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.

What others are doing

Along with the U.S. Catholic booth at the Teach-In, other organizations have informational booths. Students from John Carroll University have a booth with information about fair trade. They are not only encouraging people to buy fair trade coffee, chocolate, tea, and other goods; they are working to get fair trade in their college dining halls and cafes. Here's a link for more information.

There is also a new documentary about the SOA protest: On The Line. It will be premiering tonight before the Teach-In Mass.

Jesuit Volunteer Corp, Catholics for the End of the War in Iraq, Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good, Father John Dear, S.J., and others also set up booths. There are more organizations, including vendors for fair trade t-shirts and gifts at the protest ground, which will be a lot like a fair, this afternoon.

Legislative push to close the SOA

A special guest today at the Ignatian Family Teach-In was Representative Jim McGovern of Massachusetts, who has introduced the amendment to suspend funding for the SOA. He also spoke at the gates this afternoon. [Note: post updated because I could hear his story better at the gates.]

As a staff person of a Congressperson, McGovern was part of the team that investigated the killing of the Jesuit Martyrs and connected the 19 killers to the SOA. He said that one of the key parts of that investigation was that they could review the attendance records of the SOA and compare it to the list of the guilty. For the past three years, it has become more difficult for the SOA Watch to obtain these records, despite filing Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) petitions for the records. This prevents them from knowing what the graduates have been doing.

The amendment to cut funding lost by just six votes last summer, but McGovern introduced language into the defense appropriations bill that would require the government to release attendance records on request. Unfortunately, he announced that the Bush administration just had that language changed in negotiations between the House and Senate this past week. Its language keeps the records classified.

"We're a better country that is on display at this school," said McGovern, appealing to the patriot in his audience throughout his speech.

A reader called me after reading the U.S. Catholic story frustrated because he thought going to the protest wasn't enough. He was also upset because he said the NETWORK, the Catholic Social Justice Lobby, doesn't make the SOA a priority. (They did have a booth at the gates, and the representative said that was true as far as she knew. I hope to e-mail them and hear their official stance soon.) Students and other Catholics, he said, have to follow through after the weekend.

If the theme last year was this is the last year (many were hopeful due to the 2006 elections), this year's theme was the United States is a better country than this and we need to fix our international reputation.

Still, the action can't stop at the gates of Fort Benning. An essential part of this weekend--and especially the Teach-In--is inspiring people to take action beyond just the weekend.

Meeting activists: young and old

While the Teach-In is mainly students, there are people of all ages at the Teach-In and of course at the gates. This morning I met a woman who just joined the 1,000 Grandmother movement yesterday with the birth of her first grandchild. Congrats to her! This movement aims to gather 1,000 grandmothers (and their combined 10,000 years of wisdom) at the gates.

Last year, the Loyola students said they loved seeing other generations at the protest, both the grandmothers and families with small children. They admire the dedication of people who have come for years without seeing much change and they admire parents who are teaching their young children the values of social justice. A few said that they participate in protests such as this one because their parents took them along on protests as children.

I am impressed with the high school kids that are at the Teach-In. Their experience is a little different from the college students. While the Loyola students reported that they knew about a lot of the topics talked about at the Teach-Ins from classes, a lot of the high school kids don't know much about social justice issues yet. (Some college kids are just learning, too, of course. I personally didn't know anything about the SOA until after college so everybody here impresses me!) A lot of the talks are directed to people who are starting to learn about immigration, the environment, the SOA, and other issues.

Also, there are a few large high school groups, but some of the high school students I talked to came in groups of five students or less. Two girls from Milwaukee came with another school group because they did not have enough for a group from their own school.

Students from Loyola Chicago talked of struggling with feeling accepted at their school, but I imagine the social pressure in high school is especially difficult to handle. It must be even more difficult when there are only a few others interested in social justice at your school. Three boys from Gonzaga College High School in Washington, D.C. learned of the Teach-In and vigil from a teacher, but reported that the rest of their school wasn't terribly progressive.

Of all the high school students I've talked, teachers seem to be key in inspiring kids to come down here, where they learn more, gain experience in activism, and meet thousands of others concerned with what they are concerned with. Thank you teachers!

I heart Jesuits

One of my favorite T-shirts, which Boston College students made last year, are the simple, I heart Jesuits T-shirts (as seen in the picture).

