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Editor’s Note: Each November local peace and justice advocates take part in the annual vigil outside the former School of the Americas (SOA), a unique event that’s a mixture of protest march, street theatre and civil disobedience. SOA is a taxpayer-supported counterinsurgency training center at Ft. Benning in Columbus, Ga., which a congressional investigation found was teaching torture and execution techniques to its primarily Latin American clientele. With the growing national debate over the role of torture in U.S. policy, we present this first-person report from one local advocate. You can decide for yourself if his is a cause worth believing in.

With a figurative backdrop of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay, and with the vice president wanting to exclude the CIA from restraints in torturing detainees, an exceptionally large crowd of about 20,000 people took part in the annual vigil outside Ft. Benning to say, “No mas” -- no more.

Now referred to as WHISC, or Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, but more commonly known and still referred to as the SOA, the School of the Americas (or School of Assassins, depending on to whom one speaks) is headquarted at Ft. Benning. Over the decades it has trained over 60,000 Latin American soldiers, a preponderance of them from Colombia, a nation with one of the worst human rights records in the world.

Training manuals released from the school after a congressional investigation revealed that their training included instruction in techniques of torture, extortion and execution, all paid for by U.S. tax dollars.

My wife and stepson and I arrive on site Saturday around noon, and although thanks to an ACLU lawsuit filed after the 2003 vigil there were no body searches, there is a gauntlet of police to pass through. The unblinking eye of a videocam records the comings and goings of everyone present.

The local newspaper says that Columbus is spending $250,000 on beefed-up security, and I believe it. There is even an “eye in the sky” cherry-picker-type device with heavily smoked windows from which the crowd may be viewed, and I suppose photographed.

Were I there to cause trouble, I would be intimidated.

As we move into the entry area, we see a long list of banned items -- which unfortunately includes the PVC pipes which control the motions of the 20-ft. wingspan “peace dove” made by our Unitarian Universalist Beloved Community youth group. A quick intervention by one of the many SOA Watch Legal Collective Observers avoids a confrontation.

A short chat with the Observer reveals that they are there to watch for and document any civil rights violations, to meet beforehand with those intending to cross “over the line” to be arrested, and to make sure those about to be arrested understand the ramifications and consequences of their actions. The Observers will also help represent them when their day in court arrives.

As we talk the Observer leads us to the leader of the Puppetistas, the oversized caricatures bearing the names of infamous past graduates of the SOA. We are provided with legally acceptable bamboo poles to replace the PVC, and while I wonder how they were considered less lethal, I confess they were lighter and worked as well.

As Lori and Drew prepare to march with the Puppetistas, I again become aware that this vigil is no ordinary street corner gathering like we’ve seen in Savannah, with just a handful of people working for peace. The maxim says there is strength in numbers, so imagine 15-19,000 people in constant motion, packed into a space roughly the width and length of Victory Drive from McAlpin Square to Skidaway Road, focused on peace and justice.

From all over America, Canada, Central and South America and elsewhere they come -- black, white, yellow and red, retiree and student, military vet and conscientious objector. Christian, Buddhist, Muslim, Jew and atheist side by side with straight and gay -- to say in one voice, “Close the SOA.”

Adding to the noise and bustle of the crowd, and reminiscent of a country fair, booths line one side of the street, where vendors of hats, buttons, T-shirts, books and magazines vie loudly for attention with the national grassroots organizations who see the SOA vigil as a face-to-face nexus in a far-flung federation of peace and justice workers in congress, each with critical concerns on their agenda, including women and childrenís rights, environmental issues and ending the war in Iraq.

The organizations represented included Code Pink, United for Peace & Justice, Fellowship of Reconciliation, Pax Christi, War Resisters League, Voices in the Wilderness, the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) and many others.

The unmistakable chop-chop-chop of a Huey close enough overhead to make out the profile of the pilot ratchets up the decibel level. The PA system contributes to the din with tales from those who have been kidnapped and tortured but were fortunate enough to escape, interspersed with music that includes choruses of “Close the gates of the SOA.”

It is a sensory, especially auditory, overload, and though I am prepared, my earplugs cannot block out the presence and intensity of the crowd.

As I turn to leave I see, lying motionless on the pavement nearby, the “blood”-smeared body of a young man, labeled “campesino civilian,” with two unsmiling men tagged “paramilitary” looming over him.

In spite of the cacophony around me, the scene speaks to me with an eloquent silence, mute reminder of the thousands of ordinary people who have become “collateral damage,” murdered in military-led massacres that for decades have been executed by those trained at SOA or under their command.

