By John Grant
It was the fifteenth time I'd trekked to Columbus, Georgia, to the gate of Fort Benning, for the annual November demonstration to close the School of the Americas.
Since 1989, following the murder of six Jesuit priests in San Salvador by graduates of the SOA, the effort to close it down has been led by Mary Knoll priest Father Roy Bourgeois, a Vietnam veteran and a priest who served in Bolivia during a very violent period hostile to priests sympathetic to the plight of the poor. The school is used to train foreign soldiers.
Bourgeois is a legend for a famous and clever act of civil disobedience. Dressed as an Army colonel, he went on post, climbed a tree and chained himself and a large boom box to the tree outside the barracks where Salvadoran soldiers were sleeping.
Bourgeois blasted a tape of Archbishop Oscar Romero's famous speech (excerpted in the photo above) to the Salvadoran peasant-class soldiers: "I beg you, I ask you, I order you, in the name of God, to stop the repression." It was after this 1980 speech that he was gunned down giving mass in a chapel.
Bourgeois spent four years in prison for that effort.
The scales fell from my eyes concerning the plight of the poor in places like El Salvador thanks to a number of incredible trips as a photographer there and to other Central American nations. I met the sole survivor of the El Mozote massacre, which had been undertaken by grads of the SOA. Involvement with the Close The SOA effort was a natural and I've been there every November since the mid-1990s.
Back in the early days, the police presence was quite nasty, but over the years it became pretty routine and the police became calmer and sometimes even friendly. The local merchants and restaurants loved the demonstration, since it meant extra millions of dollars each year in revenue.
At the height of the demonstration in the years just before and just after 2000, the numbers reached 17,000 and 20,000. It was so successful the Army responded, as it often does to criticism and questions, with a public relations move: It re-named the school the Western Hemisphere Institute For Security Cooperation or WHINSEC -- as if that would make the school's bloody history evaporate into thin air.
The number of demonstrators has been dropping over the past two years. This year, it was down in the 7,000 range. Still, the enthusiasm and moral outrage of those attending was palpable. And still, the annual procession of the reading of the names of the dead from SOA alum killings -" each followed by a robust collective "Presente!" -" was as moving as ever.
The New York Times finally shows up
On Monday following the Sunday procession, The New York Times did a major story with a huge photo with the headline "The Protest Dwindles, If Not It's Passion." That did sorta get it right. But their shame lies in never having given the demonstration more than a tiny blink of coverage when it was huge and kickin' ass.
Numbers were down for a host of speculative reasons, from the economy to internal issues within the Catholic hierarchy, especially with the Jesuits who this year did not encourage their flock as they have done in the past. In August 2008, the Roman Catholic Church excommunicated Bourgeois for participating in a female priest ordination ceremony. Some funding was lost.
As always, the weekend -- Friday, November 19 to Sunday, November 21 -- was full of events in solidarity with the victims of those trained at the SOA in a host of infamous massacres and atrocities in Latin American history. The events culminated in the solemn Sunday procession, which ended with everyone placing their small named white crosses and other items into the chain link fence spread across the gate.