A first-timers look back on the November Vigil Print

In November 2014 SOA Watch held its 25th November Vigil outside of the gates of Fort Benning in Georgia. Many SOA Watch supporters have come for years to be part of the weekend-long activities that commemorate the victims of SOA-sponsored violence, to demand accountability and the closure of SOA/WHINSEC, but every year there are also participants, who join the November Vigil for the first time. We asked five of those "first timers" to tell us about their impressions and what they took home with them from their weekend in Columbus.

Now, we would like to share their reflections with you.

1) Daniela Ojeda: Close the SOA/WHINSEC!
2) Juliana Moraes-Pinheiro: SOA Watch Vigil - A Life Changing Experience
3) Arturo Mendez: Mi viaje a la protesta del SOA Watch '14
4) Savana Kaufman: Break Bread, Not Families!
5) Tawana Honeycomb Petty: The Vigil that Grew my Soul

Link TextReport back from the November Vigil

Close the SOA/WHINSEC!

Daniela Ojeda is one of three youth from Homies Unidos' Young Leadership Program from Los Angeles, who participated in the November Vigil. She wrote the following reflections to report back to her community about her time in Columbus and what the Vigil weekend meant to her:

Daniela.jpg"The School of the Americas/WHINSEC is a combat training school for Latin American soldiers located at Fort Benning, Georgia. Thousands of soldiers have been trained there till this day. The soldiers use techniques such as torturing, raping, assassinating, and disappearing their own
people. For these reasons this school is also known as the 'School of Assassins' because its graduates have left people suffering. The goal of School of the Americas Watch (SOA Watch) is to close this school down for the good of all people, and to change oppressive U.S. foreign policy.

Not many people are aware that this school exists. You're probably wondering... who is this girl writing an article about this school, and why? My name is Daniela Ojeda and I am one of those few eighteen years old who wants to see earth become a better place and who demands change for the good of all people. I found out a little more about myself by joining The Youth Leadership Program with Homies Unidos during the past summer. This program changed my life in so little time. I got to learn about myself, my rights, my weaknesses, my strengths, but most importantly, issues that are happening in the United States, in Latin America and across the globe.

It got my attention when Alex Sanchez, the Executive Director of Homies Unidos, brought up the School of the Americas. The first thing I did was google it as an image. When I scrolled down, I thought to myself that this school was any typical school that offers English, Math, Science and History. Little did I know that this school was a military training school for Latin American soldiers. My mind exploded and immediately these questions popped out, "WHY IN THE WORLD DOES THIS SCHOOL EXIST?" "WHY ISN'T IT CLOSED DOWN ALREADY?" I was, and still am upset that something like this exists! This all adds up to why Latin Americans migrate here to the United States. They run away from torture, rape, and abduction. For example, Maria Guardado is a Salvadoran female activist who was tortured and left for dead by trained soldiers from the School of the Americas. I have met Maria, and she doesn’t want to talk about this school because it brings pictures she doesn’t want to remember. She is a victim of torture who keeps on fighting and will not give up.This year was the 25th Anniversary of the SOA Watch and I had the privilege to attend the Vigil in front of the fences of this school. My overall reaction remained the same. I was and still am upset that this school remains open. Even though I didn’t know much about it, it affected me greatly, because I couldn’t believe that my brothers and sisters are being tortured.

The Vigil/Protest to Close the SOA included many workshops, a Vigil at the Stewart Immigrant Detention Center & speakers and musicians from here and Latin America. I was able to attend the WHINSEC Board of Visitors meeting. Throughout the entire meeting all I heard were positive facts about the school and how it benefits the people, but the public had the opportunity to share their point of view of this school as well and to share some negative facts, like how it affects people, now and in the past. It left the board officers thinking. Once the meeting was over we walked out the front entrance and I couldn’t believe that I had entered such a cruel place that violates human rights. One of my comrades that was there with us, stood up and used his first amendment right. He said to the soldiers standing there, “Why can’t you be a firefighter or something else?” One of the soldiers responded and said, “I'd rather learn how to shoot people in the face.” This shattered my heart and I couldn’t believe that my ears heard such a thing. This I will never forget. My overall experience motivated me to keep going back to Fort Benning, Georgia, and to inform people about this school that is hurting our brothers and sisters in Latin America. Close down the SOA/WHINSEC! Just the fact that the name of the school has the word "America" in it makes me think...is this what America looks like?"

