Solemn funeral procession onto Fort Benning.
1999 Rally photo by Linda Panetta.

At the front gates at Fort Benning.
2001 Rally photo by Linda Panetta.


10,000 Gather at the Gates of Fort Benning, GA to Close the U. S. Army School of the Americas (SOA) ~ 2,100 Arrested.

November 20, 2000 - Article and Photographs by Linda Panetta.
Article and Photographs used by permission of Linda Panetta - SOA Watch/NE director.
May not be reproduced without the prior consent of SOA Watch/NE - http://www.soawne.org/

Over 10,000 united in protest of the U.S. Army School of the Americas (SOA), located at Ft. Benning, GA - - 3,600 people risked arrest by crossing onto the Ft. Benning military base on Sunday, November 19.  Of those, 2,100 were selected to be processed.  Among those arrested were at least 25 people from the Philadelphia region, including students, veterans, and grandparents.

The civil disobedience began as over 3,400 people, carrying thousands of crosses and other sacred symbols inscribed with the names of victims of SOA violence in Latin America, crossed onto the base in a solemn funeral procession.  They were led by a group dressed in black shrouds and white death masks who carried coffins to commemorate the assassination of six Jesuit priests and their two co-workers in El Salvador in 1989 by SOA graduates.  When met by military police a half mile inside the gate, the lead group fell to the ground, reenacting a massacre.  They were among the first to be carried away by the military police.

Crowd of protesters holding crosses.
2000 Rally photo by Linda Panetta.
Funeral procession to commemorate the assassinations.
1999 Rally photo by Linda Panetta.

Once the entire first procession had completely crossed the line, 32 additional activists, dressed as campesinos and soldiers, crossed the line and staged a massacre by Colombian paramilitaries.  They were immediately taken into custody as well.

Then a second procession of 200 activists with giant puppets, costumes and drums entered the base.  Other affinity groups entered simultaneously through different entrances and engaged in various creative actions of nonviolent resistance, such as street-theater and the blocking of the road with their bodies.  Dozens of activists planted corn in Ft. Benning soil as a symbol of life and hope.

Despite the drenching rains, the thousands were dancing in the streets to the music of acclaimed musician, Bruce Cockburn, folk legend Pete Seeger, and the Andean group Llajtasuyo.  Powerful testimonies were given by speakers from Colombia, Guatemala, Mexico, and elsewhere.  Actor Martin Sheen, who plays the President on "The West Wing," received an enormous applaud when he stated "As acting President of the United States, I declare that the School of the Americas must be closed immediately."  Sheen was among those arrested Sunday afternoon.

Actor Martin Sheen at the 2000 Rally to close the SOA.
2000 Rally photo by
Linda Panetta.
Actor Martin Sheen at the 1999 Rally to close the SOA.
1999 Rally photo by
Linda Panetta.

The SOA, located at Ft. Benning, Georgia trains on average 1,000 Latin American soldiers each year in combat skills which include sniper training, psychological operations, and military intelligence.  The SOA costs the U.S. tax payers millions annually.

Hundreds of SOA graduates have been among the worst human rights violators in our hemisphere, including those responsible for the execution of 6 Jesuit Priests, the rape and murder of 4 U.S. churchwomen, the murder of Archbishop Oscar Romero, gunned down while celebrating mass; and the massacre of over 900 at El Mozote. 

The growing opposition to the SOA includes more than 150 U.S. bishops, including 15 Archbishops and over 140 Latin American bishops who have called for its closure.  The New Jersey State Assembly, the Philadelphia City Council, the national councils of the NAACP, the AFL-CIO, and hundreds of other churches and organizations have passed resolution to close the SOA.

Although the Pentagon has attempted to recast the SOA as a center for counter-narcotics, less than 5 percent of soldiers took the counter-narcotics course in 1999.  Furthermore, former SOA instructor, Major Joseph Blair, states that "The SOA was the best place a Latin American officer could go to launder his drug money."



Anarchists crossed side by side with religious women, grandparents walked arm in arm with students, and children were poised atop the shoulders of their parents as they crossed the line.  This unity and diversity in the struggle to close the SOA is a power greater than the injustice represented by the SOA - together we will continue to work and organize in our communities until this School of Assassins is closed for good.

Group of protesters holding up crosses.
2001 Rally photo by Linda Panetta.
2000 Rally photo by Linda Panetta.
2000 Rally photo by
Linda Panetta.

 




Brief History of the Movement:
During the first few years the numbers were small, then in 1995, 13 protesters were arrested and sent to prison simply for marching onto the open base.  This galvanized the movement and by 1997 the numbers jumped to over 2,000, with 601 participating in the civil disobedience.  Twenty-five of the 601 "line crossers" were repeat offenders and were singled out for prosecution.  In this group were three Catholic nuns (one who had just turned 70), 2 college students, several clergy, Vietnam veterans and retired college professors.  Each were issued the maximum sentence of 6 months in federal prison.

The government's tactics to try and silence the movement backfired as more than 7,000 people rallied at the gates of Ft. Benning in 1998.  Of those, over 2,300 crossed the line in an attempt to deliver tens of thousands of petitions to the SOA calling for the closure of the school.

The increased protesting and public awareness not only drew national attention, but greatly heightened the concerns of many in Congress.  In 1999 the House voted 230-197 to cut a crucial part of the SOA funding.  However, that decision was overturned a few weeks later by a single vote in a House-Senate Conference Committee.

The increased support for the movement to close the SOA became evident when in November, 1999, over 12,000 people gathered at the gates of Ft. Benning - - almost twice the previous year's numbers - - and nearly 5,000 of those present risked arrest by crossing the line.  This year, pressured by Congress, shamed by public outcry, and troubled by dissension even within their own ranks, the Pentagon was forced to react with a ploy to keep the school in operation.  As part of the Defense Authorization Bill, the Pentagon proposed to close the school and reopen it immediately with a new name.  Even SOA supporters call the gimmick "cosmetic," a name change with no attempt to address the SOA's links to human rights atrocities in Latin America.

 


Subject Gallery

Credits:
November 20, 2000 News Release, written by Linda Panetta - SOA Watch/NE director.  All Vigil/Protest/Rally photographs by Linda Panetta.  Articles and photographs used by permission of Linda Panetta.  Photos or text can not be used without permission from The School of the Americas Watch/NE - http://www.soawne.org/

School of the Americas Watch/NE
6367 Overbrook Avenue ~ Philadelphia, PA 19151
Contact: Linda Panetta (215) 473-2162; Sheila Stumph (215) 477-5892
http://www.soawne.org/

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