Hereford Family Affairs:
Close the School of the Americas
By Jessica Hoskins, defense attorney and former public defender
The November Coalition was again present at the annual vigil demanding closure of the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (formerly the School of the Americas or SOA). The yearly demonstration seeks to shut down this military training school that teaches torture as part of counterinsurgency training.
Judy Hereford represents November Coalition near the gates of Ft. Benning, GA
There are hundreds of documented cases of atrocities committed in Latin America by graduates of the SOA, including not only the murder of the well-respected Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero, but even more terribly, the massacre of countless, anonymous civilians, including one-month-old children. Over the past 18 years, the demonstration has grown into a meeting place for people dedicated to justice, a place for oppressed people ruled by SOA military men to be heard.
In 2007, Jessica Hoskins, Judy Hereford, and Molly Mebruer represented the November Coalition. Jessica gave a presentation on Friday evening, November 16th, entitled Race, Class, and Criminal Justice, attended by an estimated 100 people. About a dozen other presentations were happening at the same time elsewhere, both thrilling and confidence building at once.
The presentation included ideas for practical actions that people could take to help end the unjust "war on drugs," and there were many questions about how best to get involved. There was particular interest in learning how to visit or write those in prison, and we explained how to contact possible allies in your area.
On Saturday and Sunday, we set up a special display, called Prisons, Poisons and Environmental Racism, on the street outside of Fort Benning (GA), site of the protest. Near the entrance, ours became one of the first tables people approached, becoming a steady stream of folks stopping to study the colorful foldout display, take information, and ask questions.
I overheard comments about knowing the information generally, then quickly followed by how it was still eye opening to see the black/white numbers on the graphs. A few individuals wanted copies of the graphs, and were told of their availability on the website.
We got very excited when two schoolteachers asked about presenting this information to students. We directed them to www.november.org, adding they could ask for bulk-orders of printed materials or possibly a guest speaker for their classes by calling the Colville home office.
During the weekend, we also reviewed the displays of many other organizations, especially those groups active in Latin America. We talked about how the domestic "war on drugs" is intimately connected with atrocities committed in Colombia and other "source" countries in the name of stopping the import of drugs.
It's overwhelming to know details of how people in so many different places suffer at the hands of powerful political, economic and military forces. Yet, it was likewise encouraging to experience large numbers of people dedicated to making a change for a brighter future. It was especially uplifting to see thousands of youth willing to put energy into making a positive change in the world.
Marchers carry coffins representing the many innocent victims of graduates of the School of the Americas
Our information table got media attention as well. A National Catholic Reporter interviewed Jess, and a local radio station interviewed Judy.
The biggest flurry of excitement arose when a man was arrested behind our table! Located directly in front of the police staging area, we had lots of uniformed company the whole weekend. Some fine 'company' they were, though, as most officers refused to speak with vigilers, even to say "good morning."
A police or military helicopter making frequent low passes over the crowd also attended us. On Saturday, they flew over about every 30 minutes. On Sunday, it was more like 15 minutes or less, but then the chopper would hover over the crowd, drowning out the speeches.
On Sunday around noon, a man crossed behind a yellow "Police Line" tape. He was still on "our" side of the temporary barrier (a plastic fence), sandwiched between the barrier and the yellow tape. The police told him to move back behind the police tape, but the man refused, stating this was a public street and he had a right to be on it.
This exchange went on for a few minutes in a very calm manner, with the police telling him to move, and the man refusing to move. Finally the police told the man he was under arrest, and they handcuffed him and escorted him away. Molly captured the whole encounter on videotape, as did other folks, including a news photographer.
Overall, we felt it was a rich weekend of reinforcing First Amendment rights, and we got our message out to many new people. We collected three pages of e-mail addresses of those interested in receiving information, and many, many more said they would visit November Coalition's website.
The SOA Watch website estimated the crowd at around 25,000, and each one of them had to pass our table at least twice. We hit the road about 1:00 p.m. on Sunday for the 12-hour drive home, tired from the weekend, yet deeply energized to carry on the cause to victory.
For additional online info about School of Americas Watch: www.soaw.org