Reclaiming Quarterly Web Features Back Issues Subscribe Ads/Submissions Site Index Reclaiming Home

No Mas! No More!

Ten Thousand Protest "School of Assassins" in Georgia

by Barbara J. Walker-Graham

On Sunday, November 19, in the cold and rain, an estimated 13,000 people gathered at the South Gate of Ft. Benning Military Base in Columbus, Georgia, to protest the continuing presence of, and US federal funding of, the School of the Americas. The SOA is often referred to by opponents as the School of Assassins.

"As we gather here, this is a sacred moment — this is a time to connect with our sisters and brothers in Latin America," prayed Father Roy Bourgeois of SOA Watch prior to the annual funeral procession commemorating human rights abuses and murders reportedly committed by SOA graduates.

The annual protests began after the 1989 murder of six Jesuit priests and their servants by El Salvadoran armed forces, a number of them trained at the School of the Americas. The Army counters that the incident was exposed by a U.S. Army major.

"We look at this School and we can see our country at work in Latin America on the side of the sweat shops, on the side of the men with the guns," Father Bourgeois lamented. "We see our country on the side of the IMF, supporting new conquistadors to exploit and enrich themselves! We are here today, to say we are on the other side! We are on the side of the poor! We are on the side of the dispossessed! We are on the side of life and hope and nonviolence! We are here today to say ‘No! Not in our name will this continue!'"

The Army school based at Fort Benning, about 100 miles southwest of Atlanta, has allegedly taught American and Central American soldiers terror tactics of interrogation, counterinsurgency and torture. Opponents say graduates have committed a laundry list of atrocities; the Army has denied the allegations. Col. Glenn Weidner, the school's commandant, defended its record. "At the U.S. Army SOA, human rights awareness is stressed and integrated into every program," Weidner said. He said a number of classes have been terminated.

About 10,000 people participated in the protest. Some 3,400 people marched in the funeral procession, walking slowly toward the waiting line of police about a half mile inside the Ft. Benning gates. About 2,000 allowed themselves to be arrested. Most of those arrested received ban-and-bar letters barring them from Ft. Benning for five years. Protestors with prior arrests at Ft. Benning may face harsher penalties, including fines of up to $5,000 and six months in jail.

Father Bourgeois' enthusiasm was not dampened by the cold rain, however. "There has never been this kind of energy at this site before, this kind of hope, this kind of life!"

Jackie Downie, of the SOA Watch Steering Committee said, "What we are seeing here is an amazing step forward for the SOA Watch movement. We are seeing a change from the traditional religious base of SOA Watch to a convergence with the creativity of puppets and direct action that has grown from the many other actions across the country this past year."

"There's so many creative actions this year, and all totally nonviolent! This has been a complete success! We are really happy," Downie continued.

Thousands of protestors crossed the line carrying crosses bearing the names of the dead while the names of those who died were sung out, in the "Presenté" chant, a deeply moving and lengthy honoring and recognition of pain and loss. The crosses were left along the road by the thousands, resembling a cold battlefield.

Second-wave action surprises cops

About 45 minutes after the funeral procession slowly walked a half mile into Ft. Benning, a second wave of protestors broke through police lines. Surprising the police cordon, forty people holding crosses walked briskly up a secondary roadway prohibited to the funeral procession. MP radios crackled, "Just let them walk on to the buses, let them get to the buses."

Then five "SOA paramilitary forces" equipped with cardboard machine guns herded some twenty cowed and frightened "Latino peasants" into a circle, just inside the gates of Ft. Benning. The "SOA grads" fired their cardboard machine guns into the crowd of peasants. Screaming with agony, the peasants fell in a tangled heap of bodies, streaked with red paint. As the rain fell on the bodies the paint bled more and more, pooling beside the victims and creating a macábre scene.

Columbus City police began pulling the "bodies" from the heap of "dead and dying peasants." The "peasants" remained inert and limp, providing no assistance to the officers in their task of tagging, handcuffing and dragging them into a line of face-down bodies off to the side of the massacre.

Simultaneously with the "massacre," a group of six "Nuns," each carrying swaddled baby dolls and garden spades, speed-walked past the melee for about a hundred yards. There they dropped to the wet grass and began wailing in grief for the dead "babies" they held in their arms.

One of them carried three gravestones covered with the names of scores of babies killed by the SOA in Latin America. As they wept and screamed out their grief, they began digging graves for the babies. Their tools seemed so inadequate for the task — but then, the bodies were so small.

The "Nuns" were left in relative peace while the police and MPs dealt with the "massacred peasants." However, the peace was short-lived, with plainclothes police arriving to handcuff the "Nuns."

It was unclear why the second-wave direct action took the police by surprise, as the idea had been discussed in open meetings. While not sanctioned by SOA Watch, the second wave actions were not denounced by them either. These actions were inspired by more active protests across the world this past year. The second wave actions provided an outlet for those protestors whose emotions and political flair could be better expressed this way than by the somber funeral procession.

Contact South East Friends of Reclaiming, (352) 375-3729,

Barbara J. Walker-Graham is a freelance writer and single mother living in Gainesville, Florida. A journalism graduate of the University of Florida, she is manifesting a life dream of covering and photographing direct action political protests, after coming out of a long hibernation.