I first heard of the U.S. Army School of the Americas (SOA), located on the grounds of the huge Ft. Benning Army base in Georgia, through the Religious Society of Friends. [The SOA was renamed "Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation" on January 17, 2001—Eds.] When I was offered the opportunity to participate in a nonviolent demonstration for the purpose of closing the school, I went as a Friend with the spiritual support of Penn Valley Meeting, Iowa Yearly Meeting (Conservative). Throughout the rainy, damp weekend of protest, I sought the guidance and friendship of other Quakers. Two of my daughters joined me in the protest.
Events to publicize and protest training by the SOA are organized primarily by the SOA Watch, a national organization founded by Fr. Roy Bourgeois. About ten years ago, Roy rented an apartment across the street from the main gates into Ft. Benning and opened the first SOA Watch office there. His foresight in doing so propelled demonstrations at the base each November: the anniversary of the murder of six Jesuits and two women who were killed on November 16, 1989. Of the 21 soldiers indicted for the murders, 16 were trained at the SOA. Archbishop Oscar Romero, beloved champion of the poor, also was assassinated by SOA-trained soldiers while he was celebrating mass. Part of his last homily is read at the annual demonstration that began with a handful of friends of those murdered throughout Latin America by soldiers trained at the SOA. Today, the rally includes over 10,000 priests, nuns, unionists, and students as well as friends of the victims. Although there is not an official Quaker presence at SOA Watch demonstrations, Friends from across the country are involved in supporting, publicizing, and attending demonstrations.
The SOA was established in Panama in 1946 to train Latin American soldiers to protect the interests of U.S. corporations and maintain an economy that benefits powerful people in the U.S. and their allies in Latin America. Pentagon figures estimate that $10 to $20 million of our taxes annually support the SOA. Through the SOA, a U.S. military presence is maintained without jeopardizing the lives of U.S. soldiers. Approximately 60,000 Latin American troops have now learned combat skills such as commando tactics, military intelligence, and psychological operations at the SOA. A White House report confirmed the use of SOA training manuals that advocated torture, execution, and blackmail.
Dubbed "The School of Assassins," the SOA is responsible for the deaths of numerous Latin Americans who once threatened U.S. interests. The victims of SOA graduates range from labor leaders and protesters to clergy and innocent witnesses; no one is free from the tyranny enforced by SOA-trained soldiers. What follows is a compilation of stories based on conversations with SOA Watch members who protested at Ft. Benning, Georgia, in the fall of 2000.
Frank and Carol Cummings joined an SOA Watch protest at Ft. Benning about ten years ago, when a priest-friend joined Roy in a fast at the gates. "There were about 20 people and more police than that" commented Frank in a recent discussion. The Cummings participate in the annual demonstration to provide a presence from Atlanta (Ga.) Meeting and Atlanta Sanctuary Committee, as Frank was AFSC Acting Director for the southeast and a board member of Network in Solidarity with the People of Guatemala (NISGUA). Frank is also a member of the Sanctuary Movement, which includes Quakers as well as other religious groups, and which assists refugees from Guatemala and El Salvador to live and speak in the U.S. against torture and terrorist events happening in their villages. This year Frank organized an AFSC and NISGUA information table at the SOA demonstration.
November 2000 was the second time that Blue Maas, of Des Moines Valley (Iowa) Meeting, participated. Blue tells her story: "Last year in 1999, the tenth anniversary of the slayings, I decided to join the SOA Watch. Using the Internet and e-mail, I found a room to share with other protesters to cut expenses. I carried a white cross with the name ‘Benjamin Linder/Nicaragua’ painted on it, given me by a Quaker, Marian Solomon, who’d carried it in previous years. She told me Linder had been a young man from Washington who, upon his graduation, went to the mountains of Nicaragua to build hydroelectric devices that would bring fresh water to villages. He was kidnapped and killed by SOA graduates." Blue carried the cross enscribed with Linder’s name all the way to Ft. Benning. "I switched planes in Atlanta and while doing so, met others obviously headed for the SOA Watch demonstration. As we boarded the plane, a very petite, gray-haired woman tearfully approached me. She pointed her finger at the name on my cross and said, ‘This is … my son.’ There are not words to describe the emotion of that moment and the joy and pride I felt in having made the decision to go to Ft. Benning. Mrs. Linder told me that this was the first time she was going to the demonstration, ‘to be with [her] son.’
"That first night I attended one of several informational sessions held by SOA Watch organizers. Here all protesters take a pledge to participate nonviolently, form affinity groups if they haven’t already done so, and are told what to expect over the weekend. The atmosphere is one of intense caring and solidarity.
