Brethren Arrested for Protests at Army Training School
At least four Brethren were among the 601 protesters who were arrested Sunday at Fort Benning in Columbus, Georgia, after marching two miles into the base to oppose the continued operation of the School of the Americas (SOA). SOA graduates have been cited repeatedly for crimes involving kidnaping, murder, torture and extortion.
Sunday marked the anniversary of the assassination of six Jesuit priests and their two women co-workers at the University of Central America in San Salvador, El Salvador. Nineteen of the 26 military officers cited for this assassination were SOA graduates.
Organized in a solemn funeral procession that crossed onto government property, some protesters acted as pallbearers for coffins filled with 100,000 signatures that called for the closing of the SOA. The remaining protesters who crossed the line walked two by two behind the coffins: They carried crosses that bore the names of people who have died at the hands of SOA graduates. Other vigil participants who did not cross the line brought the total in attendance to an estimated 2,500, five times more than in 1996.
Vigil participants agreed to act nonviolently, speaking these commitments in unison:
We will harbor no anger, but suffer the anger of the opponent.
We will refuse to return the assaults, verbal or physical, of the opponent.
We will refrain from insults and swearing.
We will protect opponents from insults or attack.
If arrested, we will behave in an exemplary manner. We will not evade the legal consequences of our actions.
As members of a nonviolent demonstration, we will follow the directions of the designated coordinators; in the event of a serious disagreement, we will remove ourselves from the action.
Our attitude as conveyed through words, symbols and actions will be one of openness, friendliness and respect toward all people we encounter, including police officers and workers.
We will not damage property.
We will not bring or use drugs or alcohol.
We will not run or use threatening motions.
We will carry no weapons.
(The term "opponent" was meant to indicate opposite in beliefs, not "enemy.")
Brethren known to have marched into the base were Ken Brown, Shelly Ungemach, Nathan Musselman, Yvonne Dilling and Raenya Burkhart, a Brethren Volunteer Service worker. They and the other "line crossers" were arrested in violation of a U.S. code that requires military bases to be free of political activity.
Following their arrest, they received letters barring them from the base. Of the 601 line crossers, 28 repeat offenders on Wednesday had to appear in court, facing up to 6 months in prison for breaking their barred entry.
About 30 other Church of the Brethren members in attendance drove from Bethany Theological Seminary, Richmond, Indiana; Manchester College, North Manchester, Indiana; and Eastern Mennonite University, Harrisonburg, Virginia. "We can see parallels between these commitments and the commitment Christ made to a peaceful way of life," said Heather Nolen, director of the Church of the Brethren Washington Office. "Christ encourages his followers to refrain from retaliation in Luke 6:27-29, which was cited in the 1996 Annual Conference paper titled "Nonviolence and Humanitarian Intervention." ("But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt.")
Putting their faith in action is why Brethren and others participated in the protest, Nolen said, an action that was in concert with the Church of the Brethren General Board's resolution calling for the closing of the SOA. This resolution was approved in July. Through their action, Brethren are hoping to bring more attention to the atrocities attributed to SOA graduates. SOA alumni include Manuel Noriega; 10 of the 12 men cited for the El Mozote massacre of over 900 civilians; two of the three officers cited for the assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero; 100 of the 246 officers cited for war crimes in Colombia by an international tribunal in 1993; Guatemalan general Hector Gramajo who is responsible for the murder and displacement of thousands of Guatemalans; and three Peruvian officers convicted of murdering nine university students and a professor in 1994.
After the protesters crossed the line, SOA officials organized a press conference with Roy Trumble, SOA commandant. Trumble took issue with the religious motivation of the vigil, stating to International News Services, "This is not a religious issue. It's not a moral issue. This is a political issue and it will be decided by our own politicians. I certainly hope that the school is not closed down as a result of what I think is an ill-directed movement against the school."
An attempt to close the school by cutting funds came close to passing in the U.S. House in September – 210 to 217, Nolen said. She added that SOA Watch, the organization spearheading the campaign to close the school, is urging people to contact their U.S. legislators asking for their support to withdraw SOA funding – H.R.611 is the proposed U.S. House bill that would eliminate SOA funding; S. 980 would do the same in the U.S. Senate.
© 1997 Church of the Brethren General Board,