Monday, November 24, 2014

The Vigil Concludes

 For two hours on Sunday, bringing the School of Americas protest to a singularly moving conclusion,  the couple of thousand who had gathered for this three-day Vigil marched to the barricaded entry to Fort Bragg holding white crosses bearing the names of mostly Hispanics who had unjustly been killed while a handful of musicians sang out their names.  As each name was sung, the masses responded with a "Presente" and raised their crosses aloft.  It was a sacred procession that carried the weight of centuries of religious tradition.

The marchers circulated several times up and down the four lane highway leading to Fort Bragg, where many inserted their crosses into the temporary fence that had been erected to keep them from the Fort.

The fencing was crammed.

But the people kept coming and coming despite the steady rain.

Some carried banners along with a cross.

Others bore simple signs.

Many of the younger set adorned their face with a temporary tattoo, while others made a statement with their t-shirt--Peace is Patriotic, We Will Be Heard, I Hate War, Stop the Insanity--Start the Peace...

Before the march began there was a final series of speeches and songs from the stage.  Father Roy, who was introduced as "Our number one trouble-maker," and the man who launched these demonstrations twenty-five years ago and lives across the street from where the stage was set up, assured all "that we will never be silenced."  Even though the numbers of protesters has plummeted over the years to one-tenth of what they had been at its peak, he said, "We're not going away.  We're keeping our hand on the plow." All stood in solemn attention.

The group of fifteen who joined the Buddhist-led four-day walk from Atlanta, one hundred miles away, to Columbus, took to the stage for a chant.

The puppetistas put on another performance as they had they day before with the forces of good triumphing over evil.

Overlooking them and the proceedings was an elevated booth with an officer monitoring one and all.

A forlorn line of police stood behind the fencing that quarantined the protesters to the highway, lest anyone trespass upon the Fort.

Officers also stood in clusters looking bored and not flinching at the constant refrain from the many speakers and singers and masses, "Close the School, Close the School."

Father Roy has convinced seven Latin American countries to no longer send students to the school and will be leading a delegation to Chile to meet with its president to push the cause. Still the school thrives.  A class of 1,700 had just graduated this weekend, the same number coincidentally as the number of immigrants presently detained at a detention center thirty miles away, where a thousand of those gathered here marched Saturday morning.  Five were arrested for civil disobedience.  They were cheered on each occasion when their names were read from the stage.

Though it may be unrealistic to think the School of Americas will go away, those in attendance keep coming as they can't help but be revitalized by the experience to pursue the innumerable causes that give them a raison d'être.  It is an annual reunion for political activists from all over the country.  Over fifty workshops were presented at the downtown Convention Center Friday and Saturday until late in the night on immigration and labor issues, the political situation in many Latin American countries, youth movements, nuclear power and on and on.

Most were overflowing with deeply concerned citizens sitting on the floor and standing in the back.  They were exchanges of information by deeply committed people.  At a talk on drones led by Brain Terrell, who had served six months for trespassing on the Whiteman Air Force base in Missouri, more than two-thirds of the eighty people in attendance raised their hand when he asked how many had participated in drone protests and made significant contributions to the program. One wore a t-shirt reading "Fly Kites Not Drones."  Most politely raised their hand half-high to make a contribution and often deferred to someone else when called upon, saying, "That person had their hand up first."  Terrell said that he no more trespassed on the drone base he was arrested at than does a stranger who barges into a burning house to rescue a child.

At a presentation on the four most prominent of the nine ALBA countries--Cuba, Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador--half the audience raised their hand when the moderator asked who had been to Cuba.  Only one other beside me had been to Venezuela and I was the only one along with the moderator who had been to Bolivia.  He rattled off statistic after statistic (health care, minimum wage, unemployment, economic growth) that implied all four countries were better places to live than the United States. He was particularly heartened at the recent political stability in Bolivia and Ecuador, countries that had previously been marked by regular coups.  A large part of the discussion centered on how those who hadn't been to Cuba could get there.  The easiest way was to go on a sanctioned trip with a religious group, though that didn't allow one much freedom.  He stated that the UN regularly condemns the US blockade of Cuba.  When it is put to a vote the only country that sides with the US is Israel.

The workshops were so worthwhile I skipped a concert of many of the musicians who had performed on the outdoor stage.  There were two seminars at the same time on the disappeared in Mexico.  The one I chose was conducted by a most passionate young women who was an active participant in the massive upheaval throughout her country over the 43 students who disappeared nearly two months ago.  Her power point presentation included a two-minute video of the 43 the day before they were kidnapped as they frolicked on an agricultural project.

I had locked up my loaded bike by the door on the second level to the Center and periodically went out to it for some food or drink.  Whenever I did someone came to ask how far I ridden.  Rarely have I attracted such sincere interest.  Many wanted to take a photo of the bike with its pilot.  A woman from The Farm in Tennessee, the legendary commune that goes back to the 70s, invited me to stop by on my return.  She was part of a contingent that attends the Vigil year after year.

Others offered me a ride back to Chicago.  I had already arranged one though with a bus from Minneapolis led by a group of four Vietnam Vets.  The majority of their passenger were young women from three different Catholic organizations.  There were also two high school boys and two gray-haired nuns.  On the ride back everyone aboard used the microphone to reflect on the experience.  All spoke with genuine passion and acknowledged they had been enlightened on a number of issues and had been transformed by the experience.

Our route went through the heart of Illinois on Interstate 39.  The bus driver stopped to let me off when we intersected highway 30, leaving me with a final 75 mile ride to Chicago.  It had been raining all night and it was still raining when we reached the drop-off point on the exit ramp three miles from the nearest town at six a.m. just as a hint of light began emerging in the cloud-shrouded sky. I was fortunate the driver on duty took a wrong turn on 74 taking us to Peoria, forcing us to double back and prolonging my time on the bus an extra hour.  If I had been unloaded at five, it would have been pitch dark and I would have hardly been able to ride.

I was only able to bid farewell to my seatmate (one of the Vietnam vets) and a couple of others, as all were asleep and no one dared venture out for a piss beside the bus as would have happened in a third-world country.  Our farewells were a "Hope to see you next year," as had been the case all weekend.  And I would gladly make a bike ride of it once again, with or without Tim.

It was cold and, rather than warming, it grew colder and colder until the rain turned to sleet.  My gloves and shoes and wind pants were soon soaked.  A strong wind at my back didn't allow me to generate any body heat.  After two hours when I came to Hinckley, I knew it would be folly to continue.  Not only would it take forever to dry my wet clothes, the road was becoming treacherous.  The sleet was coming down horizontally in the strong wind.  I hated to do it, but I called Janina to come to my rescue.  Luckily she has no classes on Mondays and was just forty-five miles away.  I found refuge in the town's lone small diner and had a final hotcakes breakfast before Janina pulled up ninety minutes later apologizing for the delay as she had been caught in a white out.  The conditions were truly murderous.  Though it would have been far preferable to complete my trip, even from Columbus, via pedal-power, I was happy to be home in time for Thanksgiving with Janina and other friends. 


dworker said...

Very inspiring. I will be going sometime sooner than I thought. Thanks for the coverage.

JeffOYB said...

Hi George! I just got a phone call from a lady who would like to hire you for a presentation. She heard you give a talk in Illinois (I think) about a trip to Turkey and really liked it. Cynthia Simmons. Contact her at: Her bike club's website: