For activists, Fort Benning protest washes away post-election blues

Peace activists could be forgiven for feeling depressed over the past few weeks. The battle for Fallujah has left dozens of Americans and hundreds of Iraqis dead. Another African nation — in this case, Ivory Coast — has devolved into chaos and bloodshed.

And then there was George W. Bush's victory three weeks ago.

Lil Corrigan remembers waking up in her Marietta home the morning after Election Day. "I was so mad. I went to my car and tore off all of the Kerry stickers. But the more I thought about it, I realized that Bush deserves it. He got us into this awful mess, and now he has to get us out of it."

The 81-year-old Corrigan, wearing an oversized T-shirt that said, "Grandmother for Peace," was holding court from a folding chair on Fort Benning Road last Saturday in Columbus, where she's come every year for the past 15 to protest the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation. The school trains Latin American soldiers in the fine art of counterinsurgency tactics and, it's been alleged, torture techniques. Critics blame graduates of the institute for horrific crimes committed in Central and South America over the years, including the assassination in 1980 of Archbishop Oscar Romero in El Salvador, and the murder of six Jesuit priests there in 1989.

The institute's original name was School of the Americas, or SOA, and that's how most still refer to it. Protesters long ago decided that the more apt name was School of Assassins, and speaker after speaker invoked that label last weekend from a stage set up outside the gated entrance to the campus. Their voices, amplified by a web of massive speakers that Led Zeppelin would have envied, alternated between inspiring and deafening the crowd of 10,000.

At any protest, there is an unavoidable preaching-to-the-choir element. But for Corrigan, the weekend was a much needed shot of energy, not so much for the speeches that repeated themselves, but for the chance to reconnect with a network of activists that converges once a year on Columbus. Their presence and energy renewed her faith.

One of her old friends was Bill McNulty, who made the trip down from Long Island. McNulty is 69, an Army veteran, and in 1998 he did a six-month stretch in federal prison in Pennsylvania for carrying his protest onto the grounds of the School of the Americas. The sentence, he says, gave him such credibility in activist circles that he is still invited to talk before groups about civil disobedience. Like Corrigan, McNulty finds that his religious faith — he's Catholic — impels him to protest the SOA, even when the nation appears to drift more to the right. "The challenge is not to be effective," he said. "It's to be faithful."

Like anyone on the political left, McNulty was disappointed by the election results. But he also realized that events like the SOA protest now take on even more importance.

"Look around," he said. "These people will go back home, they'll invite speakers, they'll show videos, they'll write books. These folks are working to name reality."

If that sounds like pie-in-the-sky optimism, it was a message that was repeated by everyone CL talked to at the protest. Tim Franzen, who was manning a booth for Citizens for Peace of Cobb County, temporarily suspended a rule he'd made on the way down that all election talk is prohibited.

"I have mixed feelings about the election," he said. "I think when a Democrat gets in office, a lot of progressives lie dormant. By the time Bush is done — if he isn't impeached first — this country will be so freakin' tired of Republicans."

As if on cue, a folk singer kicked off a tune that began, "You know it's darkest before the dawn/And that's what keeps me hangin' on."

Brooks Campbell, a former Army helicopter pilot, flew down from New Hampshire by himself and was staying with an old Army buddy in Columbus. With Bush in office and Republicans in solid control of Congress, it's fair to say School of the Americas will be around for a while longer. So was the effort to travel all this way worth it?

"This is not a futile effort, because it gives us momentum," he said. "If Bush had lost, I wouldn't have come down here. We may not make a big difference, but maybe we can change the course one degree."

For the first few years, the protest was composed largely of religiously motivated protesters — people like Corrigan and McNulty. And sure enough, this year's protest included gaggles of nuns and men in white collars and shiny silver crosses. But with each year, regulars say, the growing numbers are representing a broader cross-section of America.

Indeed, as the weekend wore on, the crowd swelled to between 10,000 and 16,000 — possibly the largest in the history of the protest. On Sunday, 20 people were arrested for scaling the fence onto the campus.

One of the speakers last Saturday was Bob King, a vice president with the United Auto Workers. The union sent down more than 100 of its members, including a handful from Atlanta. What's the union's interest in the School of the Americas?

Simple, he said. "They target anybody who's working to build power for people. We're here to show solidarity."

As for the election, King, echoing the prevailing optimism — or delusion, depending on where you stand — of the crowd, said, "I think a lot of good is gonna come out of it."

Corrigan, whose ailing husband had to stay behind this year, was more blunt. "I shouldn't say this to be quoted, but I'm going to say it, anyway: I just think America is an alcoholic right now and it has to go all the way to the bottom before it comes back up."