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November 2010, Week 5

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Bearing Witness, Making Solidarity:

5,000 Turn Out vs. Torture and Murder

At Fort Benning's `School of the Americas'

By Carl Davidson

The annual School of the Americas Watch vigil and
procession are a unique and powerful event in America
political life

Going on for 20 years now, the mobilization against the
training of torturers and killers in Fort Benning, GA
is part peace mobilization, part solidarity with Latin
America event, part religious pageant, part public face
of the Catholic left, and part gathering of the tribes
for newly radicalized youth. The gathering draws
thousands of people, including nuns and priests,
veterans and labor organizers, along with other peace
and solidarity activists. They all come for a two-day
creative mixture of diverse events that leaves everyone
politically transformed and emotionally peaked.

This year's event was no different. Over the weekend of
Nov 19-21, close to 5000 people took part is a series
of colorful and dramatic actions. Thirty were arrested
and held several days by police. Four of these were
arrested after intentionally committing civil
disobedience by climbing over a fence topped with
barbed wire at the entrance to Fort Benning. Others
were arrested for simply straying off a sidewalk in an
attempt to march to downtown Columbus, GA. Local courts
imposed heavy fines and maximum sentences.

Why is the U.S military training torturers and death
squads? The answer is an old one: wealth, power and
intimidated, non-union labor.

"For the past several decades, the US has allied with
dictators in Latin America who helped that region's
small, elite group of wealthy landowners," said SOAW
founder Father Roy Bourgeois, a Louisiana native, who
lives just outside the gates of the school in Fort
Benning where he carries on his work.

"We got involved militarily with these countries
because they were rich in natural resources, with
coffee in Colombia, bananas in Central America, copper
in Chile, petroleum in Venezuela and tin in Bolivia.
With their militaries, the U.S. joined with them to
exploit those natural resources and to pay workers $1 a
day. There were no labor laws there," Bourgeois noted.
"We were like the new conquistadors."

The high point of the weekend was the Sunday procession
of thousands, each carrying a white cross with the name
of a slain Latin American peasant, worker or child, and
a number of priests and nuns, including Salvadoran
Archbishop Oscar Romero, slain by those trained in Fort
Benning's SOA facility. Teams of singers mournfully
sang the names and ages, and after each one, everyone
raised their crosses, and answered with the classic
salute of the living to those who have fallen in
battle: "Presente!"

The procession lasted for hours as the column of
mourners bearing crosses of the dead walked from the
front of the stage up one side of the street to the
police barriers and back down the other side of the
street to the back of the stage. There they placed the
crosses into the chain link fence blocking the entrance
to the military base. Many mourners cried. Some raised
their fists. Some knelt in prayer or meditation as the
singing of the names and the chant of "Presente!"
continued. Behind the stage a theatre group staged a
scene of murdered members of a religious order, their
bodies spattered with blood. Others snapped pictures or
stood quietly.

As soon as a young man approached the fence military
loudspeakers surrounding the entire area blared a
recorded message asserting that the military base was a
legal entity and operated under the U.S. Constitution
and that crossing onto base property was a federal
crime. Cheering and applause roared up as the young man
climbed the fence, crossed the barbed wire top and
dropped onto the grass. Before he could reach the
second fence he was apprehended and cuffed by the
military police. On the east side of the street up the
hillside crowds of neighborhood residents stood
silently in their yards observing the ceremony of
remembrance.

Over its 59 years of existence, the SOA, frequently
dubbed the "School of Assassins," has left a trail of
blood and suffering. It has trained over 60,000 Latin
American soldiers in counterinsurgency techniques,
sniper training, commando and psychological warfare,
military intelligence and interrogation tactics. Among
those targeted are educators, union organizers,
religious workers, student leaders, and others who work
for the rights of the poor. Hundreds of thousands of
Latin Americans have been tortured, raped,
assassinated, "disappeared," massacred, and forced into
being refugees.

"I am a different person, and so is everyone else who
confronted this evil," said Randy Shannon from Beaver
County, PA. "We walked in a procession singing out the
name of each and every one of the thousands of Latin
American men, women, and children, mostly working
people and their spiritual brothers and sisters. It was
a remembrance of their loss and our shame."

