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.
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.
“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.
This evening the four of us at SOA Watch attended workshops and presentations connected with the protest event. Emily Brewer, John Allen, and I attended a screening of “Harvest of Empire.” The film bills itself as “the untold story of Latinos in the United States” and explored the traumatic events and militaristic history, in particular our country’s involvement with others’ militaries, that leads people in many Latin American countries to immigrate to the US.
While the film lacked a cohesive narrative, I still found it to be a powerful experience. Viewed as separate vignettes, each country’s story was informative and moving. The personal experiences of immigrants from affected countries combined with the harsh statistics of how few people have access to a safe home shook me.
“Harvest of Empire” highlighted the United States’ role in developing militaries (largely through training at the School of the Americas) in other countries and then followed that by noting the very small number of people who, when targeted by death squads in their own countries, are refused political asylum here in the US. Through the SOA, we are creating large populations who are unsafe in their own homes and unable to safely and consistently establish new homes.
This evening some of us went to a workshop led by the Presbyterian Peace Fellowship (PPF) called “Creating a Peace Church.” Within the Presbyterian Church (USA), the Presbyterian Peace Fellowship is helping to guide a 6 year discernment process around the discussion of being a church that is a self-proclaimed “peace church,” as opposed to the Presbyterian Church’s current “just war theory” position. Currently, the PC(USA) is a phase of the discernment process where individual churches can do a study of what it might mean to be a peace church in their local contexts. The Presbyterian Peace Fellowship provides a curriculum to help guide a conversation that can be done in either 4 hour or over the course of 6 weeks.
During the workshop, people were invited to share ideas and experiences about working toward social justice within faith communities. There were several denominations represented, including some that are historical peace churches, such as Mennonites, as well as others that have a long tradition of activism, such as the Jesuits. While everyone at the SOA demonstration is committed to peace and non-violence, it was meaningful to be in conversation with people who are committed to peace and non-violence from a faithful perspective and from many generations. There were people in the workshop who spoke about the civil rights movement in churches and current college students who spoke of organizing faith communities around the issue of illegal gun sales. While the peace movement as a whole and the movement to shut down the SOA is not explicitly religious, the contribution of people of faith to the movement is invaluable, and it is inspiring to think about what power churches could lend to the movements of non-violence if we take seriously a commitment to peace.
Visiting the SOA protest for the first time in six years, I am struck by two things: the absence of the Jesuits priests and the feeling of an interfaith movement at the gates. Both updates mark noticeable shifts in the movement as it seeks to change US policy in LatinAmerica, especially in terms of US militarism. For me, as I grow in my faith and understanding of interfaith at Union, these two notes are particularly important.
The Jesuits have moved the bulk of their protests to Washington, DC. As the vote on closing the School of the Americas approaches a more-equal vote in our nation’s capital, it seems that the SOA Watch, the organization that sponsors the SOA protest has focused much of its energy on this important vote in DC. Indeed, this focus is a huge shift—from solidarity to effective, political engagement and action. Activism is re-envisioning itself. And, progress can be seen, including the withdrawing of numerous counties recently (Nicaragua in October 2012). However, the absence of the Jesuits at Ft. Benning has been particularly notable.
The other big update has been the growing interfaith movement at the SOA protest. In addition to an interfaith service, numerous symbols and signs from other (non-Christian) traditions can be spotted across the protest. This emphasis on peace and justice across faith boundaries is inspiring. Moreover, it reflects the broad religious landscape of the United States and a greater movement for peace. Now, more than ever, is it important to recognize our commonalities and to organize to recognize the inherent human rights of all peoples. It seems that the School of the America Protest and Watch is coming of age.
The arts are a key to our resistance. Each year at the gates of Ft. Benning, puppets are a vital part of the energy which drives the SOA Watch protest. The ‘Puppetistas’ use the medium of puppetry to enact the crisis that the School of the Americas represents, and to embody the spirit of the resistance. The puppetry is striking against the militarized backdrop of Ft. Benning, the chain link fence, circling helicopters, watch towers, and prerecorded messages warning against demonstrating on the military base. The hierarchical, overbearing, and uniform quality of the military and police is contrasted by the, often rough-around-the-edges, loose, and freeform puppetry.
