Art & Activism: School of the Americas Protest
In 2006 I attended the 16th annual protest of The School of the Americas which is located at Fort Benning in Colombus, Georgia. This is the first time I have attended the protest. I'm sorry it took me so long to get here. It is a magnificent event. I will be at the next one. Click each of the three headings to read about SOA and my experiences.
The School of the Americas (SOA) is a U.S. Army training school that trains soldiers and military personnel from Latin American countries in subjects like counter-insurgency, military intelligence, and counter-narcotics operations. Under Department of Defense jurisdiction, this school is funded by U.S. taxpayer money, all of the training is conducted in Spanish, and most of the classes are taught by Latin American instructors. According to the SOA itself, more than 60,000 members of Latin American militaries have attended the SOA since its inception in 1946.
The School of the Americas was first established as the U.S. Army Caribbean Training Center in Panama in 1946 to help professionalize Latin American and Caribbean militaries. In 1963, under President John F. Kennedy's Alliance for Progress, the training center was renamed the School of the Americas. Along with the name change, the School changed to a Cold War focus. In 1984, the school was forced to move from Panama to Fort Benning, near Columbus, Georgia, under the terms of the Panama Canal Treaties
The SOA was "closed" in December of 2000 and "reopened" on January 17, 2001 with a new name, the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (WHINSEC). This was a result of a Department of Defense (DOD) proposal included in the Defense Authorization Bill for Fiscal Year 2001. The measure passed when the House of Representatives defeated by a narrow ten vote margin a bipartisan amendment to close the school and conduct a Congressional investigation. The name change was widely viewed as an attempt to distance the institution from its controversial history.
SOA/ WHINSEC graduates have included some of the worst and most notorious human rights abusers in Latin American history. SOA graduates have led military coups and are responsible for massacres of hundreds of people. Among the SOA's more than 60,000 alumni are notorious dictators Manuel Noriega and Omar Torrijos of Panama, Leopoldo Galtieri and Roberto Viola of Argentina, Juan Velasco Alvarado of Peru, Guillermo Rodriguez of Ecuador and Hugo Banzar Suarez of Bolivia. SOA graduates were responsible for the Uraba massacre in Colombia, the El Mozote massacre of 900 civilians in El Salvador, the assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero and the massacre of 14-year-old Celina Ramos, her mother Elba Ramos and six Jesuit priests in El Salvador and hundreds of other human rights abuses. Closing the school would send a strong human rights message to Latin America and the world.
You can join the SOA Watch. This is an independent organization that seeks to close the US Army run SOA. They use demonstrations, nonviolent protest, the media, and legislative work to reach their goal. It was founded by Maryknoll priest Fr. Roy Bourgeois in 1990
You can contact your elected representatives and ask them to support HR 1217, Representative Jim McGovern's bill to suspend operations at and investigate the SOA/ WHINSEC. Many of the Congress people who opposed this bill were voted out in this last election. They have been replaced by new people who need to hear from you regarding HR 1217
Ask your friends, family, and everybody you know and everybody you meet to do the same. Get involved or help to start a local SOA Watch group. Write a letter to the editor of your local newspaper and urge others to support closing the SOA. Organize a local educational event or action . Get involved in an SOA Watch Working Group. Mobilize a group to come to the next Vigil and Nonviolent Action at Ft. Benning to Close the SOA/WHINSEC November 2007! Financial support for SOA Watch is also appreciated. Donations may be sent to SOA Watch, PO Box 4566, Washington DC 20017. SOA also now accepts online contributions. Please note that donations are not tax-deductible.
22,000 people gathered in Columbus, Georgia and thousands more in ten other countries to protest the SOA. Although I have heard about this event for years, I have never attended. This year, mainly due to the encouragement from political singer-songwriters like Pat Humphries and Sandy O and Charlie King, I made my way to the gates of Fort Benning. In its 17 year history, this was apparently the largest gathering ever. Apparently, when it first began, there were just a few folks out front of those gates. This is a great example of persistence teaching a profound lesson for long term struggle. What if, discouraged by the turn-out for the first event, they had given up? This is a very important point for activists to remember when we feel discouraged.
The name was changed from School of the Americas to Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (WHINSEC), but it remains a combat-training school for Latin American soldiers. My head is full of thousands of moments. Rather than try to make them come together in some orderly journalism, I will leave them be.
