Monday, December 25, 2006

Fort Benning Vigil 2006: Part Three
Sunday, November 19

I arrived at the vigil site somewhere around eight o'clock in the morning. Ed and Ann and a few other Syracuse folks went to set up their table with the things from the Syracuse Cultural Workers that they planned to sell... t-shirts, bandanas, calendars were among the bigger sellers. I went close to the stage to listen to and watch the pre-vigil speakers and singers. We had Buddhists drumming and chanting, a Mayan blessing, and musicians sharing songs. We saw the Veterans for Peace march as a group, singing/reciting a cadence to close WHINSEC/SOA. We heard President Charles Steele, Jr., of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, who gave a stirring speech about civil rights back in the days when Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was giving stirring speeches, and now... in Latin America and here. He was joined by the Living the Dream marchers, who walked from Selma, Alabama, to Fort Benning. We heard from Rabbi Lynn Gottlieb, co-founder of the Muslim-Jewish Peace Walk, and from Frankie Flores, who spoke on behalf of the Torture Abolition and Survivor Support Coalition International (TASSC International). We heard welcomes and words of hope from our three representatives who traveled to Latin America to speak with their governments about not sending any more troops to WHINSEC: SOA Watch founder Father Roy Bourgeois, Lisa Sullivan Rodriguez (head of SOA Watch's Latin America office), and Carolos Mauricio, a Salvadoran torture survivor who founded the Stop Impunity Project.
During this time, a huge banner was brought near the stage. On it were a multitude of pictures and a message of hope that this "school" would soon be closed. For a short time, I held this banner so that the thousands of people, who were just arriving, could see the message. Other people were going to carry the banner in the procession so I relinquished my little piece of it.
At approximately ten o'clock, we started singing the no mas, no more litany that we sing every year in memory of those in Latin America who had been killed or disappeared or tortured by military personnel who had been trained at WHINSEC/SOA. We called out for the truth from a government that offers denials and public relations coverups, instead of the facts.
This year, our message was of hope that the next Congress will pass a bill that will call for operations of the school to be suspended and for a truth and reconciliation commission to investigate the instruction offered at that school. It would be a step forward and would offer survivors and families of those who are gone a chance to heal. It would be part of a process that I have just recently learned about, called "restorative justice." For more information about restorative justice, take a look at and for information about Latin America and restorative justice, just click on the map of Latin America on the right side of the page.
Restorative justice is positive because it emphasizes "repairing the harm that is done by criminal behaviour." It can be used on a local level or on an international level.
But... we don't yet have that Truth and Reconciliation Commission that Amnesty International recommended in its 2002 report, "Unmet Principles, Unmatched Power." What we have instead is pain and heartache because people whom we care about have been victims of torture or have been killed or have been disappeared... and so many of us in the United States have friends or relatives who have been victims of these crimes... which leaves us feeling that our government has betrayed our trust and has broken our hearts...
In our vigil procession, we called for a redress of our grievances... we remembered the babies, children, women, men, and elderly, who had been killed throughout Latin America... in El Salvador, Colombia, Guatemala, Chile, Argentina, and elsewhere. Their names and ages were chanted, one at a time, and we remembered them. We remembered them in other ways at the vigil, too... The 900 El Mozote, El Salvador, massacre victims had a special memorial, with clothing on hangers representing people at different ages...
We had other visual reminders... people dressed in shrouds, their faces painted white to look like death, carry coffins and lie down to simulate the results of a massacre. They were covered in fake blood to look like death...
And we had puppets... a colorful mourning woman and a statue of liberty, among others. The big puppetista pageant came early in the afternoon but I can't report on that because I didn't see it.
Every year, some of the people who come to the vigil attempt to bring their message onto the grounds of Fort Benning. Every year, that becomes more difficult as the military tries to hide from the truth by building more and more fences. The military claims that it must be "apolitical" and it must be completely separate from the civil government. Hence, it says that political protests are not permitted on the grounds of a military base. If this were so, why does WHINSEC have a public relations budget that includes line items for influencing the media and Congress? Is this "apolitical"?
But the military uses this claim of being "apolitical" as an excuse for building fences and for creating a "free speech zone." For a really well written article criticizing "free speech zones," take a look at James Bovard's article titled "'Free Speech Zone' The administration quarantines dissent," published in the December 15, 2003, issue of The American Conservative (
So we challenge these fences. We are seeking redress of grievances from our government. This is a right that is guaranteed by the first amendment of the U.S. consitution.
So I chose to challenge the fence, to take a cross with the name of an elderly Salvadoran man onto the grounds of Fort Benning, which is quite possibly the place where his killer had been trained. I planted the cross with the name of that 105-year-old man in the red clay earth. Silently, I asked for his forgiveness... for me and for my nation.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Fort Benning 2006: Part Two
Colombia's Struggles

