Reflections on the Vigil to Close the SOA

November 18-20, 2011

“It’s a beautiful day. Sky falls, you feel like it’s a beautiful day. Don’t let it get away.” Our wake-up call was the sound of U2’s “Beautiful Day” pumping through the bus’s speakers. Despite being groggy from the over-night bus ride from Ann Arbor to Fort Benning, GA, our group of 30 peacemakers embraced the message—seize the day. In that spirit we stopped the bus for a quick breakfast and then headed directly to the morning’s plenary session to get oriented for the weekend’s international protest to close the School of the Americas/Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (SOA/WHINSEC). As an intern at the Interfaith Council for Peace and Justice (ICPJ), I had been helping to plan this trip over the course of the semester, so I was excited to finally be at the main event.

Those of you who have attended the annual rally hosted by SOA Watch know that the agenda is over-flowing with concerts, speakers, workshops, and personal reunions, in addition to the final funeral procession that ends at the gates of Fort Benning, which houses the SOA. Before offering a description of this year’s event and the people I encountered, I’ll first provide a brief introduction to the school.

The School of the Americas (SOA/WHINSEC)

Although most Adventists are likely aware of Archbishop Oscar Romero’s advocacy for the poor and oppressed in El Salvador and his subsequent assassination, fewer are probably aware that those responsible for his death were trained at the School of the Americas. Romero may be the most famous casualty of the school, but he is just one of thousands who have been tortured and killed at the hands of Latin American soldiers who have honed their skills in SOA classrooms.

The first iteration of the school was opened in Panama in 1946, and in 1985 it was moved to Ft. Benning as stipulated by the Panama Canal Treaty. Nicknamed the School of Assassins, the SOA was described by the President of Panama as “the biggest base for destabilization in Latin America.”[1]

SOA Watch summarizes the history of the school in this way:

Since 1946, the SOA has trained over 64,000 Latin American soldiers in counterinsurgency techniques, sniper training, commando and psychological warfare, military intelligence and interrogation tactics. These graduates have consistently used their skills to wage a war against their own people. Among those targeted by SOA graduates are educators, union organizers, religious workers, student leaders, and others who work for the rights of the poor. Hundreds of thousands of Latin Americans have been tortured, raped, assassinated, “disappeared,” massacred, and forced into refugee by those trained at the School of Assassins.[2]

In response to the growing movement in the U.S. to close the school which was fueled by the documentation of violence perpetrated by SOA graduates, in 1999 the U.S. House of Representatives voted 230 to 197 to cut the school’s funding. In response, “in 2000 the Pentagon came up with a plan to close the School of the Americas and change its name to the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation,” passing Congress 214 to 204.[3] The Defense Department now keeps names of attendees secret because of “national security,” making it much more difficult for human rights groups to make connections between roots and fruit.[4]

People of Protest—Faces in the Crowd

This overview of the school is sufficient for our purposes, so I will now move to describing some of the people I encountered during the weekend’s events. I hope these participants will (a) help you see the human side of the rally and (b) demonstrate the wide variety of Latin American issues that are addressed during the event, which is better understood as a peace and justice conference rather than merely as a protest against one particular school.

Stefan (CPT). This is beautiful, I thought to myself as I walked toward the first plenary session, eaves-dropping on a conversation between an elderly couple. The wife was explaining the meaning of the Killer Coke signs to her husband who shuffled along with a walker.

As I stepped into the large conference room, I was welcomed with an unexpected greeting, “Jeff!” It was Stefan, who I’d first met last summer at a conflict transformation/mediation course at KIPCOR. Shortly after that class, he attended the Jesus Radicals conference and then headed to the Kurdish region of Iraq with Christian Peacemaker Teams (CPT). After much thought and experimentation was brought to a critical point by Ron Sider’s call for action in 1984,[5] CPT was formed as a Christian approach to peace- and justice-making using nonviolent methods of engagement. “What would happen if Christians devoted the same discipline and self-sacrifice to nonviolent peacemaking that armies devote to war?” I had just arrived and already I felt like I was among family. This wasn’t just a protest; it was a reunion.

