I lay still as if dead, my clothes soaked in symbolic blood, my face painted white, my head covered with a black shroud. Niklan lay nearby, in the awkward position of the dead?his eyeglasses crooked, his arm folded and leg twisted. A heavy sob escaped my mouth occasionally; Nik cried quietly and almost continually. We listened as beautiful voices called out the names of those murdered, in a never-ending song of sorrow. Though we could not see them, we knew there were thousands of people walking slowly by, grieving deeply. It was November 18, 2001, one of the most powerful and beautiful days of my life-- the 12th anniversary of the massacre of six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper, and her 15 year-old daughter, in El Salvador, at the Jesuit university, by soldiers trained at the School of the Americas in Fort Benning, Georgia.
Ten thousand people, carrying ten thousand crosses, processed in solemn grief by the gates of Fort Benning that day. Written on each cross was the name of a person killed by soldiers trained at the School of the Americas. Most laid their crosses, along with banners, signs, flowers, pictures, and other memorials to the dead, on the huge chain link fence blocking the roadway onto the base. So many crosses were laid on the fence that it soon was a solid wall?but hundreds of thousands more would be needed to represent every victim of this school for civilian warfare.
The School of the Americas is exactly that: a U.S. Army training camp for Latin American soldiers in how to make war against civilians. There are no military wars in Latin America: Nicaragua is not at war with Honduras; Colombia is not at war against Venezuela. The only wars in Latin America right now are those against civilians, and especially against civilians working for social change?like labor leaders, human rights workers, and environmental defenders. I was told recently that in Mexico, for example, it is 'open season' against human rights workers right now, in the wake of the brutal murder of Digna Ochoa y Placida, a courageous lawyer with international respect, many prior death threats, and no protection from her government. I've also talked to Christian Peacemakers just back from Colombia, who said that 12 of their Colombian colleagues with whom they had been closely working had been murdered in just the last two weeks. The School of the Americas has a very long, very bloody history?a history that is still in the making.
And so Nik, myself, and over 30 other people lay as if dead, at the very gates of the School of the Americas, to remind ourselves and the world of this terror. After laying there for about an hour, we rose to the words of the martyred Archbishop Oscar Romero ('I will rise again in the spirit of the people'), gathered up the symbolic coffins we had been carrying, and continued our procession down along the chain link fence, through brush and a small stream, and onto Fort Benning, where we dropped as if dead again in the roadway. Soldiers quickly came to handcuff us, drag us off the road, and take us away to be processed.
Eighty-six people in all were arrested for crossing onto Fort Benning that day, and during the five hours that I was detained I was able to talk to many of them. We were all given letters banning us from returning to Fort Benning. At least 11 people I talked to already had these ban letters. Last year, 26 people that had entered Fort Benning with previous ban letters were sentenced to between 1 and 12 months in federal prison. Thus the 11 people that I talked to that day, both men and women, young and old, had each made the decision to go to prison for 6 months for their convictions. Several said the decision had taken them a full year to make, with daily consideration and meditation. One older man, Jerry, had already spent 2 1/2 years in federal prison for protesting nuclear missiles. While in prison he organized against the dehumanizing conditions of the prison system, and spent over 90 days in solitary confinement for these activities. He was strip-searched daily. Jerry told us he didn't regret a single minute spent in jail: he acted directly and completely from the strength of his convictions, and in the process was truly liberated.
We were released at dusk, and made it back to the gates just as Father Roy Bourgeois, the founder of the SOA Watch and a veteran of four years in federal prison, ended the procession with prayers for peace. There before us was the awesome memorial, covering the fence as far as we could see. And just in front of the fence another awesome sight: a symbolic global village, erected out of cardboard on the roadway in front of Fort Benning and populated by 31 people, sitting in a circle on the pavement, linked arm-in-arm. This tiny village represented a world free from terror, where all can live with peace and dignity. There, on the pavement before us, was democracy rising.
For the next five hours we chanted, danced, sang, and celebrated with the locked-down citizens of the global village. We danced in a great circle around them, keeping their spirits high and their courage present as the city police came and left, came and left again. Obstructing the roadway in front of the gates was a new tactic: never had the protests of the SOA targeted the city judicial system before, and Columbus officials were very much surprised. The mayor and chief of police visited the global village repeatedly, and its locked-down citizens repeatedly indicted the SOA with beautiful, painful eloquence. Finally the mayor told them, 'you follow your conscience; I'll follow the law.' Shortly thereafter, we the supporters were moved and kept off site by angry, scared city police in full-on riot gear (shields, helmets, and deadly weapons). Just out of our sight over a hundred city police in the same gear dragged our peaceful sisters and brothers onto the police buses. Moments later, soldiers from Fort Benning violently tore down the memorial on the fence.
For the citizens of the global village, jail solidarity tactics resulted in a successfully negotiated release after two days on time served. This entirely beautiful, creative, and non-violent action was organized completely by consensus in the days preceding the protest. The action was facilitated by SOA Watch and given tremendous legal support by the Just Cause Law Collective.
As I said, November 18, 2001, was one of the most powerful and beautiful days of my life. I mourned the hundreds of thousands of people murdered by laying as if dead myself. I faced my own fear of arrest while listening to those that experienced great personal growth through long-term imprisonment. I celebrated the growing peace and justice movement-- rising democracy-- with thousands of like-minded people. I watched a peaceful encampment broken up by police in riot gear, and an achingly beautiful, incredibly moving memorial destroyed by army soldiers. The continual juxtaposition of horror and hope was deeply meaningful and absolutely unforgettable.
Father Roy Bourgeois, the founder of the SOA Watch, calls the School of the Americas the 'muscle' that enforces the unjust economic policies of the WTO, the IMF, and the World Bank. These institutions together he calls the 'new conquistadors'. The conquistadors of the 1600's slaughtered the indigenous peoples of Latin America for their gold and other riches. This is exactly what the new conquistadors are doing today. Our corporate superstores are filled to the brim with food, clothing, and expensive toys made from the blood, sweat, and tears of the world. Instead of being silent and complicit with such a brutal system, let us reject these goods. Let us build our own local economies and rising democracies. Let us stand in solidarity with people of Latin America and around the world that are working for peace and justice. Let us call on the government of the United States to break its ever-increasing spiral of violence and uphold the principles on which it is based, not only for citizens of this country but for all citizens of the global village.
used with permission by the New River Free Press
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Madeleine Breen of the Dominican Sisters of Peace