Interview with Father Roy Bourgeois
Father Roy Bourgeois, the founder of School of Americas Watch, spoke at the University of Portland on Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Afterwards, I had the pleasure of interviewing him. Here is some of what we talked about; the audio file of my complete interview will be up later today.
Father Roy Bourgeois, the founder of SOA Watch, spoke at the University of Portland Monday night, January 20. He gave us a very stirring, powerful reminder that while "President Bush keeps saying we have to go after these training camps wherever they are," we cannot overlook the terrorist training camps right in our own back yard. In his talk, Father Roy spoke about how he came to found SOA Watch, and why we need to close the school down.
The SOA, "School of the Americas" was recently re-named the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, or WHISC. The change was purely cosmetic, as it still stands as a training ground for Latin America soldiers to teach them the tools of terrorism, including torture, execution and blackmail aimed at civilians under the guise of peace keeping and counter-narcotics training. It is for this reason that the school is often referred to as the "School of Assassins." It's appropriate that they renamed it WHISC, because they just want to whisk it under the rug, Father Roy quipped during his talk.
Afterwards, I had the pleasure of speaking with him further about how he came to realization that U.S. foreign policy in Latin America (and elsewhere) exists only to subjugate people to American corporate values of greed and destruction at any cost. Sometimes the progressive movement can get caught up in the lingo of anti-imperialism (see former sentence), so it was refreshing to speak with someone who has worked with the poor - indeed, was "radicalized" as he said, by their struggles - and can testify on their behalf.
Father Roy is a very soft-spoken man, but powerful at the same time. When he talks, his bright blue eyes sparkle with life, and the courage of his convictions. My intention was to ask him about the SOA, but as we talked the conversation quickly turned to U.S. Foreign Policy in Latin America, Iraq, and his experiences in Vietnam. I felt that I had to learn as much from this man of peace as I could.
I was curious to know how one goes from a degree in Geology to fighting in Vietnam to being a Catholic priest working with the poor. He wasn't a priest in the normal sense of the word "whatever that means," he told me. He had a revelation of sorts when he was in Vietnam - seeing the beauty of the country, the sunsets from his naval station, really made him feel that there was so much more in the world, and seeing the poor there really made him feel an affinity for helping people. After being wounded in the war, and receiving a purple heart, he returned to the states and was trying to figure out what to do with his life. A friend of his told him about the Maryknoll order "Mary who?" he asked. (Maryknoll is an order of Catholicism that sends its nuns and priests to do humanitarian work.) After checking into it, Father Roy decided that it suited him, and was ordained in 1972.
As much as Father Roy speaks of peace today, he was not so convinced at first that peace is the solution. Like many other men, Father Roy enlisted to fight in Vietnam because he thought it was his duty. He saw the U.S. as the great liberator, and felt it was doing right in the world. And this attitude didn't change right away. While he was at the seminary, Phillip Berrigan was invited to speak, and Father Roy was incensed. "Why are you letting this traitor speak at our school?" he asked the head priest. The priest responded that he was simply an invited speaker, and if Father Roy didn't want to see him, he could choose not to go. Father Roy didn't go, he told me, and encouraged others to boycott Berrigan. "It didn't work," he said.
His feelings started to change, however, when he was sent to Bolivia by the Maryknoll order to work with the poor. He lived as they did, and felt very at home. At first it was hard. "I didn't know if I could survive as a gringo," he said. He contracted tropical diseases, but the people took care of him, and showed him how to survive. It was here that he started to see the great divide between the rich and the poor. The people that took care of him were harassed, violated, and tortured by the military, which was used as an arm of the ruling class to suppress them. At the time, 14 families owned 65 % of the land, and the poor were killed when they spoke about the injustice. As a priest, Father Roy was given a pass to speak with people in prison, and was able to see and hear about many atrocious human rights violations. In his fourth year, he decided to go the U.S. government to tell what he saw.
He visited some congressmen, and spoke with them about the horrible acts he had seen and heard about. He really thought that he was uncovering some awful secret, and felt it was his duty to inform the U.S. When he went back, however, he was reprimanded by the Bolivian government for "interfering with the internal affairs of the country." In fact, Father Roy was outed by his own government, although he does not know who did it. For a while, Father Roy was able to continue fighting for the rights of the poor, but was eventually expelled from the country. He hasn't gone back since, but will try when the time is right, he said.