As I looked around the conference center and saw elderly people and teenagers, nuns and tattooed activists, those with short hair and dreadlocks, I felt right at home. This crazy mix of people must be like Jesus’ disciples who represented wildly different corners of society. I wish church looked more like this, I thought to myself. I’d love to see a church with more people wearing Toms than high-heels and wing-tips. Really, I think the weekend was sponsored by Toms.[6]

Brad* (Ft. Benning). I was first told about Brad during a Presbyterian Peace Fellowship workshop that we were both attending, but I wasn’t introduced to him until the next day at the outdoor procession. Brad’s story is unique. He was the only current resident of Ft. Benning that I met at the rally, and he has recently submitted his papers to become a conscientious objector.[7] When he is able to leave the service, Brad plans to become a community organizer helping to support events like this one. Brad’s military experience has convinced him that his life needs to be given to a different mission. He still has a long process ahead, so your prayers for “Brad” are welcomed. God will know whom you mean.

Mike (Veterans for Peace). Mike had traveled from Michigan with our group, but he didn’t answer during role-call on Sunday morning. This morning he wasn’t with us because he was marching with his new compadres in Veterans for Peace. On the bus ride home as participants shared their experiences over the loudspeaker, Mike stood wearing a VFP polo shirt and told how he had marched that morning to the vigil with an estimated 150 people, including veterans and their supporters. Here he had found peacemakers with common motivations and experiences, and he pledged to recruit more of his fellow veterans to the organization.

Later I learned that Mike had twice been prepared to go to Vietnam, but both times he was transferred to another battalion just before departure. The second time this happened, he had been training as a medic with his company for five months in preparation for deployment to Asia. The tight bond between the men in the company left Mike aching as he saw them departing without him. “It was the worst day of my life.” “I let those guys down. I let them down,” he laments, even though the change was not his intention. Within a week, some of these same men were returning to Ft. Hood as injured soldiers in need of serious care.

Because he could not be in Vietnam to serve his company in their toughest hour, Mike has given his life to serving others in a number of different areas. This ICPJ trip to Ft. Benning was consistent with his life-long ethic of caring for those who need it most.

Mike shared that carrying the U.S. flag during the march to Ft. Benning on Sunday morning was the highlight of his weekend. He was proud to carry the flag because the people he was marching with stood for the highest ideals and values of the country. While Mike does not appreciate politicians using the flag as a means of garnering patriotic support for their individual causes, Mike felt that in this march for freedom and human rights, the flag was the right symbol to hold high. “The best I felt the entire weekend was carrying that flag.”

Jaime* (CIW). I had previously read and blogged about the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) in Florida, but listening to Jaime’s story of being a migrant worker was compelling. Some readers may have participated in the boycott of Taco Bell some years ago that successfully led Yum Brands to support reforms for the Immokalee workers.[8] Other restaurants and food suppliers have followed their lead, yet currently only one grocery chain has signed on—Whole Foods.

Jaime explained that under past pay structures, workers received two cents per pound of tomatoes picked in the fields. This meant that in order to make minimum wage, workers would have to fill the 32 to 36 pound buckets, carry them to the truck, and hoist them up to be emptied every four minutes. That is to say, they were not making close to minimum wage. Consequently, one element of the campaign is to increase the payment to workers by one cent per pound—from two cents to three. I am not ready to call this a fair wage or a living wage, but for Jaime and so many other workers, this 50% raise is significant.[9] Will you commit to buying your tomatoes from either a local farmer[10] or from Whole Foods, or at least campaign for your favorite grocer to sign the agreement?

You may be wondering what connects migrant workers, whether documented or undocumented, with the School of the Americas. One important connection is the role that the school plays in the greater foreign policy framework of the United States. For example, estimates range from one to two million Mexican farmers who could no longer afford to produce corn after NAFTA was passed because they could not compete with corn subsidized[11] by the U.S. government (i.e., you and me).[12] Increased northern migration correlated with this social disruption south of the border.

I originally favored NAFTA as well as the move from the Uruguay Round of GATT to the WTO in the early nineties when studying economics for the first time, but since then I have seen the serious negative effects of trade agreements that are anything but free and fair. The first time I began to consider other perspectives of trade was when watching the 1999 protests in Seattle from just down the road. As someone with an MBA, I now believe that the “golden straightjacket” of neoliberal trade agreements in Latin America is just as much a part of U.S. domination (western domination more broadly) as are the training of soldiers to control local residents.[13]

Issues relating to the Immokalee workers go well beyond immigration topics[14]; however, until we see that the flow of undocumented workers has a direct relationship with our trade practices and foreign intervention (both current and historic, economic and militaristic), we will continue to decry the foreign speck of dust in the other’s eye while ignoring our own oppressive plank.

