by Rupert Fike / Special to Rhino’s Blog –
GEORGIA (November 25, 2003) — Rolling into Columbus, on a sunny Saturday morning for the annual School of Americas demonstration and vigil at the gates of Fort Benning, I park downtown and hop on a shuttle bus that will take us to the Fort. Suddenly I am in a kind of middle-America we all need to remember is out there. A busload of the sweetest protestors imaginable — from a Church of Christ in Oshkosh, Wisconsin.
They talk like the good folk of Lake Woebegone. They are shortish, stocky, grey-haired. They look as if they had just walked out of a Wal-Mart sale on hand-towels. They group around me, a curiosity, someone from the South. They want to know why I am there. I tell them I am part of the extended Farm community who did soy, water and medical work in Guatemala in the 70s. Some smile and nod, filling in the others who can’t hear me. I hear, “Well isn’t that something!” several times.
Outside, the scenery of an Army base town floats by — pawn shops, ammo stores, surplus outlets.
I ask them why they are there. A slightly built man in a plaid shirt answers. Their congregation had begun a church-to-church outreach program with a village in Chiapas, Mexico back in the early ‘80s. He spoke proudly of their accomplishments before bad things began to happen. Like the massacre of 21 women, 15 children and 9 men by Mexican paramilitary forces. And on the Oshkosh group’s last visit to Chiapas, they asked what would be the best thing they could do for the village. The answer across the board was, “Close down the School of Americas.” So here they are for the fifth straight year.
As usual, there is a stage set up outside the Fort Benning gates, but this year the Army blasts (and I mean BLASTS) a Kafkaesque tape loop of “patriotic music” including marches, anthems, country and western kick-some-third world-butt ballads, etc.
On the one hand, it is an admission that, after 12 years, the demonstration has gotten to them and that they feel threatened by it. But on the other hand, the zillion decibels are just plain obnoxious — a Psychological Operation designed to wear down the senses of anyone in the vicinity of their speakers.
Father Roy Bourgeois gives a stirring welcoming, shouting over the blasting 1984 soundtrack just behind him. He notes that this new Army strategy is a sign of weakness rather than strength on their part. Other speakers and musicians follow. United Auto Workers to Argentinan nuns. Pete Seeger gets everybody going. The sun beats down. The Puppitistas — over a hundred stilt-walking, banner-waving, helicopter holding, drum beating performers. Veterans from the recent Miami’s WTO protests circulate and tell their stories.
A Mother from El Salvador Confronts the SAO
Mid-afternoon, a woman from Where Are the Children campaign speaks as best she can (some due to emotion, some due to the Army speakers) of her two boys who were taken out of her home in El Salvador never to be seen again. It is a moment. It is a scene even Michael Moore could not have choreographed.
“They busted into our home in the middle of the night,” she says, working to keep her throat from closing. From behind the stage during her pause, the strains of America the Beautiful smash aggressively over the crowd, ” America, America….”
She gets it together to go on. “The last I saw of my boys they were crying to me for help . . . ” Speakers- “God shed his grace on thee . . . ”
The mother then turned and pointed to the Benning Gates, “And later I was to find out that the men who took my boys were trained right there, in that place!” Speakers – ” and crown thy good with brotherhood from sea to shining sea. ”
Later, I flag down a cab to take me back downtown. The cabbie is a sad-looking, ciggie smoking woman, another snapshot of middle America. We drive in silence for a bit before she says, “Mind if I ask you a question?” “Shoot.” “Do they ever give reasons for not closing down that School?”
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