Just back from a week in Georgia, I was not visiting Jimmy Carter’s childhood home in Plains, tho it was nearby. Carter, our 39th president is beloved for his good deeds since his presidency including authoring a book that calls out Israeli Apartheid, and for the vast accomplishments of Habitat for Humanity. In what is now known as “the October Surprise”, Reagan insured that Carter went down by dealing back channels with Iranian revolutionaries who held American hostages and by delaying their release till after the election. Carter was unseated by the Hollywood actor beginning a series of Teflon presidents of greater or lesser charm, hollow shells controlled by corporate overlords continued to this day. Tragically, Carter will also be remembered for his provision of billions in weaponry (later turned on us) to the nascent Afghan mujahedeen, and his shameful support of Indonesian dictator Suharto, supplying the weapons for the massacre of 180,000 East Timorese. Considered a man of peace, Carter comes as close as any president I can remember to an honorable man.
I was not visiting the site of the infamous Andersonville prison where over 13,000 Union Civil War POW’s perished from disease and starvation, tho’ that was nearby. Nor was I there to see the plantations that remain from America’s centuries of slavery. Some have been turned into upscale corporate retreat centers and health spas where the sonorous bell that once summoned “field workers” rings upscale patrons to swank meal times. As the cotton harvest ended this week, I was close enough to smell slavery’s lingering scent and to see the hollow eyed impoverished descendants of African Kings and Queens languishing on street corners and outside run down bars and thrift stores in the depressed rural towns of Georgia.
I went to Columbus to attend the annual School of the Americas (SOA) protest and to meet the remarkable and controversial Roy Bourgeois, former Catholic priest and founder of the SOA Watch. As a catholic priest Bourgeois, was an outspoken critic of US policy in Latin America. Subsequent to the murder of four American church women by SOA trained assassins, Bourgeois founded SOA Watch and has maintained a 26 year tradition of civil disobedience and protest including documentation of atrocities in Latin America linked to SOA training programs. Later he took a controversial stand on ordination of women in the Catholic Church and was canonically dismissed.
The School of the Americas was started in Panama in the 1950’s and became the CIA training ground for “counterinsurgency”, moving to Fort Benning in Columbus, Georgia. The CIA manual for counterinsurgency developed and taught at Ft Benning advises totalitarian regimes and military dictators how to silence opposition to corporate and military take over of public land and natural resources. Assassination and disappearance of labor leaders, teachers, journalists, community activists, and human rights defenders is strategically outlined and often followed up with CIA support and tactical weapons to SOA graduates. Find a massacre in Latin America, look behind the overthrow of a populist president and one is likely to find an SOA graduate’s involvement.
I went to be witness to the arrest of 11 courageous trespassers in Lumpkin, Georgia at the gate of Stewart Detention Center. One of America’s worst privately operated for-profit prisons in which over 38,000 men, women and children are held as criminals. There Mexican, Guatemalan, Honduran, Salvadorian, NIcaraguan and other Latin American refugees are subject to rape, assault, torture and are fed maggot ridden food as a cost saving measure. Denied due process, they have committed no crime other than to seek a better life away from the havoc created by multinational corporations and military dictators using their SOA assassin tools. They are not migrants.
And I went to join the Puppetistas, a temporal and largely anonymous commune of artist activists who come together at this event and elsewhere to shove art in the face of empire. Year after year Puppetistas provide an uplifting even comic culmination to the almost unbearably somber vigil. The sad and beautiful face of Blue Madre cries tears for many thousands as she bears mute witness to the mock sacrifice of face painted nuns. Dragons are chased away, the helicopter of death dissolves. Puppetista skits include giant puppet heads atop stilts who are often caricatures of evil doers and the faces of power that elicit boos and hisses from the crowd towards wishful thinking outcomes. In the cardboard chaos that ensues, evil collapses under its own weight, the proud are downtrodden and the people are free to dance and sing. Even the hulking King Kong that is the might of the SOA is sucked dry by his own blood-sucking mosquitos and forced to an epiphany. Lady Liberty on stilts, dancing with a gigantic Mexican Calavera is transformed into the Virgin of Guadalupe.
Now 26 years into the annual SOAW protest there has been a decline in attendance, but not in intensity. Many I interviewed believe that mainstream Catholic supporters abandoned Bourgeois, who had provided an easy target for a church hierarchy eager for a distraction. Some suggested the fall off is a result of button pushing baby boomer members of Move On and 350.org activists who can make their progressive stand from their laptop and need not march 2 miles or sleep on the floor of a church to attend a protest in a far away state. Partly, the decline may be attributed to what can be perceived as a narrow issue focused solely on the woes of Latin America, although the counterinsurgency manual has been applied in Africa, East Timor and throughout the Middle East.
When SOA was nearly defunded under pressure from the Left, Congress rechristened it Western Hemispheric Institute for Security Cooperation, WHINSEC. Fake left, go right. Today the manual is taught in dozens of locations, not just at Fort Benning and is today applied worldwide from nearly 1000 US military bases. Media use of the words “surge”, “insurgent” and “counter insurgency” have played a role in the shaping of public perception of US wars of aggression in the Middle East.
Sadly and mistakenly the continuing story of assassinations in Latin America at the hands of SOA trained thugs is old news, and perhaps a smaller story than illegal US wars in seven countries. We are now living through decades of American history which have seen the worst military aggression, the worst imaginable corporate greed, the worst degradation of human rights, the most desperate flight of refugees from wars and climate change.
SOAW is neither a trendy nor a branded demonstration as some climate marches have been labeled. It does not edge on violence and draws little media attention. It is not a riot, tho’ histories of murder, violence and mayhem remembered are close at hand. The people within Fort Benning and their masters know that SOAW represents one of the few remaining peaceful expressions of an increasingly distraught and radicalized underclass broiling in Ferguson, Detroit, and Chicago, in Guatemala City, Nogales, and San Salvador, in Paris, Ankara and Athens and maybe everywhere. They would prefer that SOAW vigil die a slow and unremarkable death.
Today, the stronger-than-ever message from the SOAW Vigil is that the issues of the disenfranchised are profoundly interconnected, that we are all accountable for the condition of humanity and the condition of the earth on which we depend. With SOAW’s long tradition of non violence, civil disobedience and arrest, an alternative classroom open to all exists just outside the gates of Fort Benning. This de facto classroom from primary to graduate level has become the training ground for new generations in exercise of another kind of power where the students in Peace Studies at Manchester University join Veterans For Peace, Christian Peacemakers, join those facing the compounding tragedies of La Migra at the border. Buddhists chant mantras for our inner peace and Rebel Diaz rap the way it has been going down for Latinos.
This year the news from SOAW and Fort Benning is that the protest is moving next year to the Border of Mexico. A call is issued across the land for people to join a massive protest in October in Texas. Thus the atrocity of Stewart Detention Center and the deplorable legacy of the School of the Americas come home to roost at last. We see clearly that these institutions lie together in the same bed and that from this horror comes untold misery and suffering. As Roy Bourgeois stated in his address to thousands at Fort Benning, “Their struggle must become our struggle.” La Lucha Continua. Todos Somos Americanos.
David Stocker (MFA Yale University) is part of the Northern Illinois Justice League. He is an artist and teacher presently working on his Puppetista merit badge. All photos; Tricia Peters, jessA Webe N.IL Justice League.