Jess (Witness for Peace). I first met Jess at the Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary when he came to give a presentation on the War on Drugs in the Colombian context. He has lived in Southern Mexico and Colombia for more than eight years, advocating for humans rights with Witness for Peace. Earlier this fall we met again at an ICPJ event held at the University of Michigan. ICPJ had invited Jess to present his analysis of the pending Colombian Free Trade Agreement, which has subsequently passed. He opposed the agreement for reasons I mentioned above regarding trade, though he went into much more detail about how the agreement was actually written, determining who would most benefit. Witness for Peace is currently planning delegations to Central America. Sign up if you would like to gain first-hand experience with the farmers and laborers affected by decisions made in the global north.

Witness for Peace also engages in advocacy at the national level. This acknowledges the critical role of participating in a range of actions to bring about social change. Protests and demonstrations are important for a number of reasons. Participants experience support and solidarity. Local and national leaders see that their constituencies care deeply about a topic. Connections are made between activists and organizations enabling future collaboration. Yet, demonstrations alone are not enough. Solid social and economic research leading to rational advocacy is also necessary. Movements for peace and justice will never have the lobbying dollars that large corporations have, so we must compete with solid information, sound logic (promoting human rights really is in our own best interest[15]), and compassionate clarity. In this way, the movement defines what it is for, not simply what it is against.

While I have deep suspicions about those who hold or desire to hold power, speaking truth to power is important. It makes no sense for me to merely donate crumbs to Latin American relief agencies who then give it to campesinos while neglecting the work of advocacy—calling for an end to (a) massive U.S. farm subsidies that distort markets and hurt farmers in other countries, (b) trade agreements that favor multi-national corporations at the expense of nationals, and (c) the training of Latin American troops with the skills that keep their citizens compliant (SOA). Addressing roots and causes is at least as important as treating the resulting symptoms, even though it is much less popular. As Dom Helder Camara once said, “If I give food to the poor they call me a saint. If I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a communist.”

A recent advocacy push relates to the Latin America Military Training Review Act (HR 3368), which was reintroduced recently by Congressman James McGovern (MA) and was co-sponsored by 21 other representatives. Encourage your representatives to support this bill. If you are interested in advocacy, consider learning more and getting involved at the Ecumenical Advocacy Days in April 2012.

Luther (Honduran Garifuna community). Dr. Castillo participated in the build-up to the funeral procession that concluded the weekend’s events. While I did not actually meet him, I did meet another leader of the Honduran Garifuna community earlier in the month. ICPJ arranged for Miriam Miranda (OFRANEH) to speak at a local church about the experiences of the Garifuna. Issues discussed included land rights, environmental concerns, political repression, and oppressive economic development. For example, campesino leaders in the Lower Aguán area are being murdered in an effort to keep them from organizing and defending their land rights.  According to international human rights organizations, between January, 2010, and early October, 2011, 40 people linked to campesino organizations in the region were assassinated.

In the Question and Answer time after her talk, Miriam shared about the neocolonial brainchild of U.S. economist Paul Roemer—charter cities. These cities are designed to operate independently of the Honduran government, allowing foreign countries and investors to set the “rules” of the cities, which would be opened for international investment. The basic concept is that immigration problems can be stopped by providing pockets of the developed world in corners of the developing global South so residents will migrate to those cities instead of ones in the North. Why travel from Honduras to Los Angeles if there is a foreign-run city inside Honduras itself? While I affirm the power of rules and laws, this type of development raises serious concerns.[16]

Spencer (SDA). On a Christian Peace Witness conference call shortly before the SOA rally, three of us realized we would be at Ft. Benning, so we decided to meet. We represented Pax Christi (PCUSA), Presbyterian Peace Fellowship (PPF), and Adventist Peace Fellowship (APF). When we came together at the PPF table, I was also introduced to Spencer Chiimbwe, a Seventh-day Adventist social activist living in the Community of Living Traditions at the Stony Point Retreat Center. I had read an interview with Spencer, so it was enjoyable to have the surprise introduction in Georgia.

Later that evening we both attended the Presbyterian Peace Fellowship workshop. I counted approximately 60 people in the room, five of us admitting to not being Presbyterian—two Adventists, two Mennonites and a Catholic. Among other topics, Rick Ufford-Chase described the six-year discernment process the denomination is undergoing to determine if they will become a peace church and affirm nonviolence rather than just war theory as the church’s approach to issues of war and justice. Rick shared how active engagement on peace issues for 15 years has positioned the church to have this conversation. As social scientists tell us, acting our way into new ways of thinking is as powerful a force as thinking our way into new ways of acting.

