass ejection letters were issued (good through 11/15/98) the marchers were boarded back onto buses and driven to the Victory Lanes bowling alley parking lot offpost, where they, and their pens and pins, were summarily deposited.

Not everyone in the crowd was a SOA protester or supporter. Some folks were here just to learn. Take me for instance, who was out mingling. Despite editing and occasionally writing for the Prism, I know only a few points about the SOA controversy. Now I had my chance to learn a little more.

I embarked with disposable camera in hand to listen to speeches and talk to people. I photographed folks from Cincinnati. I chatted with Veterans for Peace and SOA Support Group members alike. The Minnesotans were seated in the park on the ground. They obligingly draped themselves in their banner for my camera. Did they really drive 26 hours to get there? I asked. Well, one woman replied, it was really only 22. Oh, gracious, I chuckled, we don't want to overstate the case here!

Jay Stackhouse was one of the marchers. He was happy to donate his ejection letter to this piece after he disembarked from the bus. He hails from the Anathoth Catholic Worker community farm in Luck, WI. He was a first-timer, so no court date for him. But, he informed me, those who had been barred from Fort Benning previously had November 19 court dates. Jay thought that the MPs were slow to process the marchers. I begged to differ. The crowd was laying bets for a release sometime after midnight, and I was talking to Jay at 6:15PM; the MPs got an A for efficiency in my book.

Earlier outside the gate, I took a group photo of Triangle-ites Bob Phares, Van Whitmore, R. Dean and Debbie Billings. Bob's wife Gail is with CITCA, and she was one of about 50 other North Carolina marchers, according to Bob. I took pictures of many people holding small crosses emblazoned with names and places. I asked Bob about the one he held. "Arlen Javier, 1 year old, Nicaragua" was written on it. "Do you know anything about her? I asked. Bob had no information about her save the inscription. "Sometimes," Bob reflected, "they (the crosses' subjects) are more meaningful if they're people you did not know of personally."

What do you students have to say about all of this? I asked the former SOA instructor who gave me a SOA Support Group pamphlet. I waved my hand over the scene, with its faux-coffins, protest T-shirts, street theater performers, placards and crosses, banners, pamphleteers and cameras. His gaze followed the trail of coffins. He chuckled, and told me that a lot of his students would ask him why the government would let them protest in the first place, because it'd never happen back home.

Maybe, supporters and opponents of SOA could reach some common ground. If the purpose of SOA is indeed to expose its students to democracy in action, then the protest scene I'd witnessed was an outstanding example. Perhaps both sides could agree to keep the school open if its curriculum required student attendance at the annual protest. Then the students could perhaps be affected as I was. The protesters' determined remembrance of the victims of torture and murder moved me greatly.

  Monica Gfoeller is an attorney and major in the US Army Reserve who lives in Fayetteville, NC.  

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