Destination Known: Obies To Georgia For SOA Protest
by Bill Lascher

On Friday Nov. 14, while Oberlin students breathe a collective sigh of relief as another week of classes comes to an end, thousands of activists will convene at Fort Benning in Georgia to protest what they perceive to be the American government’s own sponsorship of terrorists and terrorist acts. They will travel south to continue their struggle to shut down the institute formerly known as the School of the Americas (SOA), which is located at the military base in Columbus, Ga.
According to the SOA Watch, which is the organizing activist body, the SOA trains Latin American soldiers and officers in techniques such as assassination and torture. Many of its graduates, they contend, have used this training for careers in paramilitary death squads, within repressive police forces or even as dictators. Panama’s former leader, Manuel Noriega, has been cited as one such graduate. According to U.S. government officials, the school was originally designed as an anti-communist bulwark intended to promote democracy.
An annual event that began in 1990, next weekend’s gathering will consist of a number of rallies, teach-ins and marches all held outside of the base to call for the SOA’s closure. The events will culminate in a mock funeral procession onto the grounds of the base to mark the anniversary of a Nov. 1989 killing of six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper and her teenage daughter by 26 members of the El Salvadoran military, 19 of whom were reportedly graduates of the SOA.

On Friday, many Oberlin students will board buses for the journey to Georgia to mourn those who have been killed by terrorism of all forms, worldwide, whether committed by individuals or states.
On the night of Friday Nov. 2, an event entitled Feast for Peace was held at Peace Community Church. It was sponsored by the Oberlin Peace Activists League (OPAL), which oversees Oberlin’s SOA Watch chapter. Students and visiting parents, faculty and community members packed the basement of the church for a fundraising dinner before filling the main hall for a panel discussion. The discussion addressed issues ranging from the history of the SOA to its correlation with the Sept. 11 attacks and the national response to them.
The speakers included Margaret Kapke of Dayton, and Hazel Tulecke of Yellow Springs, Ohio, both of whom were recently released from prison after being arrested for previous anti-SOA activism. Two professors, Steven Volk and Malavika Kasturi, both belonging to Oberlin’s history department, also addressed the audience.
Volk spoke about the history of Latin America and the relationship between U.S. governmental programs like the SOA and periods of political repression. He emphasized how this relationship fits with the current context of fighting terrorism, and warned of where such defensive reactions could go from there.
“It’s very useful to have an enemy that can be summed up in one word,” Volk said. “It begins to lose all meaning because if you begin to define it as the wanton use of force against non-combatant civilians, then the U.S. should be implicated as well. The basic claims that have to be made about the SOA are claims that should be resonant with the American people if it does believe in democracy, self-representation and the moral repugnancy of terrorism.”
Kusturi, who teaches courses on South Asian history, spoke about the history of state-sponsored terrorism, focusing on the current situation and how linkages can be made between America’s sponsorship of the SOA and Pakistan’s involvement with terrorists within Kashmir. Her address focused on how acts of commission and omission feed into the goal of creating and extending spheres of influence.
Kusturi explained how Pakistan’s militant schools attract a large number of Afgani mujahideen who participate in the civil war in Kashmir as mercenaries. The militants trained in camps such as these, she noted, are currently fighting on the side of the Taliban.
“This was the link I was making with the SOA, which was directly funded by the United States, and the kind of schools in which you train terrorists,” Kasturi said in a later interview. “Perhaps the United States was selectively defining what it is seeing as terrorism in the context of one and not the other.”

Last year, the SOA was shut down by Congress. However, a similar institution under a different title re-opened this past January. Re-christened the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security and Cooperation, it is now under the control of the Department of Defense rather than the U.S. Army. According to its web page, it will promote democracy, require that its students complete a course in human rights, and “provide a curriculum that is doctrinally aligned to U.S. laws and standards; and will be accessible to the American public.”
SOA Watch members claim that the name change is ineffectual and that the school’s curriculum remains largely the same. They refer to the late senator Paul Coverdell (R-GA) who was a strong supporter of the SOA in Congress, as having claimed that the changes to the institution were “basically cosmetic.”
This will not be the same protest that has occurred in years past. The events of Sept. 11 have altered protesters plans as well as the reaction they can expect when they arrive.
“It has been a living nightmare,” senior Jackie Downing, who sits on the national SOA Watch advisory council, said about obtaining permits. She added that a fence has been erected at the gates of Ft. Benning. She made it clear, however, that there will still be efforts made to go through with the funeral procession, although the city of Columbus has threatened the SOA Watch leadership with arrests if this occurs.
Normally, Columbus residents are tolerant of th yearly protesters. In fact, these rallies are the biggest annual source of revenue for the city, as thousands of protesters fill area hotels and eat at local restaurants.
According to Downing, the possibility of a larger-scale war in Afghanistan has caused some concern that there may be a misunderstanding among the largely military community concerning why protesters are there.
“Our problem is with the SOA, and I think it would be really sad if we lose our relationship with the community,” Downing said. “I hope we can find some common ground, because we, too, are mourning lives lost to terrorism. But we cannot just mourn the loss of American life, we have to extend our mourning to include all who have died because of terrorists, including those trained at the SOA.”
Despite the unusual circumstances, organizers of next week’s protests plan to make every effort to convey the same message it has always had. Aware of the added challenges, organizers are attempting to cultivate a similar broad base of support they have been able to form in years past. Thus they are once again looking to Oberlin and the leading roles its students’ have played in the anti-SOA movement.
Oberlin’s contribution has been strong throughout the ninties. The Oberlin Peace Activist League has consistently sent a large number of protesters to the rally. After its initial strong appearance, the organization was invited to a national meeting to plan strategy. Since then, Oberlin students have formed one of the largest student groups protesting the SOA.

“There about four or five good, strong organizers who do their jobs well,” Volk said, in addressing why participation has been so strong at Oberlin. He noted that it was the combination of OPAL and the nature of the issue of the SOA that has made that organization effective.
“It is a movement that can be won and also one that could have an important impact,” he said.
Currently there are approximately 60 people signed up to travel to Georgia next week. A number of events are planned for next week to help spread the word and raise funds for the trip. They include a documentary about the SOA shown on the wall of Mudd on Monday night at 9 p.m. and a benefit concert on Thursday at the Cat in the Cream featuring, among other performers, the Lyricistas, Oberlin Steel, Brendan Cooney and In A Chord.

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