Tuesday, November 20, 2007


Here, finally, are my pictures from the 2007 protest and vigil:

To go to the page of pictures, click here.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Free Speech and nonviolence

Although the SOAW and protest participants are permitted to protest the SOA, the Columbus Police and Army don't let them do so without a bit of a response.

As mentioned before, it has become harder to cross the line. Fences have become larger and tighter around the site even as the protest has gotten larger. There are cameras at the entrance and they also have a large crane-type devise that looks like it has a camera in it. There are a few soldiers who watch the activities from inside the gates, and cops line the non-base sides of the roads. There is little interaction between the peaceful crowd and their observers.

There were two situations, however, in which the police did get involved.

The first situation took place when two men hooded themselves at the TASSC booth to protest torture. They were told that he could not protest with a covered face. Therefore, the SOAW brought them to the stage where they announced that this was a violation of free speech and supported his protest. The only thing the police action did was call more attention to the petition to repeal the Military Commissions Act.

The other issue was that they did not allow protesters to bring in objects that could be deemed "weapons." They screened all the crosses to make sure they weren't too large. Many individuals could be seen breaking their crosses at the curb. Others set them out in front of the police trailer at the entrance with signs declaring them "deadly weapons." On Saturday a woman with a cloth sign that read "Grandmothers for peace" was required to dismantle it because it was stretched over plastic tubing that was too large. She had the sign on Sunday, though. I don't know how she sneaked it in.

The "weapons" business seemed to be an intimidation, or perhaps frustration (it wasn't too intimidating), tactic. The movement is committed to nonviolence, and they still allowed puppetistas to carry large heavy signs and puppets that could be "weapons."

After the man flung himself over the barbed wire fences, the crowd, mostly the people with drums, started cheering wildly and shook the fence where the crosses were put. I thought this was a little "violent." It looked like this might have been the same crowd responsible for starting the anti-war protests that included swearing ("we don't want your bleeping war!") last year, to the disappointment of some of the Loyola students.

I do have to say that besides the "God bless Fort Benning movement," I have not personally witnessed either police or local people confronting protesters with anger. One woman selling parking told my friends and me as we passed to have a good time and that we were supporting a good cause. Local people also barbecue for protesters at the site. Certainly, these individuals and businesses benefit from 25,000 people coming into town!

As the crowd grows, the movement will have to continue to fight the pressures to control the crowd, of course, but they will also have to make sure that everyone within the movement understands and upholds the commitment to non-violence and to treating Columbus with respect.

Rufina Amaya, Presente!

Although we had been gathered under the banner for Rufina Amaya all weekend, I did not know her story until Adriana Portillo Bartow told it on Sunday.

She is the only survivor of the El Mozote, El Salvador massacre of more than 900 (according to the SOAW, but according to this story, she was the only one that spoke out about her memories of the massacre). She escape and hid, witnessing the deaths of her family and friends, including four children, but Bartow said that she knew she had to escape so that she could tell the story.

She died earlier this year, but Bartow told how Amaya came to the SOA vigil some years ago and had been marching by Bartow. When the singers started singing the names of the dead from El Mozote, Bartow says, Amaya started saying, "That was my daughter, that was my neighbor, that was my aunt."

As I sang "presente" this year, I really listened to the names and imagine the real individuals. Last year I was too busy taking pictures during the vigil, but imagining them as a mother, brother, child, or friend this year made the procession even more powerful.

Getting arrested and speeches at the vigil

As the protesters gathered at the gates (SOAW says there were 25,000, up from 22,000 last year), blessings and speeches continued. By 8:30 a.m., it was very difficult to get to the front toward the stage and people continued to arrive until the funeral procession began, so that the crowd stretched far past the speakers. Many people spoke about being here 10 years ago, when there were hundreds rather than thousands of people and there was no fence blocking the gates. Instead there was simply a line (hence the phrase, crossing the line).

Each year they make it more difficult to get arrested. I noticed that the fenced-in area by the gates was smaller on one side this year. Ten people crossed before the funeral procession even began, it was announced during speeches (this picture is from the SOAW website, which lists all the line crossers). Going early, they apparently got closer to SOA/WHINSEC than anybody ever has. At the end of the funeral procession, as drums beat before the puppetista show, a man literally flung himself over the barbed wire fence right at the gates, making him the 11th person to get arrested.

