SOA Watch: Protest Could Be Celebration
This year protesters commemorating a massacre may feel so jubilant that keeping a straight face for a vigil could be a challenge.
As they again mark the anniversary of the Nov. 16, 1989, killings of six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper and her teenage daughter - gunned down by El Salvadoran soldiers, most of whom had attended what was then known as the School of the Americas - those protesting what's now called the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation will have something else in mind: Hope, and change.
They hope the Nov. 4 election will so change Congress that it closes the institute.
"The members of Congress who in the past voted for the School of the Americas, to keep it open, they lost their seats on Nov. 4," said Eric LeCompte of SOA Watch, the group that has protested the training institute at Fort Benning since 1990. "The last time we had a vote for funding cuts, we lost by six votes. We've had a 30-vote turnover."
He can't claim mission accomplished, but he's hopeful: "I would call it guarded optimism," he said Tuesday.
If the institute is closed, the annual protest at the post's Benning Boulevard entrance next year would become a celebration. Whether the institute's closed or not, the rally held here each November since 1990 might in two years move to Washington, D.C. Next year marks the 20th anniversary of the massacre. "We're going to be talking about it this weekend," LeCompte said. "The soonest it would move, if it moved, would be 2010."
This year, it will be occupying not only its usual spot Saturday and Sunday at the Fort Benning gate off Victory Drive, but also holding sessions Friday-Saturday at the Columbus Convention & Trade Center at 801 Front Ave., and at the Howard Johnson Inn at 1101 Veterans Parkway, and one event Saturday morning at the Days Inn at 3170 Victory Drive.
Along with the God Bless Fort Benning rally created to counter the protest, it's an economic boost for downtown.
"I think, just like I do, most of the people who come, they have their favorite things to do in Columbus, their favorite restaurants to go to," LeCompte said. "A lot of people like some of the museums here in town; they come in early for that. There's a very dedicated group that always goes to Country's and goes to Ruth Ann's."
SOA Watch regulars have noticed the changes here, the emphasis on the arts and the street improvements, the fountains that have been fixed up and are flowing again, he said. "Many people have been down here before, because Fort Benning, since it's the infantry and basic training, a lot of people have had family members come through Fort Benning at one point or another," he said.
This year SOA Watch has a special guest, and it is not, as in the past, actor Martin Sheen, folk music icon Pete Seegar, or rock duo Amy Ray and Emily Saliers, the Indigo Girls.
It's Jon Sobrino, who survived the 1989 massacre - not because he recovered from gunshot wounds, but because he wasn't there.
"He was traveling," said LeCompte. "He still lives in El Salvador. He was pretty lucky. It's probably just a miracle. The order to kill the Jesuits and their housekeeper and her 14-year-old daughter actually came down at that point all the way from the president of El Salvador. That's because they believed the Jesuits were challenging the status quo, that they were encouraging people that the Gospel was as much about them as about the rich. That gets to be kind of dangerous stuff."
SOA Watch maintains that such cold-blooded killing continues in Colombia, which targets union activists, an issue Barack Obama brought up in one of this year's presidential debates. "In the third presidential debate, he spoke about Colombia trade unionists, when John McCain said, ‘You know what? You're not even into free trade with Colombia.' And I think many of us were heartened to see that that was an opportunity which Obama took to say, ‘You know what? We're not going to be doing trade with a country that has its military killing trade unionists.' He went right at it," LeCompte said.
It's this kind of rhetoric from the president-elect that gives SOA Watch hope that a change in Washington will be a triumph for their cause.
Whether that optimism will swell or constrict their numbers this year remains to be seen - as does the sour economy's effect on travel costs.
"It's hard to tell," LeCompte said. "I'll tell you, in 2004, after the last election, we saw a dip in some of our attendance. Part of that was because there was just a lot of melancholy. People were upset with the election. I think that what we've seen from our movement is because so many people in our movement were involved not only in the presidential election but in the House races and the Senate races, I think there is a heightened sense of optimism, a sense that we can do it, we can change this country, we can close this school."
Some students coming for the protest volunteered for election campaigns, he said: "Now more than half of all people who come are from high school or college. And it's many of those same people who were knocking on doors during the presidential campaign."
LeCompte expects a higher turnout this year, but admits high travel costs may keep some groups home. Typically the event draws more than 10,000 people, and whether the total's just a bit more than that or more than double that is often a dispute between organizers and police. Last year Columbus police thought about 12,000 protesters showed up. Organizers estimated 24,000-25,000.
Said LeCompte: "I think we're going to see a turnout even despite the economic woes that so many are dealing with around the country right now. Many buses in some places in the country were almost twice as expensive this year as last year. The good thing right now, with gas prices going down, is that people have been able to renegotiate over the past few weeks."
Last summer he feared a significant loss.
"I would talk to groups in Chicago, and they would tell me that they had a bus for $4,000 last year and it was $8,000 this year. But after the presidential election, the gas has gone down, after hearing from a lot of people who haven't been with us in a while who are coming this year, my spirits have been up the past few months."
Lee Rials, the institute's public affairs officer, said some groups have canceled reservations to tour the school. One from a California college said travel costs were "way out" of its price range. A group from Connecticut is bringing 14 people because that's how many fit in two minivans, he said.
Still, the institute has 715 visitors signed up for tours Saturday, Rials said - comparable to the 764 last year.
Familiar with SOA Watch's claims of institute graduates' crimes in Latin America, Rials said the school's aim is to offer specialized training to professional soldiers and police:
"We bring them to a variety of courses that make them more proficient in their jobs. And in every course we do that, about 10 percent of that course is devoted to human rights and democracy issues," he said.
Soldiers do come here from Latin America, he said, "but so do U.S. soldiers, in one of our courses. So do Canadians, so do Caribbean nations. It's all throughout this hemisphere."
LeCompte said the protesters' hope for change may outshine dark economic times:
"There will be, I think, a heightened sense of jubilation," he said. "I think that our movement has always believed that people are inspired by hope. . . . So now that we see that sense of hope all across the country, I think it's going to lift the vigil this year."