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Friday, December 28, 2007

Reflections on the School of the Americas protest weekend

Thank you to Kathy Stayton for this report on our experience in Georgia at the School of the Americas protests in Georgia. See earlier post for photos from the SOA weekend.....

It is SO quiet, I realized, though I, Gwyneth Lewis and Caroline Cargo were surrounded by about15,000 other people for the procession organized by School of Americas Watch. We were there to remember the thousands of Central and South American people who have been killed or tortured by men who had training at the U.S. Military’s School of Americas at Ft. Benning, in Columbus, GA. These were testimonies to the brutality that is exported from this training center. We were saying with our bodies,“No more!” The U.S. should not be in the extreme interrogation technique export business!

After a name of one who was killed or disappeared was called from the stage, we lifted our handmade wooden crosses with names of individuals or whole villages who had died and shouted “Presente”. That meant that named person was present with us in remembrance. They will not be forgotten. It took one hour and 45 minutes for names to be called about every 5 seconds before all of us had finally passed by the chain link fence across the road to the School, and erected by the School for this weekend, to place our crosses in it. All this in respectful quiet of thousands.

Respectful, yes, even spiritual, like a procession in a cathedral to honor a loved one, the solidarity among us was palpable. Police and military cameras were focused on us from outside the fences or police tapes that defined our area. Thirteen people chose direct action by either walking around the fence on to Ft. Benning property, or going over the fence. Why? To bring attention of the media of why they are there, to have a chance to give their case in a courtroom, and to express their outrage and their deep commitment to peace in a nonviolent manner. They ranged in age from mid20’s to late 70’s. Hundreds or thousands of Catholic high school and college students were there as were Jesuit priests and Sisters of Mercy and other orders. So was Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America!

This event was the end of a weekend of events—the Convergence of Hope & Resistance. Workshops, plenary sessions, and concerts were offered at the Columbus Trade Center and a nearby Holiday Inn, several miles from the School, now called Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation. (WHINSEC) Nonviolence training, from minimal to extensive was offered. Criminal Justice issues, Indigenous values, Struggle for Civil Liberties in El Salvador, Torture Survivors speak, Film screenings, Free Trade, Immigration & US Foreign Policy, Network of Spiritual Progressives, a Theater of the Oppressed – just a taste of the choices of workshops for all of us.

An exciting presentation for us all was one by Rabbi Michael Lerner who, with Sister Joan Chittister, and Cornel West of Princeton, started Network of Spiritual Progressives, a project of the Tikkun Community. With a packed room, he challenged us all to consider their alternative to the status quo which “judges institutions and social practices as efficient, rational and productive to the extent that they maximize money and power. The New Bottom Line, which they advocate, is that institutions and social practices should be judged rational, efficient and productive not only to the extent that they maximize money and power, but also to the extent that they maximize love and caring, ethical and ecological sensitivity and behavior, kindness and generosity, nonviolence and peace.” He then spun out scenarios of the possible.

A Theater of the Oppressed” caught the attention of Caroline and me. Hector Aristizabal, a psychologist, and a victim of torture in Colombia, acted out his life in a 45 minute drama. Then he took us through some activities that led to express through body motion what torturing would be like and then what we would feel if we were tortured— heavy stuff done effectively.

Plenaries, concerts, southern foods and networking rounded out our time. Our dream is that we could have a van or busload from CBC and other nearby churches to attend next year. Hopefully it will be closed by then; only 6 more votes were needed to curtail the function of SOA in 2006. Your call to your congress people will help. Below are a number of peace organizations their websites that you can check out as you wish. I visited their tables. Check out the Columbus, GA newspaper coverage of SOAW in the church narthex. It was fair and the pictures give a sense of the street theater and the crowd.

Thanks to Caroline, whose parents live about an hour from Birmingham, she met me at the airport there and took me to the Civil Rights Museum in Birmingham. On the way back to Birmingham she took Gwenyth and me to Montgomery and we visited the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial and museum at the Southern Poverty Law Center.

What a privilege for us! We knew we had many supporters back at CBC for this, our first SOAW event. For this I give thanks for us all.

Kathy Stayton

Websites of some peace and justice organizations that participated in the SOA weekend

SOA Watch

Guatemala Human Rights Commission/USA:

The SHARE Foundation: Building a New El Salvador Today:

Veterans for Peace:

Witness For Peace:

Network of Spiritual Progressives:

Just Faith:

Center on Conscience & War:

War Resisters League:

The Indypendent - a free paper for free people: and

Latin America Solidarity Coalition:

Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America: