16 June 2009

I'm proud to be an American, where at least I know I can protest.

As part of the never-ending project which is cleaning my room, I’ve been finding a lot of old things. Today I found letters from the White House, the Department of State, Senators, Representatives, Laura Bush, Hillary Clinton, and others. (What can I say, being an activist leads to interesting correspondence!) I also found a catalog from the Department of Defense.
The latter needs a bit more explanation. It’s also connected to being an activist, however, it involves more than correspondence. When I was a junior in high school, I made a trip to Georgia with my two Amnesty advisers & two other members of Amnesty. We went to Fort Benning in Columbus, Georgia. Fort Benning is the home of the School of the Americas, or the Western Hemisphere School for Security Cooperation (WHINSEC). The SOA provides training for Latin American soldiers on American soil.
The controversy over the SOA is that some of its graduates have gone on to commit grave human rights abuses. For example, SOA graduates are to blame for the assassination of Oscar Romero. For more information you can check out SOA Watch.
I also found a partial journal about the weekend we spent down there. I typed it so that it was a few less sheets of paper to save & I thought it would be nice to put it up here too. There were lots of “add reaction/elaborate” notes – the reflection journal was part of an assignment, but there was so little time to sit down & write while we were there.
Georgia Journal
21 November 2003

Plane: This trip has been in the works for several months now. Between educational workshops/meetings, movies & stories from the SOA Watch, news articles, & information about the SAO & its graduates the work was snow balling into a big, stressful project. When I first decided to go on his trip I hadn’t expected to do an independent study for it, let alone have deadlines for work I most likely would have done any ways. With deadlines & work accumulating & my stress level rising, I almost forgot my reasoning for coming on the trip in the first place. In writing my biography of Oscar Romero I re-found that reasoning. The killing of innocent people who speak out for human rights & against injustices committed by military personnel & government officials/workers. While writing the biography I recalled the movie Romero & the emotions it invoked in me. I began to forget about the stress of deadlines (as well as the school work I would be missing). Then I started to really get excited about the trip. Now that I’m sitting on the plane, flying down to Georgia, I can only imagine what the next few days are going to be like. I can’t wait to demonstrate against the horrible school that teaches torture to Latin Americans, on the ground of the United States.
Hotel: At 5 we’re planning on going to a prisoner of conscience caucus. The POC’s are former prisoners/probationers of the SOA Watch, people who have been involved in past SOA rallies. The next event we plan on attending is a Witness for Peace Gathering. After that we’re going to women’s/men’s gender queer caucuses.
22 November 2003
Morning: Today we’re going on a tour of Fort Benning. After that we’re going to the rally just outside the Fort. I don’t really know what to expect for the rally. The movies about the SOA &/or weekend are really about the vigil. I’m so excited abou
t going! I’m also interested in the tour of the Fort.
Evening: Today was awesome. I was really surprised about the way we were treated at the base. Everyone was so nice, even though they knew why we were there – to hear the other side. I appreciated the fact that the men who spoke to us understood of our opinions. The rally was amazing!
I find it interesting that I wrote about how I thought the people we met with at the SOA were understanding. They were, but in more of a “we know how to put the right spin on things” way. And they certainly put a spin on things, just the same as when the name change happened. On the surface it seems as though things are improving, but behind the scenes they really aren’t.
It was, however, an absolutely amazing experience. I had been to demonstrations before, but nothing on this scale. So many people go for the weekend demonstration every year & that collective is so inspiring. While I was there, I met Sister Helen Prejean for the first time. She’s the nun who wrote the book Dead Man Walking & is depicted in the movie. She also wrote a book called The Death of Innocents. Susan Sarandon, the actress from the movie & an avid activist, was also there. (Martin Sheen is also a huge supporter of SOA Watch.)The most memorable thing about the weekend was the vigil. There is a huge procession to the entrance of Fort Benning. Usually Fort Benning is open, but they close the gate every year when the protest happens. Most people walk until they get to the fence, where they leave a cross or some remembrance for those who have fallen at the hands of SOA graduate. Some people commit civil disobedience & scale the fence, as the original goal of the procession was to reach the building which houses the SOA.
Although most people do not commit civil disobedience, the weekend certainly makes an impact. The mass amount of protestors cannot be ignored by the SOA, even when they blast music during the rallies & vigil. (Examples: God Bless the USA, Proud to be an American.) It leaves people with a bug to do more as an activist & gives people a chance to network.
I can honestly say that participating in the SOA demonstration has been one of the defining points of my activist career. I hope to make a return trip to Georgia to participate in it again, although I hope that it’s not necessary by the time I’m able to afford the trip.

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