Some came because of their faith. Some came to speak out for social justice. Some came for political reasons. They were there, as they are every year on Nov. 19-21. But was their presence enough? More than 13,000 people, many of them college students, converged on the city of Columbus, Ga., to protest against the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, formerly known as the School of the Americas. The school, located on the grounds of Fort Benning, Ga., trains Latin American soldiers for combat. Opened in 1946 in Panama, it has trained more than 60,000 soldiers, many of whom have been implicated in human rights abuses in their countries.
I am part of a group that traveled from Boston College to join students from 28 Jesuit colleges and many high schools for the annual weekend protest, to speak out with those calling for the school’s closure. Participating in this year’s protest were representatives from each of the other colleges and universities, as well as plenty of Jesuits, women religious, faculty members and high school students.
I first got involved with the S.O.A. because of Delme, my leader and translator on an immersion trip I took to Cuernavaca, Mexico, the summer after my sophomore year. Delme is from El Salvador, and her family was part of a faith-based community during the civil war there. She knew priests who were killed, and death squads targeted her family and her town. She wept as she told us about soldiers storming their house as her family hid, about attending funerals of priests who were only trying to help her family and her neighbors. Her courage and willingness to share her story made me want to travel to the protest in Georgia, to speak out against a school that trained people who killed Delme’s friends. More important, I wanted to go because Delme would not want her story to be forgotten.
Another story convinced Mike Nuttall, a B.C. junior, to become actively involved in the movement to close the school. In 1981 soldiers from an American-trained battalion slaughtered 900 civilians in a tiny Salvadoran village called El Mozote. Mike met Rufina Amaya, the sole survivor of this massacre, while he was on an immersion trip to El Salvador. After hearing Amaya talk about her experiences, Nuttall realized that “the effects of this school are far-reaching.” Nuttall reports his experience of hearing “this woman in a remote village in El Salvador describe the impact of an institution that my government supports. People are so negatively affected by this one institution, it doesn’t really make sense.”
On Friday night and during the following day, students gather under a large white tent to attend the Ignatian Family Teach-In, sponsored this year by a group of former Jesuits from California called the Ignatian Solidarity Network.
It feels as if we’re entering a circus when we walk into the tent, which holds about 1,000 people. A band is playing Spanish music, and people dance and sing in the aisles. When the band finishes, one of the organizers of the event, a balding Jesuit with a brown beard, takes the microphone for a roll call.
“Is Fairfield University in the house?” he shouts. The students jump out of their seats, yelling and clapping to make their presence known.
“Boston College, are you here?” Our group cheers.
“Fordham University, Fordham Prep, Santa Clara, Georgetown University, Jesuit High School, St. Joseph’s University.” The list goes on and on, with each group trying to outdo the other as their school’s name is called.
Speakers take the stage to address a range of social justice issues, from fair-trade coffee to socially responsible investing to the death penalty. Douglas Marcouiller, S.J., talks about living with the six Jesuits and their co-workers who were killed at the Jesuit university in San Salvador in November 1989. Students share their own personal reflections as well. “We’re here as peacekeepers,” says Denise Whall, a student from Fordham University. She stresses that closing the school is just the first step in working for justice.
This year is the second time that Alex McShiras, a Boston College senior, has traveled to Fort Benning to protest against the school. “The weekend brings people together,” says McShiras. “It’s a really good learning experience.” He describes his presence as “putting my faith into action.”
A first-time protestor and Boston College senior, Emily Keane, reflects, “I’ve been hearing about it for four years and it’s about time I did something. You hear so much about Americans being apathetic. It’s nice to see that not everyone is.”
So many students standing together, working for justice. So many students openly speaking about their faith, from their hearts. They are strong in their convictions, dedicated to what they are doing, passionate about standing in solidarity with the poor. They are living a faith that does justice.
All of that was reassuring, but I find myself wondering if this is doing any good, if anybody is ever going listen to us, if this school is ever going to close.
