Outside the gates of Fort Benning in Columbus, Georgia on Nov. 18, 25,000 people gathered to protest the School of the Americas. But you wouldn’t have gotten that from any major newspaper.

The facility, recently renamed the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, trains Latin American soldiers for combat in their countries — although many maintain that the graduates partake not in military-style campaigns, but wanton violence upon civilian populations.

For 18 years, peaceful protests have occurred at the Fort to call for an end to the US’ role in perpetuating and providing means for coups and the constant oppression of a population that such overhauls are predicated upon. A group of University students including myself made the 13-hour, Waffle House-laden trip to join voices with the School of the Americas Watch.

STORIES OF TORTURE

“They tortured me because I am a writer. And because I was an activist. I worked for labor rights,” Maria Guandardo spoke fluidly in her native tongue, preferring now to communicate in Spanish since English is marred by the nights she spent in a Columbian prison, brutalized by blows and slurs. Her words pounded into me even before they were translated.

I am a writer. I am an activist. I work for labor rights. If I was born and raised in a house next door to Maria’s, I might be dead for the words I furiously type and send off to anyone who will read them, for the words I shout into bullhorns on sidewalks.

While I know that the United States is not wholly exempt from arresting dissenters without affording them due process, there doesn’t need to be a word for it here as there is in South America. There, paramilitary forces are notorious for “disappearing” men, women and children, sometimes in broad daylight, sometimes even in front of their families or right out of their homes. As if it is some magic act that no one cares to garner a crowd for, thousands of people are pushed through the trap doors of putrefied legal systems where whoever holds the biggest stick gets to pick the next victim.

The majority of University students who participated in SOA Watch are members of activist groups, and it became apparent to us during the weekend that those persecuted by SOA graduates often took part in the same type of activist work that we engage in not only on campus — but then and there at Fort Benning.

While the ominous whirl of helicopters never left our earshot and soldiers in fatigues patrolled the premises, we never once had the sense that we might die for what we were doing, although haunted by the ghosts of those who had.

MOURNING THE DISAPPEARED

The main event of the weekend is always a funeral procession to commemorate the uncountable thousands massacred by the 60,000 soldiers trained at the SOA over the last sixty years. Led by people in black clothing and white masks carrying white coffins, a funeral procession inched up to the gates of the school. Breathing new spirit into the names of those long dead and perhaps even longer forgotten, we marched towards the gate in a steady mass as voices on high incanted names and ages in the intonations of Catholic clergy, followed by the crowd of mourners who raised their crosses and spoke low, slow “presenté” to mark some presence for the deceased.

It took hours to reach the gates, but seeing the multitude of white crosses stuck desperately, pleadingly into the impossibly high chain-linked and barbed-wire fence I understood why. Mulling over the immensity of crosses and flowers made me feel like I was looking at the gates of Buckingham Palace after Princess Diana’s death or Ground Zero just after 9/11, except that this tragedy is one that continued on even as we mourned it.

The School of the Americas is a place where the sort of draconian torture that we have considered morally reprehensible for centuries and “cruel and unusual punishment” since this country was founded is written into textbooks and advanced with modern techniques and technologies. According to the CIA’s own “KUBARK: Counterintelligence Manual,” these methods of so-called enhanced interrogation “are designed to induce regression … the result of external pressures of sufficient intensity is the loss of those defenses most recently acquired by civilized man.” In short, the technique is to wholly undermine the humanity of those tortured. It is no matter that most of these tactics are deemed illegal under international accords the United State has signed because for the federal government and the paramilitary it trains they are all “standard operating procedure,” even if they are performed on innocent civilians without a shred of information to offer.

It is ironic even that it is called both a Fort and a School as if there is no internal conflict between the purpose of either.
Regardless of what it is called, if its walls could speak for themselves, they would scream.

CROSSING THE LINE

While thousands come to demonstrate, only a few protestors engage in actual civil disobedience, such as “crossing the line.” Optimistic about President-elect Barack Obama’s promises to shut down the SOA, only eleven people jumped the fence into Fort Benning this year, but 226 have since the Watch began. Wanting to learn more about those who give up months of their lives and up to $1,000 for the cause, I dropped into the workshop for those thinking of “crossing” and found a friend.

When asked one word to describe our feelings as “crossers” or “supporters” a young man next to me simply uttered a single profane syllable: fuck. He said he wanted to cross. He had no one to support him so I said I would. I promised to write him letters in jail, pay for his bail, and when he said his school’s bus would not wait eight hours for him as he was held at County, I offered our van, promising we would hold out and swing through Indiana on our way back to drop him off. We talked it all over with a snide lawyer who said he made over $150,000 a year and refused to let us pay for our pizza.

But David did not cross. Through the constant crowds, I saw him the next day sitting on the curb and cannot deny that I was disheartened that he hadn’t gone through with it although I had urged him not to— his small, private, parochial college promised him that an arrest would merit expulsion, he would have to pay rent despite being in prison, and his hard-headed father would probably not speak to him for some time after. But despite all of this, something in me will always believe in self-sacrifice for the battles worth fighting — especially this one, where life is the price that is paid for protest for the damage enacted by this facility.

TAKING TO THE STREETS

After the weekend was almost over, after the funeral of so many people none of us would ever know, after donning bloodied shirts and dresses to represent them, lying in the streets after the machete became a weapon of mass destruction and took out whole villages, after I cried my eyes out like I always do at such displays, a parade of colorful puppets and confetti overcame it all. Chanting and beating on drums, swinging the sweaters and scarves it had suddenly became too sunny for, we took to the streets, dancing through them, claiming them for ourselves, for everyone. We reminded ourselves that we were still alive, and that we would fight so long as we had to, gaining energy from the kind of public movements everyone thinks are now extinct.

—Beenish Ahmed is a senior in the Residential College and the College of Literature, Science and the Arts

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