By Laura Spencer
Friday Nov. 21, 17 Macalester students armed with backpacks and pillows boarded a Greyhound bus to embark on a 22-hour journey. Their destination was the infamous School of the Americas (whose name has recently been changed to the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation), a school that trains Latin American police and military officers in Fort Benning, Ga. The education policy of the school is under high scrutiny since a considerable number of its graduates have gone on to commit human rights violations. Elsbeth Cavert ’12 has been going to the protest for 10 years. “I first came because it was a big thing at my church. But eventually I learned about an aspect of foreign policy that most people know nothing about,” she said.The protest began 14 years ago at the gates of the school, in protest of the killing of six Jesuit priests from the United States in El Salvador by right-wing military forces led by graduates of the School of Americas. St. Thomas professor Jack Nelson-Pallmeyer, father of Hannah Pallmeyer ’09, has been protesting the SOA annually for 13 years and has written two books on the SOA. He said that the spirit of a protest has remained the same over the past decade, but other aspects have changed. The protest has expanded from the outrage over the event in El Salvador to all the violent events that have occurred by the hands of the SOA graduates.The number of attendees has increased as well. About 500 people attended the first SOA protest, most of whom were a part of religious groups outraged at the deaths of the Jesuit priests, Nelson-Pallmeyer said. While a religious undertone persists at the protest, many that come who have no religious affiliation, and simply wish to protest violations of human rights. This year, 20,000 people attended the protests. The event features creative expression, most notably in the form of the puppets which paraded through the crowd on Saturday and Sunday, as well as an evening of education and a funereal procession to mourn victims of graduates of the school, which ends at the gates of the school, where protesters tuck hundreds of white crosses into the links of the fence.The presence of the world beyond the gates was hardly felt at the protest, aside from the omnipresent helicopter which circled above, whose grinding motor noise and overhead presence felt imposing; certainly more so than the small clusters of bored-looking police observing among the protesters.The majority of those who come without ties to a religious group are college students, like students from Macalester, who journey to the south from all four corners of the country. A junior from Seattle University, Lizzy, took two planes and a van to finally arrive at Fort Benning, and was drawn by no more than a desire to educate herself and be in solidarity with the protesters. Indeed, one can’t help but learn at the protest. There is an entire evening of speeches, films and lectures in order to inform on the school itself and other elements of U.S. involvement in Latin America.The learning is essential, Nelson-Pallmeyer said, because what you take from the protest you bring back to your community, and that’s where the real change happens. An ideal ramification of the protest, according to Nelson-Pallmeyer, is that people will go home motivated to contact their representatives, to build congressional support to close the school. His daughter Hannah agreed. She said that the protest is for inspiration, energy and motivation towards social activism, but in the end, it won’t bring change to simply keep returning to the gates of the school, real change has to be made in government. In past years, the protest has featured celebrity guests such as Susan Sarandon and Martin Sheen, though this year celebrity voices were heard only through a film called “On the Line.” The protest is important, said Sheen in the video, because publicly expressing dissent is crucial. “Without dissent you are unrelenting.