I cannot claim I am for peace if I am not willing to disturb it. My humanity is clouded and restricted by the systems of injustice in which I participate. My faith is dispensable in the privilege that I hold close. My love is confounded by my fear.
This November I traveled to Columbus, Georgia to call for the closure of the School of the Americas now renamed the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation. I joined a community of people, thousands of people, outside the gates of Fort Benning in Columbus. I traveled there as a student, to join other students, as a Catholic, to join other faith-filled people, as a United States resident, to join my fellow citizens, as a human, to come together in community. I gathered with that community to withdraw my consent from the practices of the School of the Americas (SOA). As a student, a Catholic, a citizen, and a human, I cannot deny what I have learned in the classroom, in church, from our government and in my heart.
This was not my first journey to Columbus. In the fall of 2006, I was introduced to the SOA. When my friend first mentioned the school, I had never heard of it, never knew the history of the massacres, and knew nothing of the annual vigil in Columbus. What I did have was a desire to learn. My friend invited me to travel with my high school to the vigil; I was eager to learn more. I began to read about the history of the school. I read about the village of El Mozote. On December 11, 1981 in El Salvador, over 700 people were massacred in the village of El Mozote. Over 700 people. No, my sixteen-year-old mind thought, no that could not be. Over 700 people? Women and children? Marta Lilian Claros was only three years old, her father, Domingo Claros, only twenty-nine, when they were both murdered. It then became clear that, yes, Marta was only three years old, and no, El Mozote was not a special case. No, this destruction was in fact systemic. This systemic destruction protects the economic and political power in Latin America, and thus U.S. interests in Latin America, by targeting human rights defenders and their communities. And the source of that system? Our U.S. tax dollars.
In the massacre at El Mozote, ten of the twelve soldiers of the Atlacatl Battalion responsible for the murders were cited as graduates of the School of the Americas. That school is on our soil. That U.S. Army training school has trained over 60,000 soldiers from Latin America with funding from our tax dollars. However, I did not understand my complicity until I arrived at the gates outside Fort Benning, where the School of the Americas is located. On the Sunday of my first weekend at the vigil, which has been sponsored by an organization called SOA Watch every year since 1990, I listened to the names of those families, those children, parents and grandparents killed by the graduates of the SOA. Throughout the solemn funeral procession, I listened to those names for over two hours. We marched with crosses and held the names of those victims in our hearts and resurrected their lives with our voices. With each name called, my mind expanded, my heart opened and my complicity sank deeper.
After that first experience at the vigil, each year I have continued to make the journey to the gates of Fort Benning. And each year, my experience has evolved. I traveled first with my high school, then with Veterans for Peace the following year, then with my fellow students at Loyola University Chicago. Each year I have been challenged in a new way. My community has evolved, as well as the faith and love in my heart.
This year, yet again, I was challenged in a new way. In the twentieth year of the vigil, I had to ask myself, how would our voices be heard? Were our refrains becoming comfortable? Was our presence becoming routine? I was invited to consider my participation in the vigil. Would I march in the solemn funeral procession on Sunday? Or would I risk arrest and participate in the opportunity for direct action on Saturday? These were not easy questions. There were not easy answers.
Not only was this the twentieth year of the vigil, but this November it was also undergoing a significant restructuring. Each time I have traveled to Columbus, the events of the weekend have been co-hosted by SOA Watch and the Ignatian Solidarity Network. The two have worked together to gather the masses from Jesuit institutions as well as communities of faith outside of the Jesuit tradition. Personally, my participation in the vigil has been greatly influenced by the Jesuit tradition. The opportunity to gather for mass at the Ignatian Family Teach-In in Columbus connected my faith with social justice. That connection resonated with me for the first time in Georgia, with the Ignatian family. Yet this year, the Ignatian Family Teach-In had moved to Washington D.C. and chose to focus on legislative action to close the SOA. So I too moved to Washington D.C., I too engaged in legislative action. I dialogued with legislative staff about the School of the Americas and immigration reform. I walked away feeling competent and grateful for a new perspective. I now knew more about what it meant to work within the political system. Yet I also walked away with many questions. The legislative staff told me that, while their legislator firmly believed in these issues and shared our passion for reformation, the current “political climate” simply would not allow for the change we sought. Therefore I left Washington D.C. with a new challenge, a new question, how do I contribute to that “political climate”?
