This past weekend Global Exchange Director of Organizing Kirsten Moller attended the SOA Watch Vigil at Fort Benning in Georgia. SOA Watch is a nonviolent grassroots movement that works to stand in solidarity with the people of Latin America and the Caribbean, to close the SOA/WHINSEC and to change oppressive U.S. foreign policy that the SOA represents. Here Kirsten shares her weekend experience with us:

Thousands Occupy Ft Benning

As we all continue to grope our way forward, defining the role of the Occupy movement in relation to our future, it is useful to remember that we are not alone. All over the Americas people are joined in a struggle for dignity and justice and an end to the militaristic approach to foreign policy in the Americas.  Building people to people ties across national boundaries, ages, occupations and regions happens organically at the annual event organized by the School of the Americas Watch.

Study War No MoreGlobal Exchange joined thousands of solidarity activists, people of faith, students, union workers, immigrants, and veterans this weekend to take a stand for justice, resist US militarization and call for the closure of the School of the Americas (SOA/ WHINSEC).  Torture victims and Latin American human rights activists joined in the vigil to share their personal stories and national strategies to weave together a stronger commitment from all of us to close the school.

The School of the Americas (SOA) known as the School of Assassins in Latin America is a combat training school for Latin American soldiers, located at Fort Benning, Georgia. In 2001 it was renamed the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (WHINSEC), prompting the chant  — “Different name, same shame!

The SOA Watch Vigil has a 21 year history and works with the local police and officials to hold a respectful and somber memorial to the people who have lost their lives to the brutal and repressive policies of Latin American militaries under the tutelage of US military advisors.

The arc of the gathering promotes deep connections, respect and exchange among the participants.  Two days are spent learning about the issues through workshops and panels on everything from what’s going on in Haiti and Honduras, to strategies for research on drone manufacturing and seed saving in Colombia.

Ft. Benning McDonalds

Banner saying “Welcome Home” sits underneath the golden arches of McDonalds

Hundreds of students from all over the Midwest and the rest of the country come to learn for the first time about what is being done in their name. The shock and realization of their previous ignorance overwhelms many of them and tears often well up as the speakers and musicians call us to action.  Older people of faith and veterans of earlier wars gratefully acknowledge the new energy in the crowd.

When you approach the gate at Fort Benning the first thing you see is a huge banner saying “Welcome Home” underneath the golden arches of McDonalds, reminding us again how close the interests of the US government and corporations have become.

On Sunday the most emotional day, the crowd gathered, some in mourning garb and carrying crosses or stars of David with the names of victims on them. We followed giant puppets to the fence of Fort Benning while musicians chanted the names and ages of  victims and we sang out the word:  “Presente!”, bringing the memory of these never-to-be forgotten souls into our hearts as we made a commitment to continue the struggle.

An activist scales a fence, ready to become a 'prisoner of conscience'

We placed symbols on the fence and when the fence was completely full, a woman who said she was ready to become a “prisoner of conscience” climbed over the fence to face arrest. The rest of us pledged to honor the memory of the victims and work to close the School of the Americas and change the priorities of this country from militarization to compassion.


You can make your voice heard by supporting HR 3368 legislation introduced this month by Congressman James McGovern (MA). Ask your representative to become a co-sponsor. Here’s how.

Here’s some footage from the SOA Watch Vigil at Fort Benning: