Conquering Fear to Do the Right Thing
Activist Devotes herself to Closing School
of the Americas and to Aiding Victims of Colombia's Drug War
by Anne C. Paine
In its September/October 2001 issue, Mother Jones magazine
tagged Oberlin one of the top 10 activist schools in the nation.
The article cited Oberlin's strong participation - 110 students
- at the November 2000 rally to close the U.S. Army School
of the Americas (SOA) in Fort Benning, Georgia.
Senior Jackie Downing is one of the powerhouses
behind that presence. The annual protest is held each November
at the school, which was renamed the Western Hemisphere Institute
for Security Cooperation in May 2000. The national organization
SOA Watch charges that many of the soldiers trained at the
school have committed atrocities against thousands of civilians
and human-rights workers in South America.
A slight woman with long, straight dark
hair and bright blue eyes that flash with intensity, Downing
(along with Laurel Paget- Seekins '01) revived the dormant
Oberlin Peace Activists League, a campus organization whose
primary focus is closing the SOA. She's also a member of the
SOA Watch national steering committee and an active educator
in methods of nonviolent protest.
this is scary, but it's right. The good that comes out of
our presence outweighs the fear." Jackie
For her efforts, she was one of just six
students in the nation given the Howard R. Swearer Humanitarian
Award by Campus Compact last year. The award carries a $1,500
Her efforts have also led to two arrests.
The first came at the November 1999 SOA
Watch protest, where Downing "crossed the line"
onto the army base and portrayed a victim of SOA violence
by wearing a white death mask and carrying a coffin.
The second arrest - for a nonviolent action
at a Sikorsky Aircraft Corporation conference in Washington,
D.C., in April 2001 - brought a conviction for unlawful entry
and a $75 fine. Downing and five other Oberlin students had
snuck into the conference room and chained themselves to a
pillar. They were protesting Sikorsky's profits from the sale
of Black Hawk helicopters to the U.S. government for use in
the drug war in Colombia. In their trial, the students defended
themselves and argued that U.S. tax dollars should be spent
on drug treatment, not on enriching private corporations.
Downing is a committed activist, but she
doesn't jump on bandwagons. She always does her homework.
"Early in my freshman year, I saw
a documentary on the School of the Americas, and simultaneously
had to choose a topic for a paper in a sociology class. After
learning what I did, I had to get involved," she said.
Downing's work with SOA Watch inevitably
led her to oppose U.S. involvement in the Colombian drug war.
According to SOA Watch, Colombia has more SOA graduates (10,000)
than any other country.
"I really wanted to direct my energies
to something that is still going on, rather than just focusing
on past massacres," Downing said. "With Colombia,
we have a chance to educate people and stop people dying right
Again, Downing did her research, this
time by traveling twice to Colombia, the third-largest recipient
of U.S. foreign aid.
During her first trip, in January 2001,
she traveled with the Colombia Support Network and photographed
the effects of the drug war and its aerial fumigation of coca
plants on families and communities in the state of Putumayo.
Upon her return, she met with congressional representatives
from Ohio and Michigan to lobby for an end to the spraying.
Downing also spent four weeks last summer
traveling with the International Caravan for Life in the state
of South Bolivar. The group worked to draw international attention
to the humanitarian crisis while distributing food, medical
supplies, and school supplies to devastated communities.
Colombia is a major exporter of coca,
the plant from which cocaine is derived. For nearly 40 years,
the country has been gripped by a civil conflict involving
leftist rebels, state troops, and right-wing paramilitary
groups. In May 2000, the U.S. Congress passed the Clinton
administration's $1.3 billion counter-narcotics package to
support the war against drugs. A major component of the package,
known as Plan Colombia, is the aerial fumigation of coca plants.
"The problem with fumigation is that
most of the small farmers mix the coca plants in with their
food crops," Downing said. "The coca plants are
resistant to the fumigation, while the food plants are not.
So people are starving. Farmers are desperate, so they grow
small amounts of coca just to support their families. The
sad thing is that the people we met don't even want to grow
coca. They'd gladly grow anything else if there were roads
to get other crops to market," she said.
A number of independent observers and
human-rights organizations, as well as members of the U.S.
Congress, have come to similar conclusions. Last July, the
United Nations called for an independent audit on the spraying
Though Downing rarely speaks about it,
her commitments have put her in very dangerous situations.
She strives to conquer her own fear and be optimistic.
"I try not to get bogged down in
the details. Yes, this is scary, but it's right. The good
that comes out of our presence outweighs the fear," Downing
said. She'll be in Colombia again this January, leading a
student delegation on a trip cosponsored by Witness for Peace
and SOA Watch.
She has her work cut out for her. In his
2002 budget, President George Bush proposed the Andean Regional
Initiative, a major expansion of Plan Colombia; the legislation
is working its way through Congress with barely a notice in
the American press.
For more information, see the web sites
Watch or the Colombia