Crossing the Line(s): The School of the Americas, Radical Pedagogy, and Sacrificial Activism.

AuthorSandoval, Ralph Armbruster

This article explores a class field trip to the School of the Americas in November 2005. The School of the Americas has been implicated in massacres, genocide, and human rights abuses in Latin America since the 1960s. In El Salvador, military troops, commanded by an officer who had been trained at the SOA, killed over nine hundred women and children in ElMozote in December 1981. In this class, students read about this massacre and became morally outraged. They started planning a week-long series of activities regarding the SOA, and they even traveled to the annual protest to shut down the SOA in Fort Benning and risked arrest. This article examines the students' decision to engage in high risk activism or not. It raises the issue that although first-generation, Latinx students may not be able to directly commit civil disobedience (crossing the line), many have dedicated their entire lives to a better, more just world.


WHILE CROSSING LINES OR BOUNDARIES IN OUR SOCIETY IS OFTEN frowned upon, iconic and recently deceased civil rights activist John Lewis famously called for getting into good trouble (Porter 2020). Good trouble is good because it involves directly confronting egregious wrongs--genocide, war, climate change, massacres, human rights abuses, segregation, sexism, racism, poverty, deportations, family separations, and violence, broadly speaking. When people witness and learn about these injustices, they become morally outraged and feel compelled to act, but how far will they go (Jasper 2018)? During the civil rights movement, young Black college students like Lewis were its shock troops, putting their bodies, quite literally, on the line for freedom, justice, and equality (Carson 1995). Lewis nearly lost his life on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, and many others were killed, beaten, and arrested for their actions and beliefs. Going to jail became a badge of honor, not shame, within the civil rights movement and other social justice movements in the 1960s. The civil rights movement tactically borrowed from Gandhi, who regularly went to jail in the struggle for India's independence from England (Nojeim 2004). British suffragist activists inspired Gandhi as they were arrested and went on hunger strikes while incarcerated in the early twentieth century (Grant 2019).

Crossing the Line(s): Good Trouble and Sacrificial Action

Over the past few decades, many activists in the immigrant rights, environmental justice, queer, feminist, and social justice movements have taken their cues from Gandhi, Lewis, and other venerated figures (usually men), getting arrested in nonviolent demonstrations. The rapid expansion of the prison and immigration industrial complexes, coupled with economic precarity, has prompted some to question, however, the tactical and moral efficacy of "filling up the jails." Today, scholars and activists are calling for the abolition of prisons and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) (Uhlmann 2019). Moreover, it has been noted that many people who have engaged in sacrificial activism, pouring blood on nuclear weapons and getting arrested at the annual School of the Americas (SOA) protest at Fort Benning, Georgia, for example, have been mostly affluent, older, Christian, white folks (Gallo-Cruz 2012, 2015; Koopman 2008a,b; Lambelet 2020; Nepstad 2004; Stanger 2019). Given their privilege(s), these people have considerably less to lose than people of color and undocumented immigrants who might be abused, beaten, or even deported. First-generation Latinx college students also face considerable barriers to sacrificial activism as many receive financial assistance and work part-time or full-time jobs to provide income for their families. How can these students cross the line and commit civil disobedience when the potential consequences they face are so challenging?

These questions and issues informed a class field trip that involved eleven undergraduate students from the University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB) in November 2005. In this article, I explore how this trip emerged based on a radical pedagogical approach. Having been inspired by Paulo Freire's (2000) foundational book, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, the Central American solidarity and sanctuary movements in the 1980s, and the anti-sweatshop and global justice movements in the 1990s, I created a course called Globalization and Transnational Social Movements, which focused on the establishment of clothing factories (maquiladoras) in El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua. Apparel production boomed after labor movements across these nations were largely destroyed through repression and violence.

