A thousand Jesuit-related people protest the School of the Americas


Putting It on the Line
Protesters at the School of the Americas

Jessica Palmert, Loyola University Chicago student, carries a cross bearing the name of a Central American victim of violence as she and thousands of others crossed into Ft. Benning, calling for the closure of the School of the Americas.

More than a thousand students, faculty, and staff from Jesuit institutions across the country took part in the ninth annual protest at the army's School of the Americas (SOA) outside Ft. Benning, Georgia, on the weekend of November 20. They were among an estimated 12,000 protestors calling for the closing of the school, where members of Latin American militaries are trained in combat and counterinsurgency measures. Graduates of the school have been linked to violence and murder, including the killings of six Jesuits, their cook, and her daughter in El Salvador in 1989.

More than 600 students, staff, and faculty from all 28 Jesuit colleges and universities attended, as did about 300 from Jesuit high schools, including St. Ignatius in San Francisco, Walsh Jesuit in Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio, and Boston College High. Jesuit parishes represented included St. Joseph's in Seattle and St. Francis Xavier in Missoula, Mont.; members and former members of Jesuit Volunteer Corps communities also made the journey.

The Companions, an organization of about 200 former Jesuits, encouraged Jesuit institutions in sending participants to the protest. Former Jesuit Dick Howard, Jesuit Refugee Service director in El Salvador at the time of the Jesuits' murders and now a teacher at Archbishop Mitty High, a San FranciscoÐarea parochial school, attended with students and four other former Jesuits who teach there as well. The Companions substantially underwrote the cost of rooms at a nearby Hilton for Jesuit-related participants and rented a tent, chairs, and speaker system for the estimated 1,000 who attended their teach-in that weekend. Speakers included Jesuit activist Fr. William Bichsel, recently released from jail for trespassing at Ft. Benning during the 1997 protest; president of the Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities Fr. Charles Currie, SJ; former Jesuit Lucien Roy, Loyola University Chicago's director of campus ministry; SOA Watch's co-founder Fr. Roy Bourgeois; former SOA instructor Maj. Joseph Blair (Ret.); and Georgia congresswoman Cynthia McKinney.

Former Jesuit Bob Holstein, who spent two months in jail for trespassing at Ft. Benning during the '96 demonstration, was one of the Companions active in organizing the teach-in. "The whole event," he says, "was the essence of collaboration: Jesuits, former Jesuits, faculty, staff, and students speaking to the commonality of their commitment to the Ignatian vision and mission. The reflections that the students gave after the speakers were phenomenal; there's a strong consensus that they want to do this again."

At the teach-in, former Jesuit Steve Klink presented the Maryknolls, in particular missionary Fr. Steve DeMott, the Companions' Para Los Otros award for their persistence in opposing the SOA. Other teach-in events included a nonviolence training session for those who were to risk arrest by trespassing on Ft. Benning property on Sunday.

The turnout for the protest as a whole was over double that of 1998, according to SOA Watch, sponsor of the protest. Of the more than 4,000 protestors who crossed into the army base, the majority were bused to another entrance of the fort and let go; over 60 were given "ban-and-bar" orders forbidding them from future trespass; and 23 were arrested for violating previous ban-and-bar orders.

"The policy and the school must change," says Rep. Joseph Moakley (D-Mass.). "The U.S. must take responsibility for the pain we have caused in the past and change our policies to ensure we don't repeat our mistakes in the future." The House recently voted to reduce SOA funding, but its action was squelched in a House-Senate conference committee. *


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