by Zazie Tobey, staff writer
Protesters gather outside the front gate of the School of the America’s Military complex holding little white crosses with names written on them. Each name represents a person who was killed by a SOA soldier. Hundreds of crosses are held high into the air, a grim reminder of the violent inhumanities being taught behind the school’s walls. Chants echo from the crowd, people march and picket in peaceful demonstration. The protestors end their march at the complex gates, sticking their crosses in the wire mesh, converting the fence into a graveyard. Some protesters scale the fencing, flipping over the barbed wire, surrendering themselves to the sea of police and a minimum of six months of jail time waiting for them below.
“The SOA protests give us all a glimpse of these very disturbing and oppressive realities, and an opportunity to reflect on ways to change these systems,” said Peace Studies professor and Environmental Justice Crew Supervisor Steve Norris.
Last Friday around twenty Warren Wilson students and Norris embarked on a six-hour drive to the School of the America’s Protest in Fort Benning Georgia.
The SOA, referred to as the School of Assassins by most activists, was originally founded in 1946 as a U.S. Army training school for Latin American security personnel. The school was originally stationed in Panama, but in 1984 was forced to relocate to American soil. In 2001 the SOA changed it’s name to the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, a new sugar-coated title for an institution known best for teaching Latin American students how to kill Latin American people, how to abuse human rights, how to become cruel, desensitized machines.
“It is the largest annual protest in the nation against US militarism, against the School of Assassins, and against US foreign policy—it has a long history,” said Norris. “Unfortunately we have not yet managed to close the school, which has over the years provided military training to many terrorists, drug lords, assassins, death squad leaders and dictators.”
Gabriel Setright, a sophomore on Empower Crew, participated in his first SOA protest last fall. At the time, Setright was on Spirituality and Social Justice crew, and today he continues to enjoy community organizing and participating in Wilson’s activist community. This year Setright and Norris worked together to organize the annual SOA trip. This will be Norris’s fourth time organizing and travelling with students to SOA protests.
“Everyone can take what they learn [at the protest] and bring it home to start conversations with others,” said Setright. “Understanding how it’s all connected… coal mining, immigration, racism, it can spark something—that’s what we need.”
This year the trip has a high turnout, with a few students who went last year, and some first year students. All students had to attend a nonviolence training session led by Asheville nonviolence trainers, among other preparations such as viewing a documentary in Sage and fundraising. At most of the activist events we attend, Warren Wilson, despite our small size, has the most students participating.
SOA Watch, the organization that sponsors the protests, created an agenda of action in the daytime and educational outreach in the evenings. During the day participants will travel to the military complex gates to march, chant, demonstrate and connect through stations set up by different activist/social justice groups.
In the evenings, between 5 and 10 p.m. the protest group will spend time getting to know one another, sitting in on workshops, attending famous Latin American guest lectures, and viewing documentaries. SOA Watch also brings Latin American activists to Fort Benning to discuss recent developments in Latin America.
“I am especially interested in a couple of workshops regarding mining by multinational corporations in Central America, which are doing damage to the mountains there, like mountaintop removal here,” said Norris.
Andrea Marion, a transfer junior, went to her first SOA protest in 2010 with her former school and will be returning this year with Wilson. It was at the SOA protest where she began to learn more about the school’s violent mission and the multitude of issues tied to it. Marion recalled the Puppeteers that attend the protest each year, a friendly reminder that art and performance are powerful tools to bring about change. She also recalled the swarms of law enforcement, floodlights, barriers, megaphones and armored vehicles monitoring the area outside the gates.
“They’re set up for a full blown riot, and we’re just singing, talking, walking around,” Marion said.
Each student attending the protest signed a form agreeing they would not get arrested. Norris, who has been arrested three times so far this year at different protests, is not planning on being arrested at this protest.
“I am quite discriminating about what kind of trouble I get into,” he said.
The typical punishment for those arrested at an SOA protest is several months in jail.
Marion is currently enrolled in Norris’s Lifestyles of Non Violence class, as are many of the other students attending the protest. The protest is an ideal opportunity for students to experience firsthand what they have been studying.
“The highlight for me is the opportunity to get to know Warren Wilson students better,” Norris said. “There is no better way to do this than to take a journey such as this, which is focused on peace and justice issues, which shakes all of us up a bit, and which enables us, in spite of age differences, to understand our common struggles.”
Warren Wilson is a school that teaches us how to question and change systems that lack any good intention, a school that makes us leaders in this country’s movements to confront mountaintop removal and end the burning of coal and other fossil fuels. It is a school that organizes weekend protest trips, and connects us with powerful communities. It is a school that we should feel privileged to be at.
“Most people do not understand that our wealth, our freedoms, and to some extent our whole way of life have been created on the backs of poor people from other countries, especially those in Latin America,” said Norris. “Latin America and North America are no longer two separate and independent continents, the multinational corporations, which have for two centuries dominated Latin America, are now seeking the same kind of domination in this country. Going to these protests is the next best thing to a trip to Latin America.”