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CWRU students among thousands at SOA protest

Nicholas Knoske

Issue date: 12/4/09 Section: News
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Two protestors embrace while names of victims of SOA/WHISC graduates were read out to the crowd.
Two protestors embrace while names of victims of SOA/WHISC graduates were read out to the crowd.
[Click to enlarge]
A protestor holds a cross bearing the name of a three-day-old victim. Protestorsconstructed crosses out of wood, and painted the name and age of a victim on each one.
A protestor holds a cross bearing the name of a three-day-old victim. Protestorsconstructed crosses out of wood, and painted the name and age of a victim on each one.
[Click to enlarge]
Radhika Mehlortra and Kellie Willis were two of the students who represented CWRU at the SOA protest.
Radhika Mehlortra and Kellie Willis were two of the students who represented CWRU at the SOA protest.
[Click to enlarge]
On Nov. 13, 19 students from Case Western Reserve University, 11 Oberlin students, and two members of the Cleveland Economic Democracy Network piled into six rented minivans and drove 13 hours through the night to Fort Benning, Georgia, where they participated in the annual protest against the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (WHISC), formerly known as the School of the Americas (SOA).

Frequently referred to as the "School of Assassins" by its dissenters, the institution trains Latin American soldiers in combat and counterinsurgency techniques, and many of its graduates have been linked to human rights violations including assassination, torture, and attempted coups in Latin America.

Correlation, however, is not causation; the school argues it cannot be held responsible for what its graduates choose to do. Under the pressure of criticism, it has even implemented new courses in democracy and human rights.

But according to protesters, the changes aren't enough. "SOA graduates have been linked to death squads and paramilitaries across Latin America, and its graduates are responsible for some of the worst human rights violations to date," said senior S.K. Piper, who organized the Fort Benning trip for CWRU students. "All the while, this terrorist training school continues to be funded by our tax dollars."

The facility is, in fact, run by the US Department of Defense. In 2001, it was threatened with closure, but the government opted to change its name. Piper says this has diverted attention from the fact that the school continues to produce graduates who participate in crimes against their own countries and against humanity.

"It's not like this is happening in Colombia or something where we could easily ignore it," Piper said. "This is happening in our country, right in our backyards."

Whatever the school's nomenclature, though, the protest at Fort Benning has become the largest annual protest in the country. Conceived in 1990 by Father Roy Bourgeois, the event is a popular destination for youth groups and Jesuits. Now approximately 25,000 people attend each year to participate and pay respect to the alleged victims of SOA-WHISC graduates.

Many arrived on Saturday. The road to Fort Benning was lined with booths and kiosks, and protesters met with myriad information regarding the institution and other subjects. Some were moved learning that Coca-Cola bottlers in Colombia, for example, have used paramilitary groups to murder and threaten employees of the well-known company.

Others noted the presence of costumed protesters, puppets, and a "die-in" during which some lay motionless on the ground to represent murdered civilians. The end of the day included dinner and documentaries at a nearby convention center. Case and Oberlin students stayed for the weekend, spending the night on a pecan farm and sleeping in the pews of a Koinonia church.

Sunday was the more demonstrative day. "There was a giant parade," senior Paavan Mehta recalled, "filled with giant puppets of the Jesuit priests [that were murdered]. People held giant banners. A drum squad gave lively beats. The parade went into the streets to the cry of '¡No más! No More!'" Mehta majors in biology and Spanish, and learned about the protest when S.K. Piper visited his Spanish class to discuss the opportunity.

"Most people gave me a weird look when I told them I was going to a protest," he said. "I think events like this are the most important things because they let us break our bubble and expose us to the world around us." Mehta was an active participant, and took to marching in the streets with some thousand others when most stood by and listened to the recitation of victims' names.

But the recitation of the names may have been the most affective moment of the weekend. Mehta explained that after each name, protesters would call out "¡Presente!" and hold up crosses or other religious symbols. "Or a fist," he added. Crosses were made with wood, often on- site, and painted white. They bore the names of the dead and at times thousands were raised in the air at once.

The protest's efforts culminated in a solemn procession. "I don't think I've talked to someone yet who didn't cry during it," Piper said.

The issue of the WHISC touches Case Western Reserve University personally; an alumnus and lay missionary named Jean Donovan was murdered in 1980 by a death squad consisting of three then-SOA graduates. According to Piper, she and three other nuns were raped and tortured before being killed. Coincidentally, they had been keeping vigil at the grave of Archbishop Óscar Romero, whose assassination in 1989 led to the very first protests against the SOA.

"One CWRU student made a giant poster honoring Jean Donovan," Mehta noted.

One must wonder though whether such methods, though respectful to victims, can induce a change in the WHISC. Mehta felt the experience was "eye-opening," but doesn't foresee the closure of the institution in Fort Benning.

"I did not feel like the actual protest actions were effective. I feel that the SOA has seen this protest for 20 years and has grown desensitized to it," he said. "However, the protest was effective in raising awareness....To me, that was the point."

This year's trip to Georgia generated substantial interest, and Piper hopes to see more students participating in the future. Efforts are aided by numerous sponsors, including UPB, USG, Greek life, the Hallinan Project for Peace and Social Justice, the Office of Multicultural Affairs, and Share the Vision. Individuals also donated money to the cause.
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In This Issue

Cross Country

  • Women finish 15th in nation; Simpson has best finish in university history


  • A conversation with Christina Mastrangelo
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  • Early Ending: Spartans eliminated from playoffs by Trine University

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