Marquette activists to protest ‘School of Americas’

Some 40 Marquette students and staff will join protestors from across the nation this weekend in Fort Benning, Ga. to decry the military training institute there formerly known as the School of the Americas.

The weekend-long protest and teach-in the Marquette group will be attending is staged every year. It is organized to protest what some call the institute's record of instructing its students to commit violence, especially in Latin America.

University Ministry and Jesuit University Students Concerned with Empowerment, or JUSTICE, are sponsoring the trip to the three-day teach-in and protest, according to Assistant Director of University Ministry Gerry Fischer.

The Marquette protestors will depart campus for Georgia today after a 7 p.m. prayer vigil in the Chapel of the Holy Family.

The organization being protested in Georgia this weekend is known familiarly as the School of the Americas, or the SOA, although the institution actually closed Dec. 15, 2000, according to Lee Rials, public affairs officer for the institute. Approximately one month after the SOA closed, the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, or WHINSEC, opened on the same site. It was created by the same defense bill that closed the SOA, according to Riales.

Because of the short lapse between the closing of the SOA and the opening of WHINSEC, most peace activists continue to use the term "School of the Americas" to refer to both institutions.

"It is a conscious decision," Fischer said. "The coursework is the same, the faculty is the same. They've added some human rights courses, but it's basically the same school."

The first item of duty for the Marquette group will be the Ignation Teach-In on Friday. According to Fischer, the event — a series of speakers, prayers and music services — is designed to teach students from Jesuit universities and high schools about WHINSEC and why they should protest it. Fischer, who has attended the protest every year since 1999, said the teach-in is growing.

"More people are learning about the SOA and the teach-in, and that's why its growing," Fischer said, adding that students are learning about the SOA at younger ages and are being educated about it by social and cultural means, such as the 1989 film "Romero."

"More of the Jesuit universities are coming, and they're bringing more people," Fischer said. "Also, more (Jesuit) high schools are coming."

Following the teach-in will be a weekend-long protest against WHINSEC. Peace activists protest the institution because they believe it trains oppressive regimes and military personnel how to subdue civilians through violent means.

To show their disapproval of WHINSEC, protestors will march up Fort Benning Way to the gates of Fort Benning in a funereal procession.

Each member of the procession will hold a cross emblazoned with the name of someone allegedly killed by a WHINSEC or SOA student. The procession only advances about three-quarters of a mile, but takes about four hours to complete because of the large number of participants, according to Fischer.

The protest will include involvement from actors Susan Sarandon and Martin Sheen, Nobel Peace Prize nominee Kathy Kelly and Sister Helen Prejean, whose life and work were the inspiration for Sarandon's 1995 film "Dead Man Walking."

The protest is held the same time every year to commemorate the slayings of six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper and the housekeeper's daughter in El Salvador 15 years ago. Nineteen of the 26 El Salvadorean soldiers who committed the killings graduated from the School of the Americas, Fischer said.

The slayings and other acts of violence in Latin America by former students of the SOA and WHINSEC are why the Marquette group is protesting it and asking for its closing.

"The SOA is a window to our foreign policy in Latin America," Fischer said. "This is a clear representation of our violent and irresponsible acts in Latin America. As a Christian and an American, I cannot let this continue in our name."

"You can't tie all atrocities to the SOA," Fischer said. "But many of the most atrocious (events) have been linked to the SOA."

Eric Fredell, a senior in the College of Arts & Sciences who will be making his second trip to the protest, echoed Fischer's reasons for attending.

"The School of the Americas commits atrocities, and we can't stand by and let that happen," Fredell said.

Annie Leff, a sophomore College of Arts & Sciences, said she felt she had a responsibility to attend the protest.

"As an American citizen, I feel that it is our duty to use our freedom of speech to protest the graduates of this school who go back to their countries and kill the citizens of their country who aren't allowed to speak out," she said.

Rials denied his institution is responsible for any atrocities.

"We offer professional education and training to eligible citizens of the Western Hemisphere," including both civilians and military personnel, he said. "The idea that an open institution could do anything other than what it's supposed to do is ridiculous. This is a U.S. organization. It is overseen carefully and monitored very carefully."

Rials said WHINSEC is overseen by a 13-member Board of Visitors that includes four members of Congress, a representative from the Department of State, professors from George Washington and Georgia Tech universities and a Catholic priest.

For proof that WHINSEC has nothing to hide, Rials points to the fact the institution can be toured.

"Come see us," he said. "We're open. You can sit in on classes and talk to students and teachers."

Rials said WHINSEC offers protestors the chance to tour its grounds every year on the weekend of the protest. Last year, 525 people took WHINSEC up on its offer, and this year more than 500 people have signed up to do so as well so far, although no one from Marquette had signed up to take the tour as of Wednesday afternoon.

Rials acknowledged that some students of the former School of the Americas did go on to commit acts of violence, but he questioned the cause-and-effect connection most peace activists make between attending the institute and later committing violent acts.

"There is (no connection) that I can think of," he said.