(Dec. 10, 2008) — This year’s gathering at the gates of Fort Benning, Ga., marked the 19th year that activists came together to voice opposition to the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (WHINSEC), formerly known as the School of the Americas. Graduates of WHINSEC have been linked to human rights abuses and atrocities in various countries, especially in Latin America.
School of Americas Watch (SOAW) organizers estimated the crowd on the first day of the events, Saturday, Nov. 22, at 12,000 and the crowd on the second day, Sunday, Nov. 23, at 20,000.
The days leading up to the weekend of Nov. 22-2 were filled with workshops, documentaries, learning, and breakout sessions, giving early arrivals a chance to network with others sharing their opposition to the institute. A group from Manchester College participated in many of these sessions.
Nick Kauffman, a Manchester College senior, shared his reasons for going to Fort Benning: “One of the things that makes the SOAW vigil special among protests is the faith-centeredness. Instead of the anger and jeering I encounter at other political events, there’s more of an emphasis on God’s call to a different life. I think SOAW is an important witness, both for myself and for the Church of the Brethren, if we’re to take seriously Christ’s call to seek justice and love our enemies.”
Saturday began with thousands of people perusing the hundreds of information tables lining the street leading to the military base. Throughout the day there were many presenters, speakers, and musicians on the main stage of the event.
Saturday evening the Brethren Witness/Washington Office hosted a Church of the Brethren Gathering. Close to 80 people attended. Four Church of the Brethren colleges–Juniata College in Huntingdon, Pa.; McPherson (Kan.) College, Bridgewater (Va.) College, and Manchester College in North Manchester, Ind.–were recognized as having students at this year’s SOAW gathering. Peter Buck from Equal Exchange spoke to the group about buying fair trade goods, and the connections between Equal Exchange, the Church of the Brethren, and Latin America. Hayley Hathoway from the Jubilee USA Network spoke concerning debt relief and the work of Jubilee, an advocacy partner of the Church of the Brethren.
On Sunday morning thousands more gathered in the street in front of Fort Benning. They marched in a solemn procession that lasted almost three hours. During that time people marched by the two razor-wired gates of the base, while names of people who were killed by those trained at the School of Americas were spoken. After each name was spoken, crosses, hands, and voices were raised in salute. “Presente,” the procession mourned, “you are accounted for.” Six people were arrested for civil disobedience.
–This article first appeared in the newsletter of the Brethren Witness/Washington Office.