Students, faculty to attend protest at former School of the Americas

Group of 55 from Xavier heads to Fort Benning, Ga., for education, dialogue | November 21, 2003

For most people, 5:00 p.m. on Friday means quitting time. But for 50 Xavier students and five faculty and staff members, the evening of Friday, Nov. 21, is only the beginning. They have important work to do, and only a weekend in which to do it.

The group is piling onto a bus for the 10-hour ride to Columbus, Ga. There they are joining like-minded citizens from Jesuit universities and peace organizations across the country in a peaceful protest and vigil at Fort Benning's Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, formerly the School of the Americas.

At the institute, the U.S. Army trains and educates military, law enforcement and civilian students from the hemisphere—mostly from Central and South American countries—in a variety of skills and returns them to their home countries. According to the institute's web site, "the standards, doctrine, and content for each course is comparable to similar courses throughout the Department of Defense." Although the school's motto is "Freedom, Peace and Brotherhood," many of its graduates have been accused of committing violent crimes and human rights violations, including the Nov. 6, 1989, murders of six Jesuits and two women at the Jesuit university in El Salvador.

For this reason, an organization called the School of the Americas Watch organizes an annual protest outside the gates of Fort Benning. The campus group Voices of Solidarity organized Xavier's trip to the protest this year. Representatives from the University also have attended several of the protests in the past, but each year their efforts become more organized.

This year, leaders of the group are preparing students for the journey long before they climb on the bus. "We're all required to have nonviolent training before we go. We've had sessions to get ready for this," says Drew Peters, peace and justice programs, who is attending the protest for the first time. "The sessions have talked about the implications of going. The training was: What does it mean to cross the line? What does it mean to not cross it?"

Crossing the line is both figurative and literal at the protest. Laurie Wesp, a senior who is serving as co-president of Voices of Solidarity and who has attended the protest for several consecutive years, says that some groups at the school engage in high-risk civil disobedience, which means stepping onto the fort's property. Such individuals could be fined or sent to prison. In the past, arrests have been made, but no Xavier students were among them.

The protest is just one part of a weekend of experiences designed to inform students and inspire dialogue. Saturday morning in a tent near Fort Benning, the group is attending a national Ignatian Family Teach-In. Representatives from Jesuit high schools and colleges are speaking about issues surrounding the protests. Among the speakers is Bill Schwarz, a junior at Xavier and the president of JUSTICE, a national organization signifying Jesuit University Students Together in Concerned Empowerment, which Schwarz says is a coalition of student-operated peace and justice programs at all 28 of the country's Jesuit universities. In his brief speech, he'll discuss JUSTICE, as well as some of the Xavier community's perspectives on the protest. "My job is to maintain a sense of unity to support each other," he says.

That afternoon, the Xavier group is touring the school and its facilities and is being given the opportunity to ask questions. "We want to be able to present both sides to the students," Wesp says.

A posting on the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation's web site states the school's position: "Just as any college or university cannot guarantee that some of their students will not someday commit crimes, neither can we. We provide our students with the training to help them better understand their role in serving a democratic society."

Wesp says that after touring the base for the first time last year, she was able to get a better understanding of the school's side of the controversy. "Now, for me it's just more of a remembrance of all those people who have been killed and trying to stand in solidarity with those people who can't be at the protest."

After the tour protesters are gathering for a rally outside of the gates. Then at 4:00 p.m., any student who's interested has the opportunity to meet with a representative from Network Lobby, a Catholic social justice lobby group. The lobby group is instructing volunteers on getting in touch with Congressional representatives about a proposed bill that could close the institute. Saturday evening, the Xavier attendees are joining others for a Mass at the teach-in site.

Sunday morning, outside of Fort Benning, the attendees are coming together for a prayerful remembrance ceremony at which people are calling out names of the victims of graduates of the School of the Americas. Wesp says protestors often leave crosses, pictures or flowers on the fence surrounding the base. The University's bus is returning Sunday night.

"More than anything, I'm bringing a lot of curiosity and openness to the weekend," Schwarz says. "I was in Nicaragua this past semester, and after experiencing so many things and meeting so many people who have been affected by this school and its history, I kind of feel a need to go to the school and come to an understanding of what is happening there. I want to stand in solidarity with the people who I've met and who have been affected."