Known: Obies To Georgia For SOA Protest
by Bill Lascher
On Friday Nov. 14, while Oberlin students breathe a collective sigh
of relief as another week of classes comes to an end, thousands of
activists will convene at Fort Benning in Georgia to protest what
they perceive to be the American governments own sponsorship
of terrorists and terrorist acts. They will travel south to continue
their struggle to shut down the institute formerly known as the School
of the Americas (SOA), which is located at the military base in Columbus,
According to the SOA Watch, which is the organizing activist body,
the SOA trains Latin American soldiers and officers in techniques
such as assassination and torture. Many of its graduates, they contend,
have used this training for careers in paramilitary death squads,
within repressive police forces or even as dictators. Panamas
former leader, Manuel Noriega, has been cited as one such graduate.
According to U.S. government officials, the school was originally
designed as an anti-communist bulwark intended to promote democracy.
An annual event that began in 1990, next weekends gathering
will consist of a number of rallies, teach-ins and marches all held
outside of the base to call for the SOAs closure. The events
will culminate in a mock funeral procession onto the grounds of the
base to mark the anniversary of a Nov. 1989 killing of six Jesuit
priests, their housekeeper and her teenage daughter by 26 members
of the El Salvadoran military, 19 of whom were reportedly graduates
of the SOA.
On Friday, many Oberlin students will board buses for the journey
to Georgia to mourn those who have been killed by terrorism of all
forms, worldwide, whether committed by individuals or states.
On the night of Friday Nov. 2, an event entitled Feast for Peace was
held at Peace Community Church. It was sponsored by the Oberlin Peace
Activists League (OPAL), which oversees Oberlins SOA Watch chapter.
Students and visiting parents, faculty and community members packed
the basement of the church for a fundraising dinner before filling
the main hall for a panel discussion. The discussion addressed issues
ranging from the history of the SOA to its correlation with the Sept.
11 attacks and the national response to them.
The speakers included Margaret Kapke of Dayton, and Hazel Tulecke
of Yellow Springs, Ohio, both of whom were recently released from
prison after being arrested for previous anti-SOA activism. Two professors,
Steven Volk and Malavika Kasturi, both belonging to Oberlins
history department, also addressed the audience.
Volk spoke about the history of Latin America and the relationship
between U.S. governmental programs like the SOA and periods of political
repression. He emphasized how this relationship fits with the current
context of fighting terrorism, and warned of where such defensive
reactions could go from there.
Its very useful to have an enemy that can be summed up
in one word, Volk said. It begins to lose all meaning
because if you begin to define it as the wanton use of force against
non-combatant civilians, then the U.S. should be implicated as well.
The basic claims that have to be made about the SOA are claims that
should be resonant with the American people if it does believe in
democracy, self-representation and the moral repugnancy of terrorism.
Kusturi, who teaches courses on South Asian history, spoke about the
history of state-sponsored terrorism, focusing on the current situation
and how linkages can be made between Americas sponsorship of
the SOA and Pakistans involvement with terrorists within Kashmir.
Her address focused on how acts of commission and omission feed into
the goal of creating and extending spheres of influence.
Kusturi explained how Pakistans militant schools attract a large
number of Afgani mujahideen who participate in the civil war in Kashmir
as mercenaries. The militants trained in camps such as these, she
noted, are currently fighting on the side of the Taliban.
This was the link I was making with the SOA, which was directly
funded by the United States, and the kind of schools in which you
train terrorists, Kasturi said in a later interview. Perhaps
the United States was selectively defining what it is seeing as terrorism
in the context of one and not the other.
Last year, the SOA was shut down by Congress. However, a similar institution
under a different title re-opened this past January. Re-christened
the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security and Cooperation, it
is now under the control of the Department of Defense rather than
the U.S. Army. According to its web page, it will promote democracy,
require that its students complete a course in human rights, and provide
a curriculum that is doctrinally aligned to U.S. laws and standards;
and will be accessible to the American public.
SOA Watch members claim that the name change is ineffectual and that
the schools curriculum remains largely the same. They refer
to the late senator Paul Coverdell (R-GA) who was a strong supporter
of the SOA in Congress, as having claimed that the changes to the
institution were basically cosmetic.
This will not be the same protest that has occurred in years past.
The events of Sept. 11 have altered protesters plans as well as the
reaction they can expect when they arrive.
It has been a living nightmare, senior Jackie Downing,
who sits on the national SOA Watch advisory council, said about obtaining
permits. She added that a fence has been erected at the gates of Ft.
Benning. She made it clear, however, that there will still be efforts
made to go through with the funeral procession, although the city
of Columbus has threatened the SOA Watch leadership with arrests if
Normally, Columbus residents are tolerant of th yearly protesters.
In fact, these rallies are the biggest annual source of revenue for
the city, as thousands of protesters fill area hotels and eat at local
According to Downing, the possibility of a larger-scale war in Afghanistan
has caused some concern that there may be a misunderstanding among
the largely military community concerning why protesters are there.
Our problem is with the SOA, and I think it would be really
sad if we lose our relationship with the community, Downing
said. I hope we can find some common ground, because we, too,
are mourning lives lost to terrorism. But we cannot just mourn the
loss of American life, we have to extend our mourning to include all
who have died because of terrorists, including those trained at the
Despite the unusual circumstances, organizers of next weeks
protests plan to make every effort to convey the same message it has
always had. Aware of the added challenges, organizers are attempting
to cultivate a similar broad base of support they have been able to
form in years past. Thus they are once again looking to Oberlin and
the leading roles its students have played in the anti-SOA movement.
Oberlins contribution has been strong throughout the ninties.
The Oberlin Peace Activist League has consistently sent a large number
of protesters to the rally. After its initial strong appearance, the
organization was invited to a national meeting to plan strategy. Since
then, Oberlin students have formed one of the largest student groups
protesting the SOA.
There about four or five good, strong organizers who do their
jobs well, Volk said, in addressing why participation has been
so strong at Oberlin. He noted that it was the combination of OPAL
and the nature of the issue of the SOA that has made that organization
It is a movement that can be won and also one that could have
an important impact, he said.
Currently there are approximately 60 people signed up to travel to
Georgia next week. A number of events are planned for next week to
help spread the word and raise funds for the trip. They include a
documentary about the SOA shown on the wall of Mudd on Monday night
at 9 p.m. and a benefit concert on Thursday at the Cat in the Cream
featuring, among other performers, the Lyricistas, Oberlin Steel,
Brendan Cooney and In A Chord.