Thursday, November 16
A very early flight takes me to Atlanta where I met up with over a dozen artists. We did an informal concert to raise funds for the SOA Watch. We each sang one or two songs and thousands of dollars were raised as well as spirits. Elise Witt made that happen. It is wonderful to see old friends and hear new songs. David Rovics offers a moving song about New Orleans. Jose "Pepo" Saavedra and Ted Warmbrand are there all the way from Arizona. Many artists have driven all day and night to get there on time. There is lots of laughing and eating and good feeling. Thanks to Elise Witt for producing the event.
That night I stayed up talking with Elise and Karen Brandow—talking about our work, about music and about home and the world. What a luxury when artists have time to hang out with one another. We are so often heading off to the next town. We talked about the danger of turning social change artists into “bake sales”, always asked to raise money for struggling organizations but with very little understanding of the power of music and the roll culture must take in social change movements if we are to be successful. Karen said I was going to be surprised by the integration of the music in the upcoming events. Apparently Pete Seeger, when he attended the SOA protest, said ,”This is the singingest movement!”
The next day we headed south. I was so glad to have Elise as my buddy. The size of the event was a bit intimidating. Just the thought of finding parking! But in fact, none of those concerns were an issue. There was so much care and camaraderie, I never felt lost even when I was.
I met a new friend, a lovely woman who has been at the SOA protest many times. She is such a bright spirit, has a powerful voice, and seems to laugh and dance where ever she goes. Her name is Colleen Kattau. I think she said that we had met somewhere in Central America, years ago. Was it Nicaragua? I think so.
There were workshops and trainings and cultural events and prayer sessions and panels. So many things all going on at once. It took a moment for me to remember that one can not be at all the events and that in truth, it doesn't matter. Just walk in a door and sit down. Something interesting will happen.
I walked in to a gathering where a woman was talking about her work in Chile. Just as I sat down on the floor against the wall she said that Victor Jara’s killer had been found. The murderer had been a student at the SOA. She spoke of Victor's wife Joan, a friend of mine, who after identifying Victor’s body, had escaped to England. That nightmare has come to an end. In fact, their new president is an ex-prisoner (and a woman, I might add!) Chile Stadium, where Victor was tortured and killed in 1973, has been renamed Estadio Víctor Jara. Emotion came washing over me. I found myself “arriving” at this protest. Up until now, I was simply going through the logistics. I was here for Victor. I was here for all the women whose names I cry out in the song, “Hay Una Mujer Desaparecida”. I was here for the people in El Salvador that I had met when I went to do a concert there in protest of the repression, in protest to the thousands killed by the US supported military regime, where we were followed by cars identified as death squad. I was here for the Nicaraguans I had met who suffered an horrific war waged against them by CIA backed contras. I was here for the Argentinians who had disappeared, for the mothers in the white head scarves I had met who demanded to know where their children had been taken. I was here for the musician friends I had met from Uruguay who had escaped to Europe because their songs were too dangerous. I was here for a Uruguayan women recently tortured who I had met in Mexico (she was being harbored by US expatriates living in Cuernavaca). And I was here because I know you don't have to leave the USA to find violent abuse. I know about the prison system in this country. I know about The California Youth Authority. I know about the racism in prison. I know the way the US treated political prisoners in Vietnam. I know about Abu Grade. I know about Guantanamo. I know about the Trail of Tears. I know about sex trafficking of young girls and the smut films that document their gruesome murders. I know about electric shock treatment that used to be given to gay people—the lobotomies. I know that this kind of abuse can be well taught to Latin American soldiers because in the US, it has been well practiced and administered.
Someone taps me on the shoulder: "Would I sing a song?" Yes of course. I begin to sing "I Am Willing." I nod to Sandy O and Pat Humphries and Charlie King and Karen Brandow and they come up and join me...were there others? Maybe Jon Fromer. I don't remember. From that moment on there was singing, so much singing. We all joined each other. The singers became like one body.
Jon Fromer sang “My feet are tired but my soul is rested” remembering the great bus boycott. What a model, a movement that changed all movements from that time on. They showed us how to pick up songs instead of guns when you go out to face the violence.
There are many faiths represented here but it is predominately Christian, and mostly Catholic, founded by a priest affectionately called Father Roy. He, himself, had been a victim of torture in Latin America. So many of the people killed by this training have been Catholics and Indigenous peoples. It is clear that these people gain strength from their faith but I don't see them imposing narrow mind and fear on others but rather they walk with arms wide open. If the religious right would like to meet Jesus, chances are they will find him here.
