Off-Campus Activism: 2000-2001
The 2000-2001 year saw an explosion of organized treks by students, faculty and staff off Mayflower Hill to participate in broader causes. Below are descriptions of three such trips.
Colby students at the SOA protest. In 1990, a handful of committed activists crossed the military line at Fort Benning Georgia to protest the US Army School of the Americas. In 2000, on November 18 and 19, 10,000 concerned individuals turned out for what has become an annual event, and this time 15 Colby College students were among them.
The SOA trains Latin American soldiers in combat, counter-insurgency, and counter-narcotics. Notorious dictators Manuel Noriega and Omar Torrijos of Panama, Leopoldo Galtieri and Roberto Viola of Argentina, Juan Velasco Alvarado of Peru, Guillermo Rodriguez of Ecuador, and Hugo Banzer Suarez of Bolivia all graduated for the SOA. SOA graduates are responsible for some of the worst human rights abuses in Latin America, including the assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero and the El Mozote Massacre of 900 civilians .
This year Colby had a personal connection to the atrocities committed by the SOA. The Oak Fellow for the 2000 fall semester, Hector Mondragon Baez, a Colombian human rights activist, shared his story of his own torture by a graduate of the SOA. Inspired by Hector’s resilience and strength, a large group of Colby students along with three community members endured a 30 hour drive to Fort Benning to join in protests.
Twelve members of the Colby contingent joined 3,600 protestors who crossed the line in a funeral procession honoring those who have died at the hands of graduates of the SOA, while three remained behind for support. Eight of those who crossed were detained, processed and issued 5-year “ban and bar” letters, meaning if they were to re-enter Fort Benning in the next five years they would face a fine or time in jail.
On January 17, 2001 the SOA was replaced by the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (WHISC). Although it is under a different name; the policies, teachings and history of the school remain the same. Those who attended the protests intend to gather an even larger group to return in future years.
16 Colby students (picking up a half-dozen Bates students on the way) drove through the night on January 19, 2001, in order to be along the parade route the next day. Joining tens of thousands of protestors covering myriad issues, Colby students specifically went to show opposition to then-nominee for Attorney General John Ashcroft; to protest the corporate influence in United States’ politics; and to stand up against the right-wing backlash threatening the progress in fighting racism, sexism, homophobia, and other forms of discrimination.
These protests, though clearly amplified by the disputed election, extended beyond mere party lines. President Clinton and Madeleine Albright, for their genocide in Iraq, were targets of chants almost as frequently as George W. Bush and Dick Cheney.
The Colby protestors were based at Freedom Plaza, near the White House. This was officially the protest site for the International Action Center, a large non-profit dedicated to a variety of causes, such as fighting the death penalty and combating racism.
As countless police officers appeared, snipers paced on rooftops, and the inaugural parade stalled, Colby’s protestors stood strong in the freezing rain for several hours, waiting for the moment when Bush, flanked by a small army, passed by. Though hidden behind heavily-tinted glass, the overpowering, disproportionate number of protestors to supporters was impossible to ignore.
Colby students avoiding tear gas in Quebec. “Mainstream media would have had you believe we were at a big party up there,” Tennessee Watson ’03 said of the protests in Quebec City on April 20-22, 2001. Fellow Colby students and Watson headed up to Quebec, along with thousands of people from throughout the Western Hemisphere to protest the Summit of the Americas.
The Summit–a gathering of 34 trade ministers and heads of state from 34 nations in the Western Hemisphere, along with representatives from 500 corporations–was the fourth meeting devoted to the formation of The Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA). Many more meetings are scheduled over the next three years.
“If I had wanted to party, I would have stayed at Colby. Plenty of parties there without the tear gas,” said Watson. “I went to call attention to the undemocratic nature of the Summit.” Delegates met inside of a fenced off area of downtown Quebec. Beyond the meetings themselves Watson added, “I was out there in the street to call attention to the threat imposed by NAFTA and the FTAA to people and the environment–to life.”
The FTAA is described most simply as an expansion of NAFTA to the entire Western Hemisphere. According to Emily Posner ’03, “NAFTA has undermined workers’ rights and environmental protections; increased poverty, inequality, and economic instability; jeopardized small farms and businesses; threatened democracy; and disproportionately harmed women, indigenous people, immigrant communities, and people of color.”
Not all those impassioned by the issues headed up all the way to Quebec City. Tactics used by Colby students varied. A large group of people gathered at the Maine/Quebec border to call attention to the issues, along with a solidarity action done at Colby Earth Day festivities on April 22.
It’s Not All Protest
It’s not just a matter of protests and direct action for Colby students. As the vans get packed up with students, banners and signs, it’s a culmination of a learning process that starts on the Colby campus. Students, faculty, staff, community members, and guests all add to the mix of opinions and thoughts. In the past year, Hector Mondragon Baez, the fall 2000 Oak Fellow, an economist and indigenous rights activist from Colombia, and Maria Gorete de Sousa from the MST, a Brazilian landless peasant movement, were among the many guests on campus who influenced the sense of activism here. Endless hours are devoted to discussions, teach-ins, critical thinking and one on one with professors. “It’s exciting to see Colby students seriously engaging in issues of social justice,” reveals Betty Sasaki, associate professor and chair of Spanish. “They are putting into practice what they learn in the classroom, and they enrich and deepen class discussions with the knowledge they gain from their experiences.”