Jeannine M. Pitas was in Georgia over the weekend, covering the annual protest to demand the closing of the the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, formerly known as the School of the Americas. Earlier this week, we published her profile of Father Roy Bourgeois, founder and organizer of the School of the Americas Watch. In this follow-up piece, she reports on the weekend of protest. 

“This is a sacred day,” said Father Roy Bourgeois, founder of School of the Americas Watch, addressing a crowd of about six thousand outside the gates of Fort Benning, Georgia. “We are here to support our sisters and brothers who have suffered so gravely at the hands of U.S. foreign policy, and in honouring them we honour the divine.”

As a Maryknoll Missionary priest working in Latin America twenty-two years ago, Bourgeois was startled to learn that many of the perpetrators of violence and assassination throughout the Western Hemisphere during the ’70s and ’80s had been trained in his own country at the prestigious School of America (now called the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation). Travelling to Georgia with a small group in 1990, Bourgeois initiated what has since become the largest continuous anti-war movement in North America. 

Every year, thousands of activists gather outside Fort Benning to hold a solemn vigil in honour of those who have died at the hands of SOA graduates. Every year, mourners recite a litany of names of the deceased, followed by resounding cries of “Presente.” Every year, a few protestors engage in civil disobedience, willingly crossing the line onto the military base and sentencing themselves to six months as a prisoner of conscience. And every year, SOAW activists step a little closer to seeing their ultimate goal fulfilled. 

“This is a truly extraordinary moment,” said Lisa Sullivan, SOAW’s Latin American coordinator, who for the past five years has travelled throughout the Western Hemisphere encouraging political and military leaders to withdraw their troops from WHINSEC. Since 2007, six countries — Venezuela, Bolivia, Argentina, Uruguay, Ecuador and Nicaragua — have all done so.

“Two hundred years later, these countries are finally declaring independence from the U.S. and seeking integration with one another,” Sullivan explained. “SOAW has managed to intersect with this amazing moment, and we’ve even heard incredible stories of SOA graduates who are taking stands against their countries’ policies.”

However, despite the jubilation at the 2012 vigil — which celebrated the withdrawal of two more countries from the SOA and reported some progress in a recent meeting with one of President Obama’s high-level security advisors — there was also much sobering discussion.

In a series of more than thirty workshops, vigil participants learned about harsh realities that have only grown more threatening to peace and justice: the increased usage of drone warfare, which currently allows for extrajudicial assassinations in countries where the U.S. has not declared active war; the violence of the “war on drugs” in Mexico and Central America, and multinational mining corporations’ use of paramilitary groups to expand their influence in resource-rich countries like Colombia.

“Today, Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador make up one of the most violent triangles of the world,” said Father Ismael Moreno Coto “Melo,” an Honduran Jesuit priest and journalist who has spoken actively against the 2009 coup in his country. “We need to turn our celebration into a demand that these three countries desert the SOA and move forward in our struggle for justice.”

Participants in the vigil come from across the U.S., from Latin America, and — for the past fifteen years at least — from Canada. Every year, Dwyer Sullivan, a retired Catholic schoolteacher from Kitchener, leads a delegation of Canadian participants including students from several high schools and universities. “There are hundreds of worthy social justice causes, and many of them are interrelated,” he says. “But as a high school teacher committed to experiential learning, I know that for students the best way to learn about nonviolent political engagement firsthand.”

“Some of my American relatives say, ‘If you want to protest, go to Ottawa — we can take care of ourselves,'” says Sullivan, who is a dual U.S.-Canadian citizen. “But in the big picture, whatever happens in the U.S. affects the entire world militarily, economically and culturally. Solidarity, education and community are all important values that we celebrate ecumenically through this experience. Also, as a Catholic teacher interested in social justice, I appreciate the prayerful, contemplative aspect of this movement, which was of course founded by a priest and is supported by many congregations of sisters. It’s a way to put faith into action.”

Indeed, in the often highly secular realm of social activism, this event stands out for its involvement of many progressive faith communities, including a group of “Nuns on the Bus” who travelled the U.S. speaking out against economic policies that favour the wealthy, an association of Roman Catholic Women Priests who sought ordination despite the Vatican’s ban, and many Protestant Christian communities. “I’m involved in the church because it gives me an opportunity to do the social justice work I care about,” says Dorothy Jean Porter, a member of the United Church of Canada who plans to speak to her congregation about the vigil and the SOAW movement. “Christ gave us many good values, and to me it’s no coincidence that the origins of Christianity involved Mary — a poor, young, unmarried woman.”

For many of the high school and university students who participate, the weekend proves a transformative experience. “This issue is close to home for me,” says 15-year-old high school student Devon Foster, who comes from a military family. She has now participated in two vigils and is planning to share a presentation about the SOA/WHINSEC at several schools in the Kitchener Waterloo area. 

“Young people motivate other young people, and I think that it’s so important for youth to know what is happening in the world,” she says. “Also, youth who come to the vigil bring a lot of creativity. There are questions brought up at the workshops by older people that I’d never have thought of … But the adults say the same thing about us. We all bring different perspectives, but we are united in the viewpoint that this school needs to be shut down.”

According to 18-year-old college student Nathan Murray Gorvett, the vigil is also a great place for young activists to explore possibilities for social involvement and to develop greater awareness. “Many of us are surrounded by opportunities to do good in the world, but we just need a boost of energy and passion to spark our involvement,” he says. “The workshops are especially educational. This year there were many talks on mining injustice, which is a particularly relevant issue for us as Canadians. The vigil is a very good place for ideas to form as we learn about world issues.”

For me, as a student of Latin American culture and concerned observer of the continued militarization of our world, the vigil was a bittersweet experience. The personal testimony of a Guatemalan human rights activist shot while defending her community from corporate intrusion, Father Melo’s update about continued violence in Honduras, the workshops on drone warfare and the subsequent news of Roy Bourgeois’ dismissal from the Maryknoll order are hardly encouraging news for those who still dream of a more just and peaceful world. 

And yet, as I joined with thousands of others in watching a lively, satirical street theatre production about U.S. imperialism, singing along with music by legendary Argentinean artist Mercedes Sosa, and conversing with activists of all ages, I experienced another sentiment: hope. 

“We are not going away,” Father Roy Bourgeois said to all of us. “Let is go back to our homes, loved ones, colleges and high schools; let us show the hope we bring to the world. I am confident that we will soon see this school closed, and when we do, we will come back here and have a big fiesta to celebrate what people can do when they come together in the name of justice.” 


Jeannine M. Pitas is a graduate student at University of Toronto’s Centre for Comparative Literature.