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Close the School of the Americas

A Journal of the November 2000 Actions

by B. T.

November 17th

We arrive in Columbus, Georgia late Friday night for the weekend actions at Fort Benning, home of the US Army's infamous School of the Americas (SOA). I am traveling with a small affinity group that is part of a larger cluster from western North Carolina. We have come to take a stand with thousands of others against the School of the Assassins — training ground for Latin American military personnel and symbol of US imperialism and intervention around the globe.

I and others in my group have been here before, but much has happened in the past year: Seattle, Philadelphia, Prague. Our perspective is different this time. A year of concerted action against the WTO/IMF/World Bank has changed our tactics, our expectations, our energy. It has broadened the scope of the protest here at Fort Benning. It has made the police and the military more afraid of our power. This highly visible resistance has energized, strengthened, and broadened our movements. It has enabled us to be all the more clear about our purpose here: to demand that the SOA and all US military training programs for "counterinsurgency" around the globe be shut down, and to call for a dismantling of the economic system and power structure that these institutions protect and enforce.

As we approach the base, visual markers of this system are all around us. We drive in through a long corridor of strip malls and superstores. Here are sold goods manufactured in Latin American sweatshops, the trademark of the unjust economic system guarded by US military might and the SOA. Closer to the base, the road is lined with "adult one-on-one therapy" shops, strip bars, and other sex shops with cartoonish images of women adorning their signs. Here are the icons of sexism and patriarchy, hulking frat brothers of militarism and violence.

As we run this commercial gauntlet, it begins to seem that the area surrounding Fort Benning is almost the embodiment of the system that the School of the Americas promotes. Even the name of the town, Columbus, evokes the essence of imperialism. The explorer's name carries a symbolic weight: the heavy burden of the violent conquest of indigenous peoples, the centuries of greed and oppression that followed, the genocide of so many peoples that continues to this day at the hands of graduates of the SOA and other US military training programs.

November 18th

We are up early and arrive at a parking lot near the base just in time to join in a massive puppet procession and pageant. Our group has brought several papier-maché accomplices. There's "Big Kahuna" the corporate giant, whose debut was at the Winston Salem presidential debates — a scowling, balding baddie with dollar signs in his eyes. We've updated his outfit, replacing the logos of corporations sponsoring the presidential debates with those of Gap, Dole, and Wal-Mart, some of the many corporations that have profited from military repression in Latin America. Walking behind Big Kahuna is the US Citizen puppet, blindfolded, hands covered with red paint and fake twenty-dollar bills. And finally there's Esperanza, a beautiful brown-skinned woman with a determined look on her giant face — she made her first appearance at the IMF protests in April in Washington, DC, helping to hold down a successful intersection blockade throughout the day of action.

The colorful, celebratory presence of the puppetistas is an important part of this action, as it has been in so many others this year. Kevin Danaher uses the analogy of the current dominant system as the Titanic, laden with gilded wealth and sinking, inevitably, while the resistance movement is the little boat sailing alongside as the Titanic goes down. We are calling out to the people on the Titanic: "Jump over the rails and come on board with us!" If we are dour and spiritless, why would they jump over onto our ship? If we are having fun, dancing, singing, loving one another, of course the people on the sinking ship would make that leap. The puppets remind us that we are here not only to oppose the SOA and to mourn the dead, but to offer an alternative to the interlocking forces of militarism, corporate control, patriarchy, imperialism and violence. We must create an image of the world that we envision — a joyful loving world where community, diversity, and freedom are valued — and present that image in our actions. We must not only make clear what we are against, but what we are for. The puppets help us send out messages of hope from the deck of our little boat.

All day from the stage set up just outside the property lines of Fort Benning, we hear the stories of the people whose lives have been affected by the killing, the torture, and the violence taught at the School of the Americas. One young woman from Argentina stands in front of a backdrop of photographs of the disappeared. She remembers being four years old, seeing her mother forced into a car, and never seeing her again. "Wherever you are, my mother, my father, I want to tell you: we will close the SOA." Many men and women come before the crowd and bear witness. The litany of nations where crimes have been committed by SOA graduates weighs heavy on the crowd: Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras, Mexico, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, Uruguay, Venezuela. The SOA has over 60,000 graduates.

