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November 23, 1999
Gandhian Protest In Georgia Draws Over 10,000
R S Shankar
As 18-year-old Sarvani Prasad, a New York college student, lifted a mock coffin to symbolize what she believed was the harm and death suffered by Latin America's poor at the hands of American-trained military officials, she hoped that hundreds of Indian American activists would join the next round of protests.
Prasad was marching through New York streets while thousands had gathered for a bigger protest at Fort Benning in Columbus, Georgia, on Sunday to demand the closing of the School of the Americas which has been training Latin American soldiers for more than five decades. Priests, nuns, civic leaders and former soldiers were among the protesters.
Billed as the largest act of American civil disobedience since the end of the Vietnam war ended, the protest was organized partly by Maryknoll priests who are among the strongest admirers of Mahtama Gandhi.
"We do not want this school of war," said Father Roy Bourgeois, a founder of the nine-year-old movement to close the school. Another American civic leader, who is influenced by Gandhi, he believes in creative non-violence to change society.
"Gandhi is more alive and more enthusiastically followed in American civil disobedience movements and American campuses than in India," says Arun Gandhi, a grandson of the Mahatma, who runs a Gandhi institute in Memphis, Tennessee.
Led by actor Martin Sheen who played a journalist in Sir Richard Attenborough's movie, Gandhi, and well-known American pacifist Father Daniel Berrigan, who spent years in jail for anti-war and anti-nuclear protests, more than 4,400 people marched across the grounds of Fort Benning.
Another 7,000 remained outside the gates of the US army site all day, protesting that school trains Latin American military and police to harass, harm and kill civilians.
Father Berrigan is one of the most committed pacifist leaders in America; he is also deeply influenced by Gandhi's non-violent but militant movement. He believes that Christianity has to learn a lot from Gandhi's fight for a just society.
"We will not go away until this school is closed,'' said Father Bourgeois, his hair and clothes clotted with red paint. "As long as it continues, the military of Latin America will still be entrenched and will still be killing the poor," he said.
The School of the Americas has trained more than 60,000 soldiers in counter-insurgency tactics since it opened in Panama in 1946, Father Bourgeois said.
While protests have been held annually at Fort Benning since 1990, this was the largest, the organizers said. It marked the 10th anniversary of the murder of six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper and her child in El Salvador, by soldiers trained at the school.
Gandhian values and the teachings of Christ have made turned Charles Liteky, a former Roman Catholic priest, a bitter foe of the school. A former war hero, he began to turn against war about two decades ago.
Every weekday morning, Liteky stations himself at the front gates of Fort Benning, where the school is located, to protest what is taught there. There are times he feels like destroying the school himself. But he knows his true values too well.
"For me now, the most courageous thing has been to be non-violent, to go out and face violence and have the courage not to be violent," Liteky said.
There is going to be another protest at Fort Benning soon, and Sarvani Prasad might make time to go there -- and carry make-believe coffins and working for a time that the sudden demand for coffins go down in Latin America.
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