The political left has always preferred to wage its battles in the terms and the imagery of symbols. Whether they be an image such as a Che Gueverra T-shirt, a slogan such as “the 99%,” an action such as Greenpeace photo-op stunt on a coal power plant, or a flesh and blood man like Fidel Castro, symbols have the power to attract followers to a cause and inspire them with a quasi-religious fervor. But contrary to the liberal myth of “inevitability,” these symbolic battles don’t always end in victory but sometimes in humiliating defeat. One such symbolic defeat is the total collapse of a protest movement called the School of the Americas (SOA) Watch.
At its height in the early 2000s, this annual protest attracted as many as 17,000 people to protest at the gates of Fort Benning in Columbus, Ga.1 Yet for a range of reasons, around 2007 it began a slow, irreversible decline until its most recent rally on November 19, 2016 when it collapsed to a mere 30 die-hards.2 It would be simplistic to pin this spectacular failure on any single cause, but it matches a general decline of socialist parties and liberal movements around the world. For Catholics in particular, the death of SOA Watch deserves to be registered in history as a symbolic victory over the deadly poison of progressivism, pacifism and heterodoxy that has penetrated into the very bosom of the Church from top to bottom. Most importantly, it represents the failure of liberalism to resonate in public opinion beyond an isolated and graying fringe of militant activists.
Founded in 1990 by a Maryknoll priest, Father Roy Bourgeois, SOA Watch became a leading voice of opposition to American foreign policy in Latin America. Its most important and symbolic event was an annual rally in front of the main entrance of Fort Benning, the location of the School of the Americas, now called the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (WHINSEC).
The School of the Americas/WHINSEC is an international organization that trains military and police personnel from Latin America with classes in leadership, ethics, medicine, counter-insurgency and civics. Since 1946 it has helped to strengthen military and diplomatic ties between the United States and the countries of Latin America. Many of its graduates have gone on to assume leadership positions in their respective countries. During the Cold War, it played an important role in helping Latin American governments defeat communist guerilla movements, and today it continues to provide vital assistance to our Latin American allies in the fight against drug trafficking.
As a far-left movement, SOA Watch rejects the historically anti-communist foreign policy of the United States towards Latin America. It ignores the hundreds of thousands of documented murders committed by communist guerillas from Mexico to Argentina, sympathizes with these movement’s attempts to impose Marxist dictatorships on their countries, and attacks American assistance to democratically-elected governments fighting to protect the lives of their citizens. It especially condemns the American embargo with communist Cuba and military aid to Colombia in its fight against the communist FARC guerillas and drug traffickers.
According to SOA Watch, WHINSEC is not a peaceful catalyst for hemispheric cooperation and security but a terrorist group itself, responsible for crimes allegedly committed by some of its graduates. SOA Watch lists a long litany of victims and human rights abuses, real or imagined and pins the blame not on the perpetrators but squarely on WHINSEC itself, calling it a “school of assassins.” Ostensibly, the primary goal of SOA Watch is to shut down WHINSEC and end American military involvement in Latin America. But as anyone who attended a SOA Watch protest could see, WHINSEC’s supposed crimes are merely a pretext for an event that promotes every leftist cause under the sun.3
Indeed, SOA Watch is not so much a movement to fight “human rights” abuses as it is a platform and vehicle for the Catholic left. And like all things of the left, it hates America’s free-enterprise economic system and everything that is traditional, wholesome, anti-egalitarian and anti-communist. Just as SOA Watch tried to turn WHINSEC into a symbol of the evils of American foreign policy, SOA Watch itself became a symbol of the Catholic left.
At its height, SOA Watch was the flagship event and umbrella movement for every liberal cause both inside and outside of the Catholic Church. The annual rally at Fort Benning included dozens of exhibitors promoting every liberal cause from liberation theology, women’s ordination, socialism, homosexual “rights,” drug legalization, abortion, Wicca, pacifism and even animal “rights.” “Workshops” were held in order to train the next generation of young radicals. Worst of all, the rally included the support and participation of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, a homosexual drag queen group from San Francisco who are known for their militant public blasphemy and mockery of the Catholic Church.
Liberal clergy have played the leading role in organizing and attending SOA Watch. Catholic colleges and high schools—especially Jesuit ones—bused in thousands of students year after year for the rally. A very large percentage of the rally’s participants and a majority of its most dedicated followers were members of the clergy, many very elderly. Although they clearly don’t wear their habits anymore, many put them on just for the SOA Watch rally to give it a greater moral authority.
