School of the Americas Watch (1989 - )

The Lokashakti Encyclopedia of Nonviolence, Peace, & Social Justice

School of the Americas protest

Initiated by Roy Bourgeois, a Maryknoll priest, School of the Americas (SOA) Watch has grown in size and significance since 1989 as one of the most extensive and sophisticated legislative and direct action movements in modern U.S. history. Each November ten to twenty thousand people of all ages gather at the gate of Ft. Benning, Georgia, calling for the closure of the so-called “School of Assassins,” which, under this pressure, has since changed its name to the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation. (A response to the name change by the late Congressman Moakley of Massachusetts: “That’s like pouring perfume on a nuclear dump.”) In recent years, many participants at the November protest have risked jail or gone to prison for several months as a result of crossing the boundary of the military post.

The story of Roy Bourgeois’ commitment to closing the School of the Americas and the educational, direct action, and legislative movement that he has succeeded in building is a powerful one, not easily conveyed in a brief description. Born in Louisiana, he is a veteran of the Vietnam War, where he met a priest who headed an orphanage for children victimized by the War, and subsequently studied for the priesthood with the Missionary Society of the United States (Maryknoll). After spending seven years as a priest in Latin America, among the poor, he was forced out of Bolivia in 1977. Returning to the U.S., he became increasingly involved in efforts to end American military aid to Central America, and coordinated an award-winning film on the topic, Gods of Metal (1983). Also in 1983, he protested the training of Salvadoran soldiers by the U.S. at Ft. Benning by broadcasting the final sermon of Oscar Romero, Archbishop of San Salvador, who was murdered four years earlier by soldiers trained in the U.S.

People carry white crosses in procession at Ft. Benning, GeorgiaBourgeois’ increasing involvement, including arrests and public protests, evoked strong criticism from a variety of communities, including concerns among his religious superiors and even death threats, when he rented an apartment near the main gate of Ft. Benning. Through it all, he remained faithful to his vocation as a priest, and increasingly effective in his lectures and national organizing to close the School of the Americas, the subject of a film nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary Film (1995's School of the Assassins). Meanwhile, the legislative campaign to cut the funding for the “School of Assassins” won the support of then-Congressman Joseph Kennedy and later-Congressman James McGovern, both of Massachusetts. At one point, they even succeeded in passing legislation reducing funding, only to have the vote rescinded shortly afterward.

Gaining access to the names of graduates, many of them well-known human rights abusers, with assistance from the United Nations Truth Commission, SOA Watch has succeeded in winning the hearts and minds of thousands of people. Among recent victories are agreements with the governments of Venezuela, Argentina, and Uruguay to stop sending military personnel from those countries to train at Ft. Benning. Although as Bourgeois has said, “It’s hard to hold on to joy and hope over the long haul,” he appears not to have faltered in the long, costly, and demanding effort to remain faithful to the people of Latin America “in their struggle for justice.”

Dr. Michael True, reprinted with permission, from People Power: 50 Peacemakers and their Communities. Jaipur: Rawat Publications, 2007.

Selected material by members of SOA Watch
  • James Hodge and Linda Cooper, Disturbing the Peace: The Story of Father Roy Bourgeois and the Movement to Close the School of the Americas. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2004.
Selected material about SOA Watch
  • Nelson-Pallmeyer, Jack. School of Assassins: Guns, Breed, and Globalization. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2003.
  • Bios   ( 24 )
    Inspirational noteworthy figures in the history of nonviolence, peace, and social justice
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    Important concepts related to peace and nonviolence, especially in regards to nonviolent action
  • Movements   ( 26 )
    Movements and historical events where nonviolent action was used entirely or in large part
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