Remembering the "Close the School of the Americas" Demonstration
Voices of the Northwest
Pilgrimage to Fort Benning
Text and Photos by Peg Morton
A young Friend stands witness at Fort Benning, Gorgia, USA
"Understanding is the ground
Compassion is the root
During the fall of 2001, through some sort
of serendipity (or as Friends would say, "The way opened"), a group of
four of us, all from Oregon, came together, with the vision of crossing the country
in a van, showing a video and talking about the historic Army School of the Americas,
now re-named Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation. We would end
the trip with participation in the huge annual demonstration to close the school,
in November, at Fort Benning in Georgia.
We were Bonnie who lives near the coast, is a teacher, and does Guatemala accompaniment
work; Nick originally from England, and now living in Eugene; Bethany, who also lives
in a rural area not far from the coast and is a retired physical therapist, and myself,
a Friend (Quaker) from Eugene. We named our journey "Pilgrimage to Close the
SOA and Plant the Garden," and arranged, through much advance planning, to travel
south to Los Angeles, then east to Georgia, being hosted by individuals and groups
along the way, giving talks wherever we were invited.
We wanted to raise awareness of the existence of this school, our very own U.S.
school of terrorism. Founded in 1946, this school has trained and encouraged
militaries throughout Latin America to use torture, massacre, forced disappearance
and assassination, in order to combat Communist infiltration and in counternarcotic
Our positive vision was especially represented by Nick, from an "Avant Gardening
Collective." He carried a large box filled with a variety of organic seeds.
He engaged in "seed swaps." These seeds, and others carefully collected
and preserved around the world, are precious. Healthy and sustainable farming and
gardening are being destroyed in our global economic system, by huge commercial farms
with commercial fertilizers and pesticides, by genetically modified seeds, by commercial
patenting of the traditional seeds of indigenous peoples, by the fumigating of crops
in Colombia and elsewhere, a part of the "War on Drugs." The "Seed"
is a symbol among Friends of the Inner Light, the Divine that is deep within each
one of us. The Garden can be found within the mythology of many religions.
Peg and Bonnie with Peace & Justice as Garden banner
Can we find hope, in this time of our history, that a new Garden can be planted,
hope for a transformation in our world? Along the way, we gave presentations at universities,
peace and justice centers, churches, and in Friends Meetings. We met and talked informally
with so many others, who provided hospitality and help. Generous donations helped
us along our way. Did we make a difference? Indeed, did the Fort Benning demonstration
make a difference? How can we say? We like to believe that each action we take does
make some kind of a difference. However, even if we get the school closed, that will
not mean that the atrocities taught there will be ended.
This movement to close the school is a part of a larger movement to raise awareness
of U.S. economic policies and the horrific role played by military and intelligence
institutions. And it is a movement to bring dignity for all people around the world
and a planet that is sustained and protected. What is a pilgrimage? Perhaps it is
a seeker, or seekers, who set out on a sacred journey, their destination a sacred
place, traveling with the hope to deepen their own spiritual commitment in the process.
Does this description fit our story? The other side of the coin of this journey is
what happened to each of us, how we were touched and taught.
"On Our Way!" with Bethany and Nick. Charles Gray and Shawna
helped make the banner
Miracles happened. Our beloved and beautifully decorated van split
a rod and had to be taken to salvage in Santa Barbara. Phoning to our next step,
the Friends Meeting in Los Angeles, our would be host, Doug, said, "Oh, I have
a van you can borrow!" Our gracious Quaker host, Nancy, in Santa Barbara piled
us and our gear into her VW camper. She was headed for Pasadena the next day. These
are only examples of people going out of their way to help us achieve our mission.
Places and projects we visited are buried deep within our spirits: When we rolled
into Peace Camp in Panhandle, mid-trip, we were tired. Peace Camp is indeed a place
of peace (as well as of vigorous protest and educational outreach). Four large straw
bale arches stand on the flat grasslands, representing the four directions, and in
the middle a statue of a large seated woman, "Madre," holding the planet.
We absorbed the quiet, beautiful symbolism, learning that this place has been here
for almost 30 years, close to the only nuclear weapons assembly plant in the country,
PanTex. We were served a bountiful dinner with thoughtful conversation.
Along the way, we were also spiritually fed and inspired at the Friends of Peace
Pilgrim retreat center near Placerville, east of Sacramento; by Quaker Center in
Ben Lomond, near Santa Cruz in California; by the Oscar Romero Catholic Worker House
and an off-the-grid homestead in Oklahoma City; by the dilapidated Friends Meeting
house in Los Angeles, bustling with activity day and night; by the Civil Rights Institute
and memorial park in Birmingham, AL.; by the collective of young adults, in Oakland,
working with commitment and imagination for a better world; by so many Friends and
others with whom we met and shared and from whom we received hospitality. Our awareness
of the weaving of love, dedication, hard work that is happening around the world,
its beauty and its strength, was deepened, and we were heartened. We touched each
other, too, with massage, with our frailties, with reflections, with love. We agreed
that "Peace begins in the van," or, even more importantly, it begins deep
within each one of us.