Often I have been frustrated in my conversations with Adventists about military issues. There seems to be a default position that whatever the military does is acceptable, and it is not the Adventist’s place to criticize it. This lack of space for analysis is not universal, but it comes up often enough to be a point of confusion for me. North American Adventists of all people should see military and economic oppression as consistent with our unique interpretations of Revelation 13:11-12—the U.S. appearing lamb-like but speaking and acting as a dragon. While others may be surprised by evidence that the U.S. is not an entirely benign or benevolent empire, Adventists should expect some degree of disconnect between appearances and reality.

To a significant degree, Seventh-day Adventists have lost the radical military critique of our heritage, people like Percy Magan, A.T. Jones and Uriah Smith. These leaders did not call for national pacifism or the abolition of the War/Defense Department; however, they did use strong language to critique U.S. imperialism[17] as well as Christians killing in the military.[18]

Given the Adventist reading of Revelation, I believe Adventists should be actively advocating for human rights in dimensions beyond just religious freedom. Simply because we believe there will continue to be increasing levels of violence in the world does not mean we can be defeatist and ignore the call to be peacemakers (Matt. 5:9). As Mennonite theologian Willard Swartley says, “Jesus’ statement that there will be wars and rumors of wars does not justify war, nor does it mean that his followers should not work to prevent war, just as his saying that the poor will always be with us should not be used to counter efforts to alleviate poverty.”[19]

Lynn (ICPJ). Longtime peace activist Art Gish once said that it is easy to be a young radical; he called for old radicals. On the bus ride home, we heard from Lynn, one of the more elderly activists among us. While embodying Art’s wish, her sentiment was a bit different:

I don’t know how many more years I’m going to be able to come here. I’m gonna hang in there, but I’m so glad to see all of the young faces here because…I have some people behind me that are going to keep it going. And hopefully we aren’t going to have to do this many more years. We keep thinking every year: this is the last year. But once we close this one, I’m afraid there are more we’re going to have to work on. So we’ve got a lot of work to do folks, and I’m glad I’ve got all your help.

Lynn’s long-term commitment to peace and justice inspires me, and as we rolled down the interstate, I felt compelled to be faithful to her example. Calling all peacemakers, young and old alike!

While there were many other people I would like to tell you about—Father Roy Bourgeois, Martin Sheen, Brian Willson, Jimena Paz, lesser-known figures in our group, and so many others—I do hope that you are as inspired by these peacemakers as I have been. Together they created a rich and meaningful experience in Georgia. Maybe next year you can meet them at the gates as well. Or maybe the school will be closed and we can be about other business.

NOTE: More pictures from our group are available here.

[2] To learn more about the history and practices of the school, SOA Watch provides a number of informative books and documentaries. One interesting aspect of the newest documentary, Somos Una America, was the overview of efforts south of the U.S. border being undertaken to cut off support for the school. Other informative films include On the Line and the compilation Shut Down the School of the Americas.

[3] Nelson-Pallmeye, School of Assassins: Guns, Greed, and Globalization (2001), viii.

* Names marked with an asterisk have been changed because in my effort to post this quickly I have not secured permission to use their real names.

[9] I heard a radio interview with Barry Estabrook, author of Tomatoland. The book sounds fascinating.

[13] See School of Assassins (Nelson-Pallmeyer, 2001), Globalization and Its Discontents (Stiglitz, 2002), The Fullness of Time in a Flat World (Waalkes, 2010), chapter 6 in Subverting Global Myths (Ramachandra, 2008), chapter 10 in Justice in a Global Economy (Brubaker, Peters and Stivers, eds., 2006), and Global Neighbors (Hicks and Valeri, eds., 2008).

[14] To learn what Colorado experienced when it cracked down immigrant workers, see

[15] See In Our Own Best Interest: How Defending Human Rights Benefits Us All (William F. Schulz, 2002).

[16] Learn more about Roemer’s concept—TED (2009) and TED (2011)—and consider the analysis of those who are suspicious: Paul Romer is a Brilliant Economist – But His Idea for Charter Cities is Bad (Aditya Chakrabortty, The Guardian) and The Politically Incorrect Guide to Ending Poverty (Sebastian Mallaby, The Atlantic).

[18] Alonzo T. Jones and Uriah Smith, “A Novel Christian Duty,” (Review and Herald, 1898) in The Peacemaking Remnant, Doug Morgan, ed. (2005), 102-104.

[19] Covenant of Peace (2006), 48.

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