Presbyterians Participate in Vigil to Close the SOA

For the 17th straight year, the Presbyterian Peace Fellowship participated in the November rally and vigil at the gates of Fort Benning to call for closing the School of Americas/WHINSEC. The weekend was filled with vibrant witness as the gathering of thousands participated in both traditional and creative new actions.

On Friday evening, Father Roy Bourgeois, SOA Watch founder, was honored at special gathering marking the 30th anniversary of his first action at the SOA. After learning that Salvadoran soldiers were being trained at the school in 1983, Father Roy and 2 other activists dressed in military uniforms, drove onto the base, and climbed a tree near the SOA housing unit. High in the branches of the tree, they turned on a boom box and played a recording of the last sermon of Oscar Romero.  The words of Romero, in Spanish, rung out in the night, pleading with the soldiers to stop the killing. To mark the anniversary, Fr. Roy was presented with a tree and a short play about the creative act of civil disobedience was performed. Following the presentations, a concert by the SOA Watch Musicians Collective paid tribute to the late singer-songwriter John Fromer, who had performed annually for many years at the vigil.

For the first time, a  Peoples Movement Assembly (PMA) was held on Saturday morning. As part of the PMA, hundreds of movement activists gathered in small groups and discussed questions about the role of nonviolent direct action in the context of an increasingly militarized prison system. SOA Watch activists are taking the discussion back to their communities. The questions that we are focusing on are: is there a need to shift to other creative ways of continuing the tradition of direct action? What are your thoughts on nonviolent direct action and prison witness considering both our movement’s history and today’s context? The other main question focused on our grassroots organizing strategies. The conversations will continue in local communities around the country.

Dozens of workshops were offered on Saturday evening. One of the best attended was the one offered by the Presbyterian Peace Fellowship on “Moral Injury: When a soldier betrays his or her sense of what’s right, under orders." PPF National Committee member Bill Galvin and Maria Santelli, Executive Director of the Center for Conscience & War, led a lively discussion that was attended by about 50 people who were eager to learn about moral injury and its consequences for individuals, families, congregations, and communities.

On Sunday, November 24, thousands walked in a solemn funeral procession and commemorated those who have been killed by SOA/ WHINSEC graduates and U.S. militarization. The procession transitioned into an upbeat celebration of life and resistance, after Oscar Romero's last sermon was blasted through the stage speaker system, and a banner with our message, and thousands of soap bubbles crossed over the barb-wired fence. None of the bubbles were arrested for crossing onto the base.

The seriousness and importance of the Sunday morning witness was underscored by the news that two Honduran campesinos were killed the previous evening as they returned from an election training, as both victims had official electoral duties for Sunday’s election. They were ambushed by masked gunmen with high caliper weapons as they returned home on foot. They died immediately from the shootings. The incident occurred between 7:30 and 8:00 pm, in the community of Carbon, in the Cantarranas Municipality. Maria Amparo Pineda Duarte was the elected President of the Cooperative. Julio Ramon Maradiaga was an active member. The community is the site of an ongoing land struggle, and both victims were active members in the LIBRE party.

Following the Sunday morning memorial vigil, activists continued to enjoy performances by musicians and puppetistas and to network with the many peace groups who were tabling at the vigil site. The Reverend Christine Caton led a moving communion service at the gate (pictured right), which has been a PPF tradition for several years. As we returned from the gate to our information table, we noticed a helicopter flying very low directly overhead. In fact, there were three very low flyovers by the Columbus police department helicopter. The first of the three flyovers brought little more than some dirt and papers being raised into the air. However, flyovers two and three caused disruption and damage. The aircraft flew low enough to raise and upturn tents, scattering, books, information papers, food, and merchandise all over. This incident joins a long history of harassment by the Columbus police, which in the past has included unprovoked arrests, metal detectors and searches, and fencing the permitted gathering area. Since the City of Columbus profits from tax revenue from the annual SOA event, PPF spends its hotel dollars in the nearby community of Phenix City, Alabama.

Why do we participate in this event every year? The SOA/WHINSEC is a U.S. taxpayer-funded military training school for Latin American soldiers, located at Fort Benning, Georgia.  At least 11 Latin American dictators have attended the SOA, and leaders of infamous Central American death squads are among its graduates. SOA graduates are currently involved in the repression campaign against Honduran social movements, which started in 2009, following the SOA graduate-led military coup. Currently, the largest numbers of students come from Mexico and Colombia, where human rights violations continue to occur.