At the gates of Fort Benning

On November 16’th 1989, late at night on the campus of the University of Central America in San Salvador, a troupe of El Salvadorian soldiers entered the private living quarters of six Jesuit priests, and cold bloodedly shot and killed them, together with their servant and her daughter. Horrific as these murders were, there were but one incident in the long saga of atrocities that characterized the Central American nation’s twelve year long civil war. The savage incident may not have attracted much in the way of international or US headlines, but it did galvanize a former American soldier-turned-priest by the name of Father Roy Bourgeouis to expose the role the American military played in the training of the perpetrators of this crime.

Twenty years later, close to the very anniversary of the heinous massacre, thousands, possibly tens of thousands of protestors rallied outside the gates of Fort Benning, a suburban US military base outside of Columbus GA. The facility holds a special place in the hearts and minds of opponents of US foreign policy in the Americas – close to nineteen of the El Salvadoran military officials incriminated in participating or at least covering up the massacre of the Jesuit priests were amongst the 60,000 graduates of the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Co-operation –” formerly known as the School of the Americas. From El Salvador to Chile, Honduras to Bolivia, the tens of thousands of military graduates from the School of the Americas located in the Fort Benning facility have left a trail of death and destruction, political repression and torture that has made the institute the very embodiment of the very worst injustices perpetrated by US foreign policy in Latin America.

Not surprisingly, the facility at Fort Benning has, for the past decade been the focal point for protesters all across the Americas demanding its closure and accountability for the victims of its trainees. Twenty years after the massacre of the Jesuit priests, the protesters have continued to rally, testifying that the memory of the thousands of Latin Americans whose lives and rights were shredded by the graduates of the school has not been lost with time.

In November 2008, and then again, in November 2009, I had the opportunity to protest alongside thousands of other protestors at the gates of Fort Benning. Living in small town Alabama, in a military community home to one of the largest helicopter training facilities in the world does not particularly lend well to involvement with the anti war movement. And yet, the venue for the annual School of the Americas protest outside Columbus GA, one of the biggest events in the antiwar calendar, happens to be only a two hour’s drive from my home. The opportunity to meet with fellow campaigners for justice is one that never should be lost by the ardent antiwar activist, and the friendships and acquaintances formed at such events are well worth the trip.

The annual School of the Americas protest typically commences at a local convention center, where thousands of converging activists typically sign in to register their presence. The thongs of activists represent a broad cross section of American society, in all its vibrant diversity. Young and old, college students and pensioners, men and women, white, Hispanics and African Americans, people from as close by as Atlanta and as far away as the Midwest –” all share the same roof at the convention center in downtown Columbus. The official protest commenced this year with a keynote address by a senior official of the School of the America’s watch –” the premier organizer of the rally, founded by Father Roy Bourgeois in the early 1990s. The inauguration of the protests included a speech by the acting Venezuelan ambassador to the US, a Colombian trade unionist, as well as a rousing speech by Medea Benjamin, founder of Code Pink, one of America’s most prolific anti war activists questioning the wisdom and the morality of awarding President Obama the Nobel Peace Prize even as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan rage on.

Within an hour of the thousands strong crowds dispersing, the protesters had made it to the gates of Fort Benning itself, a quarter of an hour’s drive away. The organizers had already prepared the stage and the pulpit of the protest, just feet from the main gate itself. The road leading from the main highway to the entrance of Fort Benning was literally jam packed with thousands of protestors marching their way to the main gates, as well as with dozens of stands featuring activists and campaigners from various anti war/peace/justice/social reform organizations. They all distributed fliers and posters, and sold CDs and T shirts, badges and trinkets promoting their causes –” and the causes –” from promoting the virtues of vegetarianism, to the support of conscientious objectors in the US military, opposition to the death penalty to resistance to the Israeli occupation –” were a truly diverse one, reflective of the vibrancy of the American left. All were united in their desire not just to see the training ground for the legions of Latin American assassins closed down, but also in their determination to reform society and the world around them as they saw it.

Their sentiments of good conscience were not universally shared. A tiny contingent of supporters of Fort Benning gathered on the main highway holding up placards that among other things, extolled the virtues of the “brave American soldier” over the “socialist” protestors. And as I walked towards the main protest venue from a nearby parkway, a young man driving an SUV showed me his middle finger while on the steering wheel.

Why does the annual protest make so many people insecure?

To some extent, it reflects the inherent taboo existent in at least some sections of American society –” criticizing politicians, academics and entertainers may be accepted, but not the military The notion that a strong, aggressive military is the vanguard of the American way of life, as well as the cherished freedoms that lie at its heart is so deeply ingrained in the contemporary mindset that even outspoken critics of the many sins of US foreign policy think twice before directing criticisms directly at the military.

