Memoria y Resistencia: Nonviolence at the School of the Americas

This past weekend, thousands gathered to call for the closing of the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (formerly known as the School of the Americas).  This was the 20th year activists gathered at the gates of Fort Benning, in Columbus, Georgia, to protest against the SOA/WHINSEC.

The history of the school, which originated in Panama in 1946, moved to the United States in 1984, and re-incarnated by a different name as WHINSEC in 2001, is one of dubious human rights violations and acts of violence and torture in Latin America.  There have been over 60,000 graduates from SOA/WHINSEC. Notorious graduates include Manuel Norriega, former Panamanian dictator, and the countless members of the Salvadoran military who were found responsible for the deaths of the four U.S. church women and the assassination of Archbishop Romero in 1980, the targeted killings of six Jesuit priest and their two co-workers in 1989, and the massacre of 900 civilians in El Mozote in 1981. The atrocities of the past continue into the present, as two-time SOA graduate Gen. Romeo Orlando Vásquez Velásquez led the 2009 military coup in Honduras.  Therefore, the movement to close the SOA is still relevant and still active.

There are varied and misleading reports about the School of the Americas Watch demonstration and nonviolent action to close it that suggest the SOAW movement is losing steam.  The New York Times reports that the protest has lost its energy and popularity, evidenced by the dwindling numbers of attendees and those risking arrest by “crossing the line” onto the base – a federal misdemeanor that carries prison time, if convicted, of up to six months.  This year four people crossed the line and will be arraigned on Tuesday, November 23 in Columbus.

It is true that in years past many more have been in attendance and crossed the line.  A remarkable increase of gate security making it difficult to cross the line and maximum penalties for line crossers have contributed to smaller numbers participating in the symbolic direct action.  Louie Vitale, OFM, who crossed the line for the fourth time, and David Omondi, of the Los Angeles Catholic Worker who crossed the line for the first time, were convicted in federal court yesterday.  They each received a six month prison sentence from U.S. Magistrate Judge Stephen Hyles.

In years past and under a different judge, first-time crossers and repeat crossers have received differing sentences (usually three and six months, respectively).  Even then, activists and lawyers questioned whether the punishment fit the crime.  Obviously an almost certain six month prison sentence will deter more people from crossing the line, but what becomes certainly clear is that the law is employed in defiance to justice.  Nancy Smith and Chris Spicer, the two others who crossed onto Fort Benning, will go to trial January 5, 2011 in Columbus, GA.   

While crowd estimates are difficult and controversial, the Columbus police estimated that there were 5,000 in attendance (The New York Times said organizers agree but the SOAW has yet to release its estimates).  Police and activists alike misrepresent the numbers to support their own purposes.   A major reason for the lower attendance was that the Ignatian Family Teach-In, a gathering that has brought upwards of 3,000 students and supports from Jesuit high schools, colleges, and institutions decided to gather in Washington, D.C. the weekend prior to the SOAW demonstration.  1200 gathered in Washington, D.C. to advocate and lobby congressional legislators to close the SOA.  This change in venue and strategy does not indicate that the movement to close the SOA is losing steam, but shifting direction.

However many were in attendance – I think between 5,000 – 7,000 for the Sunday vigil is safe enough generalization – what is evident is that there has been a systematic campaign against the SOA Watch to discredit the movement and break it down.  Some activists with the SOAW were terrified and angered by the random police snatching they experienced or witnessed.  News reports are still coming out and personal anecdotes are trickling in, but here is some of what I’ve heard and observed from the SOAW gathering in Georgia this past weekend:

  • The FBI held consultations with the Columbus Police Department prior to the SOA Rally.
  • There was a much more visible police surveillance system with multiple security cameras and increased individual police officers filming video and taking still photos.
  • Riot police prepared for, and engaged in, mass, random arrests.
  • Undercover police infiltrated nonviolent direct action affinity groups and encouraged and participated in direct action that resulted in arrests.
  • Law enforcement intentionally targeted the media, movement leaders and the SOAW Legal Collective.
  • Police in hotel lodgings engaged in racial and youth profiling.  At the Columbus Inn, the Columbus Police Department had a regular presence in hallways and the lobby.  Guests at the hotel were required to show an ID and information was copied by hotel staff.
  • There were multiple charges, questionable court proceedings, and stiff penalties for arrested activists.

Many of these tactics are not new and SOAW activists have been aware of their use for years.  The FBI surveillance of the SOA has been well-documented by the ACLU.  In the past, activists entering the permitted demonstration area have been subject to illegal searches and metal detectors (the 11th Circuit Court declared such searches unconstitutional).  What is new, however, is the intensity, preparation, and specific targeting used by law enforcement authorities to discredit the movement’s legitimacy through the use of scare tactics and deterrence.  For example, the Columbus Police department had photographs and lists of members of the SOAW Legal Collective and were specifically targeting these individuals because of their capacity as organizers and their ability to offer legal support.  Charity Ryerson, a former SOA Prisoner of Conscience and Georgetown University law student, was specifically sought out and arrested for her role as an organizer.  Other members of the Legal Collective were told by Columbus Police that if they didn’t stay away they would also be arrested.