Next we go to a pub downtown Columbus, Georgia where there is a reception to welcome the Civil Rights leaders who have marched from Alabama to Columbus to join in the weekend. We find some young people there who are focusing their energies on Puerto Rico. They are so knowledgeable, it takes my breath away. Again my past comes racing to mind. When I was in my mid twenties I attended a Puerto Rican Solidarity event in New York City at Madison Square Garden at the Felt Forum. I think it was put on by the Puerto Rican Socialist Party. September 10th, 1976. The place was packed. Phil Ochs sang. I sang. Orlando Letelier spoke (he was killed in a car bombing in Washington DC, Sept. 21st, 1976, only a few days later). Geraldo Rivera, a young lawyer and soon to be famous journalist also spoke.
The next day we head for Fort Benning, (well, outside the gates of Fort Benning.) This is a day of dancing and singing and a celebration of resistance. Meanwhile demonstrations are also taking place in Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, El Salvador, Paraguay, and Peru, as well as in Ireland, Canada, and at other sites in the US. One of the recent tactics of the movement is to go to the heads of states of other countries and get them to agree to stop sending soldiers to train at this school.
Chris Inserra and Francisco Herrera are the main MCs for the event. I must say, I have never seen anything like it. Without raising their voices or ever appearing aggravated, these two kept the program going with such grace. I would check my watch from time to time and compare it to the schedule. They were never off by more than a minute and they always caught up. There was no one pushing for power, no high-visibility guests arrived demanding to be put on earlier than agreed to. The back stage area was calm and loving and collective in nature. Maybe that is because looming behind us was this huge gate topped with barbed wire, the gate that brave souls have crossed over year after year here in protest.
There are guest speakers and artists. And then there is the Musician’s Collective. I joined them from day one. Their job was to do music, to pick appropriate songs for appropriate places. Singers were sent to workshops and panels whenever possible. But during Saturday and Sunday, they mostly stayed ready to sing at the main stage. What an amazing choir of sound and spirit. I tell you, there must have been a charming clerk at the “check your ego” stand because everyone had. Charlie King and Karen Brandow lead “...break ‘em on down, break ‘em on down, break ‘em on down these walls between us...”
Dave Lippman, the singing CIA Agent, a very wacky and very funny guy, brings the dry condemnation of the Bush Administration and does so in such a non-violent way. Quite something to watch and it feels good to laugh when one is crying.
Elise and I had food at a restaurant near the base—Carribean food—then we headed for the cultural event. I was the host of this particular evening. Again, more music— music and dancing. It was a challenging line-up for the audience. Coalition is often a challenge. Everything from hip hop to old time folk to traditional Colombian dance to contemporary folk music. The young people who crowded around the front of the stage, sitting on the floor, got up and danced whenever the spirit moved them. Holding each other, joyfully sharing massage chains. I felt so reassured by their presence. They seemed curious about all the music, not judgemental, happy to be there with us and with each other.
Pat and Sandy from Emma’s Revolution lead "Peace, Salaam, Shalom."
I discover a group I have never heard before. They were so lovely: The Prince Myshkins.
And I get to hear again people I have loved for years like Tao Rodriguez-Seeger. He is such a loving man, so wise and easy to be with. I am profoundly aware of my status, an elder in training, as artists my age become the grandmas of the social change music movement. It is a pleasure as well as daunting.
An amazing Hip Hop group from Chicago kicks off the evening. They are Kuumba Lynx. They range from about 8 years old to 29 proving wrong the assumption that some might have about young people not being profoundly involved in political culture and change movements. One of the poets has direct experience with the US backed hostilities that plagued Chile. Chestnut Brothers invite the crowd to shout and whisper, dance and pray.
And the evening is closed by an Andean group called Llajtasuyo and everyone is on their feet dancing. This event was skillfully produced by Chris Chandler.
Sunday is a more solemn day. The musicians arrive at the site at 7 am to sound check (in case you doubted anyone’s commitment, do you know what it means for musicians who have worked the night before to arrive at 7am?). No one complains . . . well, only in the subtle ways in which we say good morning to one another!
This is the day of the funeral procession. The delegations begin to enter the space. The Veterans for Peace. The Buddhist Drummers, The Grandmothers for Peace. The ritual begins with a Mayan Blessing.
Then the reading of the names. Teams of readers say the names out loud of those who have been murdered, mostly in central and Latin America by the policies taught and the people trained at SOA. After each name, the singers voice in deep rich harmony: “PRESENTE”. This goes on and on for hours. It is overwhelming. At one point the victims have no names, one after another, mostly children recently killed in Colombia.