Colombia received $590.9 million in military and police aid this year. The administration has requested that Colombia be given $623.6 million in military and police aid in fiscal year 2007. Much of this aid is directed at stopping the flow of drugs from Colombia to the United States. One of the ways in which this is accomplished is with a fumigation program that is designed to kill the coca plants before they can be harvested and refined into the cocaine that is shipped to the United States by smugglers. The United States also provides training to Colombian troops, in Colombia and in the United States. SOA/WHINSEC, the Interamerican Air Forces Training Academy at Lackland Air Force Base, and the Spanish Helicopter Battalion school at Fort Rucker, Alabama, are among the facilities that offer military training to Colombian troops. The Washington Office on Latin America has estimated, based on U.S. government data, that, in 2006, Colombians make up 42 percent of all students at WHINSEC.

People in Colombia tell a story that is different from the above "official story."
Here are stories, as told by Renato Areiza, coordinator of the Council of the Peace Community of San Jose de Apartado, Colombia, and Debora-Barros-Fince, survivor of the Wayuu massacre in the Bahia region of Colombia and founder of Wayuu Munsurat. They spoke at two different workshops that I attended on Friday, November 17: the Colombia Teach-In, sponsored by Witness for Peace, and Human Rights Accompaniment in Colombia, sponsored by the Fellowship of Reconciliation.
Renato Areiza talked about the three million people who have been internally displaced in Colombia because of the violence. He identified the armed actors there as being the Army, the guerrillas (both the PLN and the more powerful FARC), the paramilitries, and the United States. He said that the peace community was founded in March 27, 1997, and that it is dedicated to staying neutral in the conflict in the region and to saying no to all armed actors, including the military. One thousand five hundred people live in this community.
People in the Peace Community of San Jose de Apartado are afraid of being assassinated or dominated by the participants in the armed struggle.
But it is hard for the people in this community to avoid the violence that seems to be a daily part of Colombia life. In 2005, military and paramilitary personnel massacred eight campesinos. They included three children, a leader of the community, and Renato Areiza's sister, Deyanira. The group responsible for the massacre was led by a School of the Americas graduate.
People in this community looked to the outside for help, but found none.
"We turned to all parts of the Colombian state. We believed that the state would protect us. We looked for justice. We lobbied and met with vice presidents. The Colombian government denied all of our requests. They didn't do justice for us. We were given no protection."
Renato Areiza said about the political situation: "President Uribe talks only of drug trafficking and terrorism... if Pablo Escobar were the only problem, it would be easy... people are displaced... they are dying of hunger... human rights are violated... all of Colombia is being fumigated with a strong herbicide (including areas where there are no coca plants)... bullets are being shot from airplanes... it's not just guerrillas and drug trafficking... we want social investment, not military aid..."
All armed actors consider the people of the Peace Community of San Jose de Apartado to be enemies.
"We're not with any of them. We look to the international community for support... we don't want to leave our land... we don't want to pick up a weapon... we need internationals as shields and as protection."

