Grandmothers Rally for Change
Published on Saturday, November 11, 2006 by
Grandmothers Rally for Change
by Leslie Layton

For Cathy Webster, a Northern California grandmother of four, the inspiration to engage in an act of civil disobedience that will likely send her to prison didn’t come in a single bolt. It came in a series of undramatic moments that began with a friend’s funeral.

Webster, 61, doesn’t claim a colorful history in protest movements and had no sudden epiphanies. But she does have a problem with U.S. foreign policy in Latin America and elsewhere, and believes this country may be awakening from what she calls a “sleep state.”

So when several moments of inspiration turned to conviction last winter, she decided she would trespass at the November 2006 protest at the Fort Benning Army base in Columbus, Georgia. That’s home to the military training facility known best by its former name, the School of the Americas (SOA). Then, Webster began her quest -- a nationwide search for 1,000 grandmothers who would also protest, with or without the civil disobedience.

Now, her grandmothers group hopes to draw national attention to this year’s three-day protest beginning Nov. 17, an annual event that has ballooned in size since its beginnings 16 yeas ago with a few fasting Roman Catholic priests.

Last year, the protest attracted 19,000 people to the Fort Benning gates demanding the school’s closure. Protestors point to evidence linking some of the school’s graduates to human rights abuses in Latin America, including massacres and executions. And the Pentagon in 1996 was forced to release training manuals that were said to have encouraged the use of torture, manuals that had been in use from 1982 to 1991.

The School of the Americas, meanwhile, has tried to revamp its image since re-opening in 2001 with a wordier name – the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (WHINSEC). It says it trains Latin Americans in law enforcement-related fields like intelligence analysis and counter drug operations, but with an increased emphasis on human rights.

But in the view of many activists, the school continues to be a tool for repression in Latin America for governments desperate to contain communities fighting for the needs and rights of the poor. It has become a beacon for the peace movement, a symbol of a U.S. foreign policy driven by economic interests with little regard for social justice.

“This school is responsible for training militaries that then use the techniques they learned against their civilian populations,” says Nancy Jakubiak, a grandmother in Louisville, Kentucky, who has been protesting for years at Fort Benning.

Like most of those at the protest, she doesn’t engage in civil disobedience. Last year, only 37 protestors “crossed the line.” That involves scaling or crawling under a 10-foot-high chain-link fence to trespass. Since 9-11, even first-time offenders have been sentenced to several months in federal prison.

Jakubiak says the protest, with its yearly procession that memorializes Latin Americans who have been killed and kidnapped, has become a spiritual exercise for her. But this year she’ll join Webster’s group, which she hopes can speak to ordinary Americans.

“We can make a very powerful statement as older women,” she said. “Maybe if people see grandmothers they’ll realize there’s something to this. We’re not wild-eyed radicals, we’re just your neighbors and friends.”

The November demonstrations are timed to commemorate the anniversary of the 1989 massacre of six Jesuit priests and a housekeeper and her daughter in El Salvador. A U.S. Congressional task force later implicated SOA graduates in those killings.

The protest now appeals not just to seasoned activists, but as well to people who have worked or traveled in Latin America, or follow movements on the Internet like those of the teachers or the Zapatistas in southern Mexico.

Hundreds of women around the country have responded to Webster’s request for grandmothers, and organizers in 21 states are signed up on her Web site, She predicts that more grandmothers who were going to the protest anyway will join her once there.

SOA Watch, the Washington, D.C., organization that runs the protest, says it’s planning an appearance by singer Holly Near, who wrote the song, “A Thousand Grandmothers,” that helped inspire Webster’s project.

Webster was attending a memorial service last year for an elderly peace activist when a young woman sang the Near song that urges grandmothers to assert their wisdom and independence and oppose war. It occurred to her that 1,000 grandmothers protesting at WHINSEC would make an impression.

“Our tax dollars are paying for that school,” says Webster. “It trains Latin American soldiers who go back and kill their own people.”

But WHINSEC Public Affairs Officer Lee Rials says it’s unfair to blame the school for crimes committed by so-called “graduates.” For example, Roberto D’Aubuisson, a leader of right-wing death squads in El Salvador in the 1980s, was a student at the school for only about 12 weeks in 1972, Rials said.

“There is no evidence whatsoever that anyone has used something they learned here to commit a crime,” Rials said. “We’re a target of opportunity that has become a symbol.”

Rials said the school has succeeded in training Latin American military personnel for the fight against drug trafficking, as well as for participation in U.N. peace-keeping missions.

But the SOA Watch Web site says the school’s role in fighting drug trafficking – at least in Mexico -- is a “smokescreen,” that WHINSEC is a combat-training facility specializing in counter-insurgency tactics.

It says that after the 1994 Zapatista uprising in Mexico, that country increased significantly the number of its soldiers studying at WHINSEC. SOA Watch says 18 Mexican military officials who have been involved in “civilian-targeted warfare” in the southern states of Oaxaca, Chiapas and Guerrero are “graduates.”

SOA Watch spokesman Joao da Silva says if the school were closed it would be a “symbolic win.” But da Silva says closure would serve as a source of inspiration to people around the world, marking one of the first occasions that a “grass-roots peace movement has been capable of closing a military institution.”

Leslie Layton is a college journalism instructor and a freelance journalist who has worked from both Mexico City and Northern California.