Speaking Truth to Power
Thousands protest School of the Americas
BY CLARE HANRAHAN
"Now, ma'am, you don't want to keep lying there on that hard ground do you?" the police officer asked. He moved from body to body among nearly 50 strewn along the road about a quarter-mile inside the gates of the U.S. Army Infantry Center at Ft. Benning in Columbus, Ga.
I was one of the prone figures, dressed in a black shroud splashed with blood-red paint and wearing a white death mask. I was among the 4,408 people who stepped over the line Nov. 21 in a solemn funeral procession. Doing so meant risking a maximum sentence of six months and a $5,000 fine, or both, in a dramatic call for closing the Army's School of the Americas (SOA) on the Fort. The number nearly doubled the 2,319 who risked arrest in 1998.
To the cadence of a single drum beat, the procession of remembrance and resistance intoned a mournful "presente" after each name was called in a list of those murdered by death-squad graduates of SOA. The names included over 900 villagers who were massacred in 1981 in El Mozote, El Salvador. The entire procession took more than an hour to cross the line.
Organizers estimate that nearly 12,000 people traveled to Columbus from around the country, and from Peru, Mexico, Nicaragua, Puerto Rico and Canada, to say, "Nunca Mas," Never Again. They carried thousands of white crosses bearing the names of civilian victims of SOA violence. Vigilers who stayed outside the gates offered prayer and support as the protesters crossed the line.
"The SOA is on the far edge of what humans do in desecration of the planet," said Asheville, N.C., resident Peggy Seeger. "If you can kill your own kind wantonly, then nothing is sacred." This was her first trip to Ft. Benning. Her older brother, the legendary folk singer Pete Seeger, now 80, was one of the featured musicians. He said he had not been to Ft. Benning since his Army induction there 57 years before.
It has been 10 years since the Nov. 16 killings in San Salvador when six Jesuit priests and two women co-workers were dragged from their beds, tortured and murdered. Nineteen of the military officers cited for that atrocity received training at the SOA.
For nine years, protesters have gathered in Columbus to commemorate the victims in a war against the indigenous poor of Latin America that targets religious leaders, student activists, labor organizers, health care workers, teachers, farmers, the very old and the very young.
The movement, known as SOA Watch, was founded by Maryknoll Priest Roy Bourgeous. Vietnam veterans Charlie and Patrick Liteky first drew attention to the SOA curriculum in a 1990 nonviolent action that resulted in the first of many harsh jail sentences for SOA prisoners of conscience. Jail time for resisters far exceeds the prison time imposed on any of the SOA-trained soldiers cited in the United Nations Truth Commission reports as responsible for continuing human rights violations.
The movement to close the school now includes 130 Catholic bishops, the NAACP, American Indian activist organizations, the AFL-CIO, as well as a number of traditional peace and justice groups, such as the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, the Fellowship of Reconciliation and the War Resisters League.
While only a handful of protesters were from South Carolina, North Carolina was well-represented, including several hundred students from schools and colleges across the state.
Oscar Sanchez, 18, a senior at Asheville High School, said, "It was amazing to see so many people who really care, not just about themselves. Different races, creeds, ideas, all coming together to do the right thing. It makes me feel proud of being a human being. SOA involves all of us. What is going on down there affects us, the whole world and me -- especially being Mexican -- it affects me."
Cresta Hines, an alumna of the University of South Carolina, crossed the line with her parents, retired USC professor and human rights activist Bruce Pearson and his wife, Julie.
"The experience was unlike any other I have ever had," Hines said. "It was awe-inspiring to be a part of such a large group of people, all of whom were dedicated to the principles of non-violence and who shared a common goal: closing the SOA. I was overcome with the entire experience. If the SOA isn't closed this year, I'll be back at Ft. Benning every year until it is."
SOA Watch founder and co-director Bourgeous isn't appeased by efforts to sanitize the image of the SOA. "[SOA] is about men with guns. It's about violence. It's about suffering. It's about death. We don't want this school reformed. There is so much horror and death. It can only be closed; it cannot be changed."