Artistic expression is key to giving voice the unspeakable horror that the School of the Americas continues to represent in our world. The art gives life to the traumatic realities our language fails to express. This commitment to creativity in the midst of resistance also demonstrates not just the militarism and war we indict, but also the form of the new world we imagine. We remember and we imagine. We express the realities of a world torn by war, and show that we imagine a world where creativity flourishes and where people without badges, ranks, or titles, have their voices heard.
After a one year hiatus, Union has returned to the gates of Ft. Benning for a weekend of witness and remembrance. After a nearly 19-hour drive, and more packs of gummi bears than any of us would care to admit, John Allen, Emily Brewer, Elizabeth Assenza, Matt Hoffman have arrived safely. Tomorrow we will participate in a day of workshops, speakers and music to celebrate resistance to militarism.
Look for our blog posts here all weekend. We will take this space to reflect on our experiences and share what we are witnessing and learning together. You can also click here to view livestreaming of all events this weekend.
I want to make a special call to the military. And more concretely to the military bases and to the military headquarters….You are from our same people. You kill your own brothers and sisters. The law of God that says “Do not kill” is higher than the order of your commander to kill. …The Church, as defenders of God-given rights, of the laws of God, of human dignity, and of the person, cannot remain silent before such abomination. In the name of God, then, in the name of this suffering people, whose laments are raised to the sky from a world everyday more violent, I pray, I entreat, I order you in the name of God: Stop the repression. (Oscar Romero, Homily, March 23, 1980—the day before he was murdered)
I kept thinking during the vigil on Sunday that we shouldn’t have to be doing this anymore. We shouldn’t have to be protesting and calling for the close of the School of the Americas again this year. We shouldn’t have to be here one more year after 19 previous ones. The problem should already have been taken care of. And the vigil’s “faithful” agree: I was considering buying a T-shirt, a black one with images of the many white crosses with names on them. I had seen someone wearing a T-shirt with a similar design but that said “close the School of the Americas,” and I wanted a shirt that stated the demand. However, the vender, who has helped ever since the first Close the School of the Americas vigil in 1990, told me that last year they had thought that the School of the Americas was going to be closed, so they had only printed T-shirts that more generally spoke about remembering the martyrs and resisting.
Yet, the School of the Americas has continued to train Latin American soldiers, so we continue to resist and demand its closure. In my Old Testament class, Professor David Carr explained that the words of the prophets were often not heeded in the times they were written but were written down and remembered later only because the words they spoke had relevance in successive generations. Oscar Romero’s order to the military quoted above is a similar text. It was not heeded in its own historic time: in fact, the very military to which Romero spoke murdered him the very next day. Violence in El Salvador continues, from 1980-1992 with the civil war, and afterwards until today with the violence of economic exploitation, poverty, and gangs. We remember and use Romero’s words today because violence at the hands of an oppressive military and exploitative foreign policy continues.
…boundaries that should not be crossed?
Yes, the liturgy of this year’s School of the Americas vigil was beautifully symbolic, as my fellow “Unionistas”along on this trip have described in this blog, but we can’t be lulled into wanting to come back to see it again next year. The principalities and powers want us to want to return next year because, if we return next year, it will signify that the SOA still trains Latin American soldiers in counterinsurgency tactics and the oppressive government still determines the boundaries that should not be crossed. No matter how touching and beautiful the acts of remembering, honoring, mourning, and resisting were at this year’s vigil, instead of just planning for next year’s trip to the SOA vigil, we must plan to work this year so that we don’t have to go back next year. The idea that we could actually close the SOA or change the oppressive US foreign policy may sound naively optimistic, but I wonder if the literally hundreds of thousands of people who have protested the SOA each November over the past 20 years are not more powerful than we admit? The powers-that-be certainly don’t want us to recognize our powers to not only sing and march at a vigil and protest, but also effect grassroots change. What if everyone at the vigil, instead of marking next year’s date on their calendars went back to their homes determined to work this year so that such a vigil and protest becomes no longer necessary?
Behind 3 rows of fences…
With this in mind, I wonder what must be my personal commitment, the collective commitment of the four of us who attended this year’s vigil and our supporters, and the commitment of the Union community now that we’re back from SOA Watch vigil? As we sat on “the line” at the Fort Benning gates on Saturday and Sunday in a prayerful and reflective spirit,
I couldn’t help but notice a box-shaped, technologically-advanced machine with at least 4 different video cameras attached to it parked behind the 3 rows of fences. It raised and lowered at various times by radio control.