Sister John Backerstos
But, how could we consider Fort Benning, our destination, a sacred
place? The gathering over the week-end of November 17-18 was sacred. We were around
10,000 strong: Catholic sisters, families with babies, students, pagans, anarchists,
Friends..., from all over the country and the world. Devoted to the philosophy of
nonviolence, we lived it for that brief time, a beloved community. On Saturday, there
was an all day rally. However, our group responded to a newspaper invitation from
the School to participate in an informational workshop. Thirteen of us piled into
the van and took off for Fort Benning. We were stopped at the entrance; they took
our identifications, then removed a Catholic sister and me from the group, handcuffed
us and took us away. We had previously received "ban and bar" letters,
which say they are not to enter the base for 5 years, or are subject to 6 months
in prison and/or $5,000 fine. Last year, another Peg crossed the line into Fort Benning
and buried dolls representing a massacred family. For that she was arrested and received
the ban and bar. Ironically, Sr. Roseann, in her late 60's, was recovering from a
stroke and I, in my early 70's, from back surgery. We were hardly your definition
of terrorists. The two of us spent the morning being processed and then waiting,
with 8 guards, before receiving permanent ban and bar letters.
Peg (in center) and Friends under the North Pacific Quakers banner
in the funeral procession.
With all the complications, we arrived at the rally around noon. Wonderful
singing, music, and dancing, testimonies from Latin America, and nationally known
speakers. And of course, personal friends. Nick laid out his wonderful organic seeds
among other booths, and found a great deal of interest. During the evening, we participated
in a pagan circle, chanting and weaving in a spiral, near the river, with a new moon
rising, praying, bringing healing energy; in a Jesuit service, equally inspiring;
and in more well-planned orientation. At each orientation and event of the weekend,
we recited in unison our nonviolence pledge, one way of deepening the commitment
of such a large group. The focus of the weekend each year is on Sunday, when thousands
gather for a funeral procession in
commemoration of the hundreds of thousands of massacred in most of the countries
of Latin America. Planning had been complex, because the leaders were told that we
were not to be given permission to use the road going into Fort Benning which has
been used for many years, nor any other road in or near Columbus. There was an injunction
against some of the staff of SOA
Watch. SOA Watch took the City of Columbus to court, believing
that our constitutional rights were being violated.
In the funeral procession going to the fence.
The day before the demonstrations, a judge ruled in our favor, and
we were able to use the same road near the entrance to Fort Benning. Our long history
of nonviolent action stood us in good stead. And so, we arrived with our crosses
and banners, flowers and symbols. There was a service of commemoration, and then
we lined up for the funeral procession. We slowly walked, and as the leaders called
out names of massacred individuals, we raised our crosses and called out "Presente!"
We wept, and processed for maybe two hours. A giant chain-link fence has been constructed
at the entrance. We decorated it with our crosses and banners and much more. Some
planted crosses among some shrubs nearby and knelt to pray. The fence had become
a beautiful memorial.
When the procession was over, there were other actions: a die-in. People lay on the
ground for hours, surrounded by their friends. They were finally arrested after the
legal vigil was over. A puppet pageant arrived, depicting with color and energy the
repression and the vision. A global village was constructed on the spot, out
of cardboard and paints. One of the puppets was a huge dragon, with a ladder hidden
inside. They successfully raised it up and over the fence, to the tune of many cheers.
Some people managed to get under the fence, others around it, to be arrested on the
other side. Some people began to curse the military police, in violation of the nonviolence
pledge. Peacekeepers and staff came forward to talk with these people and end that
"The fence had become a beautiful memorial."
Our little group, Nick, Bonnie, Bethany and I, had a long group hug. We were suddenly
at the end of our time together. Nick and Bethany took the van back across the country,
while Bonnie and I went on to families for Thanksgiving. I left at the end of the
formal vigil, for restaurant, reflection, a warm bath and bed. But meanwhile, many
people stayed after the legal time was up, risking arrest. Riot police appeared and
faced off opposite puppets and peaceful singing. My friends reported the look of
puzzlement in the eyes of many of these police. (The eyes were the only part of their
bodies that could be seen.) Most demonstrators were able to respond in legal ways,
getting to the edge of the road or on the property of Fr. Roy Bourgeois. But well
over 100 were arrested, and some jailed. Some fasted in jail until their sentence
was reduced. Others will be tried, and may serve time in prison. People were charged
with unlawful assembly, obstruction of police, blocking a road.
They believe that these actions are minor in comparison with those of dictators and
generals, proven authors of massacres all over Latin America, who still have not
been brought to justice, some of whom are in the School's Hall of Fame. And so, we
have completed this action. How effective was it? There was considerable media coverage,
nationally and internationally. We believe that this is a movement that is seeping
into the public consciousness. Is it possible that, in time, the public will no longer
allow for U.S. support of atrocities all over the world? In time, will we recognize
the power of compassion and heed the words of Jesus and other great world spiritual
What comes next in our efforts? 1) Please urge your Representatives to co-sponsor
and support HR 1810. This bill will close the school (WHISC, Western Hemisphere Institute
for Security Cooperation). It will establish a joint congressional task force to
assess the U.S. training of Latin American military.
2) Come to Washington, DC for the Colombia Mobilization, cosponsored by SOA Watch,
Witness for Peace and many other groups, April 19-22, 2002. We need to act
strongly to end the terrorism and devastation our U.S. policies support there. Over
10,000 military personnel from Colombia have been trained at the school.
Peg shares two favorite sites:
See National Catholic Reporter's story on sisters and Sisters. Gwen
and Dorthy Hennessey who served many months in federal prison for their non-violent
protests at the SOA demonstrations last year.