Protesting Against the School of Americas: No Gates Required

Fordham Students Protest International Violence Prompted by the SOA, Mourn Lives of Victims to the Rhythm of Hope


Protestors were able to participate in a “die-in” to represent the 800 plus killed in the El Mozote Massacre.The massacre was led by El Salvadoran troops trained by the United States. (Brent Nycz/The Observer)

Published: December 11, 2008

After being on my feet for two hours straight at the School of the Americas/Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (SOA/WHINSEC) protest, I sluggishly walked down Torch Hill Road, finishing up the main procession. I was tired. Not just physically, but emotionally. I grappled with the stories I had heard of the thousands of people killed by graduates of the SOA. I pictured the humanity that was and is affected by the SOA from the men, women and children killed to the protestors tirelessly working for change.

But then, in my exhaustion, I saw something I couldn’t believe could come from such a deeply moving display.

I saw a celebration.

A celebration was the last thing I expected when I went down to the military base of Fort Benning, Ga., with 20 Fordham students and faculty to participate in the SOA/WHINSEC protest in late November, because of the destruction that SOA has caused in its history.

The SOA was established in 1948 to train Latin American soldiers and police officers in professional leadership, infantry weapons, technical support, counter-insurgency and specialized leadership and skills. The school’s name was changed in 2001 to Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation and supposedly now has a stronger focus on democracy and human rights.

The controversy surrounding the school involve the actions of some of its graduates. Numerous graduates from the school have gone on to use their training against their own people. Instead of stabilizing regions of chaos, the SOA-taught tactics have been used to cause great terror and anguish. Thousands of people have died in Colombia, El Salvador, Guatemala and other Latin American countries at the hands of graduates since the early 1980s. Critics argue that the school has taught graduates how to enforce power and democracy through the barrel of a gun.

Though the protest was on a Sunday, there were other activities throughout the weekend, like the speeches and musical performances we attended on Saturday and the tables set up by organizations all along the street that we explored throughout the weekend. Each table had a different cause, including People of Faith Against the Death Penalty and Veterans for Peace. Despite the fact that the protest focused on the SOA, no one left without knowing that there are many other issues in the world that need reform.

The SOA/WHINSEC protest does not primarily focus on the United States policy toward Latin America, but rather on the scores of the innocent men, women and children directly affected by actions of the school’s graduates. Over 20,000 protestors led a mock funeral procession, most of them holding white wooden or paper crosses bearing the name of an innocent victim.

Led by men and women with powdered-white faces who were dressed in funeral garb, we walked through the main street to the gates of Fort Benning. At the gates, we left our crosses and our sign that simply read: “Fordham University says ‘Close the SOA/WHINSEC,’” as if we were leaving evidence of the atrocities for all at WHINSEC to see.

Throughout the procession, names of the victims killed by graduates were read. After every name was read, we sang loudly back with “Presente!”—which means “here” or “present” in Spanish. To me, every “presente” expresses one fact: every victim is present with us both at the protest and in our hearts.

The cross I held was in memory of Sister Ita Ford, one of four female missionaries who were tortured, raped and killed by El Salvadoran soldiers In December of 1980. As the rituals of the protests continued, I couldn’t do anything but pray with every “presente.” Every name belonged to a working-class father, a loving and supportive mother or a child who wasn’t able to see a glimpse of his or her future.

The procession brought the reality of the protest full-circle for me. I was not just protesting the existence of WHINSEC. I was protesting against the needless murders committed under the guise of promoting democracy.

After the procession ended, I couldn’t help but feel emotionally wiped out from immersing myself in the meaning behind the protest. As I walked toward the entrance of the street where the protest started, I heard stomping feet, drums playing and loud chants. I saw dancing, clapping and smiling.

I witnessed my first peace celebration.

My immediate thought was, “A peace celebration? After everything that occurred?” I worried that people were being disrespectful after we all attended a funeral procession. However, I found myself being slowly drawn to the energetic crowd of dancing and chanting high school and college-aged protestors, letting their voices be heard. I started to pound on barrels which transformed into makeshift drums and chanted, “Ole, ole-ole-ole, shut down the SOA!” After just a few minutes of expressing my righteous anger, my voice became raspy and my hands became bruised, but I continued protesting nonetheless.

It wasn’t until I was on the bus ride back to Fordham that I realized what actually occurred within the noise. Throughout my time in Georgia, I was given several ways to protest, be it silently in prayer or boisterously in song and dance. I realized that we are called to speak our minds and hearts in manners that are true to who we are. There are many issues that are afflicting our world, our neighborhood and even our campus. If we don’t speak up, who will?

As Archbishop Oscar Romero said, “Peace is not the silent result of violent repression. Peace is the generous, tranquil contribution of all to the good of all. Peace is dynamism.”

We are called to be like dynamite in what we believe in: to be loud and make an impact. Don’t stay silent. The world is listening.