SOA vigil opens, organizer calls for 'change in foreign policy'

COLUMBUS, Ga. -- Arriving in caravans from across the country, thousands of students and activists are expected to converge here over the next few hours as the annual School of the Americas Watch vigil begins and continues through the weekend.

The vigil, now in it's twentieth year, commemorates the deaths of the Salvadoran Jesuit martyrs and thousands of other Latin Americans with a weekend that is part conference, part prayer meeting, part protest, and part activist reunion.

On Friday and Saturday students and activists will hear from speakers, attend breakout sessions, and party to folk music. On Sunday the weekend culminates with a procession and prayer vigil outside of the gates of the Fort Benning army complex, located here.

NCR will be following the conference throughout the weekend with short story updates, photo slideshows, and video clips from the events. Stay tuned to NCRToday for coverage.

Put together by SOA Watch, an organization which was founded in 1990 by Maryknoll Fr. Roy Bourgeois, the annual vigil calls attention to the training of soldiers from Latin America at what used to be called the School of the Americas and is now known as the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, located at Fort Benning.

Speaking to NCR yesterday, Hendrick Voss, SOA Watch’s national organizer, stressed that although the key goal of the weekend is to pressure President Obama to sign an executive order to close the army school, he hopes to accomplish much more.

Said Voss: “We see that the School of the Americas not as an aberration of U.S. foreign policy, but a clear illustration of it. And for us…we want to change U.S. foreign policy.”

This year the vigil comes a week after it's traditional partner for the last thirteen years, the Ignatian Solidarity Network, held its annual student-oriented Teach-In for Justice in Washington, D.C. The teach-in gathers Jesuit-inspired students and activists for a weekend of speakers and student-led discussion sessions.

In the past, when the two groups hosted this weekend’s activities together, the numbers of attendees blossomed, with some years seeing upwards of an estimated 25,000 in attendance. Last week, the newly-moved teach-in saw an estimated 1,200.

The vigil kicks off this afternoon with nonviolent training sessions. Tonight, Pax Christi USA will host a gathering that will feature an address by NCR contributor, Bishop Tom Gumbleton.

The gathering will also see the awarding of the national peace organization’s Teacher of Peace Award to Jim Albertini, head of Malu ‘Alina, a Hawaiian education center which focuses on nonviolence.

Editor's Note: For a preview of the coverage to come from this year’s SOA vigil, take a look at some of Joshua McElwee's photos from last year's vigil:

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