Students protest School of the Americas as terrorist training camp Print
By Dave Anderson, The Diamondback

U. Maryland

Driving rain, freezing cold and giant trucks did not stop six university students from making a 14-hour drive to join more than 6,500 others in protesting the School of the Americas.

All the university students -- three of whom had been arrested at September's IMF/World Bank protests in Washington -- avoided serious conflict at this weekend's protest. But more than 90 others, including six nuns, were arrested Sunday for marching onto the Fort Benning grounds where the School of the Americas is located.

Activists call the School of the Americas a terrorist training camp because the U.S. Army trains many Latin American soldiers there, including former Panama dictator Manuel Noriega, who then commit atrocities against civilian populations.

"Massacre after massacre, coup after coup has come out of this school," said Matthew Smucker, an organizer with School of the Americas Watch, which has organized the annual protests since 1990.

"I think we're responsible for what our government does, and to knowingly let it happen is disgraceful," said junior government and politics major Jen Russell. "A weekend plus 25 hours driving is a small price to pay compared to the people who have been killed by people coming out of that school.

Despite the cramped conditions in the van, the students' spirits stayed high throughout the trip. The students, members of the Maryland Action Collective and Peace Forum, have participated in numerous anti-war and anti-globalization protests.

Senior journalism major Ariel Vegosen was the only SOA protest veteran of the group, having covered the 1998 event as a freshman writer for The Diamondback. Vegosen said she made the switch from journalist to activist because she felt she could make more of a difference as an activist.

"The point of this weekend is to raise awareness about an incredibly serious issue," she said. "The reason I went down is to show solidarity. The road trip was fun, but it wasn't the point of my journey."

At the protest, the students and other demonstrators encountered a police presence much stiffer than it was prior to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Columbus City Police and the Muscogee County Sheriff's Office were stationed on both sides of the street and checked protesters with wands as they passed through.

In response to the strict security, the university students sang "We all live in a military state, a military state, a military state" to the tune of The Beatles' "Yellow Submarine."

On the street, the demonstration resembled a carnival more than a protest march. The students walked around, saw old friends and sampled wares from various vendors. The thousands of protesters came from all over the country; they represented secular and religious groups and were of all ages, including the elderly.

The event also featured musical performances and speeches from activists and people from Latin America who said they had been hurt by SOA graduates.

"The general who attacked my town was a graduate of the SOA, a general who is well known not for the good he has done but for the terrible atrocities he has committed," said Marino Cordoba, president of the National Association of Displaced Afro-Colombians. "How many more of us in Latin America have to die before you understand this, that SOA is a monster for all those who struggle for justice?"

The protesters were stopped at a white line in front of the Fort Benning gates, which they could not cross without being arrested. In past years, protesters have walked en masse through the base gate and been arrested. These self-described "prisoners of conscience" then spent three to six months in jail for their actions.

On Sunday, 97 protesters crossed the line; more than 90 were arrested for trespassing, according to the Associated Press. None of the university students were among the group.

Sunday morning the students headed back to the university, pleased with the nonviolent manner of the protests, which the School of the Americas Watch strictly enforces.

The Army's School of the Americas was replaced last year with the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, which the defense department operates. It still trains Latin America soldiers, but requires human rights courses to be completed. Protesters said the change was superficial.