As usual, it was almost completely ignored by the corporate media. But once again, tens of thousands of people of conscience made what has become an annual pilgrimage to Columbus, Georgia, to protest a large terrorist training camp. The camp is located within Fort Benning, and once again, there we were outside one of the entrances to the military base, remembering the dead, hoping to prevent future deaths.
While some protests can resemble TV caricatures of a protest – such as those that ANSWER is generally responsible for, with endless hours of rhetoric blasting from the big stage and then everybody goes home – this protest is equal parts heart, mind and spirit. It’s theater, it’s a convention, it’s a permitted protest, it’s civil disobedience, and it’s a big series of small and large celebrations.
This was the 15th annual rally at Fort Benning, and I believe it’s the eighth that I’ve participated in. Times have changed, but the size of the rally has consistently grown through the years. This one was estimated to be the largest yet. There was no Indymedia Center this year, and other aspects of the anarchist youth scene that was so prominent several years ago were missing. The dilapidated condominiums that used to line the road on stage left were gone, with what used to be the front yards lined with a big fence reading “private property.” So the Catholic Worker hospitality house, the puppetistas’ staging ground, and the SOA Watch media office had to move to other, disparate locations, but still the sense of community among those who had come to Columbus for the weekend was palpable all over the city.
Every hotel in Columbus, as in previous years, was taken over for the weekend by the movement to close down the School of the Assassins. Large delegations from several Jesuit universities occupied the Sheraton. Pax Christi had their annual SOA get-together at Howard Johnson’s. The Columbus Convention Center was full of nonstop nonvioelence trainings, presentations on US foreign policy, screenings of new and old documentaries, and nightly concerts.
For many thousands of people every year it’s their first time at the annual protest, and many lives are changed profoundly. For them the weekend is an initiation, a gateway drug into the greater world, which will lead to years of activism, probably Spanish lessons, trips to Latin America, and a much more personal awareness of the fact that they are living in the center of an empire bent on global domination. For the first time, they hear stories from the survivors of torture and US-sponsored massacres. For them, the emperor is suddenly and forever naked.
For those of us who come most every year, it is a reunion. For many of us working on related issues but living in different parts of the country or the world, it is the only time each year that we see each other. For others it depends on what’s going on. Some of us may have seen a lot more of each other when the movement against the war in Iraq was in fuller swing, in 2003. For yet others, we saw more of each other when the movement against the IMF and the World Bank was still happening, before it began it’s slow decline after essentially being killed by Al Qaeda on 9/11.
But whatever else is or isn’t going on in terms of the progressive movement, there is always, it seems, the SOA. There are always more people coming to the protest, always a vibrant mix of young and old, Christian and atheist, spanning the political spectrum from liberal to anarchist. Staffing tables along the road to the gates of Fort Benning, there are always the familiar faces from CISPES, AFSC, and Witness for Peace. This year there are many new faces from Iraq Veterans Against the War, and the Common Ground Collective doing their invaluable work in New Orleans.
My favorite part of the whole thing is seeing so many of my fellow musicians. A strange thing about being a professional musician is you rarely see other professional musicians. Most of us make a living by touring, so anytime we’re in each other’s home towns, the other one is usually on the road, too. The times we get to see each other are at festivals and at protests. As with most other politically-obsessed musicians, they never let me play at the festivals, so I mainly get to see my musician friends at protests.
When Pete Seeger sang at the protest several years ago he called the movement to close down the SOA “the singingest movement since the Civil Rights movement.” This is surely the case (at least when we’re talking about the US). About every other person getting on the stage is a musician, or a group of musicians, singing new and old songs about making a better world. The calibre is generally very good, with folks like Charlie King and Karen Brandow, Jon Fromer, Francisco Herrera, the Prince Myshkins, Emma’s Revolution, Colleen Kattau, Chris Chandler, Anne Feeney, Dave Lippman, the Indigo Girls, Llatsasujo and the Chestnut Brothers being regulars. About half of the folks on my links page, there every year, all staying at the Day’s Inn with me! This year particularly featured the eloquent voice of Holly Near, and great musicians I had never heard before, such as Jose Saavedra. Other great musicians I had heard before but never met, such as Sara Thomsen. Others who only come now and then, but who add so much with their presence, such as Tao Rodriguez-Seeger.
After all the music, meetings, impromptu parties and reunions, the culminating event on Sunday took me by surprise, as it always does. I’m not a big fan of liturgical music, or songs from the 60’s that I’ve heard once too often over the years. Every time, I start out on Sunday with a sense of foreboding. Oh no, not another three-hour marathon of Gregorian Chanting. But then I get there and my reticence melts away. Like the thousands of young and old people standing around, taken by surprise by the intensity of the moment, sobbing unexpectedly, I am once again bowled over by the power of this ritual.
Slowly walking to the gates of Fort Benning are thousands of people, each holding a little white cross with the name of someone killed by a graduate of the SOA. On the stage are a few men and women, singing a few sparse notes in brilliant, somber harmony. They’re musicians, so the harmonies sometimes get a little more interesting than they need to be, sometimes resembling the Bulgarian Women’s Choir a bit, but this only adds to the power of the thing. They’re singing the names of the dead, and their ages, alternating between English and Spanish. So often they’re just children, often babies who are being remembered. After each name, we all sing the word, “presente” – present.
It’s 5:00 and the ritual is over, after a few more short speeches and songs. One of the organizers, Chris Inserra, announces that the 14th person has crossed the line through a hole in the fence. Thus, fourteen more people have joined the 283 before them, and are facing the possibility of a six-month jail sentence for trespassing on a military base. Father Roy Bourgeois, the founder of School of the Americas Watch, standing on the stage only fifty feet from his humble apartment right by the gates of Fort Benning (stage right, where the apartments still stand), says a few closing words.
The Democrats now control the Congress, but most of us are under the impression that we’ll see each other again next year. The empire needs it’s terrorist training camps. The US certainly can’t control Latin America through democratic means -- Venezuela and Bolivia have recently proven that.
The musicians and organizers all bid each other adieu. Speakers come and go, but the musicians generally all hang around backstage, so we’re mostly all there at the end of the day. Some folks are going off to spend Thanksgiving with family. Others are doing some more gigs in the area while they’re in the southeast. I’m sitting on this plane to go do another tour of Scandinavia. But whatever else happens, most of us will see each other next year at the gates of Fort Benning. Thousands of people will come from all over the US and elsewhere to protest. For many it will be their fourth, fifth or tenth time. For many others it will be their first protest anywhere, and their initiation into the progressive movement. And as usual, the mass media will be nowhere to be seen. At least some things are predictable.