…a technologically advanced machine with at least 4 cameras.
The full purpose of the machine remained a mystery to us, and its sheer complexity as a tool used by the oppressors reminded me of a point made often by Poverty Scholar Willie Baptist, who helps lead Poverty Initiative at Union Theological Seminary. Willie talks often about how those of us working to end poverty, exploitation, and oppression must understand the intelligence and complexity of our enemies (which I define as those who create misery for others). The technologically-advanced machine at SOA represents something greater. Think about it: the enemies have at their disposal money, technology, media, messaging, political and religious establishments, and I could go on. Not to mention advisors, the educational systems, other world leaders indebted to or afraid of the US, the world economic system, etc.
But before we get depressed or lose hope, remember what we do have on our side as those who struggle against injustice and oppression: the sheer masses “who have very little, or even nothing, to lose. If they can be helped to take action together, they will do so with a freedom and a power that will be a new and unsettling force in our complacent national life.” (Martin Luther King Jr, 1967), “the arc of the moral universe [which] is long but it bends toward justice” (Martin Luther King Jr, 1967), and God (I don’t say that lightly). An intelligent, highly-evolved oppressive force must be countered by a highly-developed, highly-intelligent, and highly-organized force toward liberation. A vigil with a 20-year-long history of heart-felt is no longer enough; opposing an enemy that has evolved new tactics requires the resistance to have new tactics.
3-faced “Puppetista”: Capitalism, Imperialism, and Militarism
The School of the Americas is part of a complex system of exploitation and oppression that is more intelligent and advanced than ever before. The 3 faces on the “Puppetista” at the SOA Watch Vigil accurately represented the 3-faced enemy that we must confront: capitalism, imperialism, and militarism. What if, during the 2010-2011 year, before the SOA Watch vigil next year if there has to be one, we could commit personally and collectively as concerned students at Union (including attendees of the Vigil, SPJ, Latin@ caucus, etc—there are already existing avenues) to engaging in some practical efforts that combat this 3-faced enemy: capitalism, imperialism, and militarism? Couldn’t we work so that next year there won’t have to be a Close the SOA vigil?
I propose a first step, something that is possible before next year: we must understand more about what SOA does today and how it plays into the larger complex system of capitalism, imperialism, and militarism. Instead of ignoring or down-playing that SOA has changed its name to Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (WHINSEC), and that it claims a new “commitment to Democracy, Ethics and Human Rights” (WHINSEC website, https://www.benning.army.mil/WHINSEC/ ), we need to better understand these changes and new strategies. We stand no chance at changing that which we don’t understand.
…how does the SOA play into the larger complex system of capitalism, imperialism, and militarism?
What does SOA do today? What is its role in the bigger picture of US foreign affairs? What does the maneuver of changing the SOA name and vision really mean? Speakers at the SOA Watch vigil said that there is no noticeable difference between SOA and WHINSEC, but I suspect that the act of revamping the image of the School in such a way that its opponents think there is no difference makes the changes even more of a threat and demonstrates the high intelligence of the enemy.
Embarking on this “comprehend to upend” effort will be difficult because truth is manipulated from all sides. Someone who supports the closing the SOA who attended the WHINSEC Open House on Saturday reported that WHINSEC promotes itself as different from the SOA which trained murderous military officials in the 1980s, and WHINSEC sees itself promoting a form of development. This argument reminds me once again of the intelligence of the forces we are working against. Is anybody interested and would anyone like to dive into this “comprehend to upend” work with me? Do you have your own ideas about how we can take concrete steps to combat the 3-headed monster in order to not have reason to go back to the Close-the-SOA Vigil next year?
We have arrived safely back at Union. Thank you all for your support in following the blog, car care packages, crosses, phone calls and more. The four of us each intend to write and post a follow up to our experiences in the next few days after some more prolonged reflection. Thank you again for all the ways that you have supported our trip. Specifically, we would like to thank the Student Life Office, all the Students for Peace and Justice, the Worship Office and the entire Union Community, as well as Nancy Allison our host in North Carolina, and CB Stewart for the use of the car. The four of us who traveled felt deeply blessed by the generous communal outpouring of support that carried us through this past weekend.