Debora Barros-Fince said, "I am a common citizen, an indigenous person who has lived war." She spoke passionately about what the war has done to Wayuu land at the Colombia-Venezuela border. She described horrific things that had happened in her community... members of the paramilitary "cutting people to bits to sow terror."
She talked about mining and how it hurts indigenous communities. She said that her community has been offered money to leave their homeland, but that the community would never accept the money. She talked about multinational corporations looking to take advantage of the natural resources beneath the ground. "We don't care about the money. We are a community... we want dignity... we want the paramilitaries off of our land... we want the multinational corporations to go back to their own countries..."
More than 300 members of the Wayuu community have fled to Venezuela, where they are hungry and are longing to "be at home in their own community."
She, too, asked for help from the international community... "Stop the flow of money to Columbia... money that is used to buy arms to kill Afro-Colombians, indigenous people, and others... come to our community and accompany us... this works... it helps to deter attacks by any armed actor."
For more information on accompaniment, check the Fellowship of Reconciliation website at
Fort Benning 2006

Part one: The trip to Georgia and an evening in Alabama
My trip to Columbus, Georgia, for the SOA Watch protest at the gates of Fort Benning was a great adventure this year.
I traveled down to Georgia with a group from Syracuse, New York. We started on November 15 and arrived in Georgia on November 16. On our way down, we experienced a large traffic tie-up in Pennsylvania and an even larger traffic tie-up in Virginia. The Virginia traffic jam was accompanied by sheets of rain and the overwhelming darkness of a stormy night. As the five of us sat in our unmoving car, we played a geography game and sang and recited nursery rhymes. It felt almost surreal or, as Rae pointed out, it was much like being stuck in the Twilight Zone.
After about two and a half hours, we emerged from the traffic jam. We were then able to see the cause of the traffic jam: an accident that resulted in a crushed tractor trailer. Many police cars, fire trucks, and an ambulance or two were parked at the scene of the disaster. I sincerely hoped that no one was injured too severely.
We spent the night at a church in a church in Statesville, North Carolina.
Rae and Ann reported to us the next day that they had awakened during the night to hear a huge storm. They said that it sounded like a hurricane.
We found out later that tornadoes had hit various parts of the southeast that night, including Fort Benning.
We arrived in Columbus, Georgia, early on Thursday afternoon and settled in our hotel rooms.
Before long, however, we were back in the car, on our way to Opelika, Alabama, to meet up with the "Living the Dream" marchers. They had spent the week walking from Selma, on their way to Columbus. I had considered joining them but never followed through. This didn't seem like the right time for me to do that, for a variety of reasons. Perhaps, if they do it again, I will take the whole walk with them.
We were looking forward to hearing Kathy Kelly speak at St. James Baptist Church in Opelika. The talk was scheduled for seven o'clock in the evening. We were very concerned about getting to the church on time. We ate a dinner at a pizza parlor in Opelika, surrounded by a youthful soccer team that seemed to be enjoying an awards dinner. There were loads of kids and even more trophies.
The pizza parlor was quite a place. It was filled with all sorts of memorabilia of Auburn University and its famous football team, as well as loads of other stuff, all for sale. Near the ceiling, a little train chugged around a track. It was quite a delightful restaurant, and the prices were very low. The people who worked there were quite pleasant, and we were made to feel right at home.
After dinner, we went straight to St. James Baptist Church and saw that... no one was there! We were confused. It was exactly seven o'clock in the evening. That's when we realized that seven o'clock in Georgia was only six o'clock in Alabama. As soon as we crossed the bridge over the Chattahoochee River into Alabama, we had changed time zones, from eastern to central. We got to relax for an hour before the talk. Also we were welcomed by the pastor of the church, the Rev. George Bandy, who made us feel very welcome.
We heard from a variety of people, including the Rev. George Bandy, who talked about the civil rights movement here in this country and the School of the Americas. We were introduced to Mrs. Amelia Boynton Robinson, who has been a civil rights activist since the 1930s and is still going strong at 95. We also were entertained by the Living the Dream choir, who led us in rousing sing-alongs. They even invited members of the audience to join them in front. Kathy Kelly gave an energetic and heartfelt talk about human rights... including civil rights in the United States, her experiences in Iraq, and issues involving the SOA/WHINSEC.
It was a good evening. Ed, Rae, Nancy, Ann, and I agreed that, when we left, we felt energized by the experience. We took Kathy back to the hotel to spend the night with us. She left early the next morning.