Wednesday, January 17, 2001

Northside student fasts to protest new Army school

By Patrick Stack
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        As a controversial Army school opens today in Georgia, an Oberlin College senior from Northside is voicing her protest by fasting.

        Rebecca Johnson, 21, a 1997 graduate of Walnut Hills High School, has been living on tea, fruit juice and vegetable juice since Jan. 1 as she protests the opening of the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (WHISC), formerly known as the U.S. Army School of the Americas (SOA), in Fort Benning, Ga.

        Her protest, at the main entrance of Fort Benning, will continue through Jan. 31.

        “I'm down here to let them know we remember it's the same school with a new name and the same shame,” Ms. Johnson said in a phone interview.

        Ms. Johnson is a member of SOA Watch, a Columbus, Ga.-based group dedicated to closing the institute, an Army training site for Latin American soldiers. Her group has about 150 members in the Oberlin chapter, Ms. Johnson said.

        The School of the Americas closed in December after the Army said it would reopen under a new name. The new institute is also dedicated to training Latin American soldiers, but Defense Department officials say it will focus more on human rights. Opponents say the change is cosmetic.

        Critics have referred to the School of the Americas as the “School of Assassins,” and some of the school's graduates have been linked to human rights abuses in Latin America, such as the assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero in El Salvador in 1980.

        Lt. Col. George Ruff, deputy chief of staff for information operations at the WHISC, defended the new school.

        “The new institute focuses on civil-military relations,” he said. “It focuses on human rights instruction, and we've gotten more instructors to teach that.”

        Lt. Col. Ruff said protesters had not given the new school a chance.

        Ms. Johnson disagreed, saying the United States has no business training Latin American soldiers.

        “(The soldiers) have a horrible human rights record, and it doesn't matter if they change (the school),” she said. “We want it shut down.”

        Ms. Johnson's supporters include her mother, Deborah Meem, an English and women's studies professor at the University of Cincinnati. She left Tuesday for Georgia for a four-day stay.

        Dr. Meem is pleased to see her daughter involved in social activism. “It's really exciting to see students who are using the time they're in college to become educated about the world and social protest,” she said.

        Meanwhile, Ms. Johnson is holding up well despite losing an undetermined amount of weight.

        “I'm more tired than I would be otherwise, but on the whole it's making me more focused on what I'm doing.”


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