Protest and Disempowerment – One Anarchist’s Experience at SOA
By Rob Augman
November 19th, 2000 saw a continuation of the annual mass demonstrations against the School of Americas (aka School of Assassins). The demo, in its 11th year, brought 10,000* people to the base in Ft. Benning, GA. The annual demos which have mobilized people in strong numbers, have been a non-confrontational demo of dissenters who ‘cross the line’ and literally jump into the hands of the State, forfeiting themselves to the SOA’s Military Police. Because of the last year’s successful ‘anti-globalization’ mass protests, showing powerful, uncompromising and innovative resistance, SOA Watch (the organizers for the annual SOA demos), had no choice but to welcome that movement to the SOA demo. While many were excited about the potential the new anti-globalization movement would bring, the movement was only welcomed to participate as autonomous affinity groups to do actions (as long as they abided by SOA Watch’s ‘Principles of Non-Violence’), but never as the actual planning body like we have seen in the successful anti-WTO (etc.) demos. Though the energy of the younger and more tactically militant strand of the new movement was present, the demo remained stuck in the rut of non-violent civil (dis)obedience of ‘crossing the line’ in complete cooperation with the SOA.
At 11am, around 3,600* people ‘crossed the line’ (resulting in over 2,100* arrests) onto the base in a long, slow, funeral procession, carrying thousands of crosses and other sacred symbols inscribed with the names of victims of SOA violence in Latin America. Those names were spoken loud and slowly and the thousands of crosses were raised in the air as the word “presente” was spoken like a chorus from the huge crowd. The very front of the procession was led by dozens of ‘ghosts’ carrying coffins, to commemorate the lives of six Jesuit priests and their two co-workers assassinated in El Salvador in 1989 by SOA graduates. It was an emotion-filled march that stayed true to the seriousness of the issue at hand.
When all those planning to cross the line had done so, the Military Police stopped the procession. The ‘ghosts’ re-enacted a massacre (and we’re later charged with vandalizing military property for the ‘blood’ they spilled on themselves that dripped on the street). Photos were taken of the ‘ghosts’ faces (to enter into databases), and their ‘dead’ bodies were loaded onto stretchers and carried away. The buses hauled them into the SOA’s own processing center and the rest of the march was allowed to continue. Songs were sung and crosses were stuck into the ground next to the street. At one point when the MP’s commanded the crowd to stop planting the crosses in the ground, the crowd complied. One of the MP’s, targeting a woman who ignored his commands, trampled the crosses beneath his boots as he walked towards her. Some frustrated murmuring took place but it never materialized. Greatly outnumbering the MP’s and other pawns of the State, the funeral procession waited when the MP’s told it to, and got on buses when they told it to. Where was the resistance or even the disobedience?
Soon after, the march stopped again and the families got on the buses to the MP’s and SOA Watch peacekeepers commands. The remaining crowd was allowed to continue on a bit more, singing songs, and stopping to use the port-a-potties that were waiting.
Some confusion occurred at one point as a small defiant group marched up the exit road towards the base. The crowd took notice and cheered and chanted but none left the procession. The crowd watched the militants get dragged away by MP’s while waiting for other MP’s to order us onto buses.
In custody, we waited on buses, then on bleachers in the rain, then in tents, and then in a large airplane hangar which at no point were their feelings of unity or solidarity with fellow demonstrators. The general feeling was an impatient curiosity of when we would get home and into dry clothes, and on which wall to hang our ‘Ban and Bar’ letters on.
When we were finally processed through, herded onto buses, and driven to a park a few miles off the base, crowds gathered around the buses and cheered for us as we got off. We were heroes and heroines of a fast-food style protest. It was a protest fit for television, but there wasn’t even any media.
As a demo that has been sharply criticized, a few questions arise. It is my hope that we can criticize, in a way that is constructive, the movement we take part in as part of evolving our ideas, tactics, strategies, and our movement. Any simple write-offs that serve as destructive criticism are useless and unnecessary.
What can we learn from the anti-globalization movement?
STRUCTURE OF ORGANIZING
The main success that the ‘anti-globalization’ movement has is that we’re not just protesting, but we’re learning a new way of organizing, a way of building the new society. The organizing structure of non-hierarchy, decentralization, participatory decision-making, cooperation, and mutual-aid and solidarity not only result in successful actions but also in empowering and educating ourselves. The empowerment comes from doing it ourselves. By making decisions in a cooperative and participatory manner where we aren’t over-ruled by an elite minority (as we’re used to in school, work, etc.) we learn how to build, and build huge, from the bottom-up, from the grassroots. The education comes from taking part in a bottom-up, cooperative, participatory, non-hierarchical structure that works (!). Our knowledge we gain from our direct experiences can be carried with us and spread into all aspects of our lives.
REAL RESISTANCE, DISOBEDIENCE, DIRECT CONFRONTATION
Unlike the SOA demos, where we simply act as a petition, using our bodies (in a cooperative manner) instead of our signatures, the anti-globalization movement uses a no-compromise attitude of direct confrontation, resistance, and disobedience. Where the anti-globalization movement is using an inclusive, non-hierarchical, decentralized planning structure, SOA Watch is using a cooperative method with the SOA itself.
While the anti-globalization movement plans protests with its participants, the SOA Watch plans theirs with the SOA.
While the Direct Action Network, one of the main networks coordinating anti-globalization protests, asks for participants to abide by their guiding principles, a diversity of tactics is encouraged as part of the mass that aims to shut-down or disturb major governing bodies. While part of the movement advocates tactics that don’t comply to DAN’s principles, property-destruction and confrontational attitudes towards the police, the diversity of tactics is undeniably part of the movement and it has maintained a relatively united body that is a strength to all of its participants.
NEW WORLD VISION
The anti-globalization movement brings a vision that is drastically different from the systems we presently live under and participants and observers alike can see that. Anti-globalization protests are marked heavily with anti-capitalism and anti-statism, as well as advocating new structures and for the world’s economy that we use in our organizing: decentralization, non-hierarchy, participatory decision-making, cooperation, mutual aid and solidarity.
In SOA demos, we don’t find much vision; not even a vision for changing US Foreign Policy.
What has made the anti-globalization movement such a success is that people exercise real power, from the bottom-up, in the streets, and make a real affect. The anti-globalization movement has organized us out of our homes and into affinity groups, clusters, and spokes-counsels where we take part in changing the face of a city by working cooperatively.
In SOA demos we follow orders from SOA Watch ‘Peace Keepers,’ police, and MP’s. We march in obedient lines towards buses that we know are waiting for us. We walk to the buses, get on, and get processed. We exercise no power. The State processes us and we go home.
WHAT IS SUCCESS?
Contrary to anti-globalization protests where successes are made by innovation, coalition building, collective actions and militancy and are counted not just in numbers but in effectiveness, education and empowerment, the SOA demos measure success purely in numbers. But our movement needs not only to be big, but also empowering and educational to participants, as well as threatening to the institutions of oppression.
I hope the incredible aspects of the anti-globalization movement can be brought to the anti-SOA movement, working together to further our opposition to the SOA, and other institutions of oppression and make real changes happen.
*Numbers are provided by SOA Watch
For more information on the School of the Americas demos, check out SOA Watch’s website: http://www.soaw.org
For articles about this year’s SOA demo: http://www.atlanta.indymedia.org
Rob Augman is a member of the Onward Collective, a community organizer, and coordinator of the Civic Media Center (www.gator.net/~cmc), a non-profit reading-room and library of the non-corporate press, in Gainesville, FL.