Grandmothers unite for human rights
Cathy Webster, at 61, isn’t trying to hide her silver locks. Quite the opposite, actually—she’s rallying behind them.
A longtime resident of Chico, the mother of two and grandmother of four has rounded up women like her all over the country to protest a controversial training school in Georgia for Latin American soldiers. A thousand grandmothers, she hopes, will “cross the line” and risk being sent to prison.
“I really want 1,000 grandmothers to come with me, to cross the line,” Webster said. The “line” she speaks of is outside the Fort Benning Army base, where the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (formerly the School of the Americas) is located. For the past 16 years, there have been protests in November to close the school. A good number of SOA graduates have been found guilty of human-rights violations, including rape, murder, torture and massacres, since returning to their home countries.
“Torture is a big issue right now,” Webster said. “Well, we’ve got a terrorist training camp right here.”
What they need, Webster said, is a lot of press—they need to get the word out about what’s going on at Fort Benning. About a year ago, Webster attended the funeral of friend and fellow activist Helen Kinnee. There, she heard the song “A Thousand Grandmothers” by Holly Near. “Send in a thousand grandmothers / They will surely volunteer / With their ancient wisdom flowing / They will lend a loving ear,” sings the first verse.
That gave Webster an idea. She had attended the November protests twice before, in 2002 and 2003. This year, she would bring an army with her. And it would be no ordinary army—it would be an army of grandmothers. What better way to get people’s attention?
“It’s shocking to know that this still exists in this country,” said Susie Lawing, who is also attending the protest this weekend. “The grandmothers are going to bring it to light.”
Three Chico-area grandmothers—Webster, Lawing and Dorothy Parker—will be in Georgia this weekend. A handful of others are going with them. And, in solidarity with the 1,000 Grandmothers, groups throughout the country will send representatives. The event is organized by the School of the Americas Watch group. Friday (Nov. 17) will be full of workshops on nonviolent protest. On Saturday, there will be a rally and demonstrations, and the 1,000 Grandmothers will meet for a tea party.
“We wanted to do some things that were very stereotypical of grandmothers, to grab people,” Webster said. “So we’re going to have a tea party and knit booties.” The booties will be collected and sent in a big bundle to Congress as symbols of the children in other countries who are dying because of techniques taught at WHINSEC.
The big day, Sunday, will bring the “funeral procession"—where people carry white crosses marked with the names of all the people who have died at the hands of WHINSEC graduates. If people plan civil disobedience, this is the day to do it.
Lawing, a grandmother of five who lives in Cohasset, considers herself a “radical person.” She said she saw the call for 1,000 grandmothers and figured it was something she could join in on. “Our country needs to make some drastic changes, and this is something little I can do,” she said.
She won’t be crossing the line, though, because she has a business to run—Tehama Gold Olive Oil—and can’t be away from it for months on end.
Parker knows a little about the consequences of crossing that line—really a fence keeping protesters off the base. She was one of 37 people to go through with the act of civil disobedience last year—and she spent 57 days in federal prison for it. She won’t do it again, because for a second offense she’d be sentenced to six months.
“I do think that my action has gotten a lot of people thinking and talking,” Parker said. “Not everybody agreed with what I did, but they’ve gotten more informed about things that are going on around the world as a result. Obviously I didn’t get enough people to vote [Congressman] Wally Herger out of office, but who knows, maybe someday we’ll be able to melt his heart.”
Herger was among the majority in the House who voted not to cut funding to the school last year. The vote was close, though, and Webster is optimistic that with more Democrats in office and more publicity for the cause, it could swing the other way next year.