There are about 900 miles of interstate highway between eastern Pennsylvania and Columbus, Georgia. Route 78 runs east-west to Route 81 along the south slope of the Blue Ridge, 81 slides south and west through Pennsylvania, Maryland, West Virginia and then through the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia for over 200 miles till you hit Route 77 over the mountains into North Carolina to Charlotte then west on 85 to Atlanta slicing south finally on 185 to Columbus, Georgia. 185 runs right into our destination, Fort Benning, one of the largest military installations in the world, within which lies the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (WHINSEC), formerly the School of the Americas (SOA). I have been making this trip on the weekend before Thanksgiving since 1998, to join thousands of others in protesting the SOA. This year I was accompanied by Sarah Snider, Tim Chadwick, and Art Landis, on his first visit to Columbus. The trip has become, in life span terms, a metronome, a click-click of a road trip that marks the Fall of the year.
The interstate road trip culture of gas stations, convenience stores, and bad food seduces one into the illusion that you haven’t really arrived at a different place, especially when the destination is Columbus, Georgia. Modern Columbus is an extension of the strip mall, fast food, automobile culture of the interstate, an expanse of concrete and four lane highways, shopping malls, pawn shops, cheap motels, military equipment stores and strip bars.
This year, I was aware of another Columbus, the Columbus of the Old South, of the culture that was defeated in the Civil War and that still clings to the Noble Myth of a South that was unjustly ground down by the marauding armies of the Union. I was introduced to this Columbus by David Rose’s recent book,”The Big Eddy Club: The Stocking Stranglings and Southern Justice”.
The “Big Eddy Club” traces the thread of Columbus history from before the Civil War to the present through Rose’s investigation of a series of murders called “The Stocking Stranglings”. Seven elderly Columbus women were raped and murdered over a nine- month period of 1977 in the most elegant, rich, white part of Columbus, known as Wynnton. Five of these women were members of The Big Eddy Club, an exclusive all white social club that sits on the Chattahoochee River overlooking an area known as Oliver Lake, created by a hydroelectric dam just north of Columbus.
To turn off busy Buena Vista Road into Wynnton is to enter the old Columbus that was created for the rich owners of the industrial plants along the Chattahoochee River, one of which has now been rebuilt into a Convention Center that is occupied by the workshops and programs presented on this weekend for and by Latin America activists networking for the next years work. Wynnton contains rich stone houses; the roads are framed with tall pines, the foliage and lawns are lush. It is a quiet haven within the rush and bustle of Columbus.
The Big Eddy Club is at the terminus of a road that winds along Oliver Lake, past million dollar homes, the most opulent of which lie opposite the entrance. Sarah and I did not linger in either neighborhood. As outsiders without portfolio in a beatup 1994 Olds 88, we felt sufficiently edified with a drive-through look.
David Rose recounts the history of racism in Columbus, the slavery, the lynchings, the years of discrimination and segregation, and links it to the arrest, trial and conviction in 1986 of Carlton Gary for the Stocking Stranglings. Carlton remains on Georgia’s death row. His trial and conviction were a travesty of due process, and evidence continues to be discovered that points to his innocence. He is a black man, convicted of a crime by a police department badly in need of a suspect after a botched investigation. Carlton was a defendant who could be easily convicted by a Columbus jury, before a Columbus judge.
Those who have followed the struggle of Roy Bourgeois and the School of the America’s Watch will remember the first judge on the Gary case, the segregationist Robert Elliot, known as “Maximum Bob” for his inclination to inflict on convicts the maximum sentence allowed by law. David Rose’s interview with Elliott is chilling, as the aged jurist would only recount to him one thing–his memory of a rally he attended in Nazi Germany.
Elliott sentenced many SOA protesters to months and years in prison for their non-violent protest. He set the tone for his successor, Federal magistrate G. Mallon Faircloth, who continues to pronounce prison sentences for nuns and priests, grandmothers and grandfathers, and anyone else who may presume to question the existence of a school of torture and assassination on US soil, including myself. I spent three months in federal prison in 2006 for my minimalist protest, after being denied a jury trial and summarily pronounced guilty by Judge Faircloth.
This year, between 11,000 and 25,000 people were at the gates of Fort Benning, demanding a close to a school that provides aid and training to the most repressive and terrorist militaries of the world. Torture and assassination techniques have been taught at SOA/WHINSEC, as proven by the disclosure of manuals used in courses during the 1980’s and 1990’s. In August of this year, news reports appeared that Colombian graduates and instuctors of SOA/WHINSEC have been implicated in recent murders of US drug interdiction teams in Colombia, and have been providing protection for a Colombian drug lord, Diego Leon Montoya Sanchez, alias “Don Diego”.
WHINSEC continues to put forward a brave public relations front, with protestations that they are teaching human rights and democracy. Columbus closes ranks behind Fort Benning, and holds a Fort Benning Support Day on the same weekend as our rally. There was music, professional wrestling, games and toys for the kids, and the mandatory appearance of about 10,000 soldiers from the base. The Columbus newspaper and television dutifully report on the sad affair, trying to generate a pulse of excitement in this manufactured patriotism.
My friend Art Landis, of Perkasie, Pennsylvania, crossed the line this year, and will face Judge Faircloth in January. When asked why he took this stand to protest the SOA, he says, “The SOA is a terrorist camp and terrorism and torture and killing are things I don’t approve of, whether we do it or our friends do it or it’s done in other parts of the world.”
Art will likely go to jail for crawling under a fence with 10 other protesters. Trespassing is a serious crime in the eyes of the US courts, which use it to quell any protest that truly seeks to demand accountability by making a human presence on the empire’s sacred ground.
The rally at the gates of Fort Benning this year was dedicated to the life of Rufina Amaya, the sole survivor of the 1981 El Mozote massacre, committed by the SOA-trained Atlacatl Battalion. She hid in bushes and listened to the final moments of her children’s lives being impaled on the bayonets of the soldiers. She died in February, 2007, and her testimony and calm dignity will be remembered with our hopes.
My thoughts this year at the rally plotted the connections between WHINSEC/SOA and the massacres it supports and supported to the culture that now houses and defends the school/institute–an elitist, racist culture that has never let go of its privilege, and that also needs to be called to justice, as nooses appear in schoolyards and innocent black men are sent to death row, and retrograde fear permeates our days and lives and the violence extends to the occupation of Iraq, the subjugation of Palestine, the war in Colombia, the femicides of Mexico and Guatemala
Such are the turns of the mind on Route 81 at 2 AM, fueled by gasoline and caffeine, screaming north at 85 mph through the Shenandoah Valley, across West Virginia, Maryland, and Pennsylvania.
JOE DeRAYMOND lives in Freemansburg, PA. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org