From Nov. 21 through Nov. 24, 20 Swarthmore and Haverford students attended the annual protest of the School of the Americas at Ft. Benning in Columbus, Ga., the site of the SOA. The trip was organized by Students for a Democratic Society, but was open to all students.
According to the SOA Watch Web site (www.soaw.org), The School of the Americas is a combat training school for Latin American soldiers. The site states that the school has trained over 60,000 Latin American soldiers, and says, These graduates have consistently used their skills to wage war against their own people. The Web site further says, Hundreds of documented human rights violations are connected to soldiers trained at the Fort Benning-based school.
The first protest of the SOA was organized in 1989 after SOA graduates murdered six priests, their housekeeper and her daughter in El Salvador, according to SOA Watch. Swarthmore students have attended the SOA protest for approximately nine years. In total, an estimated 20,000 people attended the protest this year.
SDS member Dermot Delude-Dix 09 explained the relevance of the SOA problem to the lives of Americans from both continents. He said, The issue of the School of the Americas is a transnational problem. All the different countries of this continent are implicated in it The protest allows for solidarity with the people affected and puts pressure on our own government to stop funding it.
This solidarity was expressed by Majandra Rodriguez 12 of Peru. She said, Personally, what I really appreciated was being able to meet activists from the U.S who dedicate their lives to working with issues in South America, and to know that there are Americans who have the same criticisms as people back home had about the U.S governments foreign policies. Its good to hear that from people who actually have the power to influence the U.S government.
During the protest, the main event is the funeral procession for those killed by SOA graduates. Maurice Weeks 09, another SDS member, said, Everyone lines up, and theres a ceremonial funeral procession with everyone holding white crosses. At the end, the crosses are laid on the fence of Ft. Benning.
SDS member Daniel Symonds 11 said, During the funeral procession, everyone chants the names of those who died. For those two hours, the only thing that is said are the names of the victims.
Weeks explained the emotional effect of the protest. He said, The funeral procession is very emotional and not like any protest Ive been to before. Its somber and slow-moving.
People across the Americas mourned with the protesters. According to the SOA Watch Web site, There were simultaneous, peaceful protests in Ecuador, Peru, El Salvador, Paraguay, Colombia, Bolivia, Chile and Fort Huachuca, Arizona.
The funeral is one of many events. SDS member Lauren Ramanathan 11 described a puppet show that was put on during the protest. There was a giant puppet that symbolized hegemony and empire, and there were smaller puppets that symbolically defeated it. It was a sign of resistance, but also fun and conclusive. It was a good contrast to the funeral procession, she said. Ramanathan explained that the small puppets represented such small groups as womens enfranchisement or workers and workers rights.
The protest grounds were just outside the gate of Ft. Benning, where the school is located. The setting of the protest included a stage where various speakers, including victims and their families, shared their experiences. Ten minutes away from the site was a convention center, where two days of programs and workshops were held.
Going to these conventions allowed groups that are not necessarily related to the School of the Amerias to gather. Symonds, who attended a Veterans for Peace workshop, said the protest provides a space for groups to talk not only about the SOA, but also about any other issues of common interest. The result of this was a summit of many groups. Symonds said in an e-mail about the workshop that he attended, It was more of a meeting of the (mostly Vietnam) Veterans for Peace organization, which many members of the Iraq Veterans Against The War group attended.
SDS members expressed the hope that they will not need to attend the protest next year; instead, they hope that the school will close down. If not, SDS members anticipate participating in the protest until the SOA no longer exists.