FORT BENNING, Ga. — In a time when people are shopping to support the country and sporting patriotic t-shirts more than ever, more than 10,000 people gathered at Fort Benning, an Army base in Columbus, Ga., to protest a unique form of U. S. foreign policy.
The protest surrounded the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation School of the Americas, or WHINSEC — a military training center where soldiers from countries in the Western Hemisphere are trained by the U. S. Army. Before 2001, WHINSEC, was known as the School of the Americas or the SOA.
WHINSEC was called for by the U.S. Congress in 2001 to build productive relationships with participating countries to ensure peace, promote democracy and provide professional education to military and law enforcement officials in other countries, according to WHINSEC’s Web site.
Protest and counter-protest
Every November for the past 13 years, a watchdog group known as School of Americas Watch has sponsored a nonviolent protest at the gates of Fort Benning. The protest, held this year on Nov. 22 and 23, consisted of a rally and a memorial march for the people who were allegedly killed by SOA graduates.
This is the fifth year a group from Marquette has participated. A University Ministry-sponsored trip sent 42 students to the protest. There the students also participated in the Ignatian Teach-In, a rally for Jesuit schools and parishes at the protest. This year all 28 Jesuit colleges and universities were represented.
Gerry Fischer, assistant director of University Ministry, has gone every year since Marquette’s first trip.
“I think it’s the perfect example of faith seeking justice,” Fischer said. “It is where the rubber meets the road. It is part educational, part religious experience and part civil action.”
Sophomore Brigid Daly said after learning about the issue she felt she had to go.
“It doesn’t take much to see what terror the SOA creates,” Daly said. “It doesn’t take much more to see that I am implicated in the murders and disappearances if I don’t actively fight peacefully against them.”
The mission of the WHINSEC, however, states an emphasis on human rights and democracy teachings. According to its Web site, enrollees take a three-hour class on U.S. democracy and civilian control of the armed forces. Eight hours are spent on human rights training.
While in Columbus, the 800 to 1,000 students who attend annually meet local officials and view the U.S. social welfare programs, such as public housing.
Sophomore Dorota Pruski said she went because she thinks that the issue represents a lot of larger issues involving U.S. foreign policy.
“We need to hold the United States accountable for their actions,” Pruski said. “I went because I needed to reconnect what I knew in my head with what I felt in my heart.”
The Ignatian Teach-in included such speakers as Sr. Helen Prejean, the Rev. Timothy Lannon, president of St. Joseph’s University and former head of Marquette University Advancement; Rev. Fred Kammer, provincal of the New Orleans province Jesuits; and students from various Jesuit schools.
Kammer said students at the protest were living out the mission of Jesuit education.
“It is good that we are here,” Kammer said. “It is good because we cannot pretend to live in a world where our foreign policy and tax expenditures do not have grave and often unjust consequences.”
Daly thought the connection between the protest and Jesuit education was also clear.
“Jesuit education — it’s so much more than just mispronounced Latin phrases,” Daly said. “I think it calls us to act in a way that is deserving of life. This protest at its heart is about restoring humanity to those who have been stripped of it. And to those who have been taking it away from others.”
People from all countries in the Western Hemisphere can enroll in WHINSEC. This year, Canadian residents will be in the school, according to www.benning.army.mil.
Senior Joyana Jacoby, who spent last spring studying in El Salvador, spoke at the rally.
“It is easy to say the poor will always be with us, there will always be another mouth that needs to be fed, another house to build and become paralyzed by the immensity of injustices in our world,” Jacoby said in her speech. “Yet, after living in El Salvador, immersing myself in the culture, listening exquisitely to another way of living, and being embraced with open arms and hearts by the Salvadoran ‘hospitalidad’ I now have a different understanding of Christ’s words.”
Jacoby also spoke of her experience with the people she met while in El Salvador and their effect on her.
Fischer said he found her speech one of the more inspiring ones.
“It is those stories of experience that bring the reason we are here to life,” Fischer said.
