Swarthmore students will be driving down to Fort Benning, Georgia on November 18 to protest against the Western Hemisphere Institute for National Security Cooperation (WHINSC), formerly known as the School of the Americas (SOA), a United States Department of Defense training facility.
According to History Professor Marjorie Murphy, in 1989 there was a struggle in the Central American country of El Salvador between the Catholic church and the government, during which priests were protecting peasants who were being disenfranchised by the state. After a brutal assassination of six Jesuit priests and consequent reports in which the murderers were revealed to be SOA graduates, protests against this government-funded training facility began to develop. Protests have been held every year in November, around the same time the murders unfolded.
Included in the reports was also evidence that suggested that the school had been giving courses on torture to its students.
“The idea that we were paying taxes to this secret place that was training these Latin American leaders to abuse their own people was not popular,” Murphy said. “Out of that kind of revulsion grew a movement against the school and a kind of way of overseeing the school to point out the abuses.”
There are people in the United States who believe that as signatories to the Declaration of Human Rights, the country is “hardly in a position to go around torturing people,” Murphy said. According to the professor, in light of the Iraq War and the compounded sensitivity of the torture issue, the school built several fences topped with razor wires to surround its facilities.
“They don’t like to raise the torture issue … so they don’t like people going to demonstrate,” Murphy said. However, thousands of people all across the country show up to protest every year. According to the SOA Watch, a grassroots organization that hosts the protests every year, approximately 5,000 people attended the 2010 “vigil.” In 2006, the year with the highest attendance, 22,000 people showed up throughout the November weekend.
Jusselia Molina ’13 attended the protest her freshman year and plans to go this coming November for the second time. According to Molina, Latin American people who have endured torture and witnessed violence as a result of the groups trained at the SOA spoke about their experiences to all the protesters.
“There are marches … They do a lot of street theater to educate people about the issues,” Molina said.
“[Protesters] have been trying to close [the school] for 30 years, without being able to. But these people still come and organize in hopes of making the change happen.”
“[The event] can be seen as a protest against the uses of torture and the abuses of power within regimes over others, a protest against the secrecy in the uses of torture and other methods that the United States uses, or as a protest against US domination of Central and Latin America … Does this protest make a difference? … I think it keeps the issue alive,” Murphy said.
The mix of both victims and human rights activists that gather at the protests make for “a place of learning and a place of healing” according to Molina.
The college has reserved a 10-person van for the drive down to Georgia but is still waiting for more responses. If students are interested, they should contact Kathryn McCafferty ’12.