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Tactics shift as protest swells

Special to the National Catholic Reporter
Columbus, Ga.

Lil Corrigan was back in Columbus, Ga., this year, older and wiser at 75, clutching a light blue stole over her small shoulders to give her the courage she had prayed for last year when she watched 600 other protesters get arrested for marching into Fort Benning to denounce the School of the Americas.

This year, Corrigan -- and 2,319 of the total 7,000 protesters -- were ready to cross the line and be arrested in defiance of a federal law banning partisan political speech on a military installation.

The movement to close the School of the Americas began in 1990 with a 35-day fast by 10 protesters. It lingered on over subsequent years as barely publicized acts of nonviolent resistance by a determined but small group of opponents. In recent years it has become a rapidly growing, broad coalition of peace and justice advocates committed to returning each year in ever greater numbers until the School of the Americas is closed.

While the SOA protest has grown, so has the battle for media spin and tactical high ground between SOA Watch organizers and the Army. In the flurry of maneuvers leading up to the protest vigil, Gen. Glenn Weidner, commander of the school, first accepted an invitation from students at nearby Columbus State University to debate SOA Watch founder Maryknoll Fr. Roy Bourgeois Nov. 10. Weidner withdrew on the eve of the highly publicized confrontation, rescheduling his own appearance at an Army-sponsored event set for Saturday, Nov. 21, at the same time as the SOA Watch vigil. Bourgeois rejected the last-minute change as lacking ordinary Southern courtesy. Local media called the Army’s move a transparent ploy.

And when Army buses arrived to take protesters to the rescheduled debate, Bourgeois had a surprise of his own, offering, unsuccessfully, to send several symbolic coffins to represent the vigil.

There would be more surprises. The stole Lil Corrigan wore this year bore the name of Mary Trotochaud, a 48-year-old activist from Atlanta, now serving a 14-month sentence in federal prison for trespass at Fort Benning during previous protests.

But the outcome would be different for those who committed civil disobedience this year. Corrigan trespassed onto the military base Sunday morning with 2,319 others but was then set free. In the face of such overwhelming numbers, the Army decided not to charge any of the violators, including some 70 who had anguished over expected prison terms for entering the fort a second time. The tactic was not without some success in throwing the carefully prepared protesters off balance into what one described as a state of both “relief and puzzlement.”

Bourgeois, who has gone to prison seven times for opposing U.S. policy in Latin America, quickly sought to refocus the protest after the march and asked those who felt some letdown to accept the feeling of powerlessness as part of their solidarity with those in Latin America who suffer routinely under authority applied in arbitrary and unpredictable ways.

Back next year

“If the school is still open, we want you to come back next year and bring a friend,” Bourgeois said. “We are going to keep coming back as long as it takes.”

The SOA, dubbed the School of Assassins throughout Latin America, is a U.S.-funded Army facility where soldiers from 22 Latin American countries receive combat training. The Army says the school, founded in 1946 in Panama and moved to Fort Benning in 1984, is a necessary extension of U.S. policy in Latin America, first to fight communism and now to fight drugs.

Opponents of the school say that among the 60,000 graduates of the school over its 50-year existence are some 600 soldiers who can be directly tied to some of the worst human rights atrocities in the region. SOA graduates include 10 Latin American dictators and other high-ranking officers responsible for rape, torture, murder and drug-trafficking. Many of these committed crimes after leaving the school. Some known abusers have been invited to the school as speakers and special guests or are honored in its Hall of Fame, a gallery of portraits inside the facility. At least three officers who served on the SOA faculty have been cited for human rights abuses in Latin America.

The annual protest at Fort Benning recalls the Nov. 16, 1989, murders of six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper and her daughter at the Jesuit University in San Salvador. According to a U.N. Truth Commission report, 19 of the 26 soldiers implicated in the assault were SOA graduates, including the senior officer who planned the murders.

SOA graduates have been linked to the 1980 rape and murder of four American church women, the 1980 assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero, the massacre of over 900 people in the village of El Mozote, El Salvador, and the genocidal war waged in Guatemala against indigenous peoples that claimed 200,000 lives.

A symbolic funeral procession into the fort carries symbolic coffins and small white crosses bearing the names of thousands of victims of violence in Latin America.

SOA Watch now maintains a permanent vigil at the main gate of Fort Benning. Bourgeois, a Vietnam veteran who spent five years as a missionary in Bolivia, has lived in a small apartment near the gate since 1990.

This year’s three-day vigil included speakers from several Latin American countries, who had themselves been victims of or lost relatives at the hands of SOA graduates. Throughout the weekend, musicians and speakers offered words of encouragement to those considering taking part in Sunday’s march. Training sessions were held for protesters who planned to join the procession.

For the first time the demonstration drew busloads of high school students. They added to the college-age and young adults whose growing presence has replenished both numbers and hope for the graying ranks of nuns, priests, ministers and full-time activists who have carried the SOA cause from the beginning. Ball caps and colored hair, fresh faces -- some pierced -- showed that reinforcements had arrived. Jesuit activist Fr. John Dear looked out at the crowd and said: “People ask what happened to the old peace movement. It’s here.”

