Saturday afternoon a mix of Ithaca residents, their children and Cornell students gathered in the parking lot of the Ithaca Farmers Market to protest the School of the Americas (SOA) by marching down to the Commons.
The SOA was first established in 1946 as an United States Army Caribbean training center in Panama to help establish Latin American and Caribbean militaries. In 1984, the school was moved to in Ft. Benning, Ga., as a result of the terms of the Panama Canal Treaty. The school, funded by U.S. tax dollars, has come to train soldiers and military personnel from Latin American countries in torture, assassination and terror techniques.
According to data released by the Pentagon in 1997, these techniques are often used against civilians in Latin America.
People have been protesting the SOA since the mid-1980s; their efforts have resulted primarily in a renaming of the school as the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation. Many at the march believe the new name was an effort to end associations of terror and violence with the school.
One man’s sign read, “SOA — different name, same shame.”
According to Clare Grady, an Ithaca resident, the walk was organized in effort to, “take responsibility for our part.” Clare Grady attended the protest with her sisters Ellen and Teresa.
“Now more than ever we are aware of terrorism and all of us have to apply ourselves to bring an end to that,” Clare Grady said. “We have known about this school for a long time, how could we not make an effort to stop the training that goes on there?”
According to Clare Grady, 60 Tompkins County Residents traveled to Georgia this weekend to join 10,000 people taking part in the larger protest there, and those who had to remain in Ithaca wanted to put together their own demonstration.
A protest is held every Nov. 17 and 18 in Georgia to commemorate the 1989 assassination of six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper and her 15-year-old daughter in El Salvador at the hands of SOA graduates.
“I have been protesting for two years,” said Hilda Moleski, an Ithaca resident. “I went [to Georgia once] as a parent chaperone with a group of 15 people under the age of 18 [because] I feel strongly about this.”
The march in Ithaca began at noon in the traditional style of a funeral procession.
“The idea is to have a solemn honoring of the people tortured and killed as a way to give a voice to their voices in a traditional non-violent protest,” said Teresa Grady, an Ithaca resident.
Participants carrying signs and hand-crafted “birds of hope and peace” first gathered in a circle to say a few words about the SOA, their feelings about the injustice and why the school should be shut down.
“The SOA is a center for the teaching of torture techniques to be used specifically against civilians,” said Moleski. “It is horrendous that we are propagating that training in the United States.”
Traditional large wooden crosses with the names victims written on them were handed out to the demonstrators. As the march proceeded, a list of the names of victims and their ages was sung out, with the participants responding to each name by lifting their cross or bird in the air and singing back, “presente.”
“We say ‘presente’ after each name to mean we are here for the people who died and to invoke their spirits among us,” said Clare Grady.
In Georgia, three Ithaca residents were among 70 protesters arrested yesterday for criminal trespassing and resisting arrest after they crossed onto the base during the funeral procession there, according to Ellen Grady. She noted that each is being held on $1,000 bond in Muscogee County Jail.
Protests against the SOA have been staged in Ithaca in years past, including one this past April.
“I hope to see [the SOA] closed,” said Teresa Grady. “In light of the terrorism going on now we would expect out of consistency [that] the school would be closed.”
For information on how to get involved, contact the SOA Watch, an independently organized group that seeks to close the School of the Americas through vigils, fasts, demonstrations, nonviolent protests, media and legislative work. To get information from SOA Watch, or to send donations, write to: SOA Watch, P.O. Box 4566, Washington D.C. 20017.
Archived article by Rachel Einschlag