As the reading of names began, shrouded figures symbolizing the dead, led the procession over the line and fell to the ground beside home-made coffins. Daniel Berrigan, a Jesuit priest and a nonviolent activist since opposing the Vietnam War, and actor Martin Sheen, in his second crossing at the Fort, were in the front lines of the procession halted by the fallen bodies. Berrigan wore a picture of one of the murdered Jesuits around his neck.
I watched the scene before me, framed in the eye socket of my death mask: Berrigan, kneeling and praying over the prone figure of a man who had walked on the base leaning on a cane with each faltering step, his Parkinson's disease evident in his trembling hands. The police were concerned. They hovered over him. Neither man responded to the police who entreated them to get up and board one of 30 waiting buses.
The litany of names continued. Elba Ramos. "Presente," came the crowd's response.
"If you get up now and walk to the bus, we will not process you," an officer said, offering impunity to this third-time crosser. I had a five-year "ban and bar" order from a 1997 crossing restricting me from re-entering the base, but my conscience compelled me to cross again.
"I just want to make sure you aren't hurt," another said. "You can lie there all day, if you want to." The midday sun was hot, and perspiration was beading up under my mask. But the golden leaves were still clinging to trees in the lawn on either side of the road. The sky was blue, and the ground felt holy in the company of so many taking the risks to speak truth to power. I settled in on the sloping bank.
Through the mask, I had an occasional glimpse of soldiers in camouflage talking by radio. They left the job of removing vigilers to the city police, whose gloved hands appeared bloody from our shrouds as they tried to lift the "dead" to their feet.
I heard whispered strategy among some of the peacekeepers allowed to accompany the procession as part of negotiated agreements with base officials. "There isn't room for everyone to cross the line," one said. "The dead are in the way. They will have to move to the side to let the procession pass." I chose the shoulder of the road when I fell to the ground. Soon I was joined there by the others who again sprawled in mock death. The procession moved forward.
Oscar Romero, the name of the murdered Salvadoran Archbishop, was called out. "Presente." And the drum beat sounded.
From the ground I watched their faces as hundreds passed. Tears were streaming down many faces as they turned toward our prone figures. They offered gestures of blessing and whispered, "Thank you. God bless you." I recognized many of them, veterans of nonviolent campaigns on various fronts. There were energetic college students and resolute women from religious orders throughout the country. Their presence strengthened my resolve to continue in this resistance.
"It shook me to my bones. It was so profound," said Asheville resident Anne Craig, a retired teacher and longtime member of the War Resisters League. This was her second crossing.
"I just started bawling. It was so powerful. It was absolutely soul shattering," she said. "It was like when really good theater touches a very deep part of me and sends a message about life. It brought home to me on a continuing, deepening level the specter of the death that we propagated."
Megan Reilly Buser, a former lay missionary in Guatemala, crossed the line with her husband, Asheville psychiatrist Steve Buser, and her parents, who traveled from Flat Rock. "As we were walking, we could hear the names of the martyrs echoed throughout the trees," she said. "The word 'presente' kept coming and coming. When we couldn't hear the names any more, we could still hear 'presente.' It was hard not to cry. My faith led me to cross the line. This isn't just a thing about the past; human rights abuses are happening right now. It has to be stopped.
"Peacekeepers were very good about offering us choices, about how far to take our witness," she said. "There is a safety in the discipline. You don't have to feel like the most radical person in the world to participate in the vigil. The vigil is a prayer."
Segundo Montes, the litany continued. "Presente," came the reply.
Police officers who blocked the road invited people to board waiting buses. There was no mention of arrest. Some complied. Many others sat down across the road. Amid the confusion, people began to talk among themselves and to share water and food. The gathering took on the atmosphere of a friendly reunion breaking the solemnity of the first hour. One woman, spotting a friend, ran toward her, stepping on my hand as she passed. It was hard to stay dead.
