To some, the U.S. Army School of the Americas (SOA) is a thing of the past, a relic of the Cold War.
“The School of the Americas has been investigated by congressional committees, especially after all the protest from the Contra War,” says Mark Johnson, executive director of the Montana World Affairs Council and a veteran of the U.S. State Department. “As a result, it’s pretty much out of business.”
The goals of the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (WHISC), the training center that replaced the SOA in January, 2001, include “strengthening democracy, instilling a clear understanding of the rule of law, and honoring human rights,” according to the U. S. Department of Defense. Its stated mission is to teach civilian and military students “to solve regional problems, including resolving border conflicts peacefully, fighting the illegal drug trade and organized crime, responding to natural disasters, and supporting peacekeeping efforts.”
To others, however, shutting down the SOA was little more than a thinly veiled public relations ploy. Critics claim that WHISC, which opened the same day as the SOA closed, perpetuates human rights abuses throughout Latin America using U.S. taxpayer dollars.
Among those critics is Missoula resident Summer Nelson, one of several thousand protesters who gathered last November at the gates of Fort Benning in Columbus, Ga., and one of 37 protesters sentenced to jail time for her activities. What follows are excerpts from a letter Nelson sent to the Missoula Independent, written from her Harris County Jail cell in Hamilton, Ga:
“A friend sent a quote to me in jail, from Lila Watson, an aboriginal Australian woman. She said, ‘If you have come to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.’ Captured in those words is a sense of my connection to this world—that all is intertwined, and that if we are to find or maintain our own freedom, it is inescapably bound up with the struggle for freedom and liberation of any person, land, or creature.”
“I came to Missoula in 1994, escaping the suburban sprawl of Seattle and studying resource conservation and wilderness studies at the University of Montana, surrounded by wild, open areas that have since become my home...Through a visit to the Buffalo Field Campaign, I made my introduction into the world of activism…
“In those years of learning about the SOA, which is now called the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, I discovered that… numerous SOA graduates have been found responsible for murders, tortures, and for leading death squads and battalions who committed such horrendous crimes as assassinating Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador during mass, raping and killing U.S. churchwomen, and the massacre of a village of 900 civilians in El Mozote, El Salvador, to name only a few. If I were to continue to claim to hold any compassion and integrity in my life, then I would not be able to ignore these gross violations of human rights, or the significant role played by the U.S. government in contributing to these atrocities.
“This [past] year, a month after Sept. 11, with so much energy and talk directed at the elimination of terrorism and the training of terrorists, the existence of the SOA/WHISC stood out as a glaring hypocrisy. U.S. taxpayer dollars are continuing to support an institute that trains for combat and counter-insurgency with civilians as its targets. Essentially, this is a terrorist training camp on U.S. soil, and I felt driven to join others as a U.S. citizen, as my right and duty, to stand up against this sinister institution of destruction.”
“I had no intention of entering Fort Benning and getting arrested when I arrived in Georgia. Somehow…my connection to the suffering of people and land at the hands of SOA graduates strengthened. In the energy there, I felt compelled to confront those complicit to and in charge of the training for terror and torture more directly…A legal team present at the protest had written up a memo about the various international and domestic laws that were violated by the existence of the SOA/WHISC, including the U.N. Charter, the Charter of the Organization of American States, the Nuremberg Principles, and the recent domestic law, the USA Patriot Act…In our attempt to deliver this indictment, we walked together, the seven of us who signed the charge, circumvented the fence running a few hundred feet away from the gate of the entrance to the base, and read aloud from our indictment, continuously stating our purpose. We were, of course, apprehended, arrested and eventually brought to trial on federal trespassing charges…
“In court, on one morning of a week-long trial with 37 defendants, I represented myself along with one of my co-defendants, Abigail Miller…Reading our indictment from the stand, we explained how we felt it our right and duty to deliver that message onto the base and to the SOA/WHISC personnel…While we received compliments on our presentation, the judge did not agree with our legal arguments and found us guilty, as he did all of the 37 defendants, and sentenced us to 90 days in jail or federal prison.
“Now that I’m in jail…I hope that the time served by all of us reaches people to spark their curiosity, to motivate them to think, and to make more efforts toward closing the SOA/WHISC as one piece of a destructive foreign policy. In the day to day, I’m trying to ignore the ever-present bombardment from the television, and remain focused on what brought me here and what I can learn…When I am released on Oct. 11, I plan to return to Missoula and likely spend time in West Yellowstone with the buffalo and eagles as well.
“I want Montanans to realize that we are all a part of this—each person can remain silent or choose to make their voice heard, whatever they believe. For any who have passion for freedom, life and true justice, their actions are as important as any others.”
Summer Nelson can send and receive mail at the Harris County Jail, P.O. Box 286, Hamilton, GA 31811.