Dan Moriarty, a young man who lived and worked with the poor in Bolivia, is here because of Victor Hugo Daza, a 17-year-old boy he remembers this weekend. While Moriarty was in Cochabamba, Bolivia, in 2000, there was a massive demonstration after Bechtel, an American company, was granted contracts to privatize the water in the city. While peasants gathered in the streets to protest, a sniper dressed in civilian clothes was caught on camera as he shot into the crowd. Victor Hugo Daza was shot to death that day. The mayor who negotiated the contracts, the commanding general and the sniper caught on tape were all graduates of the U.S. Army School of the Americas. Moriarty has come to speak out for both Victor Hugo Daza and the peasants of Bolivia.
Padre Campo Elias, a priest from Colombia, tells us that he has hope because of our energy. “I will carry you students in my heart to the people of Colombia. We are going to join our voices with all those who say no to the S.O.A.”
On Sunday we join 13,000 people at the gates of Fort Benning to remember those who have been victimized by graduates of the school.
The mood today is more solemn than yesterday. Thick clouds hide the sun from our eyes, but it is warm for November, especially for those of us who are accustomed to New England winters. The protestors are an eclectic mix. A little girl with blond straggly hair, purple corduroys and a matching purple T-shirt holds onto her mom with one hand and with the other holds up a white sign with the words, “Kids for Peace.” A white-haired man with buttons covering his collared shirt walks behind a banner that reads “Veterans for Peace.” A woman with a long dark ponytail carries a baby in her arms, wearing a pink button on her jeans that says, “Women for Peace.”
The crowd has come carrying pictures, flowers, white crosses bearing the names of victims and other symbols to place at the gates of the military base. From where we stand, we can’t see the stage that has been assembled in front of the entrance to Fort Benning. But we can hear well the people who tell stories of violence and brutality. After each story, the crowd sings in response, “No más, no more, we must stop this dirty war.” “Compañeros, compañeras,” we cry out, “no más, no more.” For the next few hours, we walk slowly in solemn procession to the gates as the names of victims are sung. After each name, the crowd raises thousands of white crosses into the air and chants in a single voice, “Presente!” When we reach the gate, we place our symbols in the chain-link fence that blocks the entrance to Fort Benning.
I stand there, looking at the pictures and the innumerable white crosses stuck in the gate. I feel tears well up in my eyes as I read the names: Victor Hugo Daza, Dan’s friend from Bolivia; Chon Marquez, El Mozote, 22 years old; unidentified child, El Salvador, 8 months old. There are too many to read, so I skim the fence and keep moving.
The people who were killed were babies and students my age and mothers and grandmothers. As the names and ages are read of the people who died, name after name and unidentified child after unidentified child, I am overwhelmed by sadness and helplessness, and by the sound of 13,000 voices joined that day in protest.
The protest is over. The last of the symbols have been placed at the gate. We are once again a group of tired college students. This weekend has been a drain on all of us and has left me with more questions than answers. Did our presence do any good?
I remember the words of Michelle Ricard, a student from Spring Hill College in Alabama who spoke at the teach-in. She had come to the protest in 2003 with 18 other students. Energized by the events of the weekend, she and her friends went back to their school and started a group called Students for Justice. Lively and overwhelmed by the large crowd before her, Ricard’s message was one of hope. “The S.O.A. this weekend,” shouts Ricard, “next weekend the world!”
The Ignatian Family Teach-In ended with a Mass, for which 4,000 people gathered under the big white tent. And they were not defeated; they were inspired. You could hear it in their singing, in their praying. You could see it in their embraces at the sign of peace. Finding every seat occupied, many stood outside the tent in the rain for an hour and a half, singing and praying. Old men and women, women religious, priests, students, and moms and dads with babies. They had not forgotten the victims. That gave me hope. That made me believe we are not apathetic, that we can be inspired, that despite all the division, we can be united and that the faith of this collective group just might be strong enough to make things happen.