A few years later, in 1980, four Maryknoll nuns were raped and killed by soldiers in El Salvador; two of the women were his friends. The soldiers also gunned down Archbishop Oscar Romero, who was an outspoken critic of the ruling class warfare. Father Roy led a fact-finding mission down to El Salvador, and found the same conditions there as in Bolivia. While researching the incident, he found that the soldiers had been trained at the SOA. He had heard a little bit about the school, but really didn't know what it was about, he told me. So, he decided to go see for himself.
He went to Fort Benning, where the school is located, got a short haircut, and walked right onto the base. It wasn't hard to blend in, since almost everyone in the town of Columbus Georgia works at the base, and there were many in civilian clothes. "I went to the officers' club and inquired," he said in his Louisiana drawl. He saw soldiers standing around waiting for buses to take them to the firing range, and went to speak with them. They were dressed in fatigues, and had their names and the countries they were from on their uniforms -- Bolivia, El Salvador, Guatemala; 18 countries in all. He spoke with them briefly and nervously. When he followed them to the range and saw that they were being trained to kill, "I knew this was big," he said. Indeed, the U.S. was training the Latin American soldiers to kill the very same kind of people that Father Roy had befriended in Bolivia.
He then knew what his calling was. He found an apartment right outside the gates (the "Welcome to Fort Benning" sign is 40 yards from his window), and drove back to St. Paul, Minnesota, where he was living at the time, to clear his calendar and get some friends. They returned to Fort Benning and proceeded to have a hunger strike for 35 days outside of the gates.
It took 2 weeks for the local paper, the "Ledger Inquirer," to report on the story, because everything in Columbus is so dependant on the base. "We had to starve a little bit before they noticed us," he said. Once, they got tear-gassed in the middle of the night by soldiers, and had to guard themselves nightly, which took a lot of their strength. But sometimes, in the middle of the night, soldiers would come to them, and ask them why they were doing this. They didn't understand - they were being trained to kill, while others were starving themselves for peace, he said.
Father Roy's vigil continued, and grew bigger. Once, 200 Vietnam vets came from St. Paul with doors signed by hundreds of people. "Close the doors of the SOA" was their message. Again, the Columbus Ledger Inquirer ignored their protests. When their reporter decided to interview the SOA Commandant instead of speaking with the protesters, it was the last straw. So, the group of about 150 gathered in a small park, and marched downtown to the newspaper's headquarters, and demanded to see the publisher, the managing editor, and the reporter to tell their side of the story. Thankfully, the newspaper today is much more receptive, as the publisher's wife is a former peace and conflict studies teacher at Youngstown State University in Ohio.
Still, the national press does not give the SOA and efforts to shut it down the attention it deserves, because they are owned by the same corporate interests that the U.S. is training soldiers to defend. "I've seen it happen many times, when a reporter will come to us, and you can see they are in solidarity with us," and the reporter writes a long story; but when the story finally comes out it is a paragraph long, Father Roy said. "They chop it." Sometimes the media coverage is decent, though, as 2001, when an elderly woman was sentenced to six months (the maximum sentence) for crossing the line into Fort Benning at the yearly SOA protest in November.
This past year, the protest was 10,000 strong. 80 people were charged with crossing the line, including five from the Northwest, and two from Oregon. One of them, Phil D'Onofrio, spoke with Father Roy Monday night. He told the crowd that he enlisted during the Gulf War, but wasn't deployed to the region. But through the stories and pictures from friends, he began to question the war and what it was about. "Madeline Albright said that 5,000 dead Iraqi children was an 'acceptable' number," he said. "It's not." Now, he sees all war, including the war on Iraq, as Father Roy does - as war on the poor. He talked about the domination of organizations like the WTO, IMF and World Bank. "Their laws supercede our laws," he said.
During the question and answer period, a woman stood and asked, basically, how Father Roy could advocate peace in the world when 3,000 Americans died in the WTC. How could we sit back and not do anything, when it could happen again at any time? I asked Father Roy how he feels about people who think this way - that we have to get them before they get us. These people are coming from a place of fear, he said. Their fear makes them angry, and they don't know how to deal with their anger. But you have to manage it, he said, or it will hurt you and those around you. Father Roy has found peace with his anger, and is channeling it into something extremely positive in the world. Let's all learn a lesson from this great man, and do something with our anger to make this a better place.
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