SOA Watch was in many ways the liberal counterpart to the March for Life in Washington, D.C. But unlike the pro-life movement, relatively few attendees were under 30, and most of them were not particularly enthusiastic.4 The vast majority were high school and college students bused in by their liberal professors. Most were unaware exactly what they were protesting. When questioned by TFP volunteers, only a few were able to name a single graduate of the School of the Americas/WHINSEC accused of crimes.5 Although some were dedicated socialists with an ideological stake in the rally, most students were simply along for the ride, free food and the extra-credit. Even at its height, the heart and soul of SOA Watch was always a core group of graying hippies from the sixties and seventies.
This characteristic, apathetic youth and graying leadership is not limited to SOA Watch. Unlike the 1960s, liberal causes today have faced increasing difficulty in recruiting, motivating and retaining young people. Socialist ideology fails to inspire like it used too. Liberal movements such as Occupy Wall Street or Black Lives Matter—in spite of unlimited resources and the total support from the media—simply do not attract large numbers of dedicated followers like their 1960s predecessors. Most importantly, they do not produce young, charismatic leaders capable of inspiring a whole nation. The only liberal politician capable of drawing large crowds this election year, Bernie Sanders, is a 75-year-old career politician from Vermont with no clear successor.
In this same line, it could not have been more ironic that Fidel Castro—the very symbol of Latin American communism and the hero of SOA Watch attendees—died a mere six days following this year’s protest. The enormous outpouring of grief by leftists across the world for the communist dictator was not so much out of personal affection for Castro himself, but more a lamentation for the loss of the last truly charismatic, global figure of the revolutionary left. There is simply no one else who can represent the cause of socialism and hold its banner high like he did.
Moreover, SOA Watch faced another obstacle that contributed to its downfall: organized opposition. SOA Watch never enjoyed any substantial support from the general public in Georgia. In 2002, local citizens concerned with the anti-American message of SOA Watch founded a counter-rally called “God Bless Fort Benning Day.” Led by Dr. Jack Tidwell and his wife Eve, it consisted of military demonstrations, speeches, patriotic music and other events to strengthen relations between the military and the public. Until it changed hands and focus in 2007, God Bless Fort Benning Day drew crowds of up to 20,000 people, mostly locals, easily eclipsing SOA Watch itself and dealing a cheerful yet psychological rebuke to the liberal outsiders.6
The American TFP played a significant role in fighting SOA Watch. Every year from 2007 to 2012, TFP Student Action volunteers made the trip down to Georgia to demonstrate in support of the American military and against the pacifist protesters. Along with its lively street campaigns, the TFP entered into the ideological debate with hard-hitting statements exposing the socialist ideology of SOA Watch. These TFP statements, “To SOA Watch Protesters: Be Consistent! To the Military: Be Proud!,” “A Call to Gratitude: Who Will Thank Our Heroes?,” “10 Reasons to Protest…Against the Protesters,” and “Who Do the ‘Occupy Fort Benning’ Protesters Represent? Unmasking the 0.99%.” were published as full-page advertisements in the local newspaper, the Columbus Ledger-Enquirer, and distributed as flyers to passers-by in Columbus and to any SOA Watch protesters interested in hearing the other side of the debate.
A final blow to SOA Watch was the excommunication of its founder, Father Bourgeois, for participating in a fake women’s ordination ceremony in 2008. After refusing to recant his public declarations in favor of women priests, on November 24, 2008 the Vatican declared him excommunicated latae sententiae, and in 2012 he was laicized and expelled from the Maryknoll order. Many liberal organizations and schools, although sympathetic to ex-Father Bourgeois and the causes of SOA Watch, nevertheless pulled their support, not wanting the bad publicity of participating in an event run by an excommunicated priest. SOA Watch rapidly declined to barely one thousand in 2012, collapsing to a mere 30 die-hards in 2016. With its leader humiliated and its followers demoralized, it is unlikely that SOA Watch will ever recover.
The story of the collapse of SOA Watch should serve as a vital lesson for conservative Americans. On the one hand, in many important ways the left dominates the institutions and popular culture of America like never before. Their army of movements and organizations has indeed done much to destroy what remains of Western Christian civilization, and many Americans are tempted to believe the liberal propaganda about the “inevitability” of socialism. On the other hand, the death of a symbolic movement like SOA Watch, in spite of the full moral and material support of the American left, exposes this narrative as a lie and represents a deeper reality: that the left is not as powerful as they say it is. At a moment when many Americans are tempted to embrace defeatism or the “Benedict option,” this may serve to encourage them to wage the fight for Christian civilization with ever greater enthusiasm and vigor.