The politics of line-crossing at the School of the Americas
By Gena Mangiaratti
Carrying a cross with the name of a murdered Latin American woman, Jack Gilroy of Endwell, NY was among a crowd of about 1,700 that, in November 2000, carried a protest past the gates of the Fort Benning Military Reservation, the site of the controversial United States Army’s School of the Americas (SOA), defying laws that prevent political expression on military bases.
The SOA, now called the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (WHINSEC), is a training facility for Latin American soldiers located in Fort Benning, GA that has come under controversy after hundreds of human rights violations in Latin America were found to be committed by its graduates.
Every November, thousands of protesters travel to Fort Benning to hold vigil at the gates in protest of the school’s continued funding and existence. SOA graduates include General Robert Viola and General Leopoldo Galtieri, the two dictators in power during Argentina’s “Dirty War” in the 1970s and 80s; Augusto Pinochet, Chilean dictator responsible for the kidnapping, torture, and “disappearances” of over 2,000 Chilean citizens from 1973-1990; and Robert D’Aubuisson, the leader of El Salvador’s death squads during the civil war from 1979-1992.
The school had gained increased attention in 1996, when the Pentagon released training manuals used in SOA courses from 1982 to 1991 that included instruction in torture methods.
The protesters who crossed onto the base were arrested and filed onto several buses. Gilroy, who had been arrested for crossing onto the base two years before, was among 26 who were being arrested for the second time. For his second offense, he was charged with a criminal misdemeanor and sentenced to six months in prison, his sentence beginning in May 2001. He was in prison during the September 11 terrorist attacks.
With him when he crossed was his wife, Helene, but this was her first time being arrested for it and therefore did not serve prison time. Gilroy describes his wife as a “lady who would never go through a yellow traffic light,” but she decided to take action after learning about the SOA.
Gilroy is a member of the Binghamton chapter of the SOA Watch, an independent organization based in Washington, D.C. that aims toward closing the school through peaceful protests and spreading awareness. Now 75, he has attended every vigil since 1995 except for 2001, when he was in prison.
He said he crossed the line partly for personal reasons—a way of not sitting back while paying tax dollars that support the institution. The second reason he crossed the line, he said, was to attract the media attention needed to raise awareness of the atrocities linked to the school. He compared crossing the line at the SOA to trespassing in order to rescue people from a burning building.
“If you were to walk down the street, saw a burning building, saw people screaming, going to die, you would do it,” he said. “This is how we look upon events that we support.”
Before Sept. 11, 2001, the gates to Fort Benning were open, allowing thousands of protesters to cross onto the base at once. After the attacks, the gates were closed, dramatically reducing the numbers of those who carry the protest onto the reservation, but some have found other ways to cross onto the base, such as climbing over the fence or crawling under it. In 2007, eleven protesters, including one Binghamton SOA Watch member, were arrested for crossing onto the base and served in prison for different lengths of time.
The SOA had closed in December 2000, and the next month, WHINSEC opened in the same building. Critics of the school continue to express skepticism about its regard for human rights. In 2007, an amendment to cut the funding for WHINSEC was defeated in Congress by a vote of 203 to 214.
Since the name of the school was changed, the Binghamton SOA Watch, which by the late 1990s had begun transporting busloads of people down to the protest, has not brought as many people to the vigils, Gilroy noted. The different name, he suspects, has made it more difficult for people to remember the school.
“Our feeling is you don’t forget about the thousands of murders that were perpetrated with US tax dollars,” he said.
Gilroy feels that the main success of the protests has been drawing young people to the movement. He recalls a protest a few years when his wife asked him to take a look around. Initially just seeing a lot of people, he said he then realized that she was referring to the amount of college- and high school-aged students in attendance.
Aly Dixon, an Ithaca College senior, attended the annual protest in 2009. It being her first protest, she said what shook her the most was hearing the stories of Latin Americans who had lived through some of the atrocities associated with SOA graduates.
She said she understands the need to cross onto the base, but as a student said she could never do it knowing she could be put in jail.
“If you’re going to this rally and participating in a peaceful way, you’re still kind of being passive because you’re not actively resisting this institution that is perpetuating all these violent crimes,” she said. “For a lot of people that do cross, it’s like saying, ‘We’re not just going to stand at your boundaries.’”
Gena Mangiaratti is a sophomore journalism major with a penchant for toeing the line. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.