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Commentary: Protest at the School of the Americas teaches lessons in human rights

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: November 17, 2008 - The School of the Americas protest is a retreat in solidarity with others to remember the past and demand change for the future. Since 1999, St. Louisans have taken the nine-hour bus ride organized by the St. Louis Inter-Faith Committee on Latin America to Fort Benning, GA, where they proudly chant "!Presente!"

The School of the Americas, renamed the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, is a U.S.-run military training school for leading Latin American military brass, in operation since 1984, when it relocated from Panama. The school made headlines in the 1980s when its graduates were implicated in gross human-rights violations. In 1996, it also came under scrutiny when the Pentagon released the school's training manuals, which promoted the use of torture, extortion and execution. Using taxpayer money, the school trained and continues to train troops in practices that protesters say violate standards of human rights.

The school's graduates include a roster of notorious dictators -- Panamanian dictators Manuel Noriega and Omar Torrijos, Argentinian dictators Roberto Viola and Leopaldo Galtieri, Bolivia's Gen. Hugo Banzar Suarez, 10 officials of the Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet government and Roberto D'Aubisson, organizer of El Salvador's death squads.

Today the School of the Americas Watch works to shut down the school. In 2007, the group lost an amendment to cut funding for the school by only six votes. Working with Latin American governments, the group also urges leaders to withdraw their troops from the school. Costa Rica, Argentina, Uruguay and Venezuela have formally withdrawn. In 2007, Bolivian President Evo Morales announced the removal of troops from the school.

And then there is the protest. On the weekend before Thanksgiving, protesters converge on the road to the fort. The experience is powerful: State police, arms-crossed, wait with dogs at their feet as you walk past the barricades. You pass drum circles, mountains of political buttons and neighbors selling BBQ and Fritos. You hear Spanish and English in the same breath.

You see ordinary people lying in the street, commemorating the massacre at El Mozote, El Salvador, where 800 died. People of all ages and ethnicities pass you on stilts. Your eyes widen at a mock water-boarding demonstration, where a thin, shirtless man is positioned at a diagonal on a rough piece of plywood. Reaching the gates, you hear an announcement that crossing the fence amounts to trespassing on federal property.

On Sunday, at the main protest, thousands walk in solidarity before the gates of Fort Benning. A large stage is erected where artists and organizers sing the name of every person killed by the hands of an SOA graduate. Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero is grouped with the unknown child from Colombia, as every person -- no matter how well known -- is remembered. After each name the gathered respond "!Presente!" speaking for those who cannot do so themselves.

To the gates of the fort we march, placing white wooden crosses inscribed with the name of a victim, bright flowers, photographs and drawings. What begins as a drab chain-link security fence is transformed into a massive, colorful memorial. Some choose to practice disobedience by climbing over the fence to a handful of military personal waiting with handcuffs.

After the last name is sung, "puppetistas" break out into song and dance, and the sorrowful procession is transformed into a joyous celebration of remembrance and action. The entire event is deeply moving, emotionally exhausting, but wholly uplifting. Rather than leaving angry or enraged, depressed or sorrowful, one leaves entirely rejuvenated and ready to act.

This weekend, almost 100 people will leave from the World Community Center on Skinker and make the trek down to the gate. Organized by the  St. Louis Inter-Faith Committee on Latin America, headed by Marilyn Lorenz-Weinkauff, the students come from Ursuline Academy, Chaminade College Prep, Rosati-Kain, St. Louis University High School and Nerinx Hall, with the largest contingent of 28 girls. Last year the largest group in the event's history -- 25,000 people -- rallied before the gates of the SOA.

People protest the school for many reasons. Some are themselves victims of torture or are Latin Americans who have lost family members in war. For others, their participation reflects religious beliefs; still others see it as a political protest against U.S. involvement in Latin America. To all, the School of the Americas is a symbol of human-rights abuses.

Though the training may be less brutal than in previous years -- though without an investigation, no one can say for sure -- the SOA still has a fundamental problem. It lives as a symbol to all those oppressed by its graduates. It trained men who later became dictators. And, it still represents the U.S.'s involvement in the civil wars that ravaged El Salvador, Colombia, Bolivia, Nicaragua and Guatemala.

The school's continuation stands as a denial of U.S. participation in and support for the dictatorships of Latin America and a refusal to apologize for the massacre of millions.

Since 2005, Rachel Heidenry, then a student at Nerinx Hall, has gone to the SOA protest. She is now a student at Bard College in New York.  

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