Vox Nova is pleased to present a guest post by Jeannine M. Pitas. Her previous guest post on Oscar Romero can be found here.
I stared out the bus window as the traffic inched forward and thick flakes of snow kept on falling. It was the third week of November – remember, that week when pretty much all of North America was engulfed in an early onset of winter cold? As our charter bus crossed the border from Sarnia, Ontario into Port Huron, Michigan, I took comfort in the knowledge that my Canadian companions and I were bound for warmer climes. But, this motley crew of high school and university students, educators and activists was not taking a trip to Miami Beach. We were headed to Columbus, Georgia for a protest outside the gates of Fort Benning, home of one of the US military’s most notorious institutions: the School of the Americas.
Founded in 1946 with the explicit goal of “communist counter-insurgency training,” this military institution notoriously trained some of the worst Latin American human rights offenders of the twentieth century. Nicknamed “the School of the Assassins,” its graduates are perhaps best known for their crimes in El Salvador in the 1980’s; they killed Archbishop Oscar Romero and four American churchwomen in 1980 as well as six Jesuit priests in 1989. Although the School no longer includes torture techniques in its curriculum and since 2001 has changed its name to the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (WHINSEC), its graduates continue to commit horrific wrongs, such as the 2009 Honduran coup which overthrew a democratically elected government and the ongoing human rights abuses in Colombia and Mexico.
Distraught by the horrors wrought by the US military in the name of peacekeeping, former Maryknoll priest Roy Bourgeois founded SOA Watch, a nonprofit organization dedicated to closing the school and protesting US-backed militarism in Latin America. In addition to lobbying the US government to close the school and urging Latin American leaders to withdraw their troops (at the moment, Venezuela, Argentina, Bolivia and Ecuador no longer send military personnel to WHINSEC), the organization holds an annual vigil at the gates of Fort Benning. Ever since 1990, activists have gathered to cry out “Presente” as the names of victims of SOA graduates are solemnly sung. And every year, a few daring souls cross the wall into Fort Benning and become prisoners of conscience, typically serving six months in US federal prisons.
For the thousands of activists (many of them from Catholic and other Christian organizations) who travel to Georgia each November, the vigil offers inspiration and the impetus to continue working on social justice issues throughout the year. It is particularly inspiring to the many youth who attend, particularly as the weekend involves a series of workshops on various issues related to peace and justice in the Americas. According to Joyce Crone, an indigenous studies teacher at St. Mary’s Catholic High School in Kitchener, Ontario, this experience allows students to “walk the talk” and put ideals into action. “This is the best way to learn,” says Crone, who collaborated with religion teacher Nancy Arruda DeMarco to bring thirteen students to this year’s vigil. “These students will be so much the richer for this experience. They’re not just talking about social justice; they’re actually doing it.”
“It’s fantastic to participate in popular democracy,” states Arruda DeMarco, who teaches religion at St. Mary’s. “It was nice to meet Americans, Mexicans and Colombians who said, ‘Do not judge us based on our governments’ actions.’ It’s important for us to learn that a government often does not represent the will of a people, even though it should.”
One way that this year’s Vigil differed from those of previous years was its effort to make a connection between US-backed militarism in Latin America and a pressing domestic issue: illegal immigration. Ironically, it is US policy that is partially responsible for the conditions that propel so many Latin Americans to migrate. This year, the SOA Watch team collaborated with a group of activists fighting to shut down the Stewart Detention Center in Lumpkin Georgia. Run by a private corporation, the Corrections Corporation of America, this center holds 1800 inmates whose only crime is being in the US without correct documentation. Some of these inmates complain of abuse and have staged hunger strikes in protest.
Rebekah Dejong, a student at Conrad Grable University College in Waterloo, Ontario found that the visit to Stewart left an impression. Although she did not cross the line, she concurs with Caron’s sentiment. “One of the most powerful things about visiting Stewart was learning that so many Americans and Canadians feel a strong sense of ownership of our land and are not willing to share what we’ve taken with others. This happens in such obvious ways.”
One of the most striking aspects of our visit to this detention centre was our walk from Lumpkin’s town center to the facility’s gates. We walked by trailers and many dilapidated houses. “Don’t close Stewart until I have a job,” one neighbor told us as we marched past. When we reached Stewart, I couldn’t help but notice that all but one of the guards were African-American. It seems a brutal irony that one historically oppressed group has now been enlisted to oppress others.
“Stewart County is the poorest in Georgia,” says Caron. “For many people in this community, working at Stewart is the only option. I once overheard a police officer say, ‘I just shut my brain off for the past five days.’ It’s not easy for the ones who work here. As much as we want to see this place shut down, we try to respect the fact that people need jobs.”
For me, SOAW’s efforts to build peace in Latin America and shed light on harsh realities closer to home is a testament to the power of faith put into action. While it’s certainly not easy to learn about the displacement of people in Colombia and the abuses perpetrated by Canadian mining companies in El Salvador, the idealism of the people I met at this year’s Vigil – wheelchair-bound students who refuse to let physical limitations stop them from doing amazing activist work, women religious who have travelled by bus across the US to discuss social justice issues, and a small group of organizers working to build intentional communities in some of Detroit’s poorest neighborhoods – fills me with hope. I am honored to be a part of this movement, and I am proud to share SOAW’s message of peace with others.
Jeannine Pitas is a Ph.D. candidate at University of Toronto’s Centre for Comparative Literature. Jeannine is completing her dissertation on Latin American women poets of resistance.