The logistics were all set out for me. The vigil would take place for the twentieth year, outside the gates of Fort Benning. The number of people gathered may be significantly less than in years past due to restructuring. The solemn funeral procession would take place on Sunday morning. There would be an opportunity for direct action on Saturday, with the opportunity to risk arrest and partake in civil disobedience. Within all of these details I asked myself, what was in my heart? Where was my faith? Where was God calling me? The questions of the proper “political climate” followed me on my journey as well. How can I live in a “political climate” that allows for injustice to continue? How can I depend upon politicians who don’t have the courage to speak out during an unfavorable “political climate”? And again, how do I contribute to that “political climate”?
I have wrestled for a while with the call to civil disobedience. I have had to confront great fears related to risking arrest. I have had to redefine many deep seeded understandings of what it means to follow rules and do the right thing. Yet, I have also struggled deeply with my consent to injustice. The suffering caused by the policies, positions and power that I hold as a U.S. citizen overwhelms me. I cannot sit forever in my fears and also live with inaction. Traveling to the vigil this year, I was called to confront those fears. When I felt most vulnerable and alone, I turned to my community of friends, family and fellow activists for support. I found strength in that community. I realized that I was not acting alone, but acting with the solidarity of those closest to me. And so I decided to raise my voice to affect that “political climate” in a different way.
I chose to nonviolently disrupt the system that keeps us within our permitted protest area every year, and with it keeps our collective voice and message within a permitted area, a safe distance from the media and the general population. I have utilized opportunities for legislative action. Yet the school has not been closed, in fact, the bill calling for its closure has not yet moved beyond the House of Representatives. For twenty years the movement to close the SOA has gathered at the vigil and for much longer, graduates of the school have perpetrated massacres and assassinations against the innocent civilians in their own countries. So this year, I chose to risk arrest and help hold a banner that read, “Stop: This is the End of the Road for the SOA”, while blocking traffic on Victory Dr., a highway in Columbus near Fort Benning and the location of the annual vigil. I chose to confront my fears in community with fellow activists and friends. I chose to trust in God, and act on my faith knowing that the consequences would not be convenient.
And they were not convenient. I was arrested and held in the Muscogee County jail overnight. Soon after my arrest, I was joined by a group of activists and journalists that had been unlawfully arrested by the police. These individuals had not participated in civil disobedience, but were picked up on the way back to their cars or while taking photos of the event. I received four charges, two city charges and two state charges. I was fined for each of the city charges and my state charges are pending; I was released on bond. In court, an undercover cop testified against me and detailed my involvement in the civil disobedience because she had infiltrated our nonviolent direct action. In retelling these stories, it sounds surreal. But in the cold of the cellblock and the chaos of the court proceedings, which found all but one of those arrested guilty, I felt and now remember how real it is.
In the words of Daniel Berrigan I have found great challenge and great comfort, “…it is unheard of that good men and women should suffer injustice or families be sundered or good repute be lost-because of this we cry peace and cry peace, and there is no peace.” I am challenged to reclaim what is means to be a good woman, and accept the sacrifices and fears that accompany standing for justice. My fears of civil disobedience were not soothed in jail. I was even more afraid when at the mercy of the judge than I was in preparation. However, in that moment, standing in his courtroom, I believe the two of us shared our fear. It was clear that the police in Columbus as well as the judge in the Muscogee County courtroom wanted to send a message through us. They sent a warning to the movement to close the School of the Americas, that we must not step out of line; we must not take our voices and our message outside of the permitted area.
In that warning I felt their fear. I learned that our voices hold power, the power to challenge the systems that perpetuate injustice and violence. The School of the Americas is just one element of the systemic injustices perpetuated by our U.S. military and government power. I felt the power of those systems, in the holding cell, the cellblock, the courtroom; and I was afraid. Then I remembered that I was not acting alone, we had the support of a strong community and a steadfast movement. The police and the government also know our power, our voice, our spirit; and in the warning they sent, they exposed their fear of any challenge to the power of their systems. And from that fear we allowed barriers to be built between us. I withdrew, stayed quiet, looked down. The guards and the judge looked past me, stayed distant, didn’t listen. Our systems, our power, our fear, we shared. And these barriers are as impermeable as we allow them to be. If we fear each other, we sacrifice the strength in our love. That love, however, is more powerful than that fear, much more powerful than our barriers. At the School of the Americas vigil this year, I found hope, knowing that we did not act with fear, but with God, in community, we acted with love.