UE Presence at Massive Protest
Calling for Closure Of the
School of the Americas
The weather was cold and rainy, the 15-hour, night-time bus
trip grueling. But the elements and inconvenience failed to dampen the spirits
of the union members and students from Pittsburgh who had traveled to Fort
Benning, Ga. to demand closure of the United States Army School of Americas on
More than 10,000 from all over the Americas gathered at the
gates of Ft. Benning to protest the U.S. Army’s counterinsurgency training
program. More than 3,600 risked arrest by crossing onto the base in a massive
act of civil disobedience, and more than 2,100 protestors — including UE
members — were arrested and processed.
SCHOOL OF ASSASSINS
In its 50-year history, the U.S. Army School of the Americas (SOA)
has trained some 60,000 Latin American troops in commando tactics, military
intelligence, psychological operations and sniper fire. The targets of these
military tactics have been labor organizers and religious leaders, students
and teachers, peasants and workers. SOA graduates have been linked to
assassination, torture, rape and intimidation — and the massacres of entire
villages of women, men and children.
Traveling together from Pittsburgh were UE Genl. Sec.-Treas. Bob
Clark, District Six Pres. John Lambiase, Local 683 Pres. Charles
Tangle (who had traveled from Erie to meet the bus in Pittsburgh), Local
623 Pres. Bryan Rice, Local 690 Vice Pres. John Thompson, Local
690 Rec. Sec. John Blinn, Field Org. Mary McGinn, Robin
Pearson of the UE National office staff and Ian Thompson, the
teenaged son of the Local 690 officer.
They were joined on the bus by students from the University of
Pittsburgh, Carnegie-Mellon University, Gannon University and Mercyhurst
College, members of the United Steelworkers and the Thomas Merton Center, a
Pittsburgh religious-based social justice organization (see Rank-and-File Initiative Secures Bus, Builds
Once at the rally site UE’s Clark was sought out by national
news media for an explanation of labor’s stake in the protest. He pointed
out that the SOA is "the ultimate unionbuster," providing local
elites and multinational corporations with a well-trained "hit
squad" to take out workers who dare to organize runaway plants.
"We got there in time to go directly to the
demonstration, in the cold and rain of that Saturday," says John Lambiase.
The size and diversity of the crowd were matched by the rapid alternation of
speakers and music. "They didn’t have to call on the same band
twice," he says.
The vigil featured speakers from Colombia and the Mexican
state of Chiapas, as well as several other Latin American nations. Both
Colombia and Chiapas have been targeted for massive U.S. military aid;
Colombia has more SOA graduates (10,000) than any other nation and experiences
widespread paramilitary activity (see: Colombia
- Clinton's Deadly Gamble). Paramilitary death squads are a key element
of civilian-targeted warfare as taught at the SOA.
‘WAY TOO MANY CHILDREN’
At the heart of the protest is a solemn funeral process to the
base, during which the many thousands killed by SOA graduates are recalled.
The protestors carry crosses and other religious symbols on which are
inscribed the names of SOA victims.
"Thousands of people line up, thousands more marching
onto Ft. Benning," Lambiase says. "The actual crossing itself is
very striking, it has a tone that is just astonishing. The names and ages of
individuals killed, are read off. It takes hours. The effect is absolutely
"Many of those names are those of children,"
Lambiase points out. "Way, way too many are children."
The procession was led by a group dressed in black shrouds and
white death masks who carried coffins to commemorate the assassination of six
Jesuit priests and their two co-workers in El Salvador in 1989 by SOA
graduates. When met by military police a half mile inside the gate, this lead
group fell to the ground, reenacting a massacre. They were among the first to
be carried away by MPs.
As the procession moved onto the base those willing to risk
arrest literally crossed the line. Many of the students who came on the
Pittsburgh bus decided to get arrested as did UE’s John Lambiase, Mary
McGinn, John Blinn, John Thompson and Ian Thompson. They spent some seven
hours being shuffled from tents to buses and eventually to the hangar where
they were processed. Each received a letter banning and barring them from
entering the base for five years; violation will result in six months in a
federal penitentiary and a hefty fine.
‘WE HAD NO REGRETS’
"We had no regrets," says John Thompson.
His son, a high school senior, agreed. It was the younger
Thompson’s first-ever arrest, although he took part in the demonstration
last year and crossed the line. "Getting arrested was basically what I
expected. I knew it was a possibility." After being prodded with a metal
detector, photographed and finger-printed, Ian was also served with the
"bar and ban" paper.
"I thought it was a good thing to do," he says.
"It’s an important cause. People need to know that our government is
training people to wage these dirty wars against their own people with our tax
dollars. So many people have died as a result of graduates of the School of
the Americas. They have to understand that it’s unacceptable, we’re not
going to go away until it’s closed."
Ian Thompson says he will "definitely" be back next
year, but won’t be crossing the line.
Meanwhile, the others in the Pittsburgh delegation endured the
cold and incessant rain, but just barely. Bryan Rice’s water-logged sneakers
fell apart. Emergency visits to local stores procured tennis shoes for him and
extra clothing for others. The number of arrests slowed the processing which
delayed departure, creating some unplanned problems.
"Overall, people were glad they went," says John
Thompson. Robin Pearson didn’t care for the cold and damp, but was glad to
take part in the protests. As John Lambiase points out, too many children —
too many innocent victims — have died.
UE News - 12/00