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School of the Americas Watch is an advocacy organization founded by Maryknoll Father Roy Bourgeois and a small group of supporters in 1990 to protest the training of mainly Latin American military officers, by the United States Department of Defense, at the School of the Americas (SOA). Most notably, SOA Watch conducts a vigil each November at the site of the academy, located on the grounds of Fort Benning, a US Army military base near Columbus, Georgia, in protest over myriad human rights abuses committed by graduates of the academy, including murders, rapes and torture and contraventions of the Geneva Accord. Military officials deny the charges, stating that even if graduates commit war crimes after they return to their home country, the school itself should not be held accountable for their actions. Responding to mounting protests spearheaded by SOA Watch, in 2000 the United States Congress renamed the School of the Americas the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (WHINSEC), rather than closing the academy. In addition, all students must undergo a minimum of eight hours of class on human rights and the civilian control of the military.

Contents

Origins

Inspired by the call of slain Archbishop Óscar Romero, who said "we who have a voice must speak for the voiceless," Father Bourgeois and two companions posed as military officers and crossed into Ft. Benning in 1983. The two men and a woman climbed a tree near the barracks housing Salvadoran troops and used megaphones to broadcast the final homily of Archbishop Oscar Romero. Bourgeois and his companions were arrested and Bourgeois was then sentenced to 18 months in prison for trespassing onto federal property.

Bourgeois and his followers began to research the School of the Americas, educate the public, lobby Congress, and practice creative, nonviolent resistance at the School of the Americas facilities.

Following the November 1989 murders of six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper and her daughter at the Universidad Centroamericana “José Simeón Cañas” in El Salvador at the hands of graduates of the School of the Americas, SOA Watch organized an annual protest to be held on the anniversary of the massacre the next year. The event has been held every year from there on out.

Objectives

Mission Statement

SOA Watch is a nonviolent grassroots movement that works to stand in solidarity with the people of Latin America and the Caribbean, to close the SOA/WHINSEC and to change oppressive U.S. foreign policy that the SOA represents.

In addition to conducting its annual vigils at the main gate of the Fort Benning military base in Columbus, Georgia and educating the public about abuses committed by graduates of the academy, the SOA Watch continues to lobby Congress to shut down the school.

Non-violent demonstrations

Protest demonstrations are staged by SOA Watch at the main gate of Ft. Benning in November each year, in comemoration of the anniversary of the Universidad Centroamericana "José Simeón Cañas" (UCA) massacre. The growing annual protest has remained a major focus for SOA Watch and the grassroots movement to close the SOA/WHINSEC, which likewise has grown throughout the Americas since the first protest in 1990. The original band of ten resisters who marched onto Ft. Benning and splashed blood upon the School of Americas to commemorate the first anniversary of the UCA massacre has grown in recent years to a community of 10,000. People come from across the country and around the globe to honor victims of the School of the Americas, as well as their survivors, with music, words, puppets and theatre.

Traditionally the legal vigil and memorial service concludes with a mock funeral procession, using the Presente litany, onto Ft. Benning, with all who choose to march onto the post trespassing on federal property and subject to arrest. Subsequent to 9/11 and the erection of a security fence at the main gate of Ft. Benning in 2001, protesters who wish to take their mourning onto the post need to go over, under, or around that fence, as opposed to the simple marching of the past.

At the 2002 protest, the city of Columbus began requiring all attending the event to submit to a metal detector search at the designated entrance. After a lengthy legal battle, however, in October of 2004 the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals ruled unanimously that the forced search was unconstitutional.

In 2004, the Army added a second fence topped by razor wire, and erected a third fence in 2005.

On Sunday, November 20, 2005 nearly 20,000 protesters attended the Ft. Benning vigil, "remembering those who have been silenced by SOA violence." Forty protesters climbed over or under the fence and were arrested by military police. Columbus police also arrested bystanders, including some who lifted the fence. Since protests against the school began, 183 people have collectively served over 81 years in prison for their civil disobedience.

Sunday, November 19, 2006 marked the following year for the School of the Americas protest. Over 22,000 protesters attended the vigil--a record high since the protests began. Two weeks later on December 3, 2006 Georgia Public Radio broadcasted "The Sounds of Protest at the School of the Americas", an hour-long documentary with audio collected at the 2006 protest. "Sounds of Protest" Audio Documentary

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Presente litany

The Presente litany is a memorial litany in which the names of people killed in political repression (usually in Central and South America) are recited. This litany is used at the annual memorial service held at the gates of the School of the Americas in Columbus, Georgia for those killed by graduates of the school.

The tradition of reading names of those killed by politically repressive regimes has a long tradition in Latin America. At the funeral of Pablo Neruda on September 25, 1973 in Chile, Hernán Loyala reports that mourners responded with "Presente" (meaning "he/she (the victim) is here") to the shouting out of Neruda's name, as well as that of Salvador Allende, the recently deposed (and killed) president. This was the first public act of protest against the 14 day old regime of Augusto Pinochet.[1]

See also

References

  1. ^ "More blood than ink: Edited extracts from Pablo Neruda: A Biography, by Adam Feinstein" in The Guardian Saturday July 3, 2004. Reprinted January 2005 in Lalkar Online at http://www.lalkar.org/issues/contents/jan2005/neruda.html

External links

  • SOAW.org - 'Shut Down the School of the Americas', SOA Watch homepage
  • Benning.army.mil - 'Libertad, Paz y Fraterndad', Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (WHINSEC home Page)
  • Carlisle-www.army.mil - 'The US Army School of the Americas Officially Closed its Doors at 1200 Noon on December 15, 2000 After a long Tradition of Service to the United States of America. This Site is Available Only for Historical Purposes.', School of the Americas (official site, last updated December 20, 2000)
  • Crossing the Line The story of two activists arrested at the 2005 SOA Watch vigil
  • Hartford-HWP.com - 'History of the School of the Americas (SOA)', World History Archives
  • InfoAnarchy.org - 'School of the Americas' (wiki), InfoAnarchy
  • HiddenInPlainSight.org - Hidden in Plain Sight, 'Feature-length documentary that looks at the nature of U.S. policy in Latin America through the prism of the School of the Americas, the controversial military school that trains Latin American soldiers in the USA'
  • VIDEO: Father Roy Bourgeois - Shut Down the School of the Americas!, talk and discussion in Portland, Oregon, on September 15, 2008.

Further reading

  • Hodge, James; Linda Cooper (2004). Disturbing the Peace: The Story of Father Roy Bourgeois and the Movement to Close the School of Americas. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books. ISBN 1-57075-434-9.  

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