Vigil and Direct Action to Close the SOA/ WHINSEC<br>November 18 - 20, 2005 Print
On Saturday, November 19, 2005, Mar?a Br?gida Gonz?lez de Cartagena, a member of the San Jos? de Apartad? Peace Community, addressed the rally gathered at the gates of Fort Benning to demand the closure of the School of the Americas. She spoke of her community?s continued persecution at the hands of the Colombian military, especially the 17th Brigade, led by SOA-trained General Luis Alfonso Zapata Uribe. Just two days before the rally, members of the 17th Brigade had thrown a grenade into a cornfield where a group of San Jos? residents were working, resulting in the death of community leader Arlen David Salas. Despite this tragedy, Br?gida brought a message of hope and persistence. She explained her community?s resolve to stand steadfast in the face of brutality, and to demand peace.

Br?gida was one of many speakers who came to Georgia to share their stories with the crowd of 19,000, imparting messages of peace, justice, and accountability, and fostering a unique sense of community. As Br?gida so eloquently explained, community is not defined by arbitrary material structures, but by the individuals who come together to envision new spaces. A sense of hope infused the crowd, focusing collective energy on our goal: to close the School of Assassins and work toward a peaceful future in the Americas.

Like any community, those in attendance at the Vigil to close the SOA came from all walks of life, each person bringing a unique perspective to the movement. The weekend?s events provided time away from the larger crowd for people to come together, dialogue, and strategize. During the Labor Caucus, some 80 union members met to discuss their experiences. Rebecca Kanner, one of the event organizers, wrote:
?We were a diverse group. Participants were from a range of unions (UAW, OPEIU, USWA, UE, AFL-CIO, UNITE HERE, CWA, APWU, SEIU, AFM, UBC, IWW, Sinaltrainal) and organizations (Veterans for Peace, United Students Against Sweatshops, Jobs with Justice, Word & World); and we were from all over the country (19 states) plus Colombia and Argentina! The meeting started in song and ended in a rousing version of ?Solidarity Forever.? In between, we heard reports from a number of unions on SOA/WHINSEC-related activities during the past year. The most moving part of the morning was hearing from the Colombian trade unionists Gerardo Cajamarca and William Mendoza. It is chilling to know that union activities we take for granted in the United States can, and have, cost trade unionists their lives in Colombia, the most dangerous place in the world for a unionist. Bob King, UAW Vice-President, reminded us that our labor movement is an international movement and that an injury to one is an injury to all. We committed ourselves to solidarity, as our t-shirts said: Organize! Build Power! Win Justice!?

While one gathering brought together people involved with or interested in labor organizing, another provided a safe space for People of Color. On Saturday evening, during the People of Color Caucus, Vigil attendees came together to talk about the challenge of dismantling racism within the SOA Watch movement, and in other contexts as well. Attendee Gail Taylor wrote:
?Some of the things we discussed were internalized oppression, the inter-connectedness of oppression, and our encounters with racism at SOA Watch events. Events organized by SOA Watch are white-dominated. We have to think about the fact that in the United States, our thinking and actions are affected by the legacy of racism and the enforced supremacy (superiority) of whiteness. The vigil can be alienating and uncomfortable for People of Color; we encounter racism and discrimination throughout the vigil weekend. Those who are most affected by the violence of SOA grads do not have the kind of presence, and especially not the decision-making power, that they deserve. Creating a safe space for ourselves where we talk about our experiences and observations and where we can learn from each other how to deal with racism we encounter even while at an event sponsored by people who believe in peace and justice is something we will continue to do. We acknowledge that it is impossible for people to completely unlearn inherent racism by themselves; anti-racist allies should be open to insruction from People of Color, because we are the ones who make demands to end our own disempowerment.?

Also on Saturday, the Torture Abolition and Survivors Support Coalition International (TASSC) sponsored a panel discussion titled ?Survivors Speak Out.? Emmy Aviles-Breton wrote:
?For many of us to talk about our torture is to talk about the School of the Americas or the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation. While survivors are among the strongest and most effective voices in the campaign to end the practice of torture, we know that we cannot abolish this global crime by ourselves. We come from different parts of the country to join with thousands of other people to participate in different panels, processions, and to offer support for individuals who committed acts of civil disobedience while protesting the SOA. These actions made us feel that we were reclaiming our voices. We felt empowered. SOA Watch demonstrated with this important and great event that we are united in the struggle against torture; we are not alone ? as our torturers made us believe ? to ask for our and everybody?s rights. During one of the discussion panels, some of us shared with the audience that during our torture, there were officials who were trained at the School of the Americas. We shared not only our stories, but we raised several questions that were explored by both the audience and survivors. How many institutions teach torture techniques in this country? Why are the techniques of torture used in Abu Ghraib (based on the photos shown by the media) so similar to those used ?for some of us - during our torture? One of the survivors asked whether it is because the techniques taught at the SOA or WHINSEC were also taught to and used by soldiers involved in the latest war. Survivors and non-survivors entered into a question and answer dialogue that led to the realization that our government offers tacit approval of human rights abuses throughout the world by its own practice of torture.?

?Survivors Speak Out,? the Labor Caucus, and the People of Color Caucus were three of many satellite events held on the weekend of the November 19 and 20, deepening the scope of the Vigil and strengthening our community. Of course, the community at the Vigil to close the SOA is more fluid than the kind of self-determined community that Br?gida alluded to in her speech. The Vigil exists as a physical space for only one weekend of the year, but it lives on, changing as people ?bring the Vigil home.? Our community evolves and expands, attracting allies and advocates from many walks of life. Energized by our successful Vigil, we have the power to press forward toward our goal. We can close the School of the Americas.

Together We'll Shut it Down!