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After Action Report: Shut Down School of the Americas
By Ben Chitty
Early in the morning of Tuesday, November 15th, Army veteran Louis De Benedette walked onto the base at Fort Benning, Georgia, and -- along with Jesuit priest Bill Bichsel of Tacoma, Washington -- chained shut the doors to the U.S. Army's School of the Americas. Both men were quickly arrested, along with three other people passing out leaflets: Will Prior, Vietnam veteran from Las Cruces, New Mexico, John Lennehan, peace activist from King's Bay, Georgia, and Fred Mercy from Spokane, Washington, also a Jesuit.
The act capped three days of fasting and vigil at the main gate of the base. The protest continued the next day. Bichsel and Mercy knelt before a sign outside the School, while Bichsel threw some of his own blood on the sign. The pair were arrested again. Later in the day, the protesters held a memorial service for the six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper and her teenage daughter, murdered in 1989 by Salvadoran soldiers including nineteen SOA graduates, and four American women, three nuns and a lay sister, abducted, raped and murdered in 1980 by Salvadoran soldiers including three SOA graduates. After the service the protesters approached and embraced three counter-protesters across the street.
"A good action," reported DeBenedette. "We closed the place down for about twenty minutes--the MPs had to find some bolt cutters. The Army was embarrassed, as it should be, and the School is very upset with us." He noted that the School did not seem very popular among the military police who detained him. De Benedette traveled to Fort Benning from New Haven, Connecticut, partly, he said, in honor of his friend Guadalupe Ccallocunto Olano, a human rights activist disappeared by the Peruvian army in 1990. He is godfather to her four children.
De Benedette and the others were charged with criminal trespass and interference with government property, and given "ban and bar" letters. The pair, re-arrested Wednesday, were again charged with criminal trespass. Bichsel was also charged with conspiracy to commit malicious mischief: apparently defacing the sign (mischief), using his own blood (malice) from a vial he had prepared beforehand (conspiracy).
The action was planned to mark the fifth anniversary of the Jesuits' murder in El Salvador. It may also set the tone for the campaign to close down the School. The last Congress twice defeated amendments offered by Congressman Joe Kennedy of Massachusetts to defund the School, and the next Congress will probably do no better. But Army veteran Patrick Liteky--convicted of throwing blood in the School in 1990--described the act as "an interim victory." "It was a symbolic act," he observed. "It disrupted business as usual. That was our intent." Roy Bourgeois, Vietnam veteran and Maryknoll priest, also convicted in the 1990 protest, added: "We will never give up, until the doors are closed, finally and for good."