Pruski said she found the personal account of Patrick Stanley, a junior at Fordham University, inspiring as well. Stanley chose to cross the fence at the Fort Benning gate at last year’s protest. Doing so is considered federal trespassing and was an act of civil disobedience that landed him in jail for six months.
“It just struck me that when he made this decision, he was my age,” Pruski said. “That is so much to lose and I realized how deeply he felt about the issue.”
This year, 51 protestors opted to commit civil disobedience and cross onto Fort Benning property. All of them were arrested. At least three of them were Jesuits from the Detroit area.
At the rally at the gates of Fort Benning on Saturday, which consisted of speakers and musicians, the military personnel on the other side of the gate took a proactive response to the protest that had not been done before. They placed several loudspeakers by the gate and began to play patriotic songs and military marches at high volume.
This action upset many of the protestors because the SOA Watch is a legally-permitted rally and this was the first action of its kind in 13 years.
“We will not allow these blatantly unconstitutional attempts to drown out our voices,” said Bill Quigley, a professor of law at Loyola Law School in New Orleans and lawyer for SOA Watch. “These childish actions by the federal, state and local government only strengthen our resolve to stand up for our rights and all the victims of the School of the Americas.”
“It irritated me that they were playing that music as though it would provoke and offend us,” Pruski said. “I am just as American, and it is my country, too.”
A counter-demonstration was held just down the road from the SOA protest that accused the protestors of being unpatriotic because they were not supporting the troops.
According to WHINSEC’s Web site, the institution will help cultivate a more democratic world.
Pruski, who was born in Poland and became a U.S. citizen in 2000, brought another perspective.
“I chose to be a citizen of this country,” Pruski said. “If I did not love this country, I would not care enough to expect more of it.”
Pruski also tried to dispel the notion that attending the protest was only for those in the extreme left wing.
“There is nothing ultra liberal about caring about the fact people are dying for unjust causes,” Pruski said.
The Sunday portion of the protests consisted of a memorial march. Each protestor carried a white cross with the name of a victim of violence committed by WHINSEC graduates. A litany was sung over loud speakers; the names of all known victims were read one by one. With each names, the crowd responded “presente” — Spanish for “I am here.” The march approached the gates where protestors usually place their crosses on the fence. After, some crossed over the fence, committing an act of civil disobedience in protest.
Pruski said she felt a range of emotions at the memorial march — sorrow, anger, frustration and confusion.
“I was overwhelmed by the number of crosses,” Pruski said. “Really I was just deeply disappointed that we let this happen.”
When asked if the protest will solve anything Daly said on a level, it does.
“Our society seems to look at achievement like everything else — achievement comes with instant gratification,” Daly said. “Wars have been achieved, but they have never led us anywhere but into deeper quagmires and more violence. This protest incites hope in the face of hopelessness.”
History of Warfare
Initially established in Panama in 1946, WHINSEC left in 1984 under the terms of the Panama Canal Treaty. It was meant to help stop the spread of communism by properly training military personnel and creating ties between American and Latin American students.
In addition to a course in radio operation and mechanics, the school also offered courses in counterinsurgency techniques, sniper training, commando and psychological warfare, military intelligence and interrogation tactics. Many graduates went on to use these tactics against civilians in their own countries as part of attempts to surpress insurrections. WHINSEC training is paid for by U.S. tax dollars.
In September 1996, the Pentagon released seven Spanish-language training manuals used at the SOA until 1991. They included instructions on torture, interrogation, union busting, and advised targeting priests and other clergy, earning School of the Americas the nickname “School of Assassins” among critics and protestors.
The SOAW holds the WHINSEC is the same as its earlier counterpart.
“A comparison between the SOA and WHINSEC show that the changes are almost entirely cosmetic,” Bourgeois said. “The new military training school is just the SOA under a new name. It is a new name, but the same shame.”
Army ROTC officials declined to comment. Other branches of the ROTC did not return phone calls.