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What is the School of the Americas?

Pagan Cluster Among Those Harassed at SOA

Protesting War and Militarism at School of Americas

Text and Photos By Barbara J. Graham - Click here for more photos!

Protesters, including the Pagan Cluster, experienced an alarming evolution in security techniques deployed at the School of the America's peace rally and prayer vigil, November 19-21, 2004 at Fort Benning Military Base in Columbus, Georgia.

Some 16,000 people participated in the annual vigil, one of the largest of the SOA Watch protests recorded.

The crowd included more college-age protesters than in the previous 14 years, SOA Watch organizers said. They attributed that presence to a greater awareness of the paramilitary training, and to the increasing violence in Iraq. SOA Watch founder Father Roy Bourgeois was joined by celebrities such as actors Susan Sarandon and Martin Sheen, and musician Amy Ray of the Indigo Girls, at the two-day demonstration.

The SOA Watch Rally has always been peaceful, making the heightened security presence incongruous and unnecessary. An increased number of police patrolled the crowd, while overhead a low flying helicopter kept up aerial observation. A skybox for stationary semi-aerial observation was also erected close to the stage.

The Pagan Cluster for this action was made up of Witches and Pagans from across the country who are called by conscience to vigil at the SOA. Engaging in magical activism, the Cluster helped build a web of life and encouraged people to write prayers of transformation upon the cloth strips. Others chalked peace labyrinths and blessings on the street. The web was provided by Vida of The Fifth Estate. The Cluster's presence at SOA protests over the years has provided increasing opportunities for expressions of Earth-based spirituality for many vigilers, and has been welcomed by SOA Watch organizers.

Police Harass the Pagan Cluster

On Saturday, police converged on the Cluster's banner, ordering the removal of its pole citing security restrictions classifying it as a weapon. SOA Watch Legal Observers quickly joined the Cluster questioning what was happening. Banner bearer Zotlynn calmly negotiated a compromise for the pole's disposition.

Later in the day, police pressured the Cluster to end the Web of Transformation ritual, using a cruiser as intimidation. In a moment of delightful irony, one policeman who had picked up a corn puppet which was marking the East, rocked in and out along with the Cluster as they pulsed to charge the web. It may have been the fastest ritual the Cluster had ever had at SOA, and it was clearly one of the most intense.

On Sunday, following the solemn and deeply moving funeral Presenté procession where the names of all the dead are called, the Cluster danced a slow and dignified Spiral Dance at the gates of Fort Benning, then scaled the fence to attach the Web of Transformation.

Pagan Cluster Activists Open "Rabbit Holes"

Three Cluster activists managed to open two "rabbit holes" beneath the fence which guarded the fort's massive stone sign. Aided by other vigilers who used their bodies to obstruct the view from police and media, the three activists scurried beneath the fence attaching crosses and pictures of victims to the tarpaulin which covered the sign. Seeing them, other vigilers quickly joined in peeling off the tarpaulin and planting a garden of crosses in the barbed wire and holly bushes. Exiting the "rabbit holes" as quickly as they had entered, the three were safely absorbed by the crowd.

The year 2000 saw the last time vigilers were allowed onto the Base, where they had traditionally staged die-ins with scores of coffins. Vigilers carrying crosses with the names of the murdered victims of SOA-trained graduates would peacefully walk deep within the Base where they were arrested, handcuffed, and processed. Most received "ban and bar orders" restricting them from entering the Base for a period of time, along with a hefty fine. Some received months-long prison sentences for their offense against a federal installation. Members of the Pagan Cluster were among those arrested.

By 2001 the Fort's gates were fenced off, preventing protester's access to the Base. In 2002 vigilers were wanded, handbags searched, and anyone wearing a bandana which veiled their face was required to remove it. In 2003 police began carrying gas masks. This year, while wanding and searching of vigilers was discontinued by court order, a doubled fence layer was erected at the Fort's gates, and an auxiliary line of chain link fencing marched down Torch Hill Road restricting access to bathrooms and shade.

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What is the SOA and Who is the SOA Watch?

The School of the Americas (SOA), in 2001 renamed the "Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation," is a combat training school for Latin American soldiers. Over its 56 years, the SOA has trained over 60,000 Latin American soldiers in counter-insurgency techniques, sniper training, commando and psychological warfare, military intelligence and interrogation tactics (see

SOA Watch was formed in reaction to the massacre of six Jesuit priests, their co-worker and her teenage daughter on November 16, 1989, in El Salvador. A US Congressional Task Force reported that those responsible were trained at the U.S. Army School of the Americas (SOA) at Ft. Benning, Georgia. SOA Watch states that from its beginning, the mission of the SOA has been to train soldiers to protect the interests of multinational corporations and maintain the economic status quo for the few rich and powerful in the US and their cohorts in Latin America.

In 1990 SOA Watch began in a tiny apartment outside the main gate of Fort Benning by Father Roy Bourgeois. While starting with a small group of people of faith, SOA Watch quickly drew upon the knowledge and experience of many in the U.S. who had worked with the people of Latin America in the 1970's and 80's. Today, the movement is a large, diverse, grassroots movement, rooted in solidarity with the people of Latin America, according to SOA Watch

The goal of SOA Watch is to close the SOA/WHINSEC and to change U.S. foreign policy in Latin America by educating the public, lobbying Congress and participating in creative, nonviolent resistance. The Pentagon has responded to the growing movement and Congress' near closure of the SOA with a PR campaign to give the SOA a new image. In an attempt to disassociate the school with its horrific past, the SOA was renamed the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation in January 2001.

According to evidence gathered by SOA Watch, among those targeted by SOA graduates are educators, union organizers, religious workers, student leaders, and others who work for the rights of the poor. Hundreds of thousands of Latin Americans have been tortured, raped, assassinated, "disappeared," massacred, and forced into refugee by those trained at the School of Assassins. The Army previously has held news conferences to deny protesters' accusations -- this year, no response was issued.

Barbara J. Graham is a Unitarian and a Reclaiming-Tradition Witch living in Gainesville, FL. Barbara is a member of the Pagan Cluster, and has covered numerous direct action protests for RQ, Z Magazine, Indy-Media, Groundwork, and the Gainesville Sun.

For more on School of the Americas and SOA Watch, visit

Click here for more photos!

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