A human rights worker from Chiapas explains the way the SOA training is multiplied once the graduates return to their countries. In Mexico, paramilitaries are recruited, trained, and used by the military to repress the peace and justice movement. My friend from Guatemala tells me that it is the same in Colombia and Chiapas today as it was with the notorious "civilian" G-2 force in Guatemala, one step removed from the official military, given the dirty work of assassination and intimidation, covertly receiving orders from SOA-trained officers. "We know the names of the generals and the high-ranking officers implicated in these killings, and nothing has been done," says Luis Eduardo Guerra, a Colombian peace activist whose community has repeatedly been targeted by paramilitaries. "We know that the officers who trained the paramilitaries were trained at the School of the Americas."

Along the edge of the crowd, one woman has set up a metal frame hung with her paintings, shielded from the rain by a heavy sheet of clear plastic. Lifting the plastic, a friend and I enter this steamy cave and find ourselves confronted with the horrors of the dirty war in Argentina. The paintings are hazy, hallucination-like images with transcriptions of the diaries of prisoners in torture centers in Argentina written across or pasted in collage on the surface of the painting. The prisoners' words recount in graphic detail the torture, the rape, the precise and calculated sadistic violence that they suffer at the hands of their captors. How many of these torturers were trained here? How many of these rapists, these assassins came through the gate just there?

Staggered by the images and words in the paintings, we are reminded of our purpose here. We are here to speak for those who have been silenced. One prisoner recalls a note slipped under her door reading: "Hope. Courage." We are also here to send a message of hope to those who are facing paramilitary death squads in Mexico, Colombia and other places in the world today: We know that you exist. We know about the massacres, the intimidation, the fear. We do not give our consent to our country's policy of engendering violence and repression in your country. We will do everything that we can to bear witness to your suffering, and to stop it at the source, here in the United States.

November 19th

The funeral procession and calling of the names of victims begins at 10:45. It is cold and rainy, and many in the crowd are covered in improvised black trash bag raincoats.

We walk forward, slowly, listening to the incantation of the names of the victims. The crowd responds after each name is called, singing back: "Presente." Presente, those who have been killed are present, they are here with us. Presente. Many of us are crying. 3,400 people commit civil disobedience by crossing onto the base. We keep walking. After the sound of the calling of the names fades, a woman walks alongside the march reading from a list of the over nine hundred civilians killed in the El Mozote massacre in El Salvador. We continue calling out "Presente" together. The long line of protestors stops and starts. Many of us leave the road to plant our crosses in the wet ground. A graveyard now lines the road into the base.

We keep walking, singing "We Shall Not Be Moved," "Keep on Moving Forward," and "Si Se Puede." People are boarding buses now, and we have chosen as a group to be as compliant as possible for the sake of those in our group who cannot risk arrest. We get on the bus, believing that since we have voluntarily done so, we will be bussed off base.

My friend April and I make our way to the back seat of the bus. What we observe next from this vantage point makes us realize that we really do not know what to expect. April's account, written shortly afterwards, captures the emotion:

"B. and I wipe off the rear window of the bus to see what is happening. Several individuals are lying limp behind our bus, and MPs drag them off to the side with unnecessary roughness, shaking their passive bodies and slamming them to the ground. We watch with alarm, announcing our concerns to other passengers [we are especially concerned with the lack of legal observers or peacekeepers anywhere near the assaults]…B. asks if I want to jump out of the emergency exit and suddenly a plainclothesman is there at the back of the bus, his large body pressed close to B.'s, holding her back. Loudly he asks where we are from in an attempt to distract and intimidate us. The protesters on the ground are lifted upright and flanked by the MPs over them, then dragged forward. I crane my head out of the bus window. "What is your badge number?" I call to the officers, repeatedly. There is no response to my legal inquiry until one of the protestors calls out, "It says eleven!" Another young man is dragged past, "I'm Jason from New Orleans," he tells me, completely vulnerable to the MP. Outrage fills my body as I wonder what to do with the information. I pull myself back inside the window as the bus pulls away."