"Because of individual schedules, it was two nights before I had the opportunity to spend time with Nadine, a Chicago resident of Salvadoran ancestry and the woman with whom I was sharing a bed!" Blue finally met her roommate and was moved by her story. "Saturday afternoon I found her in our room, busy with a diorama. Using few words she indicated that, like the cross I was to carry Sunday, she would be carrying this three-dimensional miniature of a gravesite and headstone to symbolize her story. In 1982 several men had rampaged her village in El Salvador, raping and killing. She ran, although eight months pregnant, and was caught. Two of the men held her down and sliced open her belly with machetes, hacking the baby and what was left of the flesh of her uterus. They left her to die. The men who attacked her and their leaders were graduates of the SOA. Now she annually protests to close the SOA.
Sunday morning, Blue headed for the demonstration at the front gates of Ft. Benning. "I was to catch a flight home at 12:30, not giving me much time to see the actual funeral procession. I carried my cross as I went to arrange for a cab to the local airport. As I did so, I was stopped by a young woman who recognized the name on the cross as a dedication in a book written by Barbara Kingsolver. The woman explained that she was a resident of Columbus, and I shared what I knew about ‘Benjamin Linder/Nicaragua.’ Then she offered to drive me to the Atlanta airport (a three-hour drive), even though we had just met! As it worked out, she drove me to the local airport in time to catch my original departing flight." Blue still maintains a friendship with this chance acquaintance and even stayed with her when she was at the rally in 2000. Blue planned her trip to the 2000 protest so that she could be present at the processional and cross the line into Ft. Benning.
"I found the march onto the base on Sunday very somber, yet spiritually uplifting. The names of the murdered are read, and all those with crosses lift them and say "presente," meaning "you are with us today and we honor you." People walk in native costumes, many carrying flowers and signs, others with various individual symbols honoring murdered family and friends. On the quiet, slow walk to cross the line I thought of Nadine and her baby, Benjamin Linder and his mother, Friends I knew in Central and South America, and the Quakers supporting me in Iowa."
My daughter Breeze Luetke-Stahlman participated in her first demonstration against the SOA at the Pentagon in the spring of 1999 while interning at William Penn House in Washington, D.C. Breeze tells her story: "I was a puppeteer in a ‘National Day without the Pentagon,’ an action involving street theater, a solemn procession, the symbolic burying of the SOA using dirt brought by the protesters from all over the world, and a ‘die-in’ to bring attention to the number of deaths for which the SOA is responsible. A ‘die-in’ is a reenactment of the massacres carried out by SOA-trained soldiers. They occurred on both sides of the ‘line’ during the November demonstration in Georgia.
"This year  I decided to join a University of Kansas group (where I now am in school). The Sunday prior to the event, my mother and I participated in a special, nondenominational, faith-based commitment and solidarity ceremony at the campus ecumenical center. There we met about 20 students and community members from Topeka, Olathe, and Lawrence who had a variety of reasons for attending the SOA Watch demonstration. Hannah, my 17-year-old sister, decided to join us. She had been working with the AFSC locally to stop military recruiters from speaking in area high schools, and she saw the protest as an extension of that work. Hannah and I had also worked in a mountain village in Honduras under the care of Chapel Hill (N.C.) Meeting earlier in the fall. We went for our friends there. I remembered the words of Archbishop Oscar Romero who said in his last homily, knowing he would be murdered, ‘Let those with voices speak for the voiceless.’ I traveled to Ft. Benning because I wanted to use my body as a tool and add my voice to those who are saying that we must do all we can to close the SOA.
"At the gates of Ft. Benning I walked in the processional and decided to cross the line onto the base. I walked arm-in-arm with eight others, including my sister Hannah. Proudly upholding our pledge to nonviolence, we were arrested. Although in previous years protesters had been banned from returning to the base for a year, this time the ban was for five years. If we cross the line in the next five years, we risk six months in prison, a $50,000 fine, or both. Many have already served time or are currently in jail for participating in previous SOA Watch events.
"Local reporters met our vans as our group returned to Kansas. The next day, my 22nd birthday, the headlines told our story. One article that touched many ended with my words: ‘You give me five years, I’ll give you five people.’ In other words, we need Friends to cross next year!
"Also in an effort to bring my experience to others, I designed a postcard of Hannah and [me] carrying our banner and crosses. On the back we asked others to join us November 16-18, 2001. With some support from our Penn Valley Meeting, we sent nearly 200 of these to (F)friends around the country during the week of our final exams! If one of those postcards sparks one conversation that questions the role of the SOA, my time and energy will have been worth it. I hope to see more members of my Quaker community beside me at the gates."
Peg Morton is an active member of Eugene (Oreg.) Meeting. "I am a long-term activist, mainly in the Central American solidarity and war-tax resistance movements. I’ve wanted to be present at faith-based actions for change and have found myself focusing on closing the SOA. This organization represents the absolute worst of an intricate web of U.S. and corporate policies of greed, environmental rampage, and both insidious and physically violent war upon the poor around the world.
