Climbing the Razor Wire Fence

“[The Carnival’s purpose is]...to uncover, undermine...even destroy the hegemony of any ideology that seeks to have the final word about the world, and also to renew, to shed light upon life, the meanings it harbours, to elucidate potentials; projecting, as it does an alternate conceptualisation of reality.”
- Mikhail Bakhtin, Rabelais and His World

Though Bakhtin focused his critical eye on the Renaissance carnival, his words remain an apt description of the modern political protest: a ritualistic festival which seeks to contain a whirling maelstrom of contradictory ideologies.

This year, and every year since being founded by Father Roy Bourgeois in 1990, the Vigil to Close the School of Americas has been held just outside the Fort Benning Road gate, one of the army base’s main entrances. The protest area, defined by heavy police barricades, runs down Fort Benning Road from Victory Drive through the Benning Hills neighborhood housing projects to the fort’s triple-fenced gates. Sandwiched between blank-faced brick apartments and heavily patrolled police barricades, protesters recently spent a sunny Saturday wandering between roadside stands lining Fort Benning Road and the stage at the fort’s gate. Though the mood was almost reverent during Friday and Saturday’s rallies, the protesting crowds were characterized by a combination of submerged resentment and anger, 20,000 people straining towards Sunday morning’s funeral procession, when 11 volunteers would climb razor wire fences to illegally enter Fort Benning.

Walking through the designated protest area, the observer is struck by a sense of schizophrenia, bombarded on both sides by signs and protesters who support a variety of causes: puppeteers against military recruitment practices, the Sisters of Mercy of the Americas (a Catholic order founded in 1831), 9/11 conspiracy theorists, students handing out copies of The Socialist, a street artist drawing murals of the El Mozote massacre, anti-genetic engineering activists (“Grassroots Gathering against Genetic Engineering: Resistance and Solutions to the Comodification of Life”), Students against US Support of Israel, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (a Florida based fair-wage/working conditions group), Students for a Democratic Society, and the omni-present Veterans for Peace. As I spent the afternoon speaking with representatives from protest groups, their myriad causes seemed to blend together, and I was reminded of Bakhtin’s Renaissance carnival, a conceptual space which supported “a plurality of fully valid consciousnesses.” In this pocket-protest, unobserved by any except a few entrepreneurial Columbus restaurants and dozens of silent police, all ideologies were equally valid, and every protesters’ cause could be summed in the words “This is not right.”

The School of Americas protest, and the anger which propels it, are emblematic of the modern global activist movement. Ironically, as globalization has made homogenization of community and marginalization of dissidents more profitable, it has also strengthened anti-globalization groups by allowing them to exchange ideas, resources, and personnel more efficiently. Martina Le Force, who crossed into Fort Benning last year and was subsequently sentenced to two months in prison, explained the power behind the growing protest movement in her Saturday morning speech. “They fear us because we are branching out, we are a unified international movement, and we have more friends than the Bush administration and its silly wars will ever have.” Watching police officers videotape the crowd as we spent the day listening to speeches and music, ducking away from helicopters flying low over the crowd as the Vigil ended, Le Force’s characterization of suppression as an expression of fear seems both accurate and prophetic. Globalization’s technological and organizational innovations, which had previously only benefited those powerful countries and groups which developed them, have finally spread to historically disenfranchised communities, allowing thousands of dissenting voices to join together. The School of Americas protest, formally a curious local ritual, has increased in size dramatically over the past few years, welcoming both activists who are against the United State’s intrusion in South America, and those who protest against intrusion on the world stage.

Though the Vigil’s primary purpose has always been the closure of Fort Benning’s School of Americas, speakers like Dennis Kucinich, Sister Mary Waskowiak, and Father Roy Bourgeois are all quick to point out the essential absurdity of their goal—several other training camps exist within the United Sates which train foreign soldiers in the same brutal methods taught at the School of Americas, and secret training camps are rumored to exist outside the United Sates. In reality, the protest’s goal is to create an alternative to the sort of authoritarian thinking which breeds these camps, a separate space which Bakhtin identifies as synonymous with the carnival. “Its very idea embraces all the people. While carnival lasts, there is no other life outside it. During carnival time life is subject only to its laws, that is, the laws of its own freedom.”

The Vigil to Close the School of Americas, sheltered between parched Columbus pine trees and almost invisible to the average Georgian, moves closer to real global protest each year. Already one of the largest and most influential protests in the Southeast, there is a sense that the peace and hope felt this weekend can extend even further than the minds of this year’s attendees. In the new global activist movement, this protest is neither unique nor isolated: it is one very visible fraction of an immense separate space, an alternate conceptualization of reality which hopes to eclipse the last century’s inhumane ideologies.