Rattled, we are driven away from the demonstration. As the minutes pass, we realize that we are not being taken off the base for release, but further into the interior. My friend who received a ban and bar last year is becoming more and more anxious across the aisle. I look at her anguished face and realize she is facing the possibility of prison. We finally arrive at the "processing center," a huge airplane hanger flanked by long green army tents. An MP boards our bus and announces to us that we are being detained for criminal trespassing. Lines of other detainees move between the tents and the hanger.

We catch glimpses of friends from other affinity groups — including high-risk autonomous groups who openly defied the orders of the MPs and kept walking toward the base. We are to be processed side by side for the same offense. Some folks have plastic bracelets placed on them for "higher" offences such as resisting arrest. The detainees are a mix of puppetistas, priests, hippies, anarchists, grandmothers, college kids, midwestern Catholics, Witches, and hundreds of people who fit into none or several of these categories. There are also members of the press. We catch sight of our friend who is a journalist for our local independent paper. She is a not a US citizen, and lacks documentation — what is she doing on the inside? She manages to duck out of the line she's in and join us. She tells us that she was first told she could cross the line to take photos, then accosted by another MP who confiscated her press pass and told her to board a bus. I am terrified for her safety. She is in the process of applying for political asylum — how will this arrest affect her chances of staying in the US? I vow to stick close to her during the processing.

An MP separates our affinity group. I am hustled into a tent with fifty or so others including my mother, my non-citizen friend, and the three men in our group. Our time waiting is uneventful, but that night I hear stories from the other half of my affinity group about their experiences — the stories bear repeating. Again, April's account:

"The energy inside our tent seems raucous. K., M. and I huddle to the side. A group of young protesters is aimlessly bantering about the "party." Comments like "who's got the marshmallows?" and "Got beer?" are tossed about the tent. I feel very, very uncomfortable. When I hear someone refer to a member of his group as "the chick with a camera" I can barely stand the commentary anymore. K. stands up, and mustering calm from panic, says she has a story to tell. In chilling detail she tells of the El Mazote massacre in El Salvador executed by SOA grads. Out of a village of hundreds only one woman, Rufina, survives. She watches her husband being shot, smells the charred bodies of her neighbors being burned and hears her own children cry for Mommy as they are raped and tortured, every one killed. K. tells us many details of Rufina's experience, concluding, "I am scared but this is why I am here." What happens next is beautiful. Other individuals get up to explain why they are in the tent. An elderly man tells of medic work in World War II, watching as the living dead and completely lifeless are strewn together in piles, knowing that like El Mazote, this atrocity was ordered. A woman tells of her daughter's phone call from Guatemala last week — she assisted in retrieving bodies from a massacre, children still clutching plastic toys. Then a priest leads a prayer. The powerful, powerful testimony of individuals continues until we are summoned into the converted hanger for processing."

We all receive "ban and bar" letters barring us from the base for five years, under penalty of fines and prison if we violate the letter. We are commanded to sign these letters on the spot in front of lawyers.

We make our way back to the motel and shed our rain-soaked clothes. Throughout the night, people trickle in with stories of the action. We learn that our friend Megan was part of a group that was handcuffed face down on the wet pavement and photographed on the spot by an MP with a polaroid. She was playing a part in the reenactment of the massacre that took place simultaneously with the second-wave crossing [see "No Mas! No More!"]. At least five of our group received "The Red X" on their ban and bar letters signifying that they are in violation of a previous ban and bar, and thus risking fines up to $5000 and up to six months in prison. What will this mean? Will they prosecute everyone with the red "X"? We speculate on this issue and continue sharing tales of the day while our support team nurtures us with warm blankets, chocolate, and miso soup. Our herbalist medic offers calming tinctures; another friend produces a bag of Snickers bars. I go to sleep feeling extraordinarily lucky to be part of such an incredible community of resistance.

"Si se puede, si se puede, si se puede, si se puede. Turning, turning, the tide is turning. Rising, rising, the earth is rising. Si se puede, si se puede, si se puede, si se puede."

Contact School of the Americas Watch, PO Box 4566, Washington, DC 20017, (202) 234-3440,,

A new video about the SOA is available: "Guns and Greed." Call (800) 227-8523.

Beth Trigg is a union and community organizer from Asheville, North Carolina. She can be reached at