On Saturday afternoon, when 26 people were arrested in either an act of nonviolent civil resistance by blocking traffic to bring attention to closing the SOA or by a random sweep that led to mass arrests (thankfully there were not more), the charges activists faced and the court proceedings that followed revealed a concerted effort to “teach these activists a lesson.” Two of the protestors, sisters who were in attendance for media and research purposes, were caught up in the mass arrests and accused of jumping on a police officer’s back, according to the Columbus Ledger-Enquirer.  The sisters dispute the charges and the SOAW is organizing videos to contest the claims.  It is unclear whether or not they have been convicted of this specific charge but, if so, they will certainly appeal.

Allegations of violence toward police are a common tactic employed to discredit the integrity of a nonviolent movement and to justify increased police action.  Just ask folks involved with Food Not Bombs and the Gaza Freedom Movement about the attempts to de-legitimize their movements by the state instigating violence and biased, limited media coverage.

All but one of the 26 were found guilty of two city charges related to protesting and parading without a permit and were given fines, including a local barber who was picked up in front of his shop where the arrests were occurring.  The SOAW provided him and the others will financial and legal assistance.  Judge Michael Cielinski, of the Columbus Recorder’s Court, was curt and impatient with the accused activists and their lawyers.  The quick convictions and steep fines might suggest some animosity toward the SOAW movement rather than impartiality to the facts.  Nonetheless, most of those who were arrested not as an act of conscience will appeal their convictions, all the while recognizing that the law and justice rarely go hand in hand.  All of the protestors still face charges in state court; those charge and proceedings are still pending.

The drawn-out legal battle that many face, particularly those swept up in the mass police action, serves to deter future direct action and force compliance.  By arresting ordinary folks and making it incredibly inconvenient and expensive for them to get a fair hearing, police and legal action such as we saw this weekend serves to increase the perceived risk of participating in the SOAW vigil and protest.  Police and other opponents, which may include vested power-holders such as the judge, mayor, state’s attorney, etc., hope that by making an example out of a handful of protestors (which is why they did not arrest everyone, despite having the capacity to do so) the movement will dwindle and break apart because of fear of potential consequences.

Perhaps most disconcerting is the role undercover police officers had over the weekend.  It has been confirmed by the SOAW, that there were at least five known undercovers.  A police officer named Lauren Stinson is known to have infiltrated SOAW direct action affinity groups, for example, because she testified in court about her role in planning and participating in the citywide action that blocked traffic on Victory Drive.  She had been a part of SOAW meetings all weekend and did not discourage or inform activists about potential legal consequences.  Some of the activists arrested for blocking traffic suggest there were other undercover police officers suspected of posing as “protestors” because they disappeared once arrests began to happen.  When Bill Quigley, a lawyer for SOAW, questioned Stinson about her involvement and others potential undercovers, the Judge did not make her answer the question.

Bill Moyer, in his excellent book Doing Democracy: the MAP Model for Organizing Social Movements, identifies infiltrators like Stinson as “agent provocateurs” who regularly instigate violence to discredit a movement in the public eye.  While the SOAW did not succumb to violence – thanks to the adherence of participants to specific guidelines, which were read throughout the weekend, and the use of volunteer peacemakers to help de-escalate intense conflict situations – it is clear that agent provocateurs were adding to the confusion and chaos and unnecessary arrests of activists.

Another occurrence that left some unsettling feelings about police involvement to instigate potential illegal action happened Saturday night after the Catholic mass at the Convention Center.  Three people climbed a stair case and hollered for everyone’s attention to announce an impromptu march through Columbus (an action that would have surely ended in arrests considering the experience from that afternoon).  After having been confronted by someone inquiring about who they were and how they were connected to the movement, it became clear that things were not quite adding up and they quietly dispersed.  It all sounds like conspiracy theory: feelings in the gut that say this person just doesn’t seem to fit in here or the story does not add up; seeing some of the same faces repeatedly but not quite able to really connect with them or their reasons for participating; calls for radical action without exhibiting any mindfulness or discernment.  But this is what police infiltration intends to do – break up a community or a movement by violating the trust and bonds of friendship within that group.  The case of Brandon Darby acting as a police informant exhibits how potentially destructive this can be, both personally and strategically for those involved in a nonviolent social movement.

But we shall not be moved.  While it appears that the power elite, whether here in Columbus or those connected to the U.S. military’s SOA, have tried to exploit a moment of transition or weakness in the movement as institutional support from the Jesuits and Maryknoll has shifted, the increased repression indicates we are on the right path as a movement to close the SOA and to de-militarize Latin America (among other places as well).  Recall the words of Gandhi: “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.”  We’ve long experienced feeling ignored and laughed at – and will likely continue to do so.  But as our community recovers from a weekend of intimidation and repression – albeit mild repression compared to what our sisters and brothers in Latin America face for standing up for freedom and human rights – we must not be scared or consider the actions of a few too risky.  We are close to closing the SOA.  And more than that, the repression and targeting we experience is indicative of something even greater: we are a threat to the system of militarism and the kind of “democracy that is taught through the barrel of a gun,” to recall the words of SOAW founder Fr. Roy Bourgeois.  So it is with the resiliency and courage of nonviolent soul-force that we must continue to remember the dead and resist injustice.  We will shut down the SOA/WHINSEC with our hope in action that another world is possible.  Somos Una America! Presente!

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