School of the Americas Protest Reflection
This year was my first SOA protest. Yes, I know I’m behind the curve. It was an awesome experience. The trip down was where we started. I was in the first van, so we left Thursday evening in order to attend Friday trainings and information sessions. It was a long trip, to say the least. Thirteen hours long, actually. But we got there, and took a nap, which was good, and then attended workshops on nonviolence and peace and justice issues.
This was a really cool part of the trip. The workshop I attended was a relatively small group of people, so we were able to have open discussion about the issue of torture. There were more workshops throughout that day.
The next day was the rally. This part was also incredibly awesome. There were booths about all types of different issues, ranging from the Israel/Palestine issue, to fair trade clothing and goods. At some booths you could read over literature about a particular issue, sign up for mailing lists, purchase books and other souvenirs to help support your favorite cause or organization. The rally took place right outside of the entrance to the Fort Benning base. There were police and officials everywhere patrolling the area. A helicopter circled around the rally all day long. And I couldn’t help but to think to myself “How much taxpayer money are they going to spend today on circling a bunch of peaceful protesters with a armed helicopter?” And, yes, the helicopter had a man with a gun on the side.
The strange thing was, this protest was not at all out of hand. Quite the opposite actually, it was quite calm. People were there just to protest the School of the Americas, not to riot. The police even had what we titled “the sniper box.” This was a box with little ports on the side where snipers could stick their guns out. Kind of startling, actually.
The next day was the vigil. This was a somber remembrance of the people that have been killed by SOA graduates. We walked along the road to the base while chanting “Presente.” This was a really chilling thing to do. Some people were dressed in all black with their faces painted white to represent the people who had died. We all carried little white crossed with the names and ages of the people who had died on them. I remember my cross was from a three year old girl who was slain. Once we had reached the gates to the base, we placed the crosses in the fence. Those who were dressed in black laid down in front of the gate as if they were dead. But out of all this my favorite thing that I experienced was talking to the community members, police officers and even federal marshalls about how they felt about not only the SOA, but also about the protest and the protesters in general. I went out with a couple other people before we left to return to Indiana, and asked people how they felt. Most did not even know what was taking place at the SOA. Also interesting: we concluded that it was police policy that they were not allowed to express their personal opinions about the rally/vigil/school with protesters. But there were a few who indicated to us that they did not approve of what was going on and that they didn’t want to have to be there at the protest.
Overall it was a great experience.