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.