ELEVEN YEARS ago today, six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper and her 15-year-old daughter were brutally murdered in their El Salvadoran home.
Years later a United Nations Truth Commission revealed that 19 of the 26 army officers cited in the killings had been trained at the School of the Americas at Fort Benning, Ga.
Four years ago today, Father Roy Bourgeois, a Maryknoll priest, led 2,000 people onto the school's property to protest the school's activities and urge its closure.
This afternoon, more than 10,000 people are expected to descend upon the military training school, again demanding its closure. Among them will be Natalie Russell of Pleasant Hill.
This will be the third time the 73-year-old retired school teacher and mother of nine will be risking arrest and protesting at the site. For her, the reason is obvious.
"It's important ... to make the truth known about what's happening."
What's happening is that the School of the Americas, a U.S. military institution, funded with our tax dollars, has been training graduates who've somehow forgotten that human rights are a critical part of military affairs.
The school was formed in 1946 as the Latin America Training Center -- Ground Division and was moved from Panama to Fort Benning in October 1984.
Since its creation, more than 57,000 soldiers have received training at the school.
The SOA's graduate list includes some of the most feared dictators of Latin America, among them Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega, Bolivian Gen. Hugo Banzer Suarez, Guatemalan dictator Gen. Lucas Garcia and El Salvador's Roberto D'Aubuisson.
U.N. reports repeatedly linked SOA graduates with numerous atrocities, including the 1980 assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero while he celebrated Mass and the rapes and murders of four U.S. churchwomen that same year.
Public pressure finally forced the Pentagon, in 1996, to reveal a training manual used at the school.
It advocated blackmail, torture and the arrest of anti-American politicians in Latin American countries.
Clearly the school's goal of training leaders who would embrace democratic ideals and work well with America had gone terribly wrong.
Although the school no longer teaches torture techniques and it now has a human-rights component for students, critics still contend that it needs to be closed.
Yet, the school continues to operate, graduating 1,000 soldiers a year. And peasants and innocent victims in Latin America continue to be victims of its training.
Father Bourgeois, who had witnessed soldiers intimidating and massacring peasants in Bolivia, has pledged to close the school.
His nonviolent protests are a testimony to the conviction of people of all faiths.
"Our tax money is supporting this school," says Russell. "I'm paying to have this happen, and it's absolutely atrocious."
She just had to turn her anger into action.
"I'm not into picketing and parading," she says. "But if it takes voices to be heard, to get attention brought to the problem, I'll do what it takes."
She's not only willing to fly stand-by to get to Georgia, she most likely will be arrested for participating in the protest. But she wouldn't have it any other way.
"When I got to thinking about what the responsibilities of the world are, for people of faith, I just feel I have to do it," she says matter-of-factly. She talks solemnly about the death march protest that will highlight the demonstration at Fort Benning.
A similar, but smaller, public protest will be held today at 1 p.m. at Todos Santos Plaza in Concord.
In Georgia coffins representing the slain priests will be carried onto the school grounds.
Thousands of protesters will follow, carrying individual crosses with the names of slain people on them, including the 900 peasants of El Mezote who were massacred.
The victims' names and ages are solemnly read aloud. Protesters respond "Presente" -- you are not forgotten.
"We're trying to be the voice to the people who no longer have a voice," explains Russell.
Protesters at the beginning of the line expect to be arrested by military police after they enter the school grounds.
They'll be piled into buses, and because there is no facility large enough to process them, they're driven about a mile away, cited and released.
Another group will then enter the school grounds. Protesters will go back and join the group, but most won't cross onto the school property again.
"We walk back singing and hold our little signs," says Russell. In the past, a handful of visible and repeat protesters are arrested and jailed.
The annual act of civil disobedience has certainly gained attention, and not just from doting grandmother-types like Russell.
The school's closure has been supported by many religious leaders of all faiths, as well as labor groups and political leaders.
In May of this year the House of Representatives voted 214 to 204 to close the School of the Americas. However, critics contend it's nothing more than a sham, involving only a name change. A bipartisan attempt to halt funding for the new school failed.
But critics contend they will continue to protest both at Fort Benning and in the halls of Congress. And Russell will be lending her voice to the cause.
"It's really important to me, as a human being, to care about others in my human family across the border," she says "I love my country, I really don't want to run it down. I just want to straighten out what's gone wrong."
© 2000 Contra Costa Newspapers Inc