One of the speakers at the rally, a middle aged woman from Honduras who spoke using an interpreter, gave some insight into the nature of the courage needed to criticize military establishments. She narrated the story of an unarmed Honduran woman protesting the recent military coup in the country (incidentally architected by none other than graduates of the School of the Americas) The woman, while protesting, was confronted by armed soldiers –” she looked at them in the eye and told them to go home and to take care of their families, not attempt to cow unarmed protestors in the name of defending an illegitimate government. Such anecdotes of raw courage –” seen in Iraq and Palestine, as well as in newly dictatorial Honduras provide anti-war protestors in America and beyond the ideological ammunition to carry on their struggle for universal justice with renewed passion –” if populations stripped of their basic rights and dignity can march without fear, what excuse can there be for those with all the constitutional rights guaranteed for not demanding justice?

Two other incidents at the gates of Fort Benning stood out in my mind.

The first involved a handsome young adolescent, no more than twenty years of age, whom I happened to meet the second day of the protest. On Sunday, the protest culminated with a mass rally in front of the gates of Fort Benning, where thousands of protesters listened to speeches given by opponents of the schools as well as family members of the victims of its alumni. As protesters left white cardboard crosses in the barbed wire of the gates, each bearing the name, age and country of origin of a victim of the school’s graduates, I saw him holding, of all things, a Palestinian flag. I approached him to ask him if he was Palestinian and it turns out, he was from New York, of El Salvadoran origin. Like tens of thousands of his countrymen, he had immigrated to the US at a tender age. What he lacked in age and experience, he more than made up for in passion and zeal. He told me of his anger at the massive human rights abuses, acts of violence and injustice perpetrated by the graduates of the School of the Americans against thousands of poor helpless country people across his country, and how stories of their plight motivated him to come to Georgia to demand the school’s closure. “These murderers” –” he hissed as he placed another in a whole line of hundreds of white crosses in the gates of the school.

The man was, in all likelihood, a US citizen, albeit one angered by what activist after activist at the protest saw as the "oppressive" foreign policy of successive American governments. If American foreign policy is to be reformed to be based on universal precepts of ethics and justice, I hold it most likely to be the doing of courageous men like this one, unafraid to contribute to his adopted homeland, while determined to right the many wrongs of its overseas actions.

The second involved a reporter from the local paper, the Columbus Ledger Enquirer. I asked a man who looked like a reporter if he was with the local press –” he replied by saying he worked for the Enquirer. I told him I had visited the paper’s website and found most of the comments about the impending protest a few days before the protest to be opposed to the closure of the school as well as critical of the protests “I think that would be an accurate statement” –” he replied –” before rather casually mentioning that many of the townspeople were grateful for the extra revenue brought in by the thousands of protesters.

The attitude of Columbus’s people could not be more dichotomous –” on the one hand many are a fiercely nationalistic lot who see the presence of one of the most important military bases in the country in their backyard as a point of pride, and view any mention of the school’s dark and brutal past as anathema. On the other hand, many welcome the windfall brought in by people bussed in from all over the America’s calling for it to be shut. In many ways this reflects the schizophrenia inherent in the broader American mindset that yearns for peace but profits from war, celebrates free speech while often suppressing dissent under the guise of patriotism. That schizophrenia plays itself out every single day across the country, on the floor of the Congress and Senate, in coffee shops and restaurants, living rooms and workplaces –” people oppose war, support the troops, condemn politicians for starting wars, and question the wisdom, legitimacy, and morality of US government policy. The protests at the gates of Fort Benning and the broader antiwar movement represent the ego and the conscience of the American public at its very finest –” a determination for peace, accountability, and above all, justice for the untold victims of the School of the America’s victims.

As the second day of the protests culminated, and as thousands of protesters opposed to the school left crosses, candles and signs in remembrance of the human toll of its graduates’ actions, the organizers read the names of hundreds of its victims. The names and ages of the victims are read in English and Spanish, in falsetto voices. After the name of each victim is read the crowd raises a white cross in each protester’s hand, chanting Presente ! in unison. This is a solemn act of remembrance for the victims of the school, in a manner consistent with Latin American tradition. The reading of the names, punctuated with the collective Presente! chant is easily one of the most poignant experiences one can have, not least because it represents a much needed humanization of each and every one of the victims. Behind each name is a face, a person, a voice and a character, families left behind to grieve, but above all, a life of a man, woman or child cut tragically and senselessly short.

The cross I held bore the name of a 23 year old Cuban man by the name of Ricardo Cabrera Fuentes. He was one of the 73 victims of the 1976 bombing of a Cuban airliner allegedly masterminded by Luis Posada Carriles, a graduate of the School of the Americas, who today lives freely in Miami. He and 72 other innocent passengers on that plane met a terrifying and senseless end because of the actions of a terrorist trained on US soil. I could have left the cross at the gates of Fort Benning to show my revulsion at the death of a young man for no reason at all. Instead I brought it home to keep it as not only as a memento of the November 2009 protest but also as a motivation to return to the gates of Fort Benning again someday to demand justice for one and all of the lives cut short by the School of the Americas.