On a sunny Saturday afternoon a few days before Thanksgiving, Katy Savage found herself in Muscogee County Jail in Columbus, Georgia. Savage, who traveled to Columbus with eight Vanderbilt students to take part in the annual School of the Americas Watch (SOAW) vigil, never imagined she would be arrested during the course of the demonstration.
“I said ‘you guys aren’t doing the [civil disobedience] thing, are you?’ and they said ‘no, no, we’re just standing on the sidewalk,” Savage said. 30 seconds later, I was arrested.”
The School of the Americas, which was renamed the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (WHISC) in 2001, is a combat training school for Latin American soldiers located near Columbus. Human rights activists have called for the school to be closed for years due to widespread reports of graduates committing war crimes upon their return to Latin America. Graduates of the academy include Panamanian military dictator Manuel Noriega and Raúl Iturriaga, director of the secret police under Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet.
SOAW was founded in 1990 by Catholic priest Roy Bourgeois in order to draw attention to the institution’s record of human rights abuses. This year’s vigil was the organization’s twenty-first protest.
Vanderbilt sophomore Caitlin Mitchell, who took a lead role organizing the trip to the vigil, first became interested in SOAW when Bourgeois gave a presentation at her high school. She attended the vigil for the first time in 2009, and decided to mobilize a larger number of Vanderbilt undergraduates to attend the event this year. Working with Vanderbilt Students for Nonviolence, she pulled together a group of nine Vanderbilt and Nashville activists who pooled their resources to make it to this year’s vigil.
For Mitchell, taking part in nonviolent demonstrations like the SOAW vigil is both about enacting political change and learning what other activists are doing at the grassroots level around the country and the world. She used her own excitement about demilitarization, education and peaceful demonstration to inspire fellow students to do the same.
“I told potential participants that they would get a chance to learn about U.S. policy in Latin America, and that they would get to meet activists from all over the United States and Latin America,” Mitchell said. “It was less about saying ‘get angry at this,’ and more about ‘hey, look what cool things you can do.’”
The School of the Americas Watch vigil is characterized by a bold artistic sensibility which incorporates elaborate costumes, large-scale puppets and theatrical performances.
Traditionally, a large number of activists at the vigil would climb over the barbed wire fences separating WHISC from the protest zone. Following 9/11, the penalty for doing so was raised to 6 months in prison, and only a few protesters scaled the fence this year. On Saturday, however, a number of demonstrators – some wearing massive puppet costumes – moved to the edge of the protest zone and blocked traffic.
“The way the protest was set up is they had the street up to the gates and the first intersection blocked off as the official protest zone. Afterwards, a group of 12 people were going to march out of the protest zone and block traffic in the street,” Mitchell said.
When demonstrators stepped off the curb, police moved in and began to arrest people both on and off the protest zone. In addition to activists, police arrested journalists, photographers and one local man who was not involved with the SOAW vigil but who stepped out of a local barber shop to take a photograph of the chaos.
“The police were blaring speakers, saying that if we left the protest zone we could be arrested,” Mitchell said. “I was just standing at this gas station, and there were people right in front of me getting arrested.”
In the confusion, somebody handed Savage the arm of an elaborate, multi-person puppet. The police apprehended her almost immediately.
“What’s astonishing to me is that at this point, they’re not evening making up things that people were arrested for like disorderly conduct or disrupting the peace or anything like that,” Savage said. “They’re actually arresting people explicitly for following their First Amendment rights. I don’t know why that isn’t more of a big deal to people.”
That evening, a number of Vanderbilt students joined a rally of several hundred across the street from Muscogee County Jail, where Savage was being held, to show their support for the people who were arrested. Police emerged with riot gear and dispersed the gathering.
“People started to realize, ‘wait, what if they arrest us too?’” said Tristan Call, a graduate student with the Vanderbilt Department of Anthropology. “It was a major reality check for a lot of us. If you’re involved with a movement like this in the United States, your constitutional rights don’t exist. Or, they only exist until after you’ve been arrested.”
Savage spent a day and a half in jail before going to trial with the other 25 activists who were taken into custody on Saturday. None of the police could remember where she had been apprehended or any specifics of the arrest, but she was charged with unlawful assembly, picketing and demonstration without a permit. In total, 25 out of 26 arrested individuals were penalized with jail time or fines – including the local man from the barber shop.
“It takes them about a half an hour to ring up a credit card in jail,” Call said with a laugh. “It takes 30 seconds at Subway, but in jail – we were literally there for six hours paying fines for everybody to get out.”
The group returned home determined to bring an even larger group to the vigil next year. In spite of her ordeal, Savage says that she’s glad to have shown support for victims of WHISC and for all that she learned over the weekend.
“The conferences that they hold before and during [the vigil] are what I really relish,” Savage said. “[and the opportunity] to learn about things that people are doing, and ways that you can connect with people.”
For more information about SOA/WHISC, visit soaw.org.