Monday, November 28, 2005

Students join funeral procession at SOA

Original Chimes Article Here

By Klaas Hoekema

“Let’s go stick it to the man!”

So went the rallying cry from sophomore Marie Mulder, as she and 16 other Calvin students left Calvin on Nov. 19 to protest the U.S. Army’s School of the Americas.

The students, along with three other Grand Rapids residents, made the 16-hour drive to Fort Benning, Ga., to join a demonstration led by the non-profit organization SOA Watch against what the school’s opponents often call the “School of Assassins.”

“The School of the Americas was started with the intentions of preventing communism and promoting stability in Latin America,” said student Eric Ebels. “While communism did fail to gain a foothold, the impact of SOA graduates on Latin America has been disastrous. The history of abuses perman rights violations in their home countries. According to SOA Watch, manuals released by the Pentagon reveal that until 1991, the curriculum included “interrogation techniques like torture, execution, blackmail and arresting the relatives of those being questioned.”

The student organization Calvin Students for Social Justice planned and led the trip to Georgia to give Calvin students a chance to speak out against the school.

“I don’t know if what we did will result in the school closing down or not,” said student Joel Swagman, “but I wanted at least a chance to say I do not support civilians being slaughtered with my tax money.”

“The protest is important because it brings to light the atrocities connected to the School of the Americas,” said Ebels. “Protestors have taken it upon themselves to educate the public, with amazing results.

A few years ago virtually no one, including elected officials, knew of the SOA. This summer, for the first time, the House of Representatives voted to cut the SOA’s funding.”

The protest was held at the gate of Fort Benning, a large military reservation that houses the School of the Americas. Since demonstrations are prohibited on the grounds of Fort Benning, it was illegal for protesters to cross the line into the reservation. On Sunday, Nov. 21, however, more than 4,800 people crossed the line in an act of civil disobedience coordinated by SOA Watch. The purpose of the protest, according to Mulder, was “to commemorate the people who have been killed and to remember them and honor them.”

With this in mind, the act of crossing the line was organized as a funeral march.

At the front of the procession were people carrying coffins to represent the people killed by graduates of the SOA. These were followed by thousands of people carrying crosses marked with the names of individuals killed by Latin American death squads. As people walked across the line, organizers read the names of victims out loud.

“I felt that by crossing the line in the funeral procession I was honoring and mourning the deaths of those killed by the SOA,” said student Meagan Luhrs. “It was an act of civil disobedience, but it was for the dead, not for the glory or sake of being in a protest and receiving attention.”

The protesters hoped to bring the coffins and crosses to the SOA buildings, a few miles inside the base but were stopped by military police about a mile inside the gate. The officers loaded most people onto buses and transported them off the post, but 65 people who physically resisted boarding the buses were taken to a processing center to be photographed and fingerprinted. The 11 Calvin students who crossed the line boarded the buses without being processed.

Two days before the protest, the New York Times reported that Army Secretary Louis Caldera has drawn up plans to change both the name and the curriculum of the school, in order to shift the focus toward instilling democratic values in Latin American leaders. The details of the changes should be revealed in the coming weeks.

Opponents say that the changes will not be enough, however, and that the school must simply be shut down.

“The School of the Americas’ reputation is so bad that even if they put these changes in place, I’m not sure it goes far enough,” said Representative Joe Moakley (D-Mass.), as quoted in the Times article. “It’s like putting perfume on a toxic dump.”

Many of the Calvin students who went to the protest say that the SOA should not be a part of U.S. policy in Latin America, even if the changes are made.

“The United States is seen as an oppressive force by many Latin Americans,” said Ebels. “The School of the Americas is a primary source of this oppression. If the U.S. wishes to mend relations with Latin America, closing the SOA would be the first step.”

“I’m not saying the U.S. shouldn’t play any role, or that they should forget all their economic interests in Latin America,” said Mulder. “But it’s not our place to say that everyone else should have the same type of democracy we have, and it’s not our job to enforce that ... by violent means, especially.”

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