My search for Maryknoll priest Father Roy Bourgeois, founder of SOA Watch and leader of the efforts to close the SOA, is rewarded shortly. I find him surrounded by friends -- fellow clergy, political and union leaders, social justice activists of all persuasions, including Sister Helen Prejean, author of Dead Man Walking, and many ordinary folks like me, simply wanting a few moments to speak with him.

All are greeted with a warmth and humor which flows from this extraordinary man, and I’m amazed that he recalls our prior meeting when he conducted a service several years ago at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Savannah.

Knowing demands on his time were great, I ask just two questions, and though I wasn’t there representing a major media outlet, his attention never wavers from me.

I want to know, since there was a very close vote just a couple of years ago on closing the school and another scheduled for this summer, if he senses imminent success. Or does he think there will be many more vigils before victory is achieved?

“We are not on a five year plan,” he replies simply. “Hope is not supported by results. We started this with old-timers, and now it’s over half students, to whom we will turn over the baton. We will be here until they close the school.”

Acknowledging that there are other schools like the SOA, as we talk he agrees that once a critical mass of resistance is built, and political and military leaders realize that these type of operations are a liability and not in America’s best interests, the SOA will close, and domino-like, so will the others.

Not wanting to overstay my welcome, feeling the chill of the day and wanting other stories, I find myself drawn to the nearby Catholic Hospitality House, which is feeding all who come a simple hearty stew and bread.

Inside, I strike up a conversation with nurse Lil Mattingly and teacher Mariane Dunn, who with Dunn’s husband Noel spent many years in several South American countries.

They recall being in Bolivia during the “strongman” reign of Hugo Banzer Suarez, who seized power, then was democratically elected. In spite of this, he continued an authoritarian style of leadership, brutally repressing all who opposed him.

Under his regime, economic realities forced him to accept the help -- and the terms of -- the International Monetary Fund, which led to enrichment for the elite and corporate leaders of the time, much to the detriment of the poor.

Back outside, I head for the Port-A-Johnny, and as I wait my turn I see a small group of perhaps 15-20 encircled, singing together from a hymnal. When I step back out, the tune is familiar. I am handed a hymnal, and notice the group has now grown to 30 or 40.

Taking a quick glance inside the cover, I see it is an Anabaptist Hymnal, then realize the hymn is “God of Grace and God of Glory,” which we had sung the very Sunday before in my congregation.

I’m told that this was not a single group, but that others, like me, had simply joined in the impromptu singalong. It warms my heart to feel the camaraderie amongst those from so many different backgrounds, gathered together in peace and, literally, in harmony.

In spite of the seriousness of the occasion, there is also a genuine source of humor present here, embodied in Sister Missionary P. (for Position ) Delight, one of the original founders of the Missionary Order of Perpetual Indulgence.

When I first spot “Mishi,” I take from his garb that he may be a Greek Orthodox priest, for he has the flowing white beard black robes I associate with that faith. He reveals that they are a group, started in 1979, of gay/lesbian/bisexual/transgender individuals, who, according to their web site, “ruin it for everyone by injecting gaiety into serious affairs, including human rights and political activism.”

With over-the-top names such as Sister Ann R Key and Sister Dana Van Iquity, they have nonetheless raised over $500,000 for “queer and positive sex organizations.” I walk away, bemused yet impressed.

I keep hearing about someone called Peg McIntire, who is 95, still moving under her own steam, and has been at every SOA vigil since its inception.

Peg is a well-known presence to the peace and justice community, and is often present at events in south Georgia and North Florida, including protests held outside of Kings Bay Submarine Base.

I’m told she is quite upset that she can’t get herself arrested, and my inquiring mind wants to know why. I finally locate her at one of the booths, and I tell her I hear she has been arrested before, and wonder how many times.

“So many times I can’t remember how many,” is her reply. “They won’t arrest you unless you do something I’m not capable of doing anymore.”

Back on the stage, tales are told of torture and of progress in the struggle against human rights violations and their perpetrators.

Professor Carlos Mauricio from El Salvador relates his experience of being abducted from the classroom, tortured and beaten, while all around him hearing the screams of others being beaten, raped and tortured.

Mauricio escaped to the United States and filed suit against two Salvadoran generals under the 1991 Torture Victims Protection Act, which provides that victims did not need to prove the military leaders knew they were being tortured, only that they allowed a culture in which soldiers could commit human right abuses against civilians with impunity.

The Salvadoran generals, both SOA graduates, were found guilty and ordered to pay millions in reparations to the victims. Though the verdict was later overturned, and the case is yet under review, hope returned just this past week when a federal jury in Memphis, Tenn., under U.S. laws giving them jurisdiction over human rights claims abroad, found former Salvadoran Col. Nicolas Carranza guilty of torture and murder.

Because an amnesty which helped end the Salvadoran civil war proscribes criminal charges, he was ordered to pay $2 million in damages.

