It was 30 years ago; the U.S. Army School of the Americas was still in the Panama Canal Zone but military troops from the repressive government of El Salvador were training at Ft. Benning, GA. A small cadre of peacemakers, primarily from Koinonia Farm and Habitat For Humanity, came to the main entrance to the sprawling military base for the weekly Quaker-style candlelight vigil. The vigil had begun 4 months prior and usually consisted of 8-20 people who gathered in a circle to prayer, reflect, and protest U.S. policy in Central America.
It was the assassination of Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero while saying mass in the capital city in March of 1980 that had awoken many of us to the suffering of the Salvadoran people and the U.S. complicity in the harsh repression of the people; campesinos struggling for land and justice from the couple of dozen families of elites that controlled the land and the government. Romero had written to then-President Jimmy Carter just months before his assassination asking him to stop the flow of military aid and weapons to his nation. He never received a reply from the President before the bullet ended his life as he held the chalice of wine over his head during the mass.
Three years later activists discovered that Salvadoran troops were being trained by U.S. Military instructors at the large infantry base on the outskirts of Columbus, GA and a protest march and rally was scheduled around the third anniversary of El Salvador’s increasingly famous martyr. Unfortunately (from my perspective), the tone and tenor of that protest was strident and caustic and I felt that while I agreed with the political aim of ending the military training and changing the foreign policy of the Reagan Administration towards Central America, we would be better served by a reflective, contemplative and confessional presence outside that military base than the bombastic chanting and finger-pointing of the larger demonstration.
A week later, our Thursday evening hour-long candlelight vigil outside the base began. Some friends from across the Chattahoochee River in neighboring Alabama joined us as did a couple of others from nearby Buena Vista, GA. Someone would often read a short reflection, a poem, or a prayer, we’d sing a song or two, but mostly held signs with our candles and reflected and prayed. Occasionally someone driving out of the base would shout something (frequently it wasn’t PG-rated even though children were often present); less frequently someone would stop and talk to us.
In August 1983, Father Roy Bourgeois and Father Larry Rosebaugh drove over to Koinonia Farm (where our family lived) to share with our intentional community their plans for nonviolent resistance to the continued training of the Salvadoran troops. It was my first encounter with “Father Roy” but the Louisiana drawl in his voice and his gentle demeanor made me feel energized and included. I had known “Father Larry” a lot better since our 1981 nonviolent witness together in Amarillo, TX led to our sharing the same jail cell for a week after our arrest for praying at Pantex, the final assembly plant for all U.S. nuclear weapons. After he was transferred to a different jail, we saw each other at arraignment, trial, and sentencing before we headed off to different federal prisons to serve the rest of our time.
Larry had told the 5 of us with him in the holding cell outside the FBI office in Amarillo about his travels through Central and South America, especially his time in Recife, Brazil where he was arrested, jailed, and tortured for his work with the poor. I came to love and trust Larry during our jail-time together so when he arrived with Roy, I suspected here was another “radical priest” God had placed in my life to challenge me to further action. (I should have seen a pattern after “Father Tom” from the Maryknoll seminary in Glen Ellyn, IL “schooled” me during my Wheaton college years and then former-priest Phil Berrigan continued that “education” during the year I lived in Washington, DC.) Father Larry, and now, Father Roy: all wanted to challenge me to live out my values in a way that nonviolently confronted those in power.
Roy and Larry told us that they were fasting and planning to nonviolently confront the Salvadoran troops. They didn’t share the details with us (they seemed to just evolve from one action to the next for them), but we did invite them to join our next weekly candlelight vigil and told them some of us would possibly like to join them in their direct action. We talked about “continuing” the candlelight vigil on to the base after our usual hour presence by the entrance, knowing that we would likely be arrested by base security if we did so.
As Thursday arrived, most of us had no idea that Roy and Larry, joined by a local Catholic activist, Linda Ventimiglia, had already stirred up a hornets nest with 3 or 4 other acts of witness including the dramatic scaling of a tree outside the Salvador barracks and playing Oscar Romero’s final radio address where he asked, plead, ordered Salvadoran troops “in the name of God” to “put down their guns” and “end the repression.” The three of them had been arrested and thrown off the base several times that week before our Thursday evening vigil.
I don’t remember now if we walked or drove to the Base Commander’s house but at least 4 of us went with Roy, Larry, and Linda. Someone rang the doorbell while others planted a cross (not burning!, I must add, given the context of Georgia) on the front lawn. A teenage girl came to the door and we asked if the Base Commander was home. We were told he’d be home shortly so we told her we would vigil quietly on the sidewalk with our candles. It was only a few minutes before base security arrived, we were arrested, and hauled off to what we assumed was base headquarters.
In the six hours we were held under arrest, I distinctly remember overhearing various military officers saying very vicious and demeaning comments about “Catholics”, especially since they had become familiar with Roy and Larry’s vocation as priests. About 3 AM, each of us was handed a letter stating that we were “banned and barred” from that military base. We had the right to appeal this order if we wished but otherwise it was in effect with no end date listed. (Years later I was to receive “Ban and Bar” letters lasting 1 year or 5 years; this one was presumably for life.) They then drove us off base in groups of 2-3 dropping us off miles from the city center meaning we would have to walk to get to our cars. Fortunately, they did drop Judy Cumbee off back at the main entrance since her leg was in a cast from a previous accident.
Less than one year after these nonviolent direct actions, it was announced that the “School of the Americas” was moving to Ft. Benning as part of the Treaty to return the Panama Canal Zone to Panama agreed to by President Carter several years earlier. Our weekly vigils continued for several years before becoming a monthly vigil. I moved to Minnesota in 1990 and just months after our arrival, we heard word that Father Roy was going back to fast, pray, and protest at the gates of Ft. Benning. And thus began what has become The School of the Americas Watch, a nonviolent movement to embody the call of the martyred Archbishop: “put down the guns and stop the repression” – now throughout the Americas, not just El Salvador. One by one, nations have begun to pull their troops out of this notorious school now renamed “The Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (WHINSEC)” in an attempt to “re-brand” it from a “school of assassins” to an institution which promotes “human rights” (albeit at the barrel of a gun!)
More than 300 nonviolent activists have gone to prison to protest this school in those 30 years. Late last week 40 members of Congress (including Rep. Keith Ellison from Minneapolis) introduced a bill to suspend operations at SOA/WHINSEC and begin an investigation of the connection between US military training and human rights abuses in Latin America. In November, I will return to the gates of that notorious institution to once again say “Close the SOA!”