Most students were not aware of what took place in Central America in the 1980s, including the Reagan administrations avid support for rightwing, authoritarian governments in El Salvador and Guatemala and the covert backing of the Contras in Nicaragua. When they read, therefore, Mark Danner's (1994) book, The Massacre at ElMozote, they were stunned and outraged, as they learned that a US-trained Salvadoran military unit systematically massacred more than nine hundred people, mostly women and children. They became even more incensed when they discovered that the unit's commander was trained at the School of the Americas, which they had never heard about before. As the class progressed, the classroom dynamics shifted; students started sitting in a large discussion circle, with many speaking about their personal lives and issues and struggles they faced as first-generation Latinx students coming from immigrant, working-class families. These conversations intersected with the class material, which explored the connections between US imperialism and immigration. Students saw the bigger picture and they expressed a strong desire to take action to stop the repression in Central America.

The class thus started to move organically beyond what was outlined in the syllabus. "Another classroom," one based on conviviality, risk-taking, candid and open dialogue, and community building was developing (ArmbrusterSandoval 2005a). As Freire (2000) famously noted, most classrooms are dull and dreary; teachers bank or deposit information into their students' heads who later withdraw those facts and data on exams. Such pedagogical approaches do not disturb the status quo because they do not focus on problems such as racism, sexism, poverty, climate change, and so on. In this specific class, we delved deeply into violence, prompting students to start asking questions about why the US trains and arms Central American militaries, why the SOA exists, and what they could do to stop these injustices.

Given their lack of knowledge before the class, students decided that they should spread awareness about the SOA across campus. They created a series of activities that included tabling, art-making (posters, flyers), documentary film screenings, a theatrical production, planting crosses, and reading the names of massacre victims to inform and educate the campus about the School of the Americas. When the week ended, eleven students actually flew to Fort Benning, Georgia, where the SOA is located, to participate in the annual protest to permanently shut it down. When they returned, they shared what they learned with their fellow classmates and with campus and community organizations.

In what follows below, I thoroughly explore what happened in this class as acase study of radical pedagogy or what bell hooks (1994) called teaching to transgress. Transgressive teaching is open-ended and takes on many different forms, including going outside classroom walls, into the world, with the hope that one might modestly transform it. Before specifically analyzing the class, I initially focus on the history of the SOA and the movement to close it down. Having done that, I examine the class content and the School of the Americas Awareness Week. I subsequently discuss the trip to Fort Benning and our collective conversations around whether or not we would cross the line and get arrested during the November 2005 protest. I conclude with some observations about radical pedagogy, sacrificial activism, and how crossing the line might be seen as a life-long commitment to creating another world.

The School of the Americas and the Movement to Close It Down

The SOA was founded by the US Army in Panama in 1946. While its opening overlapped with the Cold War and concerns about the Soviet Union intervening in the region, the United States had been the hegemonic power in Latin America starting with the Monroe Doctrine in the early nineteenth century. Nearly one hundred years later, the United States, under the Roosevelt Corollary, actively supported Panama's independence from Colombia to facilitate the construction of the isthmian canal (which was originally slated to be built in Nicaragua) (LaFeber 1993, Lindsay-Poland 2003, Kinzer 2006). Panama was a strategic location to maintain US economic, military, and political power as the site for the United States Southern Command in 1903 when US Marines arrived to oversee the Panama Canal's completion. The Marines regularly intervened throughout Central America, Mexico, and the Caribbean over the next few decades (Dunkerley 1988, LaFeber 1993, McPherson 2016).

After World War II ended, the United States established the Latin American Ground School, the SOA's predecessor, primarily to train Latin American soldiers across the region to stop the Soviet Union from intervening in the region (Gill 2004, 62-63). During those early years, the Ground School was small, but after the 1959 Cuban Revolution, the number of soldiers trained there expanded by 42 percent during the 1960s (Gill 2004, 74). The School's mission changed as well, as instructors focused on stopping the spread of communism through brutal counterinsurgency strategies and tactics. The Ground School became the School of the Americas in 1963. Several...

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