Local reggae band Rebelution and about 100 students and converged on Storke Plaza yesterday to protest what they call the U.S.’s “School of Assassins.”
While Rebelution intermittently played to attract more people to the event, which began at noon, Chicano Studies 177 students demanded the U.S. close the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (WHINSEC). The facility – located in Ft. Benning, Ga. – is previously and better known as the School of the Americas (SOA).
Yesterday’s rally – part of a weeklong demonstration organized by students in Chicano Studies 177 -precedes this weekend’s annual protest at the Georgia facility, where roughly 10,000 protesters are expected, said Associate Professor Ralph Armbruster-Sandoval, Chicano studies 177 instructor. Armbruster-Sandoval said he and 12 students from his class of roughly 80 people will attend the protest.
WHINSEC is a U.S.-run training center for military forces in the Western Hemisphere. According to the Frequently Asked Question page on the its website, the SOA was founded in July 1963, closed in 2000 after “having fulfilled its Cold War-era mission,” and was subsequently reopened as WHINSEC in 2001 to “meet new and challenging needs.” The WHINSEC website describes it as a “Department of Defense institute that instructs rising civilian, military and law enforcement leaders from throughout the Western Hemisphere,” and lists its primary goal as strengthening “the peace and security of the [American continents].”
However, Armbruster-Sandoval said several graduates of the center use their training to suppress the rights of civilians, going so far as to murder those with conflicting political views.
Such cases of human rights violations include the 1981 “Massacre at El Mozote” in El Salvador, Armbruster-Sandoval said, in which government military forces raided a village in search of revolutionary guerilla soldiers and killed over 800 civilians. He said that, of the 12 soldiers responsible for the massacre, 10 had graduated from the SOA.
SOA graduates have been more recently implicated in an attempt to overthrow Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, Armbruster-Sandoval said.
“I want the campus to be aware that we are using terrorism to fight terrorism,” Armbruster-Sandoval said. “I wonder if we are antagonizing people around the world, instead of winning them over.”
Miguel Uroza, a fifth-year history major, said he is missing class and a few days of work in order to attend the protests at Ft. Benning. Uroza said the plane tickets to Georgia cost approximately $400 each, but he and his fellow students will fundraise in the following weeks to help pay for the airfare.
“I just want to be a body there that will create change,” Uroza said. “I want [UCSB students] to know that there is an institution that trains people to suppress citizens in Latin America that are asking for basic rights like land and education.”
The group School of the Americas Watch (SOAW) organized this weekend’s protest, said Hendrik Voss, networking coordinator of SOAW. Roy Bourgeois, a Vietnam War veteran, founded SOAW after two of his friends were raped and killed by El Salvadorian soldiers, Voss said. According to the SOAW website, Bourgeois has spent over four years in U.S. Federal prisons for peaceful protests against the training of Latin American soldiers at Ft. Benning, Ga.
Voss expects this year’s protest to be much larger than those of previous years, because an upcoming Congressional vote on bill HR 1217 could suspend WHINSEC and order an investigation into the activities of its graduates.
“The people who were organizing vans for last year’s protest are organizing busses for this year’s,” Voss said.
Voss said it is a federal felony to illegally enter a U.S. Military Base, however, he expects many protestors to do so in a collective act of civil disobedience. Voss said over 200 people have served a collective 100 years in prison for protesting actions against the SOA. He said he expects over 16,000 people to protest this weekend.
“There will be a three-layer fence constructed to keep us out,” Voss said. “And on Sunday, people will put their bodies on the line and get arrested.”