If you’ve ever wondered what sort of event would bring together elderly nuns from Connecticut, college students from throughout the U.S., South and Central American activists, torture survivors, Buddhist monks, the Immokalee workers, NAACP, Code Pink, Veterans for Peace, religious orders of all kinds – and have them dancing hand in hand to folk music and hip hop – well, this is it.
The weekend is a 23-year tradition, a joyful embrace of peace and a solemn protest against torture and murder. Some attendees have been here from the beginning; some, like my husband and me, were making their first appearance.
It all grew out of the conscience of Father Roy Bourgeois, a priest, military veteran and Purple Heart recipient. After his ordination as a Catholic priest, he spent five years working with impoverished Bolivian communities, but his efforts resulted in his arrest and deportation by the country’s military dictator, a graduate of the School of the Americas (SOA) at Fort Benning, at Columbus, Georgia. His concern about SOA deepened as nuns, priests and others were massacred in El Salvador by military squads trained at SOA. Father Roy concluded that he could not be silent about SOA and its effects on human rights as it serves dictatorships in Latin America.
On Friday, November 22, we began the weekend about 40 miles south of Columbus in Lumpkin, Georgia, with a march to and vigil at the Stewart Detention Center. Stewart in run by the for profit Correction Corporation of America under the direction of U.S.Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). The center has a reputation for inhumane treatment of detainees in the U.S., underscored Bryan Holcomb, who once worked at Stewart and told the protesters, “I want to tell you that if you’ve ever had any questions on whether there’s abuse out there, as a former employee, I’m telling you there is abuse, and it’s almost daily. And there’s a high burnout because once you get out there, what this company does to your soul, you will have to quit.”
Back in Columbus, there were numerous workshops and training sessions at the downtown convention center and an evening celebration of Father Roy’s 30 years of actions against SOA that packed the huge auditorium with his admirers and allies. Tributes were given and many songs were sung, a few written especially for the occasion. Father Roy was given a telescope to further his interest in astronomy and “the Church of ‘Wow.'” (Father Roy was excommunicated by the Catholic Church in 2011 for ordaining a woman priest.) The presenter said only a material gift would do, because “if you give him money, he’ll just give it away.”
Saturday morning there was a Peoples Movement Assembly to “Close SOA, Resist Empire, and End US Militarization” before we moved to the gates of Fort Benning for the primary rally. There were many speakers from all backgrounds, including torture survivors, but the grim nature of the facts was lifted by a sense of principled determination to turn our country to peace. Music was interspersed with the singers, giving the gathering a sometimes surprisingly festive air, and the “Puppetistas” enacted the triumph of peoples’ action over exploitation and destruction. Later we returned to the convention hall for workshops and more musical performances.
On Sunday morning we were back at the gates of Fort Benning for a somber ceremony honoring the martyrs killed by SOA trainees. There was a very moving funeral procession of mourners in black robes carrying caskets, followed by the rest of us clutching white crosses bearing the names of the deceased: one of ours had the name of a murdered priest and the other just said “child, age 4, and child, age 8 months.” As we circled twice, the names of the martyrs were recited; after each, we all raised our crosses, and replied, “Presente!” It was an acknowledgment of their lives and their suffering. At the end, we placed our crosses on the closed gates of Fort Benning. It was also a statement against all cruelty and abuse: that we, too, are present and that we stand in opposition.
To learn more about this rally and School of the Americas Watch, go to: http://soaw.org/november/en/
To see photos of the SOA events, go to: http://www.flickr.com/photos/soaw/sets/72157637978182773/