Shannon is a national committee member of the
Committees of Correspondence for Democracy and
Socialism. Together with Jim Skillman and Steve Wise
from Atlanta, along with me, we comprised a team of
four who worked the CCDS book and literature table, as
well as taking part in many of the events. Randy made
the long drive from Pennsylvania the day before, so we
were early arrivals on Saturday, Nov. 20. We managed to
get our van unloaded and table set up before 9am.

The School of the Americas Watch team had the area well
organized. A strikingly decorated stage was constructed
near the double barbed wire topped fences blocking the
entrance to Fort Benning. The stage was at the foot of
a 10-block-long section of a street that was had been
blocked off by police. The wide corridor with tall
loudspeakers stationed every few blocks, provided
excellent acoustics. Homes of local residents were on
one side of the corridor, and many had food concessions
on their lawns. On the other side of the street was a
chain link fence, against which a long line of booths
for political groups and vendors were arrayed. On the
other side of the chain link fence was a grassy area
patrolled by military and local police.

Before long, the buses start arriving. They came from
across the South and the Midwest, up to Minnesota, down
to Florida, and out to Nebraska. A good number were
from small Catholic colleges and universities, and
loads of students, along with the nuns, monks and
priests who taught them, unloaded with smiles and
excitement at being there.

"As an activist since the 1960s," said Atlanta's Jim
Skillman, "I find it intoxicating to be in the midst of
so many justice-minded young people." A Vietnam
veteran, Skillman had joined SDS at Georgia State after
leaving the army in 1967, and has been a dedicated
labor, peace and human rights organizer ever since.

Other veterans started showing up in batches. They
gathered around the `Courage to Resist' table, a group
of today's Iraq and Afghan vets. They were featuring a
display defending Private Bradley Manning, facing 50
years in prison for being a whistleblower leaking
information about war crimes in Iraq.

A variety of religious forces also began arrives. A
group of Presbyterians unfurled a banner. A group of
Buddhist monks of Nipponzan Myohoji, Atlanta Dojo
walked more than 100 miles as a walking prayer to
`Close the SOA.' They averaged 15 miles per day,
staying in churches or supporters' homes. .

Our CCDS table quickly became very busy. We came up
with the successful idea of making a thousand small
water-applicable `No to SOA' tattoos, the letters SOA
with a red circle and slash. `Get a free tattoo! Just
sign up with your email for our CCDS newsletter!' We
were surrounded by eager signers for the entire two
days. Naturally, some of the taboo applications turned
into longer discussions and book purchases. It was a
lively time well spent.

A far larger feature of the weekend than activity at
the tables, however, was an ongoing tension shaping up
with the police, military security and the FBI, who are
all present in force. The strategy of the SOA and local
authorities is apparently to find every possible minor
transgression to crack down hard on participants, to
impose quick and severe penalties for planned civil
disobedience, and where no problems exists, to use
undercover agent provocateurs to create division and
trouble.

The Columbus city police headed the security
preparations this year, assisted by the Muscogee County
sheriff's and marshal's offices, Fort Benning's own
military police force, and a number of undercover
agents disguised as protestors.

The agent provocateurs were focused on a planned march
to take the SOA Watch protest into downtown Columbus on
Saturday afternoon. At a meeting the night before,
three individuals kept egging people into the streets.
When challenged as to who they were, they then faded
away. The next day when the march did take place, a
number of the crowd stepped off the sidewalk and into
the street at one point. According to the Columbus
Ledger-Enquirer:

"Lauren Stinson, an undercover agent with the Metro
Narcotics Task Force, testified Sunday that she
participated in two meetings with SOA Watch protesters
as they planned to step onto Victory Drive Saturday
afternoon. All but one of the 22 arrested were found
guilty, an SOA Watch organizer said. Stinson followed
the group of about 12 people into the southbound lane
around 4:45 p.m., blocking traffic and being rounded up
with the others on charges including obstruction of a
highway and unlawful assembly. Stinson was put in the
back of a patrol car and taken to the Muscogee County
Jail, but wasn't arrested. She testified before
Columbus Recorder's Court Judge Michael Cielinski in
some of the 22 cases the judge heard Sunday afternoon."

