Fort Benning, GA – Under the gray morning sky 25,000 have gathered outside the gates of Fort Benning, Georgia. They carry white crosses, each cross scrawled with a name.
[start procession sound]
As the procession begins, crowds move slowly forward to place their crosses on the military base's barbed-wire topped gate. The crosses represent those who have allegedly been killed by graduates of the School of the Americas, or SOA, a U.S. Army training facility for Latin American soldiers.
'I will be nonviolent in my spirit and action today, and as a peacebearer I will continue to work in the months to come until the school of the assassins is shut down.'
Those are just some of the activists gathered here to call for the closure of the facility they've dubbed the school of assassins. Public attention first turned to the school after the 1989 massacre of U.S. churchwomen, priests and Archbishop Oscar Romero in El Salvadore. It was found that almost all of the soldiers involved had been trained by the SOA.
'People just don't have any idea that we are training people in South America to go back to their homelands and kill innocent people - to kill nuns, priests, labor organizers, children - for no other reason than to uphold U.S. economic interests.'
That's Sarah Stinard-Kiel, assistant director of Florida State University's Center for Participant Education, or CPE. At 35 years old, the Center is FSU's oldest student government agency and provides opportunities for students to become involved in community classes, progressive programs and social justice movements.
'It really is one of the best feelings knowing youre surrounded by people who want to change the world and want to make the world a better place. It's absolutely refreshing and makes me want to work even harder on my activism.'
Each year FSU's Center for Participant Education brings about a dozen students to the School of the Americas Watch, the name given to the protest and vigil. Some years the group brings as many as 30. This is Sarah's third year.
'Everyone comes together and there's a real sense of solidarity among all of the students even though we're from all over the country.'
'and right now if you look at this sea of people, over 20,000, you'll notice more than half are students.'
Reverend Roy Bourgeois has made it his life's mission to shut down the SOA. In 1990 he moved into an apartment right outside the base and began the School of the Americas Watch.
'At some point we discovered that we have this voice, that we could be peacemakers, that we could speak truth to power, that we could break down our ignorance about what our country's foreign policy is really about.'
Reverend Bourgeois says that it was the students paying attention and showing up that tipped the scale for the SOA Watch and helped make it the event it is today.
'For us, it's a great blessing to have the students as an integral part of our movement. They give us hope.'
The vigil was also attended by Georgia Democratic Congresswoman Cynthia McKinney and Democratic presidential candidate Dennis Kucinich.
'We are here today to speak not only to Georgia and Fort Benning, but we are here as one voice to say to the world that we reject war as an instrument of policy.'
Congressman Kucinich speaks about the importance of student activism not only for progressive issues but for America as a whole.
'There is a rising consciousness among students of America of the imperative of standing for peace and social and economic justice.'
Those involved with the School of the Americas Watch say there can be no doubt that the energy and dedication of students is important. Still, FSU's Stephanie Dunker says the strength of the SOA Watch and other progressive movements lies in its diversity.
'yeah I think there is diversity, and I think that it speaks to the issue. To the fact that the issue isn't just a liberal issue its an issue of human rights and whether you're conservative or liberal you can believe that people are deserving of basic rights.'
With the rally over students and others head home to their communities. Many will continue to work locally on this issue and many others until next year when they come together again. For WFSU this is Kyle DeVries.