Michael Lerner spoke on the need to not only show them that we are against war and torture, but also to show what we want. He, along with Sister Joan Chittister and Cornel West, has established the Network of Spiritual Progressives in order provide positive alternatives.

I was wrong that only one presidential candidate was present. A former Georgia congresswoman, Cynthia McKinney, spoke Sunday morning, telling the audience how she broke from both war-making parties and is running as a Green Party candidate.

Dennis Kucinich also spoke, receiving roaring applause as the crowd waved his campaign signs in the air. He has been an advocate for the movement to shut down the SOA since 1997 and told the crowd: "I commit to you that if I get elected president, one of my first actions will be to close this school." But he also reminded the crowd that it is not just about "a piece of real estate," it's about the mentality in Washington that favors war.

The connections between the SOA and war were strong as Father Roy said that "we are here in solidarity with the people of Latin American and of Iraq." The nonviolent crowd seemed quite happy with that connection, chanting the one word that Bourgeois said describes today's political situation: Shame. It seems the movement has grown to encompass all foreign policy, thanks to the war in Iraq.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Vigil and pictures

My friends and I are getting in a car right after the vigil to drive back north, so pictures and vigil news will be posted as soon as possible, but possibly not until Monday morning.

In the mean time, here are more pictures from last year's Loyola trip. I've seen many Loyola students this weekend, and they say they are stars around the Teach-in and protest because of the story!

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Progress in Latin America

Besides hosting the vigil and lobbying the U.S. government, an SOA Watch delegation also travels to Latin American countries asking them to stop sending students to the WHINSEC. So far they have gotten five countries to agree: Venezuela, Argentina, Uruguay, Costa Rica, and Bolivia.

I was struck by a comment that Lisa Sullivan Rodriguez, who presented the update on the movement against the SOA from within Latin America, made. She said that at her first SOA protest, her daughter noticed while looking at the crowd that so many people there probably had never been to Latin America and yet she could feel the love for "my people."

A reader, himself a minority, asked me to notice the skin color of the people who attend the protest this year. Yes, the vast majority of people there are white. But as Rodriguez's daughter noted, they can still be in solidarity with people from Latin America.

The reader suggested that the SOA Watch should reach out to more minority communities. But I did find today that the presenters, musicians, and leaders of the movement were quite diverse. Yes, it would be great if the protest reflected the diversity of our country. Until that happens, though, I think it is fair to celebrate all those that are here, as well as all those who are working in other countries and don't have the privilege of coming here and soaking up the energy from other activists--no matter the color of their skin.

What others are doing part 2: the gates

As I mentioned in a previous post, a major theme this weekend seems to be: The U.S. should do better than this. As the Iraq War continues, the connection between the War on Terror and the SOA has only grown. Torture was at the forefront of the connection: The U.S. military has taught torture at the SOA and it has committed torture as well--and provided legislative support of torture. Torture Abolition Survivor Support Coalition (TASSC) had speakers at the gate who addressed not only the question of their own torture in other countries, but the fact that they had sought refugee in a country that tortures. Just ask us whether waterboarding is torture or not, said a man from Ethiopia.

Father Roy Bourgeois, who spent four years in the military, said that he knows that the military does not teach democracy, as SOA/WHINSEC claims it does. "This is not a setting where you can teach democracy," he said, referring to the barb wire, fences, and no trespassing signs. He and other speakers called for the United States to regain its status as a leader for human rights and democracy.

I couldn't list all of the organizations at the gates, but two stuck out to me as particularly interesting. David Solnit is an anti-war activist and puppeteer who created a small puppet show to promote the Army of None movement, which counters military recruitment. He's been on this path since he first refused to sign up for the draft in 1979. This caught my eye in light of the stories of the threatened expulsions of students in a Chicago suburb for protesting the Iraq War (and military recruiters in their school). Another group, Fellowship for Reconciliation, is working on a similar project in Colombia. FOR is organizing delegations of young people from Colombia and the U.S. to work together to fight military recruiting.

It's debatable of whether the line between protesting the military and protesting just the SOA is getting too blurry, but it's hard not to see parallels today.

It is always important to distinguish good soldiers from not-so-good institutions though. The blame does seem to fall mostly on the political figures, especially Bush.
But even though the elections are next year, not many people are courting the protester's votes. There was only one presidential campaign at the protest: Dennis Kucinich.