This past weekend, twelve Bethel College students partnered with the Peace and Social Justice Center and traveled to Fort Benning, Georgia for a human-rights protest at the School of the Americas (SOA). The school is a military training facility that trains foreign soldiers (from Latin America, predominantly) to commit human-rights abuses against their own people once they have returned to their home country. Many of the graduates have participated in coups and genocides in Honduras, Guatemala and Columbia, killing hundreds of thousands of civilians. A committee that tracks the activity of the school has organized a protest every year at the gates of the fort for the last twenty years or more. This year was particularly interesting for us in that the founding members of the protest (Father Roy Bougeois) had come to speak to Bethel last year as part of a Peace and Justice lecture series.
Due to a flat tire and other delays, our group missed all of the Friday evening activities, but we were up bright and early on Saturday for the protest, which began with a rally at the gates of the fort. The street had been blocked off for our use and there were police everywhere, including a circling helicopter. Along the street there were a couple dozen tables set up for a variety of organizations that opposed the SOA’s existence and activities. At the very end of the road, right in front of the gates was a stage from which a variety of musicians and speakers performed. In the early afternoon, a parade down the street with larger-than-life paper-mache puppets and cardboard signs occurred that signaled the end of that day’s activities. In the evening, there was a variety of workshops and concerts featuring issues of nonviolence, immigration and governmental activities.
The next day, Sunday, was personally the most meaningful. A vigil and memorial service had been organized for mid-morning for which many attendees brought white crosses with names written on them. Those names were known victims of atrocities committed by SOA graduates in Latin America. We began the service by reciting a litany that commemorated activities of the SOA and the U.S. government both abroad and stateside. Then, while names of victims were read, we proceeded to the fence surrounding the School of the Americas and placed our crosses in the chain-link. The reading of the names was especially powerful for me because it reminded me of a visit to a forensics lab in Guatemala. The lab exhumed bodies from mass graves, all of which had been placed there during the genocide of the indigenous Mayan people. The exhumed bodies were then boxed, labeled and identified by family members. The forensics facility had hundreds and hundreds of such boxes, just waiting for identification. And while the names of victims were read onstage, I couldn’t help but think of all the unnamed boxes and unidentified victims that still remained in Guatemala. That, to me, was one of the most sobering moments of the whole protest.
While attending the protest meant that I missed two full days of classes and an entire weekend, and while it meant that I have hours of catch-up work to do, I am really glad that I went. It allowed me to see democracy in action and to watch as individuals stood up for our Latin American brothers and sisters.