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T en years ago the Pentagon released training manuals from the School of the Americas that advocated the use of torture, extortion, and execution. Ishi Fales recalls seeing one when he was volunteering at a Catholic Worker house in Chicago. “It really twisted my stomach,” Fales says, as he explains why he went to protest the SOA in Georgia last November. It was the 19-year-old’s first trip to Ft. Benning, but he says it won’t be his last.
Protesting the facility that trains soldiers from Latin America has become an annual pilgrimage for many since Father Roy Bourgeois moved into a tiny apartment outside the main gate and founded SOA Watch in 1990. Each year the number of people who come to the November vigil grows larger, a trend that apparently disturbs the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Recently declassified FBI documents show that the FBI elevated its concern and subjected SOA Watch to counter-terrorism surveillance.
The federal agency monitored media attention the annual vigil and consequent trials received, noting which court tactics had chilling effects on people’s decisions to participate in civil disobedience, according to documents obtained by the American Civil Liberties Union. “The files demonstrated a clear attempt to stifle political opposition,” says Bourgeois. This surveillance was carried out despite the fact that FBI reports consistently describe SOA Watch vigils as “peaceful” and no criminal activity outside of public civil disobedience is cited.
The November 2005 vigil drew an estimated 18,000-20,000. The weekend protests culminated on Sunday, when 41 people were arrested after they climbed the ten-foot high chainlink fence topped with razor wire that borders the main gate to the base.
Two Iowa Women Arrested
T wo of those arrested were Iowans 80-year-old Rita Hohenshell of Des Moines and 49year-old Christine Gaunt, a farmer from Grinnell—both “crossed the line” by crawling under the fence. Both had previously served three-month prison terms for protesting the SOA. Before her arraignment, Hohenshell was told to expect 6 months in prison, a $5,000 fine, and, the loss of her Social Security while in prison. “But they don’t have my soul,” she said. “Just my money and my time.”
“I’m really proud of my Mom,” Peake says, noting that it is hard on the family, but she understands why her mother is so committed. She says she, too, may cross the line some day.
SOA Victims Remembered
S OA Watch estimates that over 64,000 Latin American soldiers have been trained by the SOA over the last 60 years. The actual number of people killed by SOA graduates is hard to determine, but Bourgeois estimates that 75,000 have been killed in El Salvador, 200,000 in Guatemala, and thousands more in Columbia.
SOA Watch reports that, despite all of the evidence, few have been held accountable for these deaths. Victims tend to be poor people who work the land, but also targeted are union leaders, educators, student leaders and religious people. Archbishop Oscar Romero, six Jesuit priests, and four American nuns are some of the most widely know victims.
Vigil organizers held civil disobedience training on Thursday and Friday. Over the weekend literature tables lined the entryway to the main gate of the base. On Sunday, from the stage set up in front of the gate, a woman from Columbia spoke in Spanish and another woman translated into English: “We remember today that on February 21 of this year, in our peace community eight of our members were massacred, including three children, one of whom was 18 months old and all of whose bodies were cut into pieces.” Names and ages of SOA victims were chanted over the loudspeaker as the solemn funeral procession began: “Bruno Claros, 50 years old,” a woman’s voice echoed above the crowd.
“Presente!” the crowd chanted back in unison as they held up wooden crosses.
Next, a man chanted the name of another documented victim of SOA graduates. “Eva Romero, 11 years old, daughter of Bruno Claros.”
“Presente!” the crowd chanted again as they raised a sea of white crosses.
Marcos Rubenstein, 54, heard the names of several friends and co-workers he knew in Argentina. As a journalist and active union member, Rubenstein explained that journalists and people organizing unions were often the first to be captured, tortured, and disappeared.
It took more than three hours to complete the list of names and as the marchers passed the front gate, they placed their crosses, flags, and tokens onto it.
Carol Tyx, a professor of English at Mount Mercy College, described her two-week visit to Colombia with Christian Peacemaker Teams in May 2005. She met people who had fled from two small villages after violence resulted in the deaths of many family members. They had only recently returned to their homes. Tyx brought a banner to the vigil she had watched them paint in Spanish that translates as, “The Communities of La Florida and Los Neques don’t want Colombian officials trained at the School of the Americas in the United States.”
