Crusading Priest Battles School for Assassins
Roy Bourgeois has spent more time in prison for nonviolent protest than the combined sentences of all five assassins of El Salvador's Archbishop Oscar Romero. Fr. Bourgeois is a Maryknoll priest who is determined to shut down the U.S. Army School of the Americas (SOA) at Fort Benning in Columbus, Ga. Graduates of this counterinsurgency training school include Salvadoran officers cited by the United Nations Truth Commission Report on El Salvador for some of the worst atrocities during that country's brutal civil war. The 1989 massacre of six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper and her daughter by SOA graduates is commemorated each Nov. 16 at the gates of Fort Benning. Speaking at Warren Wilson and Mars Hill colleges and at Grace Covenant Presbyterian Church in Asheville in early May, Fr. Bourgeois recounted the events leading to his most recent imprisonment in the Atlanta Federal Penitentiary. He was sentenced to six months for "criminal trespass" during a 1996 protest at Fort Benning, at which 13 were arrested. "The truth cannot be silenced," Bourgeois told the gathering at Grace Covenant. A 1996 Pentagon declassification of training manuals from the school confirmed the deadly curriculum. Tactics including torture, executions, extortion and paying bounties for enemy dead were taught to some of Latin America's most brutal despots. Roberto D'Aubuisson, the leader of El Salvador's death squads, drug deale r Manuel Noriega, and other soldiers linked with the assassinations of six Jesuit priests -- even the officers who oversaw a massacre of 900 peasants at El Mazote -- were all trained at Fort Benning. It is a sinister place. Fr. Bourgeois is persistent in his efforts to reveal the dark mission of this military training school. He lives in a small apartment across from the front gate of Fort Benning, which also serves as the headquarters of SOA Watch, the organization that coordinates protests at the base and collects information on the activities of the school and its graduates.Bourgeois also helped produce an Acade my Award-nominated documentary film about the School of the Americas titled School of Assassins . Fr. Bourgeois is a Vietnam veteran and a Purple Heart recipient. A geologist by education, he has been a Catholic priest for the past 25 years. He is a rare example of persistence and focus in the application of nonviolence as a cogent tool for change. Through fasting, public speaking and nonviolent direct actions involving considerable personal risk, Bourgeois has taken on the U.S. Army. His sincerity and willingness to endure have convinced increasing numbers of citizens to call for the closure of the School of the Americas. Last year, 60 people went over the line, illegally entering the grounds of the base to make clear their objection to the training of torturers. Bourgeois, calling for a continued presence at the gates of Fort Benning each Nov. 16, wants to see 1,000 people there this fall. Admitting to a very dark time of self-doubt during one month of solitary confinement, Fr. Bourgeois urged listeners to "hold onto hope, to be joyful, gentle, to take care of ourselves, and do what we can." "Keep moving ahead," he entreated. "That day will come when we will celebrate and dance and have a fiesta at the closing of Fort Benning's Army School of the Americas."