SOA WATCH Vigil - A Life Changing Experience

Juliana Moreas-Pinheiro is an international student from Brazil and studies International Relations with a focus on Human Rights in the Latin American region at American University in Washington, DC. She first found out about SOA Watch through one of her classes and volunteered at the DC office during the fall semester. During the Vigil weekend she participated in many different activities, like carrying the well-known "Blue Madre" puppet for parts of the march to Stewart Detention Center and speaking from the stage during the Sunday funeral procession. Read yourself, what she had to say about these experiences:

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"Entering the November Vigil conference space on the first day, and excited to have the opportunity to be there, I spotted a huge sign 'Welcome SOA Watch Peacemakers.' While stepping into new grounds without knowing what to expect, that sign made me feel extremely motivated for the days to come. A remarkable experience was during evening concerts at the Convention Center. There were people from all backgrounds and ages – white U.S.-Americans, Afro-Descendants, Native Americans (from all the Americas) and Latinos. It was a strong and unified group of people for peace, singing and dancing together – something that I had never experienced before.

While attending enriching workshops on a variety of topics and actively participating in different parts of the November Vigil weekend, I was able to feel like I was one of those “peacemakers” that the sign was welcoming. I felt such rejoice that words cannot quite describe - it was very fulfilling. Throughout the Vigil, I learned that actions must take place in order to consolidate peace and justice. Therefore, acts of so-called ‘civil disobedience’ are often necessary. Few of us got purposely arrested both at the gates of Ft. Benning and at the gates of the Stewart Detention Center in the nearby town of Lumpkin, GA – where many “illegal immigrants” are confined – that was very powerful to see!    

As a Brazilian citizen, I was invited to speak form the stage during the “No Más, No More” opening of the solemn funeral procession on Sunday about Brazil’s 2013 social movements. The Brazilian military police used brutal tactics, taught in the U.S., to contain peaceful protestors. The unexpected experience to speak in front of a large audience allowed me to emerge even more into the energy of the Vigil. The evidence of police militarization has continued to grow all over the world. The “No Más, No More” section addressed police brutality and other human rights violations going from Ferguson to Staten Island, from Brazil to Honduras and so on.

Everything else that I witnessed over the three-day Vigil made me see how powerful the SOA Watch movement is and how much it accomplishes. There were many other organizations involved and they all worked nicely together as a huge team of peacemakers. Furthermore, the opportunity to meet with people of amazing views and to be able to make long-lasting friendships inspired me even more to pursue my dreams for peace and justice. The SOA Watch Vigil was an inspirational learning moment that I will reflect upon during the pursuit of my human rights career. It was definitely a powerful “injection” of knowledge and self-discovery and  I look forward to the next one!"

My viaje a la protesta del SOA Watch '14

Arturo Mendez is from Puebla, Mexico and had just recently moved to Ithaca, New York, when the unexpected chance arose to travel to Georgia. The Vigil happened three weeks after the disappearance of the 43 students in Guerrero and gave him a chance to meet with supporters of the SOA Watch movement and to learn firsthand about the reasons for their involvement in it.
Arturo.jpg

"La memoria de las cosas es algo invaluable, nos regresa a lugares, momentos y circunstancias específicas, pero sobre todo a las personas con las que las compartimos. Quiero compartirles las memorias de un viaje que me enseñó mucho de la sociedad en la que vivo y del rol que tengo dentro de ella: mi viaje a la protesta de SOA Watch.

Desde la forma en la que llegué tenía un sabor especial, una sensación de relevancia, y como casi todas las historias, comienza al estar en el lugar correcto en el momento indicado. Patricia, una profesora de Ithaca College, a quien conocí semanas antes, me había invitado a una conferencia en la que Marilén Serna, vocera del Congreso de los Pueblos en Colombia, presentó el trabajo de su organización, y de paso iba a participar en la protesta de SOA Watch. “Después de esta presentación Marilén y una servidora iremos a la protesta de SOA Watch en Georgia por si alguien está interesado”, dijo Patricia. Ese era mi llamado. Ni la falta de dinero, ni el viaje en carretera de 17 horas, ni el hecho de no saber qué era lo que iba a hacer en ese lugar me quitaron las ganas de asistir.

