by Randy Serraglio, SOA Watch/Southwest
Twelve thousand people from all over the United States and the Americas gathered at the gates of Ft. Benning in Columbus, Georgia in November. They came to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the assassination of the six Jesuits, their housekeeper and her daughter in El Salvador and to protest the continued existence of the school that trained their killers: the U.S. Army School of the Americas (SOA).
On Sunday, November 21, over 4,000 crossed the line onto the base in an act of mass civil disobedience. Several exact counts varied: the Army claimed 3,100, while one count was over 5,000. Organizers settled on 4,408 as the official number. Despite the uncertain counts, it was clear that the number arrested was double the number from the year before.
With such huge numbers, it was also difficult to gauge the number of repeat offenders. In the past the base has focused on prosecuting only those who have been banned from the base and returned to cross again. Of over 600 who have received ban and bar letters, organizers estimate that as many as 100 may have crossed again this year.
Inside the base, the protesters met with a confused and somewhat random response from base authorities. It was clear that they were unwilling to prosecute, or even detain, everyone. However, there were limited efforts to identify and detain repeaters.
A few second-timers were pulled from buses that were brought in to carry protesters off the base. It appeared to some that base personnel were attempting to recognize repeaters by sight. Some officers were even asking "Has anyone been here before?"
Most of the protesters were simply boarded onto the buses and released at a park several miles away, with no effort to collect their names or other information. Hundreds who refused to board the buses after crossing the line stayed in the road for several hours. When authorities finally gave them an ultimatum of being charged and processed if they didn't either get on the buses or walk back off the base, the large group turned around and continued their solemn procession back to the remaining crowd.
During the demonstration, about 65 protesters were detained for processing, of whom 23 proved to be second-timers who were formally charged. Their arraignment is scheduled for January 14 in Columbus federal district court. As of press time, it appears that the prosecution will go forward.
Most of those detained were from a group of about 50 at the front of the line, some carrying coffins, who engaged in a "high risk" action when the march was stopped less than a mile inside the base. Dressed in black robes and white death masks, with colorful peace cranes hanging from their necks, they doused themselves with fake blood and staged a die-in on Ft. Benning Road.
The group of 23 being prosecuted is very similar to the diverse group of 25 who received six-month sentences and $3000 fines for the November 1997 action. The group includes twenty-something students and sixty-something retirees, as well as several nuns and clergy.
It is not at all clear that they will face the same stiff penalties, however. Longtime nemesis Judge Robert Elliott, now over 90 years old, has had a stroke and is on indefinite leave. The current group will face a new judge, prosecutor, and magistrate.
One member of the twenty-three, Congressional Medal of Honor recipient Charles Liteky, went back onto the base in a much smaller action in December, carrying a coffin to commemorate the 1981 El Mozote massacre in El Salvador. His case has been separated from the 23 and he will be prosecuted alone. He has already been arraigned on two charges and awaits a trial date.
The crowd at this year's vigil was boosted by about 1,000 representatives from Jesuit institutions around the country, who made it a priority to attend the 10th anniversary event. They held a teach-in, masses, and an impromptu and spirited revival of sorts under a tent in downtown Columbus.
Because of the huge numbers, nonviolence training sessions were modified this year to focus mostly on the logistics of the action, as well as the spirit, tradition, and history of nonviolence. Protesters were encouraged to hold their own more involved and intimate trainings before arriving.
The thousands who attended the sessions in Columbus were treated to performances by Pete Seeger and his grandson Tao Rodriguez, Charlie King and Karen Brandow, Jon Fromer, and Sing it Down, comprised of Colleen Kattau and Jolie Christine Rickman, all of whom performed on stage at the vigil as well.
At the vigil the speaker list was extremely diverse, with people of many backgrounds from all over the Americas. It included survivors of SOA violence such as Rufina Amaya, who was the sole survivor of the El Mozote massacre, and Adriana Bartow-Portillo, who lost several family members in Guatemala.
As the thousands marched solemnly onto the base to bear witness, names of victims were read out, each one hanging in the chill air, and the crowd gently responded "presente." The list began with the children of Rufina and Adriana, who stood upon the stage and wept, as the crossers filed past and the list went on and on...
One look into their faces at that moment explains our entire movement.
For more information, contact SOA Watch, P.O. Box 4566, Washington,
D.C. 20017; (202)234-3440
or S.O.A. Watch, P.O. Box 3330, Columbus, GA 31903, (706)682-5369. Or on the web at www.soaw.org
A few days before the major event in Georgia, on the date of the 1989 assassinations, November 16, a group of about 70 activists gathered at the new Sacramento, California, federal building to call for the School of the Americas to be shut down. Demonstrators engaging in civil disobedience each wore a large placard bearing the name of one of the Salvadorans or another victim of graduates of the infamous military training academy, now located at Fort Benning. Two activists in military camouflage staged executions of these people, who poured their own blood on themselves and piled up in a bloody heap, blocking the main entrance. Twenty people were cited and released pending a date in federal court.
For more information on the Sacramento arrests, contact the Sacramento Catholic Worker, 619 12th St., Sacramento, CA 95814, (916)447-3785.