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.

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