Another 25 US citizens committed to anti-terrorism ideals in our hemisphere are preparing to be shipped off to federal prisons this winter and spring for terms up to six months for their non-violent protests last November at Fort Benning, Ga. Seventeen others received lighter sentences and fines.
The sentences were meted out at trials Jan. 27-29, in Columbus, Ga. Thirty-five more defendants were set to face the same trespass charge in trials on Feb. 10. Many were first-time trespassers.
The demonstrators trespassed but did no damage on Nov. 17 at Fort Benning. They oppose continuing US operation in the fort of the notorious School of the Americas (SOA), renamed in 2001 "Western Hemisphere Institute on Security Cooperation" (WHISC).
The facility, also known as "School of the Assassins," has been criticized by human rights agencies and by School of the Americas Watch (www.soaw.org), which has held yearly protests at Fort Benning since 1990. On Nov. 17, over 10,000 demonstrated to close the facility, and 96 people were detained by authorities when they crossed over the main gate and entered the base.
Eighty of the 96 who were detained in this peaceful demonstration faced federal charges for civil disobedience, sentences up to six months in federal prison and up to $5,000 in fines.
In the 12 years of protests prior to the 2003 sentences, nearly 100 people served a total of more than 50 years in prison for engaging in nonviolent resistance in a broad-based campaign to close the school. The Fort Benning demonstration occurs annually on the anniversary of the 1989 assassinations of six Jesuit priests, a housekeeper and her daughter in San Salvador.
"It is ironic that at a time when our country is reflecting on how terrorism has impacted our lives, dedicated people who took direct action to stop terrorism throughout the Americas are on their way to prison," said Dorothy Hennessey, an 89-year-old Franciscan sister who just a year ago completed her six-month term in federal prison (see "Feds crack down on protesting nuns," 5/15/01 TPP). Dorothy's sister, Gwen, a Franciscan who also completed a six-month prison term, recalls President Bush's post-9/11 anti-terrorism speech to Congress, and another prisoner remarking to her, "Isn't that what you were doing?"
One of the human rights advocates heading to prison is Sr. Kathy Long, O.P., a Dominican sister from Sinsinawa, Wis. Long, who is on the staff of the Eighth Day Center for Justice in Chicago, was arrested at the demonstration and appeared for her trial in Columbus, Ga., on Jan. 27.
Long, who had trespassed before, spoke Jan. 20 in Dubuque to a crowd of about 60. Serious and measured, she provided background for her opposition to SOA/WHISC. She cited involvement of graduates from the school in some of the most infamous atrocities in Central America in the past two decades: Three officers who trained in Fort Benning were directly responsible for the 1980 assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero and three other officers who trained at SOA were implicated in the rapes and murders of the four American churchwomen later that same year. Of the 26 officers implicated in the 1989 assassinations of the six Jesuits and housekeeper and her daughter, 19 were graduates of SOA.
Long also described her meeting Salvadoran Rufina Amaya, the lone survivor and eyewitness of the December 1981, El Mozote massacre, in which scores of the Salvadoran army's select and American-trained Atlacatl Battalion murdered 900 children, women, and men by crushing skulls, slitting throats and decapitating and hanging bodies on trees. Ten of the 12 officers held responsible were graduates of SOA.
Long recounted also her friendship with Diana Ortiz, the Ursuline Catholic sister who was tortured and raped in November 1989 by Guatemalan security forces apparently under the direction of a US advisor known only as "Alejandro". Diana's "crime" had been developing literacy programs for Mayan children.
On a more encouraging note, Long recalled this summer's lawsuit victory in Florida in favor of three Salvadoran torture victims over two retired Salvadoran generals now living in Florida. With the assistance of the San Francisco-based Center for Justice and Accountability, and employing the Torture Victims Protection Act, Juan Romagoza, Neris Gonzalez and Carlos Mauricio testified to atrocities they suffered when generals Jose Garcia and Carlos Vides Casanova commanded security forces during El Salvador's 12-year civil war. The 10-member jury ordered the generals to pay $54.6 million to the plaintiffs. "There was some measure of justice," said Long.
In her civil disobedience, Long said she refers to two women, Shiphrah and Puah, described in Scriptures, Exodus 1:15-22. At the risk of their lives, Long explained, these midwives defied commands from Egypt's Pharoah to murder Hebrew boys, and they set an early example of non-violent civil disobedience. "I stand in solidarity with the victims of violence and torture in Latin America from a faith perspective as a theology of resistance," stated Long.
There was a testy exchange from two in the audience during the questions. One indignantly protested the characterization of US Army complicity in training soldiers who performed these atrocities; another said her father spent his 82nd Airborne days in Fort Benning. Long responded that while she supports the US Army, she is convinced that SOA/WHISC is wrong and should be closed.
Long referred audience members to two recently-released sources of information on this school: "The New Patriots" (see www.richtervideos.com) a video featuring five decorated US veterans -- women and men -- who speak at length about the need to close SOA/WHISC, and a landmark book, School of Assassins: Guns, Greed and Globalization [Orbis, 2001] by Jack Nelson-Pallmeyer, a professor at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minn., who has critiqued military and socioeconomic development in Latin America for over the past two decades.
Nelson-Pallmeyer writes that SOA/WHISC remains open because it houses two key aspects of US foreign policy under one roof, the military dimension and an economic dimension.
He explains the military aspect, "Historically and today the SOA/WHISC is associated with a foreign policy that legitimizes and utilizes whatever military and paramilitary means are needed in a given setting, including tactics of terror and torture." He adds, "The traditional tactics are most evident today in Colombia, the new El Salvador," and he cites increasing numbers of atrocities in Colombia corresponding to increasing Colombian involvement with the SOA/WHISC.
Nelson-Pallmeyer continues that the second aspect of US foreign policy at the SOA/WHISC has to do with the economic dimension, and states, "The present SOA/WHISC is adapting to new needs and opportunities that arise in the present geopolitical context of corporate-led globalization." He then explains how the economic and military leverages are employed to promote corporate globalization.
Nelson-Pallmeyer observes that the SOA/WHISC and its graduates have more than 50 years' experience in brutal repressive tactics in furthering the corporate-dominated global system that includes NAFTA, the World Trade Organization, and the IMF, the "Golden Straitjacket." Thus, he says, the Pentagon and the White House fight hard to keep the school open.
This is Nelson-Pallmeyer's telling assessment and conclusion: "This is why closing the SOA/WHISC remains a vital issue and why it must be part of broad-based movements to change US foreign policy, and to promote democratic alternatives to corporate-dominated globalization."
The Latin America Solidarity Coalition, with SOA Watch as a member, is calling for a massive mobilization April 10-15 in Washington, D.C., against US military and economic intervention in Latin America and the Caribbean. For information phone 202-234-3440 or see www.lasolidarity.org.
Bill Cullen is a member of Teamsters Local 421 in Dubuque, Iowa.