Lo primero que noté al llegar fue un buen número de latinos así como de personas mayores. Comenzaba a dudar del relevo generacional hasta que poco a poco fueron saltando güeros, así llamamos en México a la gente de piel blanca, con habilidades especiales. La más evidente es que muchos de ellos podían enrollar sus R's (to roll their R's), junto con un español que muchos hispanohablantes envidiarían pero lo más sobresaliente era su conocimiento e interés por la situación social y política de los países de América Latina. Esto dio paso, naturalmente, a formar un pequeño grupo de jóvenes que aprovechamos todos los momentos para compartir nuestras historias y puntos de vista..

Poco a poco sus memorias iban enriqueciendo las mías, escuchando de sus pasos por latinoamérica, del por qué era importante para ellos protestar por un mundo tan alejado de su realidad inmediata. ¿Por qué sentían tan profundamente el dolor que se vive en otras latitudes en vías de desarrollo -- unas vías en las cuales el tren del progreso y de la inclusión social se rehúsa a transitar?

Me di cuenta de que más que una fiesta de las resistencias estábamos en una reunión solemne, en la reconstrucción de una memoria compartida, en las que los nombres de las víctimas de crímenes atroces y nuestros muertos nos reunían, y a través del dolor nos entendíamos entre todos, algo así como un grupo de apoyo para superar la realidad. Sin embargo algo dentro de mí no me permitía entregarme a ese dolor compartido. Para mí sí era un motivo de celebración el compartir con tantas personas llenas de una conciencia crítica, anhelos de cambio y el valor de dejarlo todo y venir a gritar a las puertas de la escuela del terror ‘¡Ya basta!’.

Poder ser tan honesto y profundo en mis comentarios es algo muy poco común, todos los que han participado aquí saben que el mundo te considera un loco cuando planteas ideas fuera de lo que el sistema considera "lo correcto", pero aquí podía hacerlo, era casi como estar en casa. De hecho, la persona que venía a hablar de la situación en México era una amiga cercana de algunos de mis mejores amigos. Algunos dirán "El mundo es muy pequeño", yo diría que las personas que están intentando hacer un cambio, no son muchas y se están conectando constantemente. Esa es la realidad del sistema en que vivimos. Un sistema en el que pugnamos por la democracia y olvidamos que la lucha por los derechos humanos es la más democrática de todas porque presume que todos los hombres, al ser creados iguales, poseen los mismos derechos. Que estos derechos no los otorga el gobierno, sino que provienen de nuestra propia humanidad y por lo tanto demócratas, republicanos e independientes deben vivir bajo estos preceptos.

Finalmente, la memoria más fuerte que se quedó en mí, fue el momento en el que Nashua saltó la cerca, poniendo su propia libertad como una ofrenda a todas las víctimas, así alzando la voz con lo más importante que tenemos, nuestra libertad. En ese momento entendí que si estamos dispuestos a arriesgar nuestra libertad y nuestra vida misma es porque uno no quiere morir como un perro, ni quiere que otras personas inocentes lo hagan y la única forma de evitarlo es decir NO, y estar en pie. Es lo único que nos hace humanos. Nos devuelve la dignidad. Y llenar ese NO de contenidos y de significados es lo que lo fortalece. Estoy convencido de que el final de todos esos significados es el amor - el amor por el ser. Y permanecer convencido de ello es lo único que podemos hacer hasta que lleguen los que siguen detrás, ya que las crisis civilizatorias son procesos históricos y la historia la hacemos nosotros. Espero poder seguir participando de manera activa con SOA Watch, y quién sabe, tal vez algún día poder trabajar en la organización e intentar seguir haciendo un mundo mejor.

Break Bread, Not Families!

Savana Kaufman came to Columbus with her grandparents Marta and Robert, who are longtime supporters of the SOA Watch movement. It is exciting to read what the Vigil experience felt like from the point of view of one of the younger attendees and we appreciate that Savana spent some of her precious weekend time to sit down and to write out her thoughts for us.

