By Mary Ann McGivern
On Friday, November 21, a Loretto contingent traveled to Fort Benning, GA, to protest against the Western Hemispheric Institute for Security Cooperation (WHINSEC), aka the School of the Americas. Despite the name change, WHINSEC has a proven history of teaching torture and the overthrow of democracy. Today WHINSEC has significant U.S. civilian oversight and even some tracking of how the troops use their training. However, the other thousands of training courses offered each year get little or no scrutiny. WHINSEC is a clear symbol if not the current reality of training foreign militaries.
For example, most of the highly placed military and former military in the Honduran government have taken U.S. military courses somewhere in the world. I’ve also seen reports that the police unit responsible for the disappearance of the 43 students from Ayatzinapa had U.S. military training. They are supposed to take a course on democracy whenever they participate in U.S. training but we don’t know whether they take those classes or what is being taught. We do know that the military part of the training teaches the use of weapons and various military operational strategies and tactics. And we know that graduates of these courses are sought after by drug cartels and other non-governmental organizations. Our military training is one of those gifts that keep on giving.
So on Friday all nine volunteers, 30 Nerinx students plus faculty and friends of Loretto and 9 Loretto Community members climbed into cars and onto airplanes to travel to Columbus, GA. Last to arrive at 4 AM on Saturday were the East Coast volunteers, Mallory Daily, Jes Stevens, Julie Cozzetto, Martha Berhane, Cecilie Kern, and Cathy Jaskey. St. Louis volunteers Kyleah Frederic, Eleanor Humphrey and Michelle Schlaubit got in at 2 AM. But they were all up for breakfast and ready to head out by 8 AM on Saturday. And Saturday night they still had the stamina to head for the Columbus Convention Center for workshops and a late night concert.
On Saturday morning Mary Jean Friel and Carolyn Jaramillo gave us armbands to honor the 43 disappeared students from Ayatzinapa and commissioned us to join with a thousand marchers who walked a mile and a half to the Stewart Detention Center in Lumpkin, GA, operated by the Corrections Corporation of America. It holds about 1800 men, mostly immigrants without documents, but it also serves as the local jail for several counties. We heard some moving speeches and excellent music. Then five protesters walked onto prison property and were arrested. They have since been released on bond. Walking back, several of us wished that all thousand demonstrators had been prepared to walk onto the prison grounds. (A note: that’s the sort of preparation demonstrators in St. Louis are receiving. Indeed, a month ago at a Clayton protest several hundred of us did leave the protected protest area to march for half an hour through the city streets. No arrests were made.) On the drive back to Columbus the volunteers in my car wanted to know why people do civil disobedience. What good does it do, they asked. It’s a big question and we talked a long time about it.
Saturday afternoon we spent outside the Fort Benning gates, listening to more short speeches and good music. Attending an SOAW rally raises one’s standards for rallies. That evening instead of going to the workshops at the Convention Center, I retired to my motel room. So did Mary Jean, Carolyn, Maureen Smith and Eleanor Craig. But Eileen Harrington and Rox were out with the volunteers and the Nerinx students.
It rained all day Sunday. Kyleah had made crosses for us all to carry and we each wrote the name of one of the 43 disappeared or a victim of Latin American violence where SOA graduates had been participants. Rox led us in a prayer, calling on us to pay attention. About 2000 people gathered again at the gates and marched in a funeral procession, carrying crosses bearing the names of persons killed by SOA-trained troops. Singers chanted the names of the dead as we marched. When we reached the gate, we put our small crosses into the chain-link fence that has been erected in front of the gate, topped with barbed wired. Not-withstanding the double fence and wire, 83 year-old Eve Tetaz found a way to cross the line and Nashua Chantal climbed over that barbed wire to cross the line for the third time.
As I said, we were about 2000. The numbers at the SOAW protest have reached almost 20,000 but a couple of years ago the Jesuits withdrew the support of most of their colleges and high schools when Roy Bourgeois was denied the practice of priesthood because he spoke out for women’s ordination. It’s too bad the numbers are down, but more important is the loss for those students of the experience of participating in a passionate action for justice. For our Loretto volunteers and the Nerinx students, this protest provides both information and a heart-felt experience of standing together with the poor, standing as Friends of Mary.
I’ve participated in the protest at least ten or 12 years and tears don’t rise so readily to my eyes any more. I told Eleanor Craig – who had never been able to come before – how significant it is that the police there don’t wear riot gear, and she immediately went over to them to say thank you for their respect for our commitment to non-violence. I was grateful for her new energy. Then, later, I walked Eileen, also new to the protest, back behind the stage to explain the funeral procession route and show her the fence where we would hang our crosses. Some college students were back there, preparing the coffins to be carried. Tears did well up in my eyes then, in gratitude and hope for these young people carrying out such a solemn task.