SOA protest spotlights government sanctioned brutality

Human beings are only one of many species that have been blessed with life on this planet. Yet sadly, our arrogance — seen in our persistent failure to view our own lives as part of the larger unfolding of all life — feeds this destructive course we’re on, which is devastating both our environment and the human population.

Last year, I felt a personal call to acknowledge and actively support our Latin American neighbors. Since then, I’ve marched from Arden to Asheville with the Carolina Interfaith Task Force for Central America and traveled to Colombia as a delegate for Witness for Peace. Most recently, I’ve returned from a journey to Columbus, Ga. (Nov. 19-21), to protest the continued operation of the U.S. Army School of the Americas (now known as the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation), which has trained more than 60,000 Latin American police and military officers in the deadly tactics of counterinsurgency. Many graduates of the school have been involved in assassination, rape, murder and the massacre of civilians, as confirmed by the United Nations Truth Commission report on El Salvador, U.S. State Department reports on human rights, and other reputable sources.

I was in good company at the protests. Three vans from Warren Wilson College and one from the Unitarian Universalist Church of Asheville ferried teens and other young people to Columbus for three days of information-sharing and a vigil for the victims of those trained at the school. In fact, the WNC youth contingent outnumbered the older generation attending the annual protest at Fort Benning.

This year, the School of the Americas Watch (which coordinates the protests) drew the largest turnout in the event’s 15-year history — 16,000 people of all ages and races. They came from every state of the union, as well as many foreign countries (particularly in Latin America). Loudly and in unison they voiced their dissent, as vibrant choruses of John McCutcheon’s “No Mas, No More” confronted the newly erected 10-foot chainlink “security” fence that protected the military base from us.

Chainlink and barbed wire are nothing new to me. Having grown up in Richlands, N.C., in eastern North Carolina (near Camp Lejeune), I became familiar with war games and military life at an early age. But my experiences in Colombia gave me a new and enhanced appreciation for what SOA Watch is all about.

Colombia was well represented at the gates of Fort Benning this year. Three speakers from that troubled country (a lawyer, a priest and a union organizer) shared their views with an attentive audience in a jam-packed conference room.

It’s difficult to convey the full impact of the gathering on those who were there: listening to one another, signing petitions and letters to Congress, and contemplating the continuing tragedy of human brutality along with many heroically compassionate peacemakers. The 175-strong Puppetistas presented a parade and drama on global corporatism featuring a colorful Uncle Sam and a torch-bearing Queen of Truth, Liberty and Justice who towered above the crowd on stilts. An impressive list of celebrities was also on hand, including West Wing star Martin Sheen, Susan Sarandon and Sister Helen Prejean (whom Sarandon played in the movie Dead Man Walking), singer/songwriter Utah Phillips, and Kathy Kelly of Pax Christi and a Voice in the Wilderness — a three-time Nobel Peace Prize nominee. One particularly thrilling moment came on the last day when Sheen proclaimed dramatically, “As the acting president, I declare today — Nov. 21, 2004 — the closing of the School of the Americas to end the … spread of torture in the world.”

The 15 people who “crossed the line” at Fort Benning this year risked federal prison time for sharing their conscientious objection to the brutal behavior encouraged by the School of the Americas. By demonstrating the courage of their convictions, these crusading “peaceful warriors” are an example for us all.

But perhaps the most compelling part of the whole School of the Americas Watch experience is how vividly it evokes the spirit of life that we all share. That spirit isn’t located anywhere in particular — it’s within us, and thus is present everywhere we go. We find it in our openness and in our receptivity; through the simple act of being still inside and resting our minds, we come to know it in a profoundly personal and direct manner. And the remarkable sense of solidarity evoked by the SOAW unites all those seemingly separate realities into an expanding, abundant wholeness of spirit.

How that spirit gets expressed, of course, will vary from person to person. But for me, Gary Snyder, our poet laureate of the wild, shares it best: “Great brown bear is walking with us/Salmon swimming upstream with us/as we stroll a city street.”

And let’s not forget the words of one of the greatest peacemakers of my time, Bob Marley: “Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery and get up, stand up, stand up for your rights. … Get up, stand up, don’t give up the fight — now that we’ve seen the light!”

[Asheville resident David Williams served in the Peace Corps in India from 1974-77 and has worked for many years in sustainable agriculture. He is a father, an organic gardener, and a Unitarian Universalist who’s working for peace and justice.]

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