Fordham Students ‘Presente’ at SOA Protest


Published: December 13, 2007

FCLC—On Nov. 15, 20 Fordham College at Lincoln Center (FCLC) students drove to Columbus, Ga., to protest for the close of the School of the Americas (SOA). The four-day event began with the Ignation Family Teach-In for Justice (IFTJ), sponsored by the Ignation Solidarity Network.

“It was…a way to participate in the movement to close it down, but also just to kind of experience that community of protestors that you can’t really experience every day,” said Matt Benjamin, FCLC ‘10. “People [there] are concerned about all different sorts of issues: the school, but all different social issues beyond that. It’s just a really interesting group of people to be able to interact with.”

The SOA has been a training school for soldiers from Latin American nations since 1946. The School was housed in Panama until 1984, when it was moved to its current location in Fort Benning, Ga. The SOA was officially closed in 2001 and was replaced by the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (WHINSEC). Both WHINSEC and the SOA have been criticized for promoting human rights violations.

“The SOA/WHINSEC has long trained Latin American military officers in counterinsurgency tactics,” said Susan Berger, professor of political science and women’s studies at FCLC. “Often, that training has been used to squash opposition in the most brutal of ways. During the 1960-1990 period, militaries throughout the region, often led by officers trained at the SOA, used counterinsurgency tactics against leftist guerrillas but also student leaders, labor unionists, human rights activists, indigenous activists, environmentalists and basically any social activist perceived to be threatening the status quo.”

Fordham students have attended the annual protest and the Ignatian Family Teach-In for the past nine years. Benjamin, who went to this year’s protest with FCLC’s Community Service Program, said he “was really excited to be a part of [the protest]” when he came to Fordham.

Joseph Martinez, FCLC ’10, said, “I went to a Jesuit high school, so I’ve known about the SOA protest for a while. I just never had the opportunity to go.” He added, “Learning about the institution and being educated by Jesuits inspired me to actually make the trip.”

The Ignation Family Teach-In for Justice is an event that, like the SOA/WHINSEC protest, commemorates the murder of six Jesuit priests and two of their co-workers in 1989. According to the Ignation Solidarity Network Web site, the event is an opportunity “to call for an end to unjust institutions and to reflect on the Jesuit commitment to justice.”

“A large part of [the protest] for the Fordham community is the Ignation Family Teach-In, which is hosted by the Ignation Solidarity Network,” Benjamin said. “They had speakers from a lot of different schools and organizations…that’s always pretty interesting, even if you’re not…religious.”

Martinez said, “The protest drew in a huge crowd (about 20,000 this year), and the protesters were from all kinds of backgrounds. There were religious and non-religious alike, Veterans for Peace, Anti-Bush/Cheney groups, all kinds of people gathered for the same cause.”

“The actual day of protest was more like a memorial for all of those who have been killed, disappeared, tortured, raped,” Martinez said. “It was mostly a day of reflecting on the real reasons we were there, as well as our rights as human beings.”

“The second day is a lot more somber,” Benjamin said. “Everyone lines up and makes a big circuit, and everyone has a cross with the name of someone who was killed and their age and what country they were from.  On the stage they read out the names…of people who have been killed or disappeared…it goes on for a good two to three hours. When they read off the names, you hold up the cross and say, ‘presente’ to represent that that person was there in spirit. It’s pretty powerful because then everyone just leaves [his or her] cross inside of the gates.”

“It was definitely moving to see so many different kinds of people from different walks of life come together to support this one cause,” Martinez said.

While the schools have been criticized for years, it was only in 1990 that the annual protest began. The protest, organized by an organization called School of the Americas Watch (SOAW), commemorates the killings of six Jesuit priests on Nov. 16, 1989, in El Salvador, according to the SOAW Web site. Those responsible for the killings of the priests, along with their co-worker and her daughter, had been trained at the SOA. Although United States officials opened WHINSEC to replace the controversial SOA, many claim that the two schools are quite similar in curriculum and operation, prompting continued criticism.

“Today,” Berger continued, “those [Latin American] officers trained at the SOA/WHINSEC are accused of using their counterinsurgency training to protect the military’s participation in drug trafficking and other illegal activities which again means brutalizing the citizens of their own countries who they are suppose to protect. By still maintaining the school, which still does what it has always done despite a name change, the U.S. is basically still underwriting repression in Latin America.”

Martinez said he encourages more students to be aware of the SOA. “As students at a Jesuit institution, we have an obligation to pay attention to issues such as the SOA. A number of its graduates are known for their human rights violations; it’s definitely good if more Fordham students get involved.”