The over 22,000 people file past the gates of the SOA and place wood crosses with the name of the victim written on the wood and they place these markers into the fence. At the end, the fence is a sea of white, a huge memorial to the victims— a massive condemnation of the killers. Victor Jara’s name is called. “PRESENTE”. I recognize a name that is in my song, "Hay Una Mujer Desaparecida." “PRESENTE”. As I sing “PRESENTE” over and over again I start to feel as if I know each one of the people whose name is called. They all become one, they all become me. “PRESENTE! “My legs go to sleep standing up singing “PRESENTE” for so many hours but I would not have moved from that place for the world.
People speak: President Charles Steele, Jr. who is national President of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Rabbi Lynn Gottliev who is co-founder of the Muslim Jewish Peace Walk, Frankie Flores who is representative of the Torture Abolition and Survivors Support Coalition International and of course Father Roy Bourgeois, founder of SOAW
More music. Work O.’ The Weavers, a group dedicated to keeping the music and political commitment of The Weavers alive and well, Emily Saliers from The Indigo Girls, SONiA and a huge Puppetista Pageant built predominantly by young people—building, painting, decorating. More speakers, more testimony of torture and abuse, more music.
And then there are those who cross the line. They go over a 10-foot barbed-wire fence on the base’s perimeter. They take this action knowing that they likely face three to six months in federal prison. Since protests against the SOA/ WHINSEC began sixteen years ago, 211 people have served prison sentences of up to two years for civil disobedience. These are the most recent to make this crossing.
Margaret Bryant-Ganer, 38, Shenandoah Junction, West Virginia
Tina Busch-Nema, 48, Kirkwood, Missouri
Rev. Don Coleman, 69, a co-pastor at the University of Chicago from Chicago, Illinois
Valerie Fillenwarth, 64, a homemaker from Indianapolis, Indiana
Philip Gates, 70, a retired school teacher from Prescott, Arizona
Alice Gerard, 50, a freelance journalist from Grand Island, New York
Joshua Harris, 30, from San Diego is a graduate student at Claremont University
Melissa Helman, 23, Ashland, Wisconsin
Martina Leforce, 22, Berea, Kentucky
Julienne Oldfield, 69, Syracuse, New York
(Katherine) Whitney Ray, a 17 year old college student from Indianapolis, Indiana
Sheila Salmon, 71, Sebastian, Florida
Nathan Slater, 23, Berea / Edmonton, Kentucky
Mike Vosburg-Casey, a 32 year old piano tuner and chicken farmer from Atlanta, Georgia
Grayman Ward, 20, a fitness equipment specialist from Raleigh, North Carolina
Cathy Webster, 61, a peace activist and grandmother from Chico, California
The SOA/WHINSEC narrowly averted closure earlier this year when a bill to cut funding to the school lost in Congress by a margin of 15 votes. The mid-term elections saw 34 Representatives who opposed the bill lose their seats.
“The Bush Administration and the School of the Americas are out of alignment with the values of everyday Americans,” said Chris Inserra, 48, a teacher and mother of three who helped to organize this weekend’s events.
1996 - the Pentagon released training manuals used at the school that advocated torture, extortion, and execution. Despite this shocking admission and hundreds of documented human rights abuses connected to soldiers trained at the school over its 60-year history, no independent investigation into the training facility has ever taken place.
And so as I drove back to the airport in Atlanta, having said good-bye to my singing friends with whom I had shared this powerful weekend, I was reassured that the work I am currently doing is on the right track. Night after night at concerts, day after day at workshops, I encourage people to see themselves as part of a long journey of which they will only take a few steps. But those few steps are hugely important to the planet. 16 years ago a hand full of people protested in front of this base. This year 22,000. And simultaneous protests all over the world. And yes, if this school closes, others will be built. And then we protest those. There is something that happens to one’s soul when we are part of truth telling, when we show up with our best selves, when we join in community and keep the long journey alive and vibrant. If there is silence, we break that silence with our voices. If there is fear, we offer each other courage and clarity. When there is weariness, we hold each other until the exhaustion drains away. When one falls, another steps up to take the place. We sing each other on. And we never know who is watching, gaining perspective from our behavior. We simply have to trust that by example, we elevate human potential and light the path.
I am open and I am willing, for to be hopeless, would seem so strange. It dishonors those who go before us. So lift me up to the light of change.