Two Grebel students attend protest in Georgia

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Clip art of group of people protesting SOA/WHINSECOn a balmy Sunday morning in Georgia, a large crowd of people slowly walk in a circle holding crosses, each with a unique name. When the name is called, the cross is raised and the bearer declares “presente!” These crosses are placed one by one in the fence, creating an impactful memorial. Name after name is called as the vigil continues and the people march on. Thousands of people came from all over the Americas, including the U.S., Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Colombia, Canada, and more, to commemorate the victims killed by graduates from the former School of the Americas (SOA), now Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (WHINSEC), and to protest the operation of this military base.

The SOA Watch (SOAW) protest has been going on since 1990, gaining more and more supporters each year to protest the school and remember the victims who have died. They advocate for the closure of the WHINSEC because it trains military personnel from Central and South American countries in subjects such as counter-insurgency, military intelligence, and counter-narcotics to be used in their home countries. Graduates from the SOA/WHINSEC have included some of the worst abusers of human rights in Latin America, using their learned skills to lead military coups and massacre hundreds of people.

This year two Grebel students, Anneke Pries-Klassen, a PACS student, and Catie Walker, an ERS student, drove down to Fort Benning, Georgia, from Waterloo to attend this annual conference, protest, and vigil along with thousands of other participants on Thursday, November 21. The bus was filled with a variety of people, including local high school students from Catholic schools, universities students, and adult members of the community who have been going to the protest for years.

The first part of the weekend was a conference held on Friday and Saturday, with sessions and seminars running all day. The workshops were varied and covered a wide range of topics, from comparing the conflict in Syria to conflict in Columbia to discussing environmental issues, all brought together under the theme of social justice. Anneke remembers the workshop regarding the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) as one of her favourites. The workshop discussed this massive free trade agreement that the U.S. is negotiating with 11 other countries and will remove protection for domestic markets under the pretense of removing “trade barriers,” as well as overrule individual state sovereignty.

On Sunday was the protest and vigil portion of the weekend. Before the vigil, speakers shared their experiences with the SOA/WHINSEC and led singing, urging attendees to agree to a non-violent pact that supports the use of non-violent action. There were helicopters flying overhead all day and police lining the street, but Anneke said that she had positive experience with the police, saying that in a conversation with one policeman he supported the protest, and doesn’t mind policing it because the protesters are good and don’t cause problems, serving as a reminder that, although police may seem like a negative presence, they are supposed to be neutral and some may even personally agree with the protest.

Overall, the girls found this to be an enriching experience. Reflecting on the experience, Anneke concludes that “this experience was one of personal growth for me. I tried to focus on what I could learn from this experience and bring back to Canada. I can’t keep my learning in Georgia, I have to show solidarity at home and spread awareness.”  Anneke and Kate were the 2 newest additions to the tradition of Grebel students participating in the protest; they are not the first and hopefully will not be the last.

If you are interested in attending next year, stay tuned in the fall for news on how to get involved. Travel bursaries may be available for financial aid.

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