SOAWatch1_0

As I settled into the grassy median of the 2014 School of the Americas Protest, my heart felt settled, too. It was that rare feeling of comfort that comes from an atmosphere where everyone belongs, where everyone is respected, and where everyone is celebrated for their innate goodness – in other words, where everyone is loved. And I mean everyone.

Doesn’t quite sound like a “protest”, does it?

The SOA Protest and Vigil aims to close the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, formerly known as the School of the Americas, because it historically helps to fund and train Latin American soldiers in controversial topics best known for resulting in torture, unrest, human rights abuse, and violence in their home countries – all reasons why Latin American citizens are fleeing their countries of origin. The school is funded with taxpayer dollars.

Despite a lot of reasons to be really angry about that, the protest is rooted in a tradition of nonviolence. As mass numbers of people come together every year with varying religious backgrounds, ethnicities, races, political standings, and life experiences, there is only love. There is no screaming, no throwing things, no antagonizing from any side – the atmosphere is one of a distinct respect and love that comes from the practice of nonviolence.

The police officers guarding every few feet are often laughing and conversing with each other, even waving cordially as groups enter the protest site.

Groups of Buddhist monks weave their way slowly and mindfully through the throngs of people, ringing a meditation bell and greeting with bows, hugs, and smiles.

The Young Communist League has a booth sandwiched between the Quakers and the Sisters of Saint Joseph. They trade anecdotes about activism and welcome people to learn more about their stance on hot topics with flyers, buttons, and goodies.

The women Catholic priests, although not recognized by the Vatican, are recognized and greeted warmly by the religious present that weekend, many old friends after twenty-four years of standing side by side at this site together.

Veterans of various wars march down the center aisle carrying a banner marked “Veterans for Peace” with felt letters. Onlookers from within the school’s gates salute them.

Residents of nearby houses come out to add food and conversation, some even joining in the final march, a funeral procession for those that have died at the hands of violence in Latin American countries.

The emcee’s of the event alternate transforming the tone from celebratory, with vibrant song and rhythmic dance, to solemn, with testimonies from survivors of torture and pleas to respect human rights. They applaud the Latin American countries that have stopped sending forces to be trained at the school, they remark on the small but significant changes the school has made, and they part with an oddly joyful, “see you next year!”

Protesters who cross the line in acts of civil disobedience are thanked by the crowd as police cuff them and gently lead them away to an automatic 4-6 months locked up.

Immigrants who are undocumented bravely share their stories, indigenous rock bands strum guitars, poets perform spoken word, workshops are held with educational materials, students bounce hacky sacks from foot to foot, and African-American groups give updates on Ferguson and the status of race in our country – all at the same time.

And all the while, love permeates the air. Love that sees that everyone in this sacred space has people who care for them and who they in turn care for. Love that hears the cry of the oppressed and, still, the voice of the oppressor. Love that feels the equality and dignity of every person in sight, love that finds the way to tell their truth without compromising the truth of others. Love in the sense of a deep honor and respect for the humanity of each and every individual present, regardless of their religious backgrounds, ethnicities, races, political standings, and life experiences.

This is what draws me back to this space – the spirit of grace and unity across differences. It is at this protest, perhaps stereotypically one of the most unlikely of places, that I feel called to join the movement – the one that invites, “love all”.

Rachel Piepsney is a junior you can often find running through the east side with the girls of Evanston Academy. Check on Girls on the Run: Evanston Academy here.