Savan and cross.jpg "Hello, my name is Savana Kaufman and I am 11 years old. Oddly enough, I live near the city of Savannah in Georgia, 'the Peach State.' I have different hobbies such as: basketball, swimming, talking with people, and traveling with my Abuela and Abuelo (which I enjoy). When they invited me to come to SOA Watch with them, I quickly said, 'yes.' When we were in the car, driving, we talked about it a lot. They explained to me why they attend SOAWatch and some of the things the graduates of this school have been accused of doing. It took us 6 hours to get to Columbus, so we had a long time to talk. By the time we got there, it was dark.

First thing we did on Saturday morning was go to Lumpkin, which is kind of in the middle of nowhere. There was a march from that town to the Stewart Detention Center, which is even MORE in the middle of nowhere. There was a long train of cars, so me and Abuelo decide to get out of the car and join them. My Abuela stayed in the car and met us at the end of the march. I put on my lucky hat, and started to walk. We caught up with the group within a few minutes. At the gates of the Stewart Detention Center, people gave speeches about what it was like in there and the terrible, horrible, and despicable living conditions: bad food, poor medical care, guards don’t speak their [the detainees']language, so they cannot talk or ask them questions. I think that when the people in there realize they are getting deported, they feel sad, scared, unhappy, and worried about their families. I can’t even imagine the feeling that they and their families must feel. I saw many signs there, including one that said, 'Break Bread, Not Families."

Savan and sign.jpg Early the next morning, we woke up and it was raining, so we decided to get some ponchos. After we bought our ponchos, we drove to the vigil. When we got there, we saw police everywhere. Dozens of police. They were even flying over us in helicopters! That really disappointed me. There was no reason for that because there was nobody there that looked harmful to me. Mostly I saw old people like my abuelos, college kids, and families; just regular friendly people. The area was all fenced in so that we were limited to where we could go. The only place we were allowed to enter had a big sign that listed the many prohibited items that were not likely to show up at the vigil anyway. It even included, “NO LARGE CROSSES 18IN WIDE AND NO THICKER THAN ¼ OF AN INCH.”

We walked in and saw a bunch of people at the end of the street. When we got to the end of the street where the stage was, the many people on the stage were praying in different languages and sharing their customs. In the middle of the street, there were crosses that had the names and ages of the people who had been murdered. Everybody picked up one or more crosses and held them up when a name and age were announced. When we held up the crosses up, we said, “Presente”, which means “present” in Spanish. We said that to honor their presence and the memory of their lives. I picked up more than one cross of children who were my age; I wanted to be sure every one of them would be remembered. We put the crosses in a fence that had been erected to block our entrance to the School of the Americas. The calling of the names went on for several hours. It made me very very sad when they called kids’ and elders’ names. They were probably the most innocent of them all."

The Vigil that Grew my Soul

Tawana Honeycomb Petty came to the November Vigil with United Auto Workers from Detroit, who bus down the long distance regardless of the weather conditions every year. She wrote the following text as an email to thank them for the experience and gave us permission to publish her touching words.

Tawana.jpg

"The SOA Watch vigil was a powerful experience for me. I am a mother, author, poet and organizer who was born and raised in Detroit and I have witnessed and experienced violence on many levels, both personally and through my work. Sometimes it can be difficult to see outside of the bubble of your own experiences and connect the militarization in your own community to what is happening globally. The visit to the SOA Watch vigil was significant because it painted a deeper picture of the impact America's militaristic policies have on families internationally. It showed how insidious the "war on drugs" truly is and it deepened my understanding and perspective of war. Very seldom do we slow down enough to put names to the casualties that are a result of this country's fascination with war. The SOA Watch vigil did that in a very real way. Thinking about the experience still makes me emotional.

Also, often times when we are having the "immigration" discussion in the U.S., it is very limited to whether families should be "allowed" to remain in the United States and rarely is the discussion broadened to look at the destruction directly caused by the United States or their involvement or funding of the destruction of the countries many families are fleeing from. The vigil brought together survivors of all forms of violence including torture, union activists, organizers, students, artists, educators and families from across the globe in solidarity and in one voice seeking to end militarization in the United States and globally.

The SOA Watch vigil was a soul growing experience that touched my humanity in ways that few experiences have. I am grateful that the UAW afforded me an opportunity to attend."