by Sara Marcus
For more than two years the School of the Americas (SOA) has been to me an idea, a symbol. I have watched the videos and read the books about the SOA's military "education" of Latin American soldiers. I have learned how the school's training manuals condone torture, false imprisonment, blackmail, and execution; how the graduates of the school return to their home countries and put their education to work by killing and intimidating poor people and human rights workers; how people in Latin America refer to the school as the School of Assassins, or Coups.
For more than two years the SOA has been to me a symbol of the inhumanity of U.S. foreign policy toward Latin America, a policy that prefers manageable military dictatorships to popular rule.
Amidst all these things, though, the SOA is a place, a building nestled inside Fort Benning, Georgia, in the town of Columbus on the Alabama border. It's a place that 48 Oberlin students visited in November to join 7,000 others in demanding that the SOA be closed forever. I was among them. It was the most important thing I've done all year.
The Oberlin effort against the SOA began early last fall when two of my classmates, both seasoned peace and environmental activists, organized an ad hoc group of students to join in the protest. For weeks we raised funds to cover the cost of rental vans and hotel rooms. Oberlin organizations and departmental offices were unceasingly generous; the co-ops opened their purses and a benefit concert in the Cat brought together funk, folk, and rock bands to raise money and awareness. In the end, nobody had to stay back due to expenses.
Classes ended on Friday, November 20, and the Oberlin 48 gathered in the parking lot of Finney Chapel, holding hands and silently thinking about our journey. Stowing our sleeping bags and granola into two cars and two vans, we embarked on our 15-hour drive, reaching the front gate of Fort Benning early Saturday morning.
The Oberlin 48 gathered in Finney parking lot before embarking on the 15-hour drive to Fort Benning, Georgia.
The day was filled with speeches and music. We were approached by a steady stream of Oberlin alumni who were attracted by our famed "Oberlin for Peace and Justice" banner. But throughout the networking and singing, the hours were heavy with anxiety and expectation. Each of the 7,000 demonstrators knew the key moment of the weekend was yet to come.
SOA Watch, the national organization devoted to monitoring and closing the SOA, had been calling for 1,000 people of conscience to risk arrest the next day by marching onto the grounds of Fort Benning in a solemn funeral procession for victims of SOA graduates. A similar protest in 1997 led to the arrest of 601 people, 30 of whom spent six months in federal prison and faced fines of $3,000.
No one knew how many people planned to cross the line in 1998 or what the consequences would be. But we understood that only such a dramatic display of will and opposition would bring our cause to national attention and create possibilities for change.
Sunday morning was bright and mild. We massed outside the Fort Benning gates and collected white wooden crosses bearing the names of victims of SOA graduates. My cross said "Ana Maria Sierra-El Salvador." I stood among my classmates, in view of our Oberlin banner across the street. We had greeted each other all weekend with hearty cries of "Hey, Oberlin!" I was proud of our Oberlin contingent, proud to call myself Oberlin. I was proud that most of us were committed to crossing the line.
Yet as the marchers assembled, I felt my Oberlin affiliation dissolve. I was not an Obie, not a student, not an Ohioan, nor a 20-something. As the cross-bearing crowd edged forward, four abreast, I was just a marcher-and in that morning sunlight, "just" a marcher was more than I had ever dreamed of being.
On stage, singers intoned victims' names, each followed by response from the crowd. "Presente!" we sang, "Here!" A chanted roll call from beyond the grave. As I sang, I found myself identifying with each victim. I was no longer a marcher; I was a 40-year-old man, a 2-month-old infant-a slide show of lives cut short. I could see their faces, witness the fear of their lives and the agony of their deaths. Tears streamed from my eyes.
The victims closest to our lives are often hidden out of sight in prisons, inner city ghettos, or far-off countries. If victims do emerge in the form of a homeless "problem" or an expression of political urgency, they are swiftly ushered out of view.
But as I neared the entrance to the fort I focused on Ana Maria Sierra, the name I carried on my cross. That brief morning, I brought a victim back to the U.S. institution that shares the blame for her death; back to the eyes of the American people whose taxes support it.
In all, 2,369 marchers brought 2,369 victims of SOA onto the grounds of Fort Benning. Just before military police herded us onto buses, we pounded our crosses into the earth, creating a stark flowerbed of mourning.
We all risk something unique in moments of crisis and condensation. These moments are all around us. The key to a free society, a society that corrects its own evils, are citizens unafraid of taking risks and crossing lines, those living amid principled stands and uncertain outcomes.
As marchers, the line we crossed that day was literal as well as metaphorical, for the Army had repainted a white boundary on the driveway just days before. A hushed stillness enveloped the march as we left the rally's singing and cheering, and I knew we were inside the base. Only then did I look back at the glistening white line on the asphalt and the hundreds of feet crossing over it. That moment of faithful action gives me hope that I will always have the strength to take necessary risks, to continue pushing people in power toward compassion and justice instead of greed and expediency.
But contrary to Oberlin's "one person can change the world" jingle, I know I can't change anything on my own. The vast crowd of line-crossers surrounding me at Fort Benning that day gives hope that we can work collectively to change whole patterns of action, whole organizations of authority.
It is a long struggle.
There are countless lines ahead for us to cross.
Postscript: The military police of Fort Benning did not arrest any of the 2,369 who crossed onto the base on November 22. We were driven to a nearby park and released. We walked through town back to the Fort where we rejoined the rally. Last September, a measure in the House of Representatives that would have shut down the SOA failed by 12 votes. The bill to close the SOA is likely to reappear before Congress. More information on SOA is available at www.soaw.org.
SARA MARCUS is an American Studies major from Maryland, an editor of The Voice, Oberlin's magazine of student opinion, and student editor of Oberlin Online.