16,000 Faithful Call for Closing School of Assassins, Oppose State Terror
by W.B. Reeves – 22 Nov 2004 Modified: 01:34:41 PM – http://atlanta.indymedia.org/newswire/display/34554/index.php

Massive turnout revitalizes participants

The annual mobilization against the Ft. Benning based School of the Americas/Western Hemisphere Institute for Security(SOA/WHINSEC) topped expectations this year as thousands of passionate protesters massed before the Fort's main gate in Columbus, Georgia on Sunday. The unprecedented turnout evidenced an unlooked for show of resilience on the part of the movement for peace in opposition to state terrorism. Despite the failure to remove George W. Bush from the White House,insuring that the US government will not soon turn from the path of military adventurism, participation in the action called by School of the Americas Watch increased by 50% over that of 2003.

Outside the staging area chartered buses lined a side street as crowds of protesters moved towards the front gate. Along Fort Benning Rd. they were greeted by a ludicrous sight. Along both sides of the street local authorities had erected 10 foot high chain link fences, effectively transforming the road to the main gate into a giant « protest cage ». Ludicrous because in the 15 year history of SOA Watch their has never been a single instance of violence at the annual mobilizations.

Some observers theorized that the fence was erected as a response to local law enforcement's losing the use of individual searches of protesters which they had conducted as a prerequisite for allowing protesters into the staging area last year. SOA Watch successfully challenge the imposition of such searches in court earlier this year. Others thought it one more instance of attempts to criminalize public dissent. Or it may simply be that local police agencies have to appear to to being doing something worthwhile in order to justify continued infusions of Federal tax dollars for « homeland security » efforts.

The absurdity was heightened at the Fort Gate itself where a similar fenced enclosure had been erected around the sign identifying the base. The sign itself was hidden by a large tarp that had been thrown over it. Perhaps images of protesters surrounding the Fort Benning sign are now considered dangerous to national security. On the base itself the military had erected a second fence, this one topped by barbed concertina wire, as if in expectation of hoards of protesters attempting to swarm over the top. Only God and the General Accounting Office can say how much this all cost.

Despite such signs of official disapproval the thousands gathering at the gate hardly appeared cowed.

As in previous years, the gathering would prove instructive for those parroting the conventional wisdom that the « left » is hostile to religious values. The evidence of activism motivated by spiritual values was everywhere abundant. On placards and T-shirts images of Catholic Archbishop Oscar Romero and the four American Maryknoll Nuns, murdered in the 1980's by Central American death squads, proliferated in coexistence with those of Mexican revolutionary Emilio Zapata and pan-American insurgent Ernesto « Che » Guevara. In one case Che's visage appeared as a tatoo emblazoned on the arm of a young woman. You could call it a day of piety and piercings.

Indeed, this year seemed to mark a demographic shift, with younger protesters outnumbering the middle-aged and older stalwarts who have for years been the back bone of the event.

Still, there were many long time supporters in attendance, including actor Martin Sheen who delivered a powerful sermon to those assembled ending with the heartfelt prayer that « Into that Heaven of freedom,our father, let our country awake. »

Amy Ray, of the folk duo The Indigo Girls, put in an appearance, reving up the crowd with a high energy rendition of the song « Let It Ring » which addressed right-wing counter-protesters with an open-hearted but unflinching challenge.

Other speakers expanded the critique of US government policies with calls of « No more wars for empire and « Bring the troops home now! », pointing out that « The people on the otherside of this fence are not your enemies. They were lied to. »

The speakers were followed by the traditional memorial procession where the assembled mass, bearing a forest of white crosses inscribed with the names of the victims of Government sponsored state terror, march to the gates of Fort Benning. As singers on the stage called out the names of dead the protesters solemnly lifted their crosses and responded with chants of « presente! » At the gates individuals thrust their crosses into the chain link fences, symbolically laying the murders at the feet of the politicians who are the masters of the US military. The politicians and policy makers who established SOA/WHINSEC and directed it to train generations of tyrants and torturers such as Panama's Manuel Noriega.

