The Army’s school for terrorism

December 1, 2008

Sarah Levy reports from the annual protest against the U.S. Army's torture-training institute known as the School of the Americas.

MORE THAN 20,000 people traveled to Georgia on November 23 to commemorate the thousands who have died as a result of violence in Latin America at the hands of forces trained by the U.S. Army's School of the Americas (SOA).

"We are here once again to say, 'Basta. No mas. No More,'" said Father Roy Bourgeois, who started the organization School of the Americas Watch in 1989 after six Jesuit priests, their co-worker and her teenage daughter were massacred in El Salvador by soldiers trained at the SOA (since renamed the "Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation"). The vigil at the gates of Fort Benning has been an annual event ever since.

"The problem is that most Americans don't know it exists, or don't know the terrors that have resulted because of it," Bourgeois said.

Father Jon Sobrino, one of the only survivors of the Jesuit community in El Salvador where the 1989 massacre took place, explained his reason for being at the demonstration: "Any school in which violence and torture is being taught should be closed. Any school in which lies are being taught, should be closed. Any school in which the accumulation of wealth as the main joy of life is being taught, should be closed."

The annual protest against the School of the Americas drew more than 20,000 people
The annual protest against the School of the Americas drew more than 20,000 people (Mason Wells | SW)

The vigil consisted of a funeral procession, with the singing of the names and ages of those who had died as result of SOA violence, alternating Spanish and English. Following each name, a sea of voices solemnly sang back "Presente," with people holding up a white cross to represent an individual who had been killed. A single drumbeat followed every name.

"It feels really powerful to remember the names of the dead and to bring that to the doors of the people that murdered them," said Zeph Fishlyn, an artist who was attending the event for the first time.

EARLIER THAT morning, six people crossed the border onto the military base in an attempt to bring the protest to the Army through non-violent civil disobedience. They were arrested and face up to six months in federal prison.

The night before the protest, Brian Derouen, who served four months in jail for crossing the line in 2006, addressed a crowd regarding why this protest is important.

"This weekend is not what matters," said Derouen. "If everyone goes home and tells one person and writes one letter to Congress, the school could be shut down in a year. People can't just be here and then go home and feel good about themselves."

After putting their crosses on the fence as the culmination of the procession, people stood crying, hugging and simply staring at the scene in silence. On a patch of grass near the fence, dozens of actors with white face paint lay in black clothes splattered with red paint to represent the dead, as police loudspeakers proceeded to blare their recorded message: "Anyone who crosses the line is subject to fine and imprisonment. The sole purpose of this institution is to provide military training of soldiers. It is a non-partisan operation. As a democratic institution it is upholding the constitution."

Luckily, the weekend's events, which consisted of many speakers and educational panels, had taught the crowd what a lie this was.

Said Derouen, "In the end, change happens when good people break bad laws and accept the consequences."

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