Perhaps only time will tell if the fact that those who commit or oversee these atrocities can and will be brought to the bar of justice. It is nonetheless a ray of hope and an inspiration to those who still suffer.

“PRE...SEN...TE!” Sunday morning arrives and again we join the assemblage of those gathered for the Memorial Service and Solemn Funeral Procession. Thousands are gathered in orderly ranks, most bearing small wooden crosses, each with a name and an age and on many the name of a country.

As the procession steps off, I’m struck by the eeriness, the hushed silence of such a large group of people. As we walk, the cathedral-like stillness is punctuated by the voices of men and women singing out alternately in rich baritone or wavering soprano the names, ages and countries of those who were victims of SOA trained soldiers, the names which are inscribed on the very crosses we carry.

In the silence after each recitation the crosses are raised high over our heads, as comes the intonation from thousands of throats, “Pre...sen...te.”

It is the Spanish word by which we, the living, acknowledge the lives of those who have met a violent end by those trained just a short walk away. No chit-chat, no laughter, damn little talk of any kind is heard as the reverent gathering makes its way down one side of the broad avenue to turn and walk up to and past the Main Gate.

Earlier in the day, the fencing and gates had been covered by a plain green canvas, now torn and cut away by person or persons unknown, making space for those in the processional to place their cross, their ribbon, their flower, along with their prayers, into the mesh of the barbed wire-topped barrier.

The procession takes several hours to complete. Near the end, I see my friend Chris, who is shouldering a wooden coffin as part of a procession of black-shrouded individuals in white grease paint representing the dead.

He knows I want pictures of those committed to acts of civil disobedience, “crossing the line.” As we speak he tells me of the unfolding plot of which he is a part.

A large group forms to encircle the area in front of the stage, which would shield what was about to happen from the authorities. The coffin is laid inside the “human shield” circle of bodies, and as its lid is removed a man whom I will only identify as Jamey comes forward and quickly climbs inside.

The lid replaced, it is again hoisted and as the music plays and the crowd cheers, it is placed against the Main Gate. Using the upturned coffin as a leg up, Jamey lays cardboard across the strands of barbed wire and with an assist from hands below, is quickly up and over the fence.

He stands calmly, smiling, as military police take him into custody.

My last view of him is on his knees, hands behind his back, restraints being applied. As a cry of “Jamey! Jamey! Jamey” goes up from the crowd, he glances toward us and manages to get one hand part-way up in the air, the unmistakable “V” of the peace sign his benediction on us.

Forty-one people are arrested on Sunday, and an additional three at an evening solidarity vigil outside the Muscogee County Jail.

Among those appearing at a Nov. 21 bond hearing are an 81-year-old WW II veteran, two Franciscan priests, aged 68 and 73. Their trial is on Jan 30, 2006.

As the procession moves along, I walk the crowd, looking for that one face, that one image I could carry with me and share with others.

I think back to the picture of a young man I took here two years ago. His hollow eyes, stiff posture, slack jaw and unremitting tears brought me with a shudder to the conclusion that though his body is standing before me, “he ain’t here, y’all.”

Again this specter materializes -- this time in the form of an old woman sitting in a folding chair in the center of the street, surrounded by those walking the funeral procession. I first become aware of her presence by the wild gesticulations of her arms.

As I kneel to take her picture, she suddenly deflates, now a small frail figure, scarf draped over wispy strands of white hair, eyes shuttered behind sunglasses, leaning forward, arms resting on her knees.

Is she praying, or is her spirit readying for the next outburst, feeding on the anger or guilt or remorse as she, like the young man, heard more than names and ages and saw things I could only guess at?

In an unexpected and frightening flurry she again bursts into activity, her body seemingly electrified, arms waving wildly at those walking past, her body struggling upward from the chair while she remained seated, mouth working frantically, yet uttering not a sound.

It sounds irrational, but my thought at that moment is if she was seeing, hearing, or feeling the recent deaths in Colombia I had just read about. Members of a peace community, two men, their wives and their three children aged 11 years, 6 years and 18 months hacked to death by members of the Colombian Army, their heads and limbs severed, tossed into a shallow grave.

I shiver as I realize my proximity to the facility where individuals capable of such things were trained, and where perpetrators of future atrocities continue to train. Looking back at the old woman, I want another picture, but truth be told, I find myself afraid to approach her. May God give her peace.

As the vigil comes to a close a light rain begins to fall, and I feel a sense of cleansing, of peace for having come. Taking shelter under the overhang of a strip mall, I listen to students from St. John’s Jesuit High School and King’s College in Ontario as they speak of things learned, of friendships made and renewed, of vows to come back until, at last, there is no need to return.