You Too Can be a Tidal Wave: SOA in the First Person
By Christopher Matthias
Office of Global Mission Justice and Peace
Adrian Dominican Sisters
family is beginning to come to grips with the fact that I’m
an odd one. I don’t like to watch television. Not even sports.
I’m relatively in touch with my feelings. When I shaved off
my dreadlocks they were incredibly relieved. But they still can’t
figure out how I can believe in justice.
As a student at Siena Heights, I took every trip possible. I hopped
in any plane, bus, or car to go anywhere I hadn’t seen. I
went to Washington DC, packed five people deep in Sister Pat’s
white Cavalier to say that we didn’t want to go to war in
Iraq. I went to the Dominican Republic with the campus ministry
folks to share a liberal arts education with school kids who were
overjoyed to have access to core classes like math and social studies.
So it was in part my Kerouacian tendencies that first led me to
the School of the Americas (SOA) in Fort Benning, Georgia.
It must be said that wanderlust usually keeps one wandering; and
this is not my first trip to the SOA, rather it was my fourth. This
time my role was slightly different. Rather than packing a bag of
clothes for any flavor of weather that may be presented and hopping
on the bus, now I help to plan the trip. It seems that all that
traveling called attention to the injustices of the world, and the
very real people affected by it. Now justice work is in the foreground
and travel is just a nice perk.
In 2001, the School of the Americas was renamed The Western Hemispheric
Institute for Security Cooperation, or WHIN-SEC, which was a lot
like when I removed my nose ring; an aesthetic change for the comfort
of others without any fundamental change. The reputation of the
school had gained negative notoriety for the extreme human rights
abuses conducted by its former students. Sure, every school has
a couple of trouble students; can Siena really be blamed if a few
students steal a three hundred pound Japanese lantern from downtown?
Hardly. But if Siena alumni traveled to Japan and stole hundreds
of thousands of lanterns some conclusions may be fairly drawn. And
so it is with SOA/WHIN-SEC. When students become learned in the
tactics of “counterinsurgency”, the results have been
mass killings, tortures, rapes, disappearances on a grand scale,
and assassinations. But hey, this helps to protect democracy.
Siena Heights has been participating in the trip for six years,
traveling alongside Dominican Sisters, faculty members, Lenawee
County citizens, and students from other universities. There is
a tendency that once a person goes, they go again. Ask someone who
We ride through the night on a tour bus, stopping to eat somewhere
in northern Georgia, slipping a couple of dollars into the Waffle
House juke box, while yawning into a cup of coffee. A few hours
later we arrive at our hotel and stretch out from our mattress depraved
sleep. We throw water on our faces and stretch out on a bed for
a half an hour before we get to the serious business of the Friday
teach-ins. Before the September 11th incidents, this had been the
largest non-violent demonstration in the US, annually becoming a
hotbed for activists; a caucus of surrounding issues such as Plan
Columbia, the war on drugs, and NAFTA among others. There are speakers
giving personal accounts of violence in South America. There are
support meetings for those considering non-violent civil disobedience.
There are non-violence training seminars. There are talks on the
political implications of the Gospels. The calendar is packed with
information to be taken in through out Friday and Saturday, and
it is impossible to take in everything that you would, should you
have the benefit of omnipresence. So it comes to choice.
Saturday morning our group awakens. Those who wish to tour the base,
and hear the Army’s point of view ride the bus to meet Lee
Rials, a kind, soft faced man who accompanies the group as a very
informative tour host. He describes the Human Rights teachings that
take place at WHEN-SEC and walks the group through the Hall of Heroes.
Myriad busts and portraits of Latin American liberators deck the
halls. Eventually the group is ushered into the auditorium where
a panel of US Army representatives field questions, and offer insights
into the school’s practices.
Having been on the base my first three visits, I elect to join
a friend at the Ignatius Family Teach-in. Also known as the Jesuits,
SOA has been a cause close to the Society’s heart. It is the
assassination of three Jesuit priests, their housekeeper and her
daughter, as well as the rape and murder of four church women that
have set the date of the annual demonstration as the weekend of
the 16th of November. The outrage at the loss of their own draws
in the superstars of the social justice world. The teach-ins offered
by the Jesuits offer a first person experience of the people whose
words are taught in our schools. For my friend and I, the hero who
we wish to see is Sister Helen Prejean, CSJ. The author of Dead
Man Walking, Sr. Prejean is the most visible opponent of the death
penalty. She is widely revered, and when we hear her, there is no
question why. As my companion observes, others are speaking about
social justice, and she is giving an update on her work, and inviting
us to be a part of it. Though she receives applause, there is far
less of it. She doesn’t leave pauses to be filled, but rather
moves her words with the subtle strength of a master, and only afterward
do we stand and give our response, every word absorbed.
Saturday afternoon there is a rally at the gates of Fort Benning.
There are tables with tee shirts, Fair Trade handicrafts, petitions
to be signed, and resources for activists, and all the while there
is music. Some is just the found sound of homemade instruments;
a five gallon pickle bucket being struck with branches from Georgia
pines. From the stage, set 100 yards in front of the gate, comes
music from across the two western continents. Puppetistas in themes
of mourners, Dias de la muertos themed skeletons, the Statue of
Liberty among others, walk up and down the street. It is a carnival
of concern for human rights. And in this, my friend and I meet Sr.
Helen Prejean. She is just a person doing what a person can do when
there is a clear focus in the mind and heart. That is a true inspiration,
which is to say that you too can be a tidal wave.
Saturday night there are more teach-in break-out sessions. Some
of our group goes to Mass, taking Communion with 8,000 others. I
find myself in a group called Veterans for Peace. My friend had
counseled vets as part of his graduate studies in Family Crisis
Counseling. My activism arose from my father’s participation
in the Vietnam War, and the wounds that he brought home with him.
The group shares their stories. Each person stands, and delivers
the reasons that they are now working for peace. There is no more
powerful account than that given by a man who celebrated the dropping
of the Atom bomb, then found himself as part of the occupation in
Japan, learning about the true implications of war on the people.
In the wake of this power, we find ourselves waking on Sunday morning.
We gather on the bus in silence. Today is the funeral for over 600,000
dead in South and Central America. There is a lathe cross on each
seat. We silently disembark, walking to the gates of Fort Benning.
The names of those killed by students of SOA/ WHIN-SEC are sung
over the public address system for hours, and in response the cross
is raised and a chorus echoes “Presente! ”to say they
are here today, and consequently so are we.
Did the school close on Sunday afternoon? Don’t be silly.
However, the previous bill in Congress lost by 20 -- narrow 20 votes.
And if 22,000 people will drive all the way to Georgia to raise
a cross in the air, don’t think they won’t be calling
their representatives. This past election, there were a few changes
made, and we’ll just have to see what happens as HR 1217 hits