Another veteran protester said, “Thank God. The median age of this movement just dropped about 20 years.”

For all the careful planning, this year’s vigil had moments many saw as signs of higher support. During a blessing ceremony at the end of Saturday’s events, singers and drummers from a South Dakota delegation of Lakota Sioux summoned their ancestors from the four winds, and speakers tied the fate of indigenous peoples in Central America to the suffering of the Native Americans in the United States. One of the leaders told the crowd: “We are here to join hands with you. We will close the School of the Americas. There is no doubt about it.” As he finished his remarks, a huge formation of birds flew over the crowd.

Sheen fulfills promise

Actor and longtime peace activist Martin Sheen, fulfilling a personal promise to Bourgeois, arrived in Columbus on Sunday to lead the procession. “I am here first to save my own soul,” he told a group of reporters before mounting the platform to address the crowd.

“Basic human rights are not given by a gracious state but flow abundantly from a loving creator,” Sheen told the gathering. “Solidarity with the poor and with victims of injustice is what makes us human.”

Sheen told NCR that he had been personally contacted by the base commander and asked not to take part in the protest. The commander offered him, instead, a tour of the school. Sheen said he would gladly accept the offer if the commander would accompany him to El Salvador to witness what he has witnessed there.

As the time for the procession approached, Bourgeois told the crowd that this was a sacred moment, made meaningful by their solidarity with the victims of SOA violence.

“We are here to honor our brothers and sisters in Latin America who have been made to suffer at the hands of graduates of this school, to speak for those whose voices have been taken away, who have been silenced.”

Some 20 protesters who had only recently been released from prison, offered a short commissioning ritual for this year’s procession, led by Sheen and Sr. Jackie Doepker, a Franciscan from Tiffin, Ohio, about to make her second trespass.

As the procession moved deeper onto the base, 26 buses, their engines running, lined both sides of the road about a half mile inside the fort’s main entrance. As the front of the procession met a dozen armed Department of Defense Police Officers and a swarm of reporters, Sheen said, “Good morning, ladies and gentlemen,” and extended his hand to a startled officer, who offered his own hand in a latex glove and shook Sheen’s.

As the arrest process began, row after row of marchers advanced peacefully to be put on the buses. Outnumbering police and Army personnel 100-to-one, the protesters effectively policed themselves during the three-hour arrest process.

Prepared for only 1,000 violators, buses made two trips each to carry the mile-long procession first through the base and then, in a surprise move, off the base again to a city park about a mile from the main gate.

As it became clear that no one was being detained, the marchers waited quietly to be carried off the base.

“This is chaos,” said one soldier, who asked not to be identified. Another soldier seemed stunned by the news that after the long standoff, no one was going to be charged for violating the no trespass rule.

Fort Benning officials proclaimed victory. Public Affairs Officer Monica Manganaro said that Maj. Gen. Carl Ernst had made the decision that morning not to process anyone after assessing the size of the protest.

A ‘lucky day’

“The commander has broad prerogatives to enforce the exclusion rule in varying degrees. He chose this course of action in a spirit of good will and cooperation with the protesters,” Manganaro told NCR in a phone interview.

“A lot of people had a lucky day,” Manganaro said. “And just because this year’s protesters were not processed does not mean that the ban order is no longer in force.”

In 1997, 28 repeat offenders had a very unlucky day, receiving maximum prison sentences of up to 18 months and $3,000 fines for taking part in a similar procession.

SOA Watch organizers were just as quick to declare victory. The crowd roared approval when the news reached them at the main entrance, where scores of Columbus police had been called up to insure public order and safety. Bourgeois led the cheers, then acknowledged the feeling of relief mixed with incompleteness at the Army’s shift in tactics. “We need to take some time to look at strategy,” he said.

Carol Richardson, co-organizer, urged the crowd to shift their sights to rallies and protests in Washington in May of 1999 where the campaign to win enough votes to close the school is the clear focus of the eight-year effort. This year’s vote to cut off SOA funding fell short 212-201 in September.

As the marchers made their way full circle from the park back to the main entrance, Sheen asked a 10-year-old marcher to join him on the stage. Bernadette O’Neill of Raleigh, North Carolina, said she had marched with her father to protest the killing of children in Latin America.

“In all my years as an activist,” Sheen said, “this is the first time I have ever been incarcerated with a child.”

Doepker then joined Sheen and O’Neill and told the crowd: “We came to speak the truth and we spoke it. We came to be in solidarity with our brothers and sisters in Latin America and we were. We came to show that nonviolence works, and we did it with over 7,000 people.”

Returning marches described the welcome they had received as they passed through a predominantly African-American neighborhood on their mile-long walk back from the park to the main gate. “People came out of their houses to applaud and to sing songs with us,” one said.

Another veteran activist in the crowd told NCR she had seen something remarkable happen at this year’s protest.

“We witnessed a real disarmament here today. The Army had a weapon, the power to arrest and prosecute, and they chose to put that weapon down,” she said.

National Catholic Reporter, December 11, 1998