FCLC Students Prepare for SOA Protest


Published: October 30, 2008

The Community Service Program (CSP) at Fordham College at Lincoln Center (FCLC) is currently undergoing preparations for a trip to Fort Benning, Ga. to participate in the 19th annual Ignatian Family Teach-In (IFT) and protest of the School of the Americas (SOA). The purpose of the protest, according to Kate Cavanagh, associate coordinator of the CSP, is to honor six Jesuit priests who were killed as a result of SOA Operations and to raise awareness regarding SOA’s controversial procedures. A number of FCLC students report that they plan to attend the trip.

The SOA, which was recently replaced by the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (WHINSEC), is a tax-funded government organization. WHINSEC, according to its charter, is overseen by a congressionally appointed Board of Visitors—among them presidential candidate John McCain—and operates under the mission of “promoting democratic values, respect for human rights and knowledge and understanding of United States customs and traditions.” The WHINSEC charter also states that it functions in order to ensure that Latin American affairs are “consistent with U.S. policy goals for the Western Hemisphere.”

In carrying out this mission, SOA/WHINSEC has trained over 60,000 Latin American soldiers in counterinsurgency techniques, psychological warfare and interrogation tactics, but also in more controversial procedures such as assassination, execution, extortion and torture, according to SOA training manuals released by the Department of Defense.

The IFT, which will take place  Nov. 21-23, is a gathering of the Jesuit community held in conjunction with the SOA protest. According to Kate Cavanagh, the purpose of the IFT is to honor the slain Jesuit priests and to promote policies in universities, such as the use of fair trade products, that will help stop injustices from being carried out in South America.

According to a CSP summary of the event, the IFT will take place from Fri., Nov. 21, to Sat., Nov. 22. On Sun., Nov. 23, there will be a symbolic funeral procession to the gates of Fort Benning.

FCLC students have a number of reasons for attending the trip. Ali Musa, FCLC ’09, who is going on the trip for his first time, reasoned that, “After…inspection, I saw [the SOA] to be thoroughly unjust.” He continued, “When you look at the list of people associated with [the SOA], there are no good guys that have connections with the organization.”

Other students, like Matt Benjamin, FCLC ’10, see the protest as a learning experience as well as a chance to make a stand against the SOA. He said that he is opposed to the SOA because “it is able to influence so many people and nations in Latin America, but no one really knows about it.”

Benjamin said that in the past two years that he has participated in the protest, he has learned a lot from “seeing people from all different walks of life all coming together because they want the school to be closed, and beyond that, they all bring different issues with them that they want [others] to know about.”

SOA graduates have gone on to commit numerous human rights violations, including the 1981 massacre of 900 unarmed civilians in El Mazote, El Salvador, according to documentation by Doctors for Global Health.

A Congressional Research Services (CRS) report for Congress states that WHINSEC was founded to emphasize more human rights than the SOA curriculum did, but the charter for WHINSEC does not provide for any increase from the original eight required hours of human rights training. The CRS report also cites that “the human rights message was not taken seriously by the Latin American students,” and that many atrocities were committed “out of spite” for such training.

To respond to this, School of the Americas Watch—an anti-SOA non-profit group—began holding protests in conjunction with the IFT.

Even though SOA/WHINSEC has yet to be closed despite over a decade of protest, the FCLC students participating in the protest are undaunted.

Musa said, “I realize that there may not be any immediate results from the protest, but it’s better than doing nothing.”

Benjamin also commented on the symbolic power of the protest and described the experience he has had at these protests in previous years. He said, “All these people came out with makeshift drums, and they were all pounding them and wearing crazy outfits, and all of a sudden this person jumped out of the crowd with every inch of skin covered in clothing and started climbing the barbed wire fence… it was interesting and powerful to see someone making that kind of sacrifice.”

Students for Solidarity, FCLC’s social justice club, will be selling T-shirts and holding other fundraising events to help raise funds for the trip in November.