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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

My 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 went.

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.

Early 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 the floor.

Learn more about the School of the Americas

Read another account of the 2006 March at Fort Bening, GA.

Photos of the 2006 SOA March

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