Although not noted in the U.S. Catholic story, two Jesuit Scholastics studying at Loyola went with the Loyola group and most of the students loved to talk with them. They were both young and friendly and encouraged them to take action back on Loyola's campus. Last year, all the Jesuits present went on stage during the Teach-in and read all the names of Jesuits who had been killed while serving as God. One girl noted after that that we need more Jesuits around. Although I have never attended a Catholic, let alone Jesuit, school, I must admit by the end of the weekend I was understanding the appeal of the "faith that does justice" education.

On Friday night a man said to my friends and me: "I touched Father Roy Bourgeois!" It was funny, but I wondered at the fact that he has attained a sort of celebrity status, at least among Catholic activists. But when I met him later, I was struck at how friendly he was--more down-to-earth than celebrity. Standing ovations, it seems, don't go to the heads of such figures as him, Father John Dear, Sister Helen Prejean (who spoke last year), and others.

And yet, a reader commented to me that it is always the priests or nuns that we talk about dying, rather than the ordinary, indigenous people. Is that a bad thing? One of the great parts of the vigil is that each victim is named or recognized (if no name is known) and is there for "presente." But it is true that the more famous names come first. I don't think that discounts the equal human dignity of an unnamed child versus Oscar Romero (certainly Romero wouldn't say so). But we do need the priests and nuns--the martyrs that we always talk about--to lead the way, to be the inspiration.

From my limited contact with leaders of this movement, they don't seem to lift themselves above anyone. Perhaps members of the movement should be careful about how much we hold them up. Love them we may, but they are our equals. This might also make us realize that we need to put in an equal share of the effort--the leaders cannot do it themselves. (The Jesuits also ended their Mass by encouraging young people to talk to the priests and nuns present if they were discerning a call to religious life!)

Friday, November 16, 2007

Ignatian Family Teach-In begins on anniversary of Jesuit martyrs deaths

The Ignatian Family Teach-In began tonight with song, school shout-outs, and speeches. It is a place where high school and college students can come together and learn about the SOA and other social justice issues.

The Teach-In is run by the Ignatian Solidarity Network, which is dedicated to helping connect social justice education and initiatives in Catholic schools, parishes, and other groups (mostly Jesuit, but also groups run by various orders of sisters).

ISN has held many Teach-Ins at the SOA, but this year for the first time, it held a spring teach-in. Students spoke tonight about their experience at that teach-in, held in New Orleans last spring. The benefit of teach-ins is that students both learn about and gain experience with the issue. The student speakers shared their experience cleaning out homes as well as learning about the existing forms of discrimination that made Hurricane Katrina such a disaster. In 2008, the topic is immigration and the spring Teach-In will be held at Loyola High School in Los Angeles, March 7-9.

From the Loyola group, Mary McEvoy also spoke tonight. She spoke about her experience working with survivors of torture, as she also did in the U.S. Catholic article. Since last year, she has also traveled to El Salvador. Through both of these formative experiences, she said tonight, she's learned that love can make life seem worth while, even when she was most frustrated.

After SOAW founder Father Roy Bourgeois gave a speech, the night ended with a ritual to remember the Jesuit martyrs and their two companions, who were killed in El Salvador on this night, Nov. 16, in 1989.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Preparing for the SOA vigil and protest

As I make my final preparations to drive from Chicago to Columbus, Georgia for the Ignatian Family Teach-In and and the School of Americas (WHINSEC) vigil and protest, I will be posting links and information about how to get involved in the cause. Over the next week, I hope to also discuss with readers the story in U.S. Catholic as well as issues that I was not able to cover in the magazine.

I look forward to hearing your thoughts though conversations on the blog, and if you are attending the protest, you can meet me at the Ignatian Family Teach-In. I will have a table set up with copies of U.S. Catholic in the back of the conference center.

Here are some basic ways to get involved if you are interested in doing so:

The 2007 protest starts on this Friday, November 16, the exact day the Jesuit Martyrs and their two companions were killed in El Salvador. The SOA Watch website has plenty of information about planning your trip to Columbus, Georgia, including ride boards from around the country, hotel information, and event schedules.

There is also a list of local groups, who often host vigils held at the same time as the vigil in Columbus. Vigils are held throughout Latin America as well. (More on Latin American countries' involvement in the movement to close the SOA/WHINSEC will follow.)

If you are looking to do something more while you are in Georgia, volunteers for the protest/vigil are always needed. Donations, of course, are always welcomed, I'm sure!