On the weekend before Thanksgiving, I traveled with sixty Fordham students, staff members, and students from St. John’s University in Queens to the School of the Americas protest and Ignatian Family Teach-In in Fort Benning, Georgia. Why did so many of us spend eighteen hours on a bus in order to be a part of this event? Why did countless others travel from even farther?
I knew I wanted to attend the protest when I learned about the School of the Americas in a Latin American History class my sophomore year. Before I was able to, however, I would participate in a Global Outreach project to El Salvador that exposed me to many personal stories of the grave effects of the School of the Americas. When I learned about actions taken by SOA graduates, I was so taken aback that my government could be running such a school and I would never even hear about it.
Maybe I’m getting ahead of myself, though. The School of the Americas, renamed WHINSEC (Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation) in 2001, is a military school in Georgia (previously held in Panama) where the United States Department of Defense trains mainly Latin American military officers in military and law enforcement tactics.
Many military officers, after graduating from the school, have been accused of egregious human rights violations throughout Latin America, and have been linked to countless deaths. Fr. Roy Bourgeois founded the SOA Watch in 1990 to protest the school. In addition to the annual protest, they do legislative work both to close the school and to fight for transparency regarding curriculum, faculty, and graduates. With increased transparency, the school could be held responsible for later actions taken by graduates if they learned those tactics while enrolled there.
For this post, however, I wanted to focus on the events of last weekend. I may still be processing some aspects of the experience. But I wanted to write about it because it tied in so many ideas of inter-American relations and violence, the role of a school like Fordham in an activist movement like the SOA Watch, and the experience of gathering as citizens to demonstrate for policy change.
On Friday night and Saturday morning, we participated in the Ignatian Family Teach-In (a gathering of the Ignatian Solidarity Network and Jesuit schools from across the nation) that focused on the SOA but also featured breakout session on other topics (for instance, I attended a breakout session about Nike entitled “Behind the Swoosh.”) It was so interesting and energizing to see so many groups of students and educators coming together to learn from and with one another on issues of social justice that are so often separated from academics. The Ignatian Solidarity Network has a special devotion to the closing of the SOA because SOA graduates were responsible for the murder of six Jesuits, their housekeeper, and her daughter at the Universidad Centroamericana in San Salvador in November 1989.
On Sunday, some of the leaders of SOA Watch led the crowd in a funereal vigil to commemorate all those who have died at the hands of SOA graduates. After each name on a list of hundreds was read, everyone in the crowd responded “Presente.” This was a powerful representation of the vast numbers who have been killed, since the procession itself took hours. Afterwards, everyone placed a cross with the name of a victim either in the fence of the school or at the base of a flag representing countries that still send soldiers to the school, creating a powerful image of the number of people who have united to make a statement against the school. Four were arrested for “crossing the line” (crossing onto military base property to protest the school from within.)
I feel very fortunate to have been able to participate in the event, which has left me with many questions but feeling like I have a better understanding of SOA Watch and the Ignatian Solidarity Network. It also has me thinking once more about the university’s relationship to outside society. The university’s role as a social force is an important one.
Additionally, we have been talking a little in our class discussions about what it means to be an engaged citizen, and one moment last Sunday that really stood out for me occurred after the procession, when the somber mood turns lighter as drums play and the crowd symbolically “reenters into life.” It was a very energizing moment, and I heard the chant, “Tell me what democracy looks like- This is what democracy looks like.”
Looking at all the passionate and energized individuals around me, I realized how much I liked that image of democracy.