Students for Peace and Justice

The Saturday Protest at WHINSEC: Fort Benning, Georgia

(Written by Timothy Wotring)

“I am open and I am willing
For to be hopeless would seem so strange
It dishonors those who go before us
So lift me up to the light of change” – from George Mann’s “I am willing”

I sat on a median of dried yellow grass as a choir of folk singers belted out these lyrics on stage. The surrounding crowd was full of the bright-eyed college students, older peace and justice activists, nuns and priests, peace-loving hippies, and every leftie in-between. I sat there grateful; indeed, keeping in mind the activists that have paved the way for us to demonstrate.

We participated in the rally on Saturday at Fort Benning. We shared stories with other activists about foreign policy, drones, activism and hip-hop, as well as immigration policy, liberation theology, and the Catholic Worker. We arrived onsite at noon and walking onto the premises, we were invited by puppeteers to join their play that would take place both days. More than half of our group took up their offer. The play comprised of trees, cornstalks, the four elements of the Earth, and chainsaws representative of the military, Congress, the NSA, and money. The four elements: water, wind, fire, earth stopped the chainsaws from chopping down any more trees and presented the crowd with alternative visions of the world. It was such a beautiful performance and it concluded with my favorite chant, “The people united will never be defeated!”

The puppet performance ended the rally at Fort Benning. So we headed to the conference center and attended workshops, listened to speakers, and engaged with booth venders. A few of us attended John Dear’s workshop, which had a wonderful and wholesome message on nonviolence. How one can practice it personally, interpersonally, and globally. Other students, such as Alejandro Escantle and Emily Hamilton were involved in serving communion at the Inclusive Catholic service. We, Union students, were deeply involved in the activities at the SOA protest and enjoyed every minute of it.

My time there was transformative. It was a wake up call for me to find a community of activists in NYC. I have lacked in my once aggressive fight for social justice and know I need to return to my roots. Although, the SOA protest had fewer participants than it had in previous years 1,750 persons, still an energetic spirit of hope and love that transcends any number of people was present. The challenge of justice is that it never rests until it is fulfilled. I pray that I may seek more intensely while at Union and beyond.

Samantha Gonzalez-Block  with Emily Brewer and Elizabeth Assenza in the background, participate in the SOA Sunday Vigil, remembering those who have died at the hands of SOA graduates

Samantha Gonzalez-Block with Emily Brewer and Elizabeth Assenza in the background, participate in the SOA Sunday Vigil, remembering those who have died at the hands of SOA graduates

The Twelve Arrive!

At our commissioning service on Thursday, Tom Driver reminded us that although we worship a God who died, our God is not dead. Jesus lives on in the suffering and injustice that surrounds us, and in the movements that strive for peace and liberation. Janet Walton invited us to break bread together and the wider Union community offered us messages of safe-travels and hope in a laying-on-of-hands.

After 20 hours of driving yesterday, all twelve of us made it safely to Fort Benning. We are looking forward to a weekend of protesting, learning, andphotophoto_1 community-building as we envision the possibility of a new world.

Some liturgies change you.

On the way to Hancock Air Base, Union Students for Peace and Justice Emily Brewer, Nathaniel Mahlberg, and Shay O’Reilly carry small signs with the names and ages of children killed by drone strikes in the Middle East.

Sunday I carried a curious sort of cross around Hancock Air Base in Syracuse, NY. A 10-foot tall, thick wooden pole with a beam crossways at the top and a banner of a dead child hanging from it, this was a protest sign, a heavy one, one that caused my arms to tremble as I held it steady on my shoulder.

They fly the drones at Hancock. Bigger and heavier than the Predator drones, Air Force Chief of Staff T. Michael Mosely said the Reaper drones mark a shift to a “true hunter-killer role.”

The purpose of a drone is to disembody murder. One half of the killing equation leaves the scene, locates thousands of miles away, goes home every night to a warm house, kisses children to bed. The other half still dies, often also surrounded by children; there is no time for kissing. Yemeni mothers warn their children, If you don’t go to sleep, I will call the planes.

Disembodied killers still have spirits, and the ghost in the machine hurts. But this pain isn’t tangible; it can’t be measured in years cut off or pints of blood lost. It is not tallied in the log-books of war.

The drones came to Syracuse when the base was in danger of closing down; Senator Chuck Schumer fought for a replacement, for some new way of killing that might keep the nearly two hundred men and women at Hancock employed. Shortly after they came, protesters came with them.

Sunday, people sang and chanted. The police looked on idly. There was no riot gear; this crowd was old and harmless, they wore daffodils and rose when the police handcuffed them and walked them to waiting vans.

I don’t remember the words of the songs we sung, or even what we chanted. Like the taste of wine that lingers after you forget the words of the sermon,  I do remember the sign I held digging into my shoulder; I remember the exhaustion in my arms, and how I bent under the weight of this child’s dead face.

Singing in Resistance

I was struck this year during the School of the Americas protest at the power of music in a movement that calls for justice and peace like the one to close down the School of the Americas (SOA).  In the commissioning chapel service at Union on the Thursday before we left for the SOA, we shared stories and we broke bread together and we sang.  We sang “This is My Song” we walked into the space together calling for “peace for lands afar and mine,” and to close the service and send all of us out into the world we clapped and danced and sang “I’m gonna lay down my sword and shield down by the riverside; ain’t gonna study war no more.”

With these songs in my heart and still on my lips we gathered with 2,000 others at the gates Ft. Benning, where we sang more songs together–songs of resistance and of sadness and of hope.  In minor and major keys we cried out for justice, we remembered those who have died, and we envisioned peace.

¡No más! No more! We must stop the dirty war
Compañeros, compañeras we cry out ‘No más, no more’

Almost two weeks after the School of the Americas demonstration, I am still humming some of the songs we sang outside the gates of Ft. Benning, and the echoes of the chanted names of hundreds of victims still ring in my ears.  Neither the words nor the tunes are happy or light ones that I especially want to go around singing as I walk to class and go to the grocery store and share meals in my community.  But the somber tones of the songs and chants stay with me and remind me to remember the feeling of hope I felt at the protest and to resist violence and imperialism in small and big ways, and to hold in my heart those who are victims of the violence of the SOA and those who are jailed for standing against it.

Returning from the SOA Watch

“We who have a voice must speak for the voiceless.” –Oscar Romero

Never has this ethos spoken to me as clearly as it did this past weekend, standing outside of the gates of Fort Benning, Georgia.  The School of the Americas continues to operate in secrecy, as have many of its graduates returning to Latin America.  As evidenced by the blank stares and questions from friends and families about the SOA, it seems that, indeed, it is crucial to educate others about the atrocities committed by graduates of this school.

My time at the SOA Watch has helped reinforce the passion that led me to Union.  I have always desired to live my life in service of others. However, it wasn’t until I spent two years teaching in a low-performing, high-need school that I realized my calling.  And, Union has encouraged me to embrace this idea…to provide a voice for the voiceless and uncover oppression in its many forms.

If we are to follow in the words of Señor Romero, it is crucial to become a voice for those without one.  Drawing inspiration from our faith, no matter the tradition, is crucial in this quest.  Standing with my brothers and sisters at the protest, my faith became even more central to my desire to serve others and to be a voice for others.

Thank you to all of those who made this trip possible. I look forward to sharing my experiences with you. Paz.