Seventeen members of the Williams community will travel to Ft. Benning, Ga., this weekend to protest the existence of the U.S. Army School of the Americas (SOA). Fifteen students, one alumna and Rick Spalding, College chaplain, will join an expected 12,000 to 15,000 people from across the nation in the strictly non-violent protest on Nov. 15 and 16.
The SOA, officially renamed the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (WHISC) in 2001, was created in 1946 in Panama to help mediate U.S. policy in Latin America. In 1984 it moved onto U.S. soil.
Until its reclassification as WHISC, the SOA’s mission centered on training Latin American military officers in “counter-insurgency” techniques to help stabilize the fragile fledgling democracies of the region. Now cadets may include civilians and police officers.
Opponents of the SOA charge that, in reality, many SOA graduates go on to commit human rights abuses against the poor and powerless in Latin America. In addition to teaching cadets techniques of urban warfare and infantry tactics â€“ which could be used to fight revolts â€“ recent declassified documentation shows that cadets are also schooled in torture techniques and espionage.
Rather than target destabilizing uprisings, graduates of the SOA are charged with violating the rights of private citizens, opposing political parties, labor unions, students and charities to keep current regimes in power. Graduates have been conclusively linked to murders and massacres throughout Latin America, training for which occurred at Fort Benning.
“The government says the school is there to teach pro-democracy and to help deal with narcotics trafficking. The reality? It targets the poor and keeps the status quo in place,” Meg Bossong ’05 said.
According to the Defense Department news release in late 2000 announcing the formation of WHISC, “all courses will include a program of human rights instruction.” Still, opponents such as the SOA tout WHISC as a “new name, same shame.”
Protesters have gathered at Fort Benning annually since the early 1990s as part of a two-fold effort to close the school. The protest activities represent a public awareness campaign that is followed up in April with a massive lobby day in Washington, D.C. According to Bossong, every year bills are sponsored to either close the SOA or cut its funding, but none have yet been successful.
Members of the Williams contingent have different reasons for attending. Some, like Bossong, have followed the activities of the SOA for years and attend the annual protests regularly.
Some have personal experience with SOA activity. Heather Foran ’04 was in Guatemala when Bishop Gerardi was stoned to death in a parking garage two days after publicizing a study blaming the army for human rights abuses during a civil war. His assassin received training at the SOA.
“I am traveling to this protest because I feel that it is time for us as a country to take responsibility for the suffering that has been caused by our government’s ridiculous attempts to ensure their own political ideology,” Foran said.
The ultimate goal of protesters is to raise enough support and awareness to force the closing of the SOA.
“[The school] serves no useful purpose,” Bossong said.
While everyone involved with the protest, especially its organizing umbrella, the School of the Americas Watch, preaches total non-violence throughout the weekend, Sunday’s planned “civil disobedience” will likely result in several demonstrators’ arrests.
All activities Friday and Saturday will take place outside of the military base’s precincts, but a small subset of the crowd will choose to cross base lines in a show of civil disobedience in the form of a mock-funeral to honor the victims of SOA murderers.
The names of the dead or “disappeared,” which number in the thousands, will be read aloud as demonstrators march in a “funeral procession complete with crosses, coffins and all,” Bossong said. Such expression of “partisan views on a military base is a Federal offense (punishable by up to six months in prison) and every year 25 to 35 of the most high-profile demonstrators are singled out to go through the judicial process,” she said.
In addition to the vigils and demonstrations, both on and off Ft. Benning, the SOAW is sponsoring workshops and information sessions pertinent to the cause.
Parts of Sunday’s vigil will be conducted during a performance by the Indigo Girls.