At least 20 people were arrested last month for their involvement in a protest of the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, formally known as the School of the Americas (SOA), in Fort Benning, Ga.
The protest and arrests were fueled by accusations made by the School of America Watch (SOAW), about the training of students to become some of the world’s most notorious Latin American soldiers. The SOAW is the commission that oversees the training facility’s activities, and the protest is the organization’s 15th demonstration.
"I don’t call this civil disobedience; this is our duty," said Mary Courtman, who has a friend that survived torture in Guatemala from soldiers that were trained at the infamous “School of Assassins.”
Graduates of the school, such as Panama’s Manuel Noriega, Bolivia’s Hugo Banzer, and Argentina’s Leopoldo Galtiere have been cited for involvement in terrorism, human rights violations, and atrocities committed against civilians across Latin America.
During the protest, the SOAW demanded the closing of the training school. Protesters numbered about 16,000, including actor Martin Sheen and actress Susan Sarandon. The crowd also included more young adult protesters than in the previous 14 years, organizers said. They attributed that to a greater awareness of the military training at the school and to knowledge about the violence occurring in Iraq.
The crowd marched about two hours to the military training camp, posing as a funeral procession, carrying white wooden crosses, each embodying a victim of torture or murder from an SOA soldier. Some of the protestors resorted to even climbing the 10-foot fence surrounding the military fort in order to gain entry. Those people involved will likely serve a jail sentence ranging from three to six months.
School officials have continually held press conferences to deny such allegations in the past, but this year the school declined comment.