"I traveled from Oregon to Ft. Benning with 80 others. This year more than ever, SOA Watch welcomed and embraced the global movement for change, and I was impressed with the diversity of those in attendance: young people with puppets, vitality, and imagination mixed with Catholic sisters, unionists, those in wheelchairs, families with toddlers, and weathered activists to spend the weekend in the chilly drizzle and protest nonviolently. . . . We all agreed to act in reverence and to honor those murdered. About 3,600 protesters risked arrest by crossing the line onto base property and walking as far as possible onto the base. Over 2,100 of us were actually arrested.
"As I watched all those people standing in the rain and cold, listening to survivors of the actual massacre in 1996 in Chiapas, to Pete Seeger, to a row of people who have served this cause in prison, I felt a power that transcends the violence in the world. I felt hope. When it was time for my affinity group of six to walk in the long funeral procession and cross onto the base, we carried dolls that were dressed for burial, each representing a massacred child.
"Shrouded in black, I clutched a family of little rag dolls, [symbolizing] the siblings of a friend who is a survivor of a Guatemala massacre. Never have I felt so bonded to dolls. Once on the base we walked until we found a grassy patch. There we used spades to bury our dolls, wailing loudly from the deepest places of our hearts. Many joined us in our wailing. We were arrested for ‘criminal trespass’ and ‘destroying property.’ Yet the dictators and generals, graduates of the SOA and perpetrators of massacres, go uncharged, untried. We were of course issued ‘ban and bar’ letters. One of our group, Ann Huntwork, was already awaiting trial and her turn to serve in prison."
Nancy Smith crossed onto the base, as she has done several times before. Her motivation stems from being involved with the Sanctuary Movement in the 1980s as well as ties to the Presbyterian church and Atlanta Meeting. At that time, she met a refugee from Guatemala who was active in the SOA Watch. Nancy was moved to participate. She finally went to Ft. Benning some 15 years later in honor of her friends, others who have suffered, and those who continue to suffer at the hands of SOA-trained military. "I wanted to learn more about the SOA and add my voice to gain attention to an injustice," she recalls. "I was impressed at the number of people I saw there and their commitment."
Nancy Smith’s son was one of about 20 Guilford College students who also demonstrated against the SOA. The school’s Service and Coordination Council paid for their gas and hotel, and meals were packed by the school cafeteria. Other support came from the Quaker Leadership Scholars Program and the campus Amnesty International organization. Of the 15 or 20 people who went, two were Quaker. Eight students crossed the line and were processed for arrest.
"As a Quaker and a pacifist," reported Priscilla Ewen from Atlanta, "I go to the SOA protest every year because it is a way to stand up to America’s pervasive militarism within a wide base of support. The SOA is so clearly a human rights hazard that many people want to see it closed. More broadly, I am protesting America’s general foreign policy especially in Latin America. I definitely think more Quakers should show up next year. There are plenty of religious groups represented, most visibly Catholics and Buddhists. You don’t have to be prepared to go to jail to go to the protest. Some people don’t cross, some do and come back before they are arrested, and others risk arrest. This past year, an affinity group model was adopted from Seattle and D.C. protests. There was a beautiful and moving affinity group with huge puppets; the soldiers took the puppets from the protesters and hacked them. Those who remain outside of the gates pray for those who cross; a vital role. A huge die-in of 1,000 people was planned this year as well, but it was so wet that the idea was abandoned. Signs included the slogans, ‘I order you in the name of God, Stop the oppression’ (Romero) and ‘Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that’ (Martin Luther King Jr.)."
Attending the demonstration for the first time this year were Malcolm and Lucy Bell from Weston, Vermont, and members of Wilderness Meeting. Malcolm became involved after joining the Sanctuary Movement and meeting Frank Cummings in 1989. Malcolm distrusts the mission of the SOA and believes the motivation is control and military fraternity. He found it "terribly moving" to watch the multiple columns of people walking peacefully into the fort and feels strongly that "actions against the SOA help to inform the American public of the truth behind the school." Malcolm wrote a letter to the editor of the Columbus newspaper that was published several days after the November demonstration. The Bells would like to see a Quaker presence this November. "There is a good deal of public respect for the Quakers and nothing could be more consistent with our Peace Testimony," Malcolm said in a recent telephone conversation. They plan to return to the base in November and cross.
Like Malcolm, I found protesting the SOA very powerful. Participating in the rally, as well as knowing that the experiences I heard were similar to my own, gives me strength. Through shared witness, I can continue to work for a better world.
Call or e-mail the SOA Watch, (202) 234-3440 – [email protected], or contact the website at www.soaw.org for more information.