This weekend, the organization Swarthmore College Students for a Democratic Society has scheduled a trip to Georgia to participate in an annual protest against the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, formerly named and still largely known as the School of the Americas.
In preparation, participating students attended a workshop in non-violent response to conflicts headed by Bryan Kelly, a representative of Training for Change. The goal of the workshop was to establish a framework for determining what constitutes a violent act and then to provide strategies for avoiding or deescalating violent situations if they occur.
One activity involved having participants stand on different sides of the room according to whether they agree with a given statement or not. In this case, they were asked to give their opinion on whether the acts of eating meat, self-immolation, property destruction and yelling at a police officer constitute violence. Katie Schaffer 12 said, [Bryan Kelly] wanted to leave room for subtleties of opinion, so participants also broke into small groups to discuss how they conceived of the meaning of the term non-violence and of various issues in the violence versus non-violence dichotomy.
Following that, the group enacted various, potentially violent situations from the perspective of both the protesters and their respondents. These situations ranged from a confrontation with a resident who did not want a protester standing on his lawn to confronting a police officer who misinterpreted a non-violent act as violent, a scenario Schaffer described as useful, but less realistic for us to encounter.
This training and discussion will be put into practice this weekend at Fort Benning, Georgia, home of School of the Americas. The school is a government-run training ground for Latin American soldiers and policemen that has gained notoriety for training soldiers who served such oppressive leaders as Panamas Manuel Noriega and Bolivias Hugo Banzer. Originally founded in 1946, the organization sought to protect American investments in Central America. Now, according to Professor Aurora Camacho de Schmidt, it serves as an expedient means for the U.S. to exercise control over the South American continent. It was cast under the anti-Communist Cold War mentality, and still plays to a myth of hemispheric security.
However, according to Camacho de Schmidt, the organization does not actually protect South American countries populations; it oppresses them. Unlike in the U.S., in Latin America, the enemy has always come from the inside. These [students] are being trained in the art of counter insurgency and oppression, Camacho de Schmidt said.
The protestors seek the abolition of this institution. Schaffer said, I take very black-and-white moral stance on the issue. There is nothing beneficial about a place whose goal is to give America a level of control over South America. Its completely immoral.
Historically, this protest has made an impact. Several years ago, an amendment seeking the abolition of the School of the Americas was proposed in Congress. It was shot down by nearly a two-thirds majority. Recently, after years of protest that exerted pressure on politicians to pass the bill, the proposal was defeated by a mere six votes.
In 2001 the school changed its name from the School of the Americas to the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security and Cooperation, a move, according to Professor Benjamin Berger, that was probably influenced by the negative publicity and increasing scrutiny that the protest movement focused on the SOA. It was really just a cosmetic change, but clearly indicates a response to pressure for change.
Attendance at this particular rally is paramount because as Schaffer said, it could be the year that the bill passes, both due to the close margin of the previous vote and to the election of Barack Obama and a Democratic Congress. Hopefully, Camacho de Schmidt said, this inundation of new politicians will usher in new era for relations between Latin America and the United States, one built on respect for human rights, a commitment to peace, and an abandonment of old modes of thinking that have proven horribly destructive.
The movement has the added effect of raising awareness of Latin American issues. This movement, Camacho de Schmidt said, has a way of establishing solidarity between the young people of the United States and struggles of Latin America, especially insofar as it helps recover the memory [of such struggles].