The Hennessy Family
I n the years before 9/11 thousands crossed the line and were released with a simple ban and letter telling them not to come back. Only those who returned were sentenced to prison. Sister Gwen Hennessy is one of many arrested for returning to cross the line. At age 68, she went to prison on July 14, 2001 for 6 months. She recalls walking around the track two months later when she heard that a plane flew into the World Trade Center. When she went inside, she found the other prisoners gathered around the TV. “That’s what you’re here for, isn’t it?” one of the women said to her. “To stop terrorism.”
“I was so taken aback, that somebody understood the whole thing,” Hennessy recalls. “And another one stood up and said, ‘What goes around, comes around,’ and I thought, she understands, too.”
Protesting the human rights abuses in Latin America is a family affair for the Franciscan Sister. Her sister, Dorothy Marie Hennessy, 91, is also a nun of the St. Francis Order. Like Gwen, Sister Dorothy has crossed the line on several occasions and served time in prison. Their brother, Father Ronald Hennessy, was stationed in Central America from 1964 until his death in 1999. He wrote to his family describing how young men were being taken to jail, their mothers coming to him out of desperation. “Villages were being wiped out, men, women and children, and no one was caring,” Gwen explains. “So he wrote a letter home to Iowa and said, ‘Publish it.’”
Sister Gwen recalls that the church and the U.S. Embassy told him he should leave, but her brother refused. “No way, I am not leaving,” he said. “I can leave, but they can’t.” Later elected regional superior, he was assigned to a very conflicted zone in El Salvador. A book about Ron Hennessy’s experience with the genocidal practices of U.S.-backed Guatemalan governments, Through a Glass Darkly , by Tom Melville, was recently released by Xlibris. “It really tells this whole story of oppression, from way back when they had what they called, ‘ten years of spring,’ when they had a leader who tried agrarian reform, ” Gwen explains.
Beyond the SOA
L ike Hennessy, Tyx believes that shutting down the school is only part of what they are working towards. “We’re trying to change a whole foreign policy, a whole attitude about militarism. And the school almost feels symbolic,” Tyx said. “Not that closing it is not important. But if we close the school, you know, that wouldn’t change Plan Columbia.”
The official name of the SOA was changed in 1999 to the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation or WHINSEC. Jim McGovern (D-MA) introduced Bill HR 1217 that would suspend operations at the SOA/WHINSEC and investigate the development and use of the training manuals. Congress began considering the bill in June.
All these efforts are having an impact. Argentina and Uruguay announced in March that they would no longer send soldiers for training at the SOA due to the history of human rights abuses. They join Venezuela, whose president Hugo Chavez announced in January 2004 that Venezuela would no longer send troops to train at the school.
Ishi Fales did presentations about the School of the Americas in his classes at Kirkwood College after he returned to Iowa City from the 2005 vigil. “I thought it was very powerful,” he says, “It was an experience that I will really keep with me for a long, long time.”
Gloria Williams is a freelance writer, a member of WRL, and a journalism student at the University of Iowa.
Z Magazine Archive
HUMAN RIGHTS - The U.S. Human Rights Network will celebrate its 10th anniversary with the Advancing Human Rights 2013 Conference, December 6-8, in Atlanta, GA.
Contact: 250 Georgia Avenue SE, Suite 330, Atlanta, GA 30312; email@example.com; http:// www.ushrnetwork.org/.
AFRICAN/SOCIALIST - The Sixth Congress of the African People’s Socialist Party USA will be held December 7-11, in St. Petersburg, FL.
Contact: 1245 18th Avenue South, St. Petersburg, FL 33705; 727- 821-6620; info@aps puhuru.org; http://asiuhuru.org/.
SCHOOLS - The Dignity in Schools Campaign (DSC) will host a workshop on the DSC “Model Code on Education and Dignity: Presenting A Human Rights Framework for Schools” at the Mid-Hudson Region NY State Leadership Summit on School Justice Partnerships, December 11 in White Plains, NY.
Contact: http://www.dignityin schools.org/.
ANARCHIST/BOOKFAIR - The Humboldt Anarchist Book Fair will be held December 14, in Eureka, CA.
Contact: humboldtgrassroots @riseup.net; http://humbold tanarchist bookfair.wordpress. com/.
CLIMATE - The World Symposium on Sustainable Development at Universities is hosting a follow-up event to the 2012 Rio de Janeiro symposium. The gathering will be held in Qatar on January 28-30, 2014.
Contact: http://environment.tufts. edu/.