Incense wafted on the air. A priest in clerical vestment and swinging a gold incense burner stood over me. Instead of a Latin prayer for the dead, he intoned, "You don't have to get up if you're not arrested," and moved on to the next person.
More strategy. Another whispered choice. We "dead" agreed to rise up, take up the coffins, and begin another silent walk further into the base, both to reclaim the solemn spirit of the occasion and to raise the stakes. We walked forward until we reached another line of police and again fell dead.
"OK. Now you're all under arrest," a frustrated officer said, to no one in particular. Then he came to each of the shrouded figures. "You're under arrest. Will you get up?" Most of us remained limp and were gently, carefully, dragged to waiting buses.
The majority of those who crossed the line eventually boarded buses and were taken to a public park about two miles from the base.
"As we walked back [from the park] through a neighborhood near the base, people came out and waved," said Black Mountain resident Monroe Gilmore, who traveled to Columbus with his wife and children. "One older woman stood in her yard holding her yard hose about waist high with the water running. Having not had water for several hours, people went over and drank from the hose like a water fountain. In a very gentle way, she would tell everyone, 'Now, you have a good trip home.'"
Asheville resident Joan Skelton, who spent much of her childhood at Ft. Benning while her father was an officer there, joined the protest. As she crossed the line onto the base, she realized the procession was passing very near the cemetery where her father is buried.
Robert Randall of Brunswick, Ga., one of numerous tax resisters who crossed the line, said, "I've never voluntarily paid for this or any other form of militarism, all of which has a bottom line of killing people. We're here to say that the killing will only stop when every one of us refuses to pay for it any more."
Inocencia Chacon, of Asheville, came with her husband, her mother and her 13-year-old daughter. "We heard that these graduates were also involved in the killings in Chiapas," she said. "I have a lot of relatives in Mexico, and I worry this might spread.
"Everybody [in the procession] was so friendly, so understanding. Most were Americans, and the concerns they feel for the Spanish people being killed, it makes me feel -- it's hard to explain -- like they are family of yours, the way they care about the well-being of the other countries."
About 500 people who refused to voluntarily board a bus remained inside the base blocking the road for about five hours. Then they marched back, singing to the applause of supporters.
The 65 persons who were arrested from the die-in group were taken to an aircraft hangar on the Fort. There, each protester was searched, fingerprinted and photographed. Our names were checked on computer listings of those who had been arrested previously at Ft. Benning. Twenty-five of the 601 who crossed the line in 1997 served six-month prison sentences as repeat offenders.
I was issued another order barring me from Ft. Benning for five years. I was confused and relieved. The reprieve felt like a continuation of the mysterious spiritual quality that permeates this witness. When I checked the older letter, I realized the Army's clerical error. My middle name had been listed as my first, and my first as my last. Somewhere in the Army records of prior arrests Marie Clare holds my place.
No clerical error intervened for Linda Mashburn of Statesville, and 22 others. They were told they were free to go but to expect a letter from the federal magistrate regarding further prosecution.
This was a third crossing for Mashburn. She and her husband, Bill, had returned from Guatemala to attend the gathering. "Just last Sunday afternoon, a week before I took part in this action, I was reading the names on one tomb in Robinall, another area heavily hit with massacres," she said. "One had the names of 107 children and 79 women. Another tomb nearby had the names and ages of about 47-49 children, ranging from a few months to up to 12 or 14 years. That's why I asked to carry a child's casket [in the march]; I was thinking of those children."
Adriana Portillo-Bartow, a Guatemalan Human Rights worker now living in Chicago, lost six family members, including two daughters, ages 9 and 10, who were kidnapped and disappeared during the reign of violence under Guatemalan Minister of Defense and SOA graduate Guevara Rodriguez.
"Violence is the weapon of those who do not have the power of truth," she told the gathering. "We are telling the leaders of SOA that they can change their name and move the school, but we are not going away. Where they go, we will go. We will not rest."
Clare Hanrahan is an Asheville, N.C., writer and war-tax resister. She serves on the National Committee of the War Resisters League.