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CURRENT ISSUE:  December 11, 2006VOL. 44, NO. 22Oakland, CA

East Bay students join annual march at Ft. Benning

COLUMBUS, GA -- It is impossible to lift a white cross in memory of a two-day-old murdered child without shedding tears – and then to keep on lifting the cross, continuing to bear the sadness, whilst murmuring “Presente.”

As name after name of victims were sung out, in a five-note minor key call and response litany, accompanied by the beat of a drum, tears gave away to numbness. There were many moist eyes among the crowd of marchers bearing crosses the morning of Nov. 19, as they walked towards the gates of Ft. Benning military base.

These individuals were participating in an annual funeral ceremony honoring the “hundreds and thousands of unarmed, materially impoverished people from Latin America brutally gunned down by their own government’s soldiers trained at the Army’s School of the Americas housed at this fort,” said Alan Edmonson, a teacher at Holy Names High School in Oakland. Edmonson and his wife, Loretta, members of Christ the King Parish in Pleasant Hill, brought five of his students to the weekend.

The procession was the closing event of the Nov. 17-19 weekend of teach-ins and rallies on social justice issues including militarism, violence, and economic disparities between first and third world countries.

The weekend events are sponsored by School of the Americas Watch, an organization founded by Maryknoll Father Roy Bourgeois in 1990 to push for the closing of the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, formerly known as the School of the Americas. Located at Ft. Benning, the SOA/WHINSEC trains soldiers from Latin America.

The November date was chosen for the annual event because it is closest to the anniversary of the assassination of 14-year-old Celina Ramos, her mother, and six Jesuit priests in El Salvador in 1989. Nineteen of the 26 Salvadoran army officers found by a U.N. Truth Commission to be responsible for the slayings were trained at the SOA.

Many more of the school’s graduates have been charged with human rights violations and participating in the killings, disappearance and torturing of untold thousands of civilians, a fact which “takes your breath away,” noted Joe O’Neill, one of five students from Holy Names University in Oakland who attended the weekend.

Students from Holy Names High School in Oakland carry crosses bearing the names of victims of human rights abuses in Central America during the annual demonstration against the former School of the Americas at Ft. Benning, Georgia.

Several students at Saint Mary’s College in Moraga brought signs and carried crosses during the annual demonstration calling for the closure of the Western Hemisphere Institute, formerly the School of the Americas.

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O’Neill and an additional 50 people from the Oakland Diocese, plus another 100 from the San Francisco/San Jose areas, were among the 22,000 marchers who on Sunday morning walked the main road leading to the gates of the military base, leaving white crosses in the chain link fence enclosing the installation. Some mourners left flowers as well.

One person scribbled “Romero,” with a black crayon on a piece of brown cardboard, in memory of Oscar Romero, the famous San Salvadoran archbishop and human rights advocate assassinated as he celebrated Mass. The sign rested atop a glistening green thorny bush, against the background white crosses and flowers in the fence.

It was Joe O’Neill’s third trip past the cross-filled fence in as many years. “For me, the chance to bear witness to the growing movement to shut the school down is a necessary step in the much larger process of holding our government responsible for its involvement in this heinous process,” he said.

Since the first weekend event 16 years ago, the SOAW gathering has grown yearly in numbers of participants. SOAW officials say attendance this year was the largest demonstration in front of a U.S. military base since the Vietnam War.

On Saturday night, two students from Richmond High School helped their teacher, Byrne Sherwood, Jr., introduce a new 30-minute documentary, “Crossing the Line,” produced by some of his students three years ago.

The video, a journey into political awareness, was a collaborative project between young people from USF and Richmond High, all of whom had previously attended SOA vigils in Columbus, Georgia. Sherwood, a retired Army Lt. Col. who advocates closing the SOA, had assigned the video as a class project..

Today Sherwood shows the documentary to his classes as a wake-up call questioning how U.S. tax dollars are sometimes misused to support ill-conceived military endeavors. Said Lizette Avile, a senior: “When I first saw it as a sophomore, I thought, ‘Oh, my God, my government is doing this?’ Learning the truth opened my mind to activism.”

Avile’s senior classmate, Luis Romo, came to Georgia this year because of the documentary. “I didn’t know anything at all before this,” he said, and, like his fellow students, was horrified by footage of Central American carnage included in the film.

Araceli Vazquez, a Richmond High junior, said she was impressed to see so many people in one place sharing the same resolve. “It was incredible to see all of the crosses rising and falling simultaneous, as people cried ‘Presente.’ The sight of the crosses covering the fence made me realize that unity can overcome any obstacle.”

In 2002, Byrne Sherwood carried more than a white cross. A retired military officer who once trained at Ft. Benning and is now a member of St. Monica Parish in Moraga, Sherwood hung his uniform on the chain link fence “as a symbolic renunciation of my life as a professional soldier and U.S. foreign policy which is bolstered by our military forces and schools like the SOA.”

The Sunday procession concluded on an upbeat note – a newly incorporated “Return to Life” ritual, which began with a parade of large puppets. A group of black-clad white-faced marchers who had earlier taken part in a “die-in” near the Ft. Benning gates resurrected themselves and began dancing. “The time had arrived for the spirits of the dead and the living to be transformed with hope,” reflected Loretta Edmonson.

The ritual took its inspiration from the recent U.S. elections in which 34 legislators opposed to closing the SOA lost their seats in the House of Representatives, “drastically heightening our chances to close the SOA/WHINSEC,” said an SOAW website. In June of this year, the McGovern-Lewis amendment to cut funding for the school was narrowly defeated by a 15-vote margin.

Another optimistic development: the governments of Venezuela, Argentina and Uruguay no longer send their military to Ft. Benning.
While both national and international efforts continue to grow around closing SOA/WHINSEC, those beliefs are by no means unanimous.
Jennifer Courtright, a 2006 graduate of Holy Names University, said her group was harassed by young soldiers who had checked into the same hotel.

“They were under the impression that we were there to protest the military, which of course was not the case at all,” noted Courtright. “They decided the best way to show us how wrong we were to ‘protest the troops’ was by harassing us in the hallway and by prank calling our hotel rooms at 3 a.m. The experience was very frustrating for me because I respect our troops. I go to the SOA to protest how our military resources are used.”

Charles Sarno, an assistant professor of sociology at Holy Names, said he was struck by the youth of the recruits. “They were the same age as many of the students I led on the trip, and often, I suspect, possess the same idealism, but unfortunately they were oriented towards the means and ends of violence.”

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