A solemn stillness descended as more than 4,400 protesters began crossing the yellow line marking the entrance to the Ft. Benning Army Base in Columbus, Ga., home of the School of the Americas.
The silence was broken only by the rhythmic beat of drums and the quiet response of "presente" as names of Latin Americans killed by graduates of the School of the Americas were read. This was the scene last year in November and will be again this Sunday.
Sunday will mark the fifth time I will enter the base to join with others in challenging the very existence of the School of the Americas. The wheels of the federal system move slowly, and I still await trial on prior charges. I do not go in order to be arrested. I go because I hear the cries of those whose voices have been silenced by graduates of this school. I hear these cries in the stories and laments of survivors and witnesses to atrocities beyond the imagining of most of us in this country. I plan to engage in a very visible symbolic action to remind School of the Americas' teachers and students of the deaths of Central American children. I bring with me the memory of Juana, age 1, hanged and burned by military personnel in Guatemala.
Many Americans remain unaware of the school, which is run by the U.S. Army. The school was established to train Latin American army officers in combat and counterinsurgency techniques. But it has also, we believe, instructed in torture and techniques that have led to the deaths of hundreds, if not thousands, of their citizens. Last May, the U.S. House narrowly voted against closing the school.
I have felt privileged to be able to participate in actions of conscience over the past four years. The movement to close the school and to expose the self interest of U.S. policy that it represents has grown primarily out of the solidarity of people of faith with their poor and marginalized brothers and sisters throughout Central and South America.
Careful research and the witness of victims and survivors have provided strong documentation that graduates of the 54-year-old training school have repeatedly assassinated, tortured and "disappeared" teachers, labor activists, health workers, priests, nuns and human rights workers throughout Latin America. Even the Pentagon, with some embarrassment, has acknowledged the use, during the 1980's, of manuals describing torture, intimidation and extermination.
I realize that in following my conscience I risk imprisonment. Many who have responded to this challenge have spent time in federal prisons, including three people from this region who have completed six months to a year terms in the Federal Correctional Institution in Sheridan.
Still, we continue to come in waves to keep attention focused on the acts of terror and violence coming out of School of the Americas training. In the face of this awareness we are not deterred by prison terms and fines.
This weekend again thousands of us will gather at the entrance gate to Ft. Benning. More than 69 Oregonians will be present. From among those, several thousand, including some 35 Oregonians, plan to enter the base in a direct challenge to the School of the Americas and its program of exporting violence.
It is truly an honor to be a part of such a community of resistance.
Ann Huntwork lives in Northeast Portland, Oregon.
Copyright 2000 Oregon Live