When defense attorneys tried to question Agent Stinson
on the stand to learn more about her team's operation,
the judge ruled that she didn't have to answer, and she
didn't. For the minor incursion of stepping into the
street, each protestor was hit with $5000 in bail and
six month jail terms.

"Many of these tactics are not new," said Jake Olzen of
the SOA Watch team. "What is new, however, is the
intensity, preparation, and specific targeting used by
law enforcement authorities to discredit the movement's
legitimacy through the use of scare tactics and
deterrence. For example, the Columbus Police department
had photographs and lists of members of the SOA Watch
Legal Collective and were specifically targeting these
individuals because of their capacity as organizers and
their ability to offer legal support. Charity Ryerson,
a former SOA Prisoner of Conscience and Georgetown
University law student, was specifically sought out and
arrested for her role as an organizer."

Sunday morning began with a march of about 100
veterans, followed by music from the stage, mixed with
appeals for bail money for those arrested the day
before.

One visitor to our table on Sunday morning was Bob
King, the newly elected president of the United Auto
Workers. Randy talked to him about the jobs crisis, and
sold him our pamphlet on full employment. King has been
at the SOA Watch protest many times, and has led a U.S.
trade union delegation to El Salvador. This year he was
a featured speaker, and took part in the procession
with his daughter.

"The SOA has a terrible history," said King from the
stage.  "Its graduates were involved in some of the
worst human rights abuses in South and Central America
including the assassination of Archbishop Romero and
six Jesuits priests at the University of Central
America in San Salvador. Those of us who have
democratic rights must be a voice for those less
fortunate who do not have a voice because of the
terrorism they face."

A speaker from Resistencia in Honduras also detailed
some of the atrocities carried out by the Micheletti
and Lobo regimes since the June 28 coup. The new
Wikileaks exposes may well reveal a less-than-neutral
hand by the Obama administration.

Father Roy Bourgeois, when he spoke from the stage,
tied the arrests and undercover police efforts over the
weekend to the wider efforts by the FBI to target
antiwar and solidarity activists with grand jury
subpoenas under the guise of `fighting terrorism.'

"If the FBI is interested in investigating terrorism,"
said Father Bourgeois, "they should come here to
Columbus, Georgia, home of Ft. Benning, where there is
the School of the Americas. This really is a well known
terrorist training camp, and if we want to get serious
about talking about terrorism and closing down
terrorist training camps, I would highly recommend that
the FBI come right in their backyard..I want to offer
my support, as so many of us want to, to our brothers
and sisters in the Committee to Stop FBI Repression.
What has happened to them can happen to anyone, anyone
that is a critic of U.S. foreign policy."

As the speeches concluded and the procession was
underway, the planned civil disobedience of climbing
the barbed-wire fence into Ft. Benning got underway.
This year four people took that step. Two of them,
Louie Vitale, OFM, who crossed the line for the fourth
time, and David Omondi, of the Los Angeles Catholic
Worker who crossed the line for the first time, pleaded
`no contest' and were immediately convicted in federal
court. They each received a six month prison sentence
from U.S. Magistrate Judge Stephen Hyles. Nancy Smith
and Chris Spicer, the two others who crossed over the
fence, will go to trial January 5, 2011.

A number of reports noted that this year's SOAW effort
was smaller than the peak of 20,000 years back. Part of
the reason was that this year's efforts were divided
between those who came to Ft Benning, and others who
had lobbied Congress earlier this summer. In any case,
given the high spirits and determination of those who
came this year, the struggle will be ongoing.

Randy Shannon summed it up: "Seeing UAW's Bob King here
and hearing his militant speech pledging labor's
solidarity with the peace community and Latin America,
all working to close this abomination-that gives me
hope. Likewise, the thousands of students from small
Catholic colleges across the country standing up
against murder and torture--that gives me hope as
well."

[Carl Davidson is a national co-chair and field
organizer for the Committees of Correspondence for
Democracy and Socialism, and a webmaster for Beaver
County Peace Links. If you like this article, make use
of this PayPal button on the right above to help with
the expenses of producing it:

http://carldavidson.blogspot.com/]

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