Many of the protesters paused in prayer at the gate before moving on. It took two hours from the scheduled start time for the entire procession to pass.

Even before the end of the procession acts of civil disobedience began with individuals scaling the the fences and entering the base despite the barbed wire. As they did so and were arrested their efforts were applauded and cheered by protesters remaining outside.

By the end of the day some 17 such arrests were reported.

The space in front of the gate was rapidly transformed into a veritable shrine for the victims of Government sponsored terrorism, not only in Central and South America but around the world. A banner hung at the Fort entrance depicted the infamous photo of the hooded, electrode festooned prisoner at Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison with the message « Jesus wept. » Some protesters carried Palestinian flags, linking the struggle against oppression in this hemisphere to the global struggle for justice. Another sign demanded « End the occupation of Iraq! ».

Under the aspect of a large puppet dressed in mourning and representing the « Mother of Compassion » a group black shrouded figures with white faces, carrying coffins adorned with red roses approached the gate and staged a « die-in » spattering themselves with redpaint. Soon protesters scaled the enclosure around the « Welcome to Fort Benning » sign and stripped the tarp away, replacing it with a banner; « Shut Down the SOA. »

Above the crowd a helicopter hovered, its low altitude maximizing the roar of its engine. Inside the gate loudspeakers played warnings against protesters trespassing in english and spanish, taped on a continuous loop. The arrests went on. As did the naming of the dead.

As the memorial procession ended the mood was lifted as the musicians on stage led the crowd in a rousing rendition of « This Little Light of Mine » in both english and spanish. Among those onstage making his first appearance at Ft. Benning was Wobblie troubador Utah Phillips (« Would have liked to come before now. Only made it this time because someone sent me a ticket. »)

More singing, more music and then the Puppetistas! This year's pageant told the story of immigrant labor oppressed by the the forces of economic exploitation, militarism abetted by a compliant media. At the crucial moment, the power of direct democracy, heralded by a thunderous drumming and represented by one of the largest head puppets I've seen, swept away the enemies of liberty chanting that a new world is « under construction. »

The puppetistas have become an extremely popular part of the annual protest and serve to highlight the positive aspirations of those who gather at Fort Benning. As important as it is to speak out against the crimes committed in the name of the state, it is not enough. It is also necessary to speak compellingly of what one is for. The puppetistas do this with great creativity and energy, marshaling the efforts of scores of volunteers. More and more each year it seems.

So who are those who gathered at Fort Benning this year? Well, there were Priests in cassocks, anarchist youth from Ottawa, crusty punks and college students from across the nation, Sisters of Charity and a Sister of Perpetual Indulgence, Veterans for Peace and high school kids, Buddhist Monks and Presbyterians. The following is a partial list of some of the groups represented: Franciscans-Clinton Iowa,Marion Campus Ministry-Fond duLac Wisc., Austin-Guajayo Sister cities' Witness for Peace, Boston College Campus Ministry, Open Door Community-Atlanta GA, Dominican Sisters- Springfield ILL, Quincy University-ILL, Sisters for Justice-San Francisco, Solidarity, Lemoyne College Campus Ministry-Syracuse NY, Sisters of Charity- Leavenworth Kansas, Carolina Peace Resource Center, Ursulines for Justice-Cleveland OH, Babeuf Jesuit-Indianapolis IN, Atlanta Palestinian Solidarity, the Church of the Brethren, Jesuit Volunteer Corp. South, Plowshares, Peace Roots, Sisters of the most precious blood-O'fallon MO and the Presbyterian Peace Ministry.

The rally concluded with hundreds of people, young and old, dancing before the gates to the ecstatic music of Andean pipes. Perhaps Utah Phillips summed up the day's significance best as well as the challenges ahead.

« After the election people felt depressed. I think they felt a great need to be together and share solidarity. To sing and to pray together and then to go home with their batteries re-charged to organize. I mean in a positive way. Our movement has been reactive for too long. A is action, B is reaction. Our problem is how does B become A? »

SOA 2004www.agp.org

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