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The Scarlet & Black

The Scarlet & Black

A letter from this year’s SOA trip

Several weeks ago, a group of 21 of us made the 17-hour trek down to Columbus, Georgia on a bus to call for the School of the Americas (SOA/WHINSEC) to be closed down. The SOA provides military training for Latin American soldiers and has been linked to countless human rights abuses and un-democratic practices in the region, including the 2009 coup in Honduras and 2010 attempted coup in Ecuador. By calling for the School to be closed down, we participated in a long history of social justice and peace activism here at Grinnell while furthering the rich connection between Grinnell students and the SOA Convergence of Hope and Resistance.

While in Georgia, we attended workshops on issues related to human rights in the region including the connections between U.S. Latin American immigration and militarism, the proliferation of violence under the U.S.-led Plan Colombia and the ongoing repression against the non-violent movement in Honduras against the 2009 coup. We rallied at the gates of Fort Benning with thousands of individuals to listen to speakers, network with leaders and non-profits and raise awareness of the abuses committed by graduates of the School. We stood in solidarity with those affected by the culture of violence taught by the School and raised our voices for those who have been systematically silenced through torture and assassination.

The SOA Convergence was a deeply profound emotional and educational experience and we feel that we have come back to campus educated about human rights abuses in the region and inspired to take action against them. As a part of that action, we have decided to take what we have learned back to the campus community to raise awareness of the SOA through many venues. Two students who attended the SOA have already performed a piece about the SOA for Dance Troupe and other awareness raising activities include guerrilla poetry to raise awareness for a group called Witness Against Torture and plans to bring speakers, musicians and artists we discovered at the SOA to campus. Through these mediums, we hope that awareness of the movement to close down the SOA can become an educational experience not only for the participants of this year’s trip but for the entire community.

Recognizing the transformative nature of this experience, many Grinnell students and administrators have supported the opportunity for students to attend the SOA Convergence. For years students had been going down to the gates of Fort Benning on an ad-hoc basis, but four years ago was the first time student leaders organized to charter a bus to increase the number of participants and to ensure safety for students. Ever since then, students have relied on the College for funding to subsidize the costs of the bus and campsite in Georgia in addition to student participation fees. In the past few years concerns had been raised regarding the legal question of a non-profit institution funding the trip although a compromise was reached each year to allow the trip to happen. With a change in administration the policy was reviewed and the College’s lawyers were contacted to clear the air. Upon clarifying that there was minimal to no legal risk and that many peer institutions fund trips down to the SOA, President Kington cleared the way for trip organizers to apply for funding.

In the wake of this year’s decision, the financial and institutional support of this trip and similar endeavors is up for deliberation by a committee to ensure coherence and transparency in the College’s support of such projects in the future. As students who participated in the trip and profoundly value our experience, we hope that the College can continue to support trips that directly relate to the institution’s core values of social justice, diversity and excellence in a liberal arts education. We feel that trips such as the SOA Convergence allow students to translate the lessons from the classroom about creating justice in the world into concrete action. In this way, students receive a holistic liberal arts education that recognizes the value of experiential learning while strengthening the College’s deep roots of social justice and peace activism for generations of students to come. We as students believe that trips that fall within legal and institutional guidelines and those with clear linkages to students’ Grinnell experiences, no matter where these trips fall on the political spectrum, should continue to be institutionally supported and financed.

Lastly, we would like to thank Raynard Kington, SGA Treasurer Gabe Schechter, Deanna Shorb, Chris Gaunt, Val Vetter, Michael Sims, Houston Dougharty, SGA, Peace Studies, the Voicebox and the CRSSJ for helping to make the SOA trip happen this year. We hope that the SOA trip and other such endeavors directly related to the core values of the College continue to receive sustainable, generous and transparent financial and institutional support in the future.

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  • W

    Will BluntDec 13, 2010 at 3:00 pm

    As I read the exchange between Nathaniel and Lee I’m curious as to what background Nathaniel has that provides him such insight to the mission of WHINSEC. The coup that Nathaniel refers to was actually a democratic military responding to the elected Honduran Congress’ order to remove the president becasue of his efforts to pervert the Honduran constitution. The members who are on the Board of Visitors are well informed individuals, many who have been associated with social and human rights issues. Their names are public information. Look up their backgrounds. That Nathaniel is called research and research begins to prepare you for an informed discussion.

    The training that occurs at WHINSEC, that is all training, is open for the public to observe. Is Grinnell that open and transparent? I would hope that President Kingston would call the Board of Visitors and talk with them about their views of WHINSEC and importance this school plays in creating opportunities for countries from the Western Hemisphere to engage with each other in a school environment. Better yet, invite the Board to Grinell to discuss WHINSEC. Grinell should continue to subsidize student trips, but the bus should go to Ft Benning and WHINSEC so students could see first hand, and if they can speak Spanish discuss issues with the students who attend the Institute. All classes are taught in Spanish Nathaniel.

    I can only imagine the Guerilla Poetry that you are reading. Is it done wearing a Che Guevara cap or t-shirt? I invite you to ask Congressman Boswell to stop by for one of your reading sessions. Your young minds would be better prepared for life working on a Habitat for Hummanity home. I couoldn’t bust on you too much Nathaniel when I realized you were a freshman. Three months out of your parent’s house hardly makes you the oracle of insight. Good luck kid and hopefully, three and half more years of school improves your education.

  • L

    Lee RialsDec 13, 2010 at 8:26 am

    And I thank Mr. Powell-Palm for confirming my assumption that he knows nothing of WHINSEC except what he has heard from the SOA Watch crowd. Note that I did not make my assertions without a way to evaluate them. If one wants to know who we are and what we do, he/she can come here and do that freely. Numerous high school and college students have done so for up to a week, and a British researcher spent a month here, gathering information for her doctoral dissertation (she earned her doctorate and is now a lecturer in a university). Just for the record, there are only two countries in the entire Organization of American States who have sent students in the past but are not now. Attendance in our courses has been at or near our capacity; the Department of Defense, our ultimate headquarters, enthusiastically supports our contributions to its policy of helping to train partner-nation security forces; and a federal committee called the Board of Visitors has repeatedly found that we are fulfilling our mission with excellence. As I say repeatedly, come see. Make your own informed assessment.
    Lee Rials, WHINSEC Public Affairs

  • L

    Lee RialsDec 10, 2010 at 2:49 pm

    I find it incredibly ironic that college students would travel 17 hours to stand in a street listening to uninformed people talk about the School of the Americas (closed by the US gov’t 10 years ago) when they could travel an additional three miles and make their own assessment of the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, which has been serving our nation and our hemisphere for ten years. Just for the record, do you know how many people have been found to use their SOA or WHINSEC training to commit any crime? Zero. Not one! I suspect that your own moral code holds that individuals are responsible for their own actions. So why are you morally libeling the dedicated U.S. personnel who taught at the SOA when you have no evidence that what they taught was anything but moral, legal and ethical? It is anti-intellectual, to say the least. At your next break, why not send a delegation to WHINSEC to make your own assessment? We are open to visitors every workday. From mid-January through October, there are usually four or more separate courses in session. Visitors may sit in any of them, talk with students and faculty, and review instructional materials. To enter Fort Benning, visitors need a photo ID. I’ll send anyone driving instructions to WHINSEC’s small campus; you won’t need an escort. Visit our website to get more information or use it to contact me.

    Lee Rials, WHINSEC Public Affairs Officer