It was that time of year again. Time for me to consider attending the School of the Americas (SOA) Vigil. It was always a busy time of year for me, and I wondered what difference would one person make anyway. I had attended the last three years, made financial contributions by mail, and signed a few petitions. Wasn’t that enough?
Deep down inside my gut I knew that the right thing to do was to go and show my support. I had recently been to El Salvador and heard the stories of the killings, kidnappings, those who disappeared never to be found, and attended the memorial services of Oscar Romero, the archbishop assassinated at the church altar.
Every year for the last 17 years the SOA Watch Vigil has taken place at the gates of Fort Benning, Georgia for the purpose of closing the school. The SOA is a non-violent grass roots movement working in solidarity with the people of Latin America. It aims to change oppressive U.S. foreign policy by closing a school that trains the Central American military to engage in counter-revolutionary tactics, often violent, as in the Romero assassination to maintain the status quo in their countries.
The scene outside the fort is surreal; thousands of protestors are milling about and overhead a military helicopter flying low with blades spinning makes ear-splitting sounds. Fully uniformed, armed military guards are stationed before the gates of the fort with warnings not to cross. They are backed up by the more relaxed and friendly local police and sheriff’s office deputies. But give them any trouble and you could be put into the nearby paddy wagons and booked at the local jail.
For four years I had witnessed the incredible power and diversity of the SOA movement and their annual protest at Fort Benning, the largest anti-militarization gathering in North America. I shared moments with those who came from El Salvador, Bolivia, Paraguay, Panama, Canada and the U.S., the young and the old, some bearing guitars, others protesting from wheelchairs, all joined together in solidarity.
I heard speakers from across the Americas, witnessed their testimony, viewed the beautiful puppetista pageant and listened to the musicians perform on stage. On the last day, thousands transformed the fence at the main gate into a memorial for those killed by graduates of the SOA, often called the School of the Assassins.
The weekend included a massive rally on Saturday when thousands came together at the gates of the Fort. It culminated on Sunday with a mass ‘die-in’ and funeral procession to commemorate the victims by placing their hand-held crosses inscribed with the names of the victims, into the openings of the chain link fence, while voicing the collective aspirations of the protesters: No Mas! No More!
John Mac Phee is a first-year Ignatian Volunteer in New England and is a Community Service Coordinator at Emmanuel College in Boston. John helps the Community Service Learning Program provide opportunities for students to grow in their religious and civic commitments to service. John spent three months at Catholic University in Rwanda teaching Conversational English and continues to advocate and support the educational future of Rwandan children.