Macalester students take a stand against the "School of Assassins

By Catherine Reagan

Eleven of South America’s dictators have one thing in common: their alma mater.It’s a school in Fort Benning, Ga., that has trained over 60,000 Latin American military personnel since 1946. Now called the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, it was formerly called School of the Americas.

According to the U.S. Department of Defense, WHINSEC’s purpose is to train Latin American military personnel in the name of hemispheric peace and democratization. In their words, the institute fills a “vital role in building relationships among countries and within countries,” and is “a strategic tool for international engagement and those civilian-military and civilian-law enforcement relationships are so important to the stability and justice of the democratic governments in our hemisphere.”

However, according to the School of Americas Watch, a nonprofit organization in opposition of the school, WHINSEC teaches courses on commando, psychological warfare, counterinsurgency techniques and intelligence gathering.

Its graduates have consistently used their skills to wage war against their own people. Hundreds of thousands of Latin Americans have been tortured, raped, assassinated, massacred, and forced into refuge by those trained at the institute, according to SOA Watch.

For the past five years, roughly 20,000 people have gathered outside the gates of Fort Benning to attend an annual protest and vigil. Last year, 22,000 attended-the largest protest yet, by SOA Watch’s count.

Today, 34 Macalester students and Father Jim Radde of the Center for Religious and Spiritual Life leave to attend the protest and vigil in honor of those who have died at the hands of SOA-trained militants.

“It’s a transformative experience for students. It’s not just a rally, it’s a vigil-you’re asked to mourn, grieve, hold in your heart those who suffered,” said Eily Marlow, director of the Lilly Project and staff advisor for the event.

Saturday, the protest will consist of a rally and workshops and seminars about the school.

The vigil will take place Sunday, when attendees also have the option of “crossing the line”-walking onto the military property.

“Crossing the line” is a felony, and more often than not, the government will prosecute.

“There’s a lot of symbolic action that goes on with both sides. They have the military base far away from the actual protest area so nobody in the base makes contact with the protesters,” said Needham Hurst ’11, one of the Macalester trip’s organizers.

Hurst and Nicole Kligerman ’10 took the initiative this year to get the news about the trip out to Macalester students and the local community.

After tabling and an informational session, they had gathered a group of 45 determined people to accompany them to Fort Benning for the protest and vigil.

“What’s really amazing is that it really is the religious and spiritual community coming together with secular activists,” Marlow said. “And if students are passionate about an issue, they can pull anything off. What seemed to be impossible is now happening.”

“I think Congress is definitely taking notice of the public opinion of the School of Americas,” Marlow said. “Thousands attending a yearly vigil is significant. And they come from all over.”

There may be reason to believe that activism has been effective, but the protest itself if a powerful experience.

“You see people from all walks of life. A nun next to an anarchist; a priest next to a hippie,” Hurst said. “We all have the same commitment to nonviolent action.