LABOR - The United Association for Labor Education (UALE) will host Organizing for Power: A New Labor Movement for the New Working Class in Los Angeles, March 26-29. Proposals are due December 15.
Contact: LAWCHA, 226 Carr Building (East Campus), Box 90719, Duke University, Durham, NC 27708-0719;lawcha @duke. edu; http://lawcha.org/.
MEDIA FELLOWSHIP - The Media Mobilizing Project is seeking applicants for the first annual Movement Media Fellowship Program. The Fellow will work with MMP to produce the spring season of Media Mobilizing Project TV. MMPTV is a news and talk show that tells the stories of local communities organizing to win human rights and build a movement to end poverty.
Contact: 4233 Chestnut St., Philadelphia, PA 19104; 215-821- 9632; milena@media mobilizing.org; http://www.media mobilizing.org/.
RACE - The 7th Facing Race: A National Conference will be held in Dallas, TX November 13-15, 2014. Organizers, educators, artists, funders and everyone interested in racial equity is invited to exchange best practices and learn about innovative models and successful organizing initiatives. Proposals must be submitted by January 24, 2014.
Contact: Race Forward, 32 Broadway, Suite 1801, New York, NY 10004; 212-513-7925; media @raceforward.org; http://race forward.org/.
VETERANS - They Were Soldiers: How the Wounded Return from America’s Wars - The Untold Story, by Ann Jones, is about the journey of veterans from the moment of being wounded in rural Afghanistan to their return home.
Contact: Haymarket Books, PO Box 180165, Chicago, IL 60618; 773-583-7884; http://www.haymarketbooks.org/.
LIBYA - Destroying Libya and World Order: The Three-Decade U.S. Campaign to Terminate the Qaddafi Revolution, by Francis A. Boyle, is a history and critique of American foreign policy from Reagan to Obama.
Contact: Clarity Press, Inc., Ste. 469, 3277 Roswell Rd. NE, Atlanta, GE 30305; 404-647-6501; firstname.lastname@example.org; http://www. claritypress.com/.
CHILDREN - Fannie and Freddie by Becky Z. Dernbach is about two bumbling villains who gamble away the savings of the people of Homeville.
Contact: fannieandfreddiebook @gmail.com; http://fannieand freddie.org/.
PROTEST/COMIC - Fight the Power!: A Visual History of Protest Among English Speaking Peoples, by Sean Michael Wilson and Benjamin Dickson is a graphic narrative that explains how people have fought against oppression.
Contact: Seven Stories Press, 140 Watts Street, New York, NY 10013; 212-226-8760; info@ sevenstories.com; http://www. sevenstories.com.
CHILDREN - Brave Girl by Michelle Markel and illustrated by Melissa Sweet is the true story of Clara Lemlich, a young Ukrainian immigrant who led the largest strike of women workers in U.S. history.
Contact: http://www.harpercollins childrens.com/Kids/.
FESTIVAL - The 2014 Queer Women of Color Film Festival will be held June 13-15 in San Francisco. The festival is currently accepting submissions until December 31.
Contact: QWOCMAP, 59 Cook Street, San Francisco, CA 94118-3310; 415-752-0868; email@example.com; http://www.qwocmap.org/.
IRAQ/REFUGEES - Ten years after the U.S.-led war in Iraq, thousands of displaced Iraqi refugees are still facing a crisis in the United States. The Lost Dream follows Nazar and Salam who had to flee Iraq in order to avoid threats by Al- Qaeda-affiliated groups and Iraqi insurgents that consider them “traitors” for supporting U.S. forces in Operation Iraqi Freedom.
Contact: Typecast Films, 888- 591-3456; info@type castfilms. com; http://type castfilms.com/.
HUMAN RIGHTS - Lyrical Revolt! III will be held December 4 in Syracuse, NY. The event will feature hip-hop musician Anhel whose album Young, Gifted, and Brown was just released. The event is sponsored by ANSWER Syracuse, Liberation News, and SyracuseHip Hop.com. Performers and artists are encouraged to send submissions.
Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org; http://www.answercoalition.org/syracuse/.
FOLK - Musician Painless Parker has released his album Music for miscreants, malcontents and misanthropes featuring “Fuck Yeah, the Working Class.”
Contact: email@example.com; http://painlessparkermusic.com/.
COMEDY - Political comedian Lee Camp’s new album Pepper Spray the Tears Away has been released.