Blessed Peacemakers

They'd seem quaint if they weren't so eloquent: Meet the University of St. Thomas's loudest rabble-rousers

Uncle Sam hands some cash to a man in a business suit. The businessman gives a gun to a military commando. Uncle Sam and the businessman put blindfolds on and turn their backs as the soldier goes toward a nearby line of eight men and women. He shoots each of them. After they fall, Uncle Sam, the businessman, and the soldier pour fake blood from a nearby bucket over the dead, staining their white T-shirts. And then they walk away, blood on their hands.

It is a sunny, windy November afternoon on this lawn surrounded by imposing stone buildings--the lower quad of the University of St. Thomas's St. Paul campus. The Student Coalition for Social Justice is staging a reenactment of the 1989 murders of six Jesuit priests and two women at San Salvador's University of Central America. The symbolic demonstration aims to raise awareness about the many killings carried out by graduates of the U.S. Army School of the Americas at Fort Benning, Georgia.

This is the second year the coalition has held the event. But today the world looks very different than it did at this time last year. Just weeks before, terrorists attacked New York and Washington, killing thousands and leaving Americans confused, saddened, and scared. The students are not sure how the protest will be received.

A small group of students and faculty stand off to the side of the quad, facing the murdered martyrs who lie motionless on the grass. Two people, strikingly dissimilar, stand at the front of the onlookers: a tall, slim man with a dollop of white hair and a petite woman, with long chestnut tresses and a tiny silver hoop in her nose. They trade off singing out the names of people who have been killed by terrorists. His voice is piercing and nasal, hers is lilting and sonorous. He is Jack Nelson-Pallmeyer, a 50-year-old assistant professor of justice and peace studies at St. Thomas. She is Michel Clausen, a 23-year-old senior who heads the student coalition.

"Unknown child, six years old," Clausen sings. The group behind her responds with a murmur. "Presente."

"Unknown child, nine years old," she continues. "Presente." They call out names for 20 minutes, the words often swallowed up by blustery gusts.

Throughout the demonstration, few people stop at the coalition's adjacent information table. A handful of students pause for a moment to watch or read the signs posted along the paths. Some roll their eyes and mutter things like, "Fucking idiots." But mostly the students pay no attention to the presentation. They chatter on cell phones, make plans for dinner, or trade notes from science lab. And then they walk away.

After the protest, the students hastily collect rows of white crosses that border the lawn. Each cross bears the name of a person killed by terrorists, either in Latin America or in the September 11 attacks. As they pile stacks of the crosses on their information table, students in blue uniforms begin to mass across the quad. It's the ROTC, about to begin its own ceremony, a vigil honoring Veterans Day. All week long the cadets have entreated Clausen's group to be gone from the quad before their own ceremony began.

The soldiers bring out a boom box and play the "Star-Spangled Banner." They march in formation, salute the flag, then lower it. It is a commemoration of all the Americans who have become prisoners of war.

Clausen watches the ceremony for a moment. With its military pomp and circumstance, it is the opposite of the coalition's antiterrorism event. The guards present the folded U.S. flag to the president of the university. "You didn't see him at our thing," Clausen says sarcastically. But only slightly: She has long since accepted this reality about conservative, religious St. Thomas. Overall she seems pleased with the way the reenactments went, even though fewer people asked questions about it this year. That was something she had feared.

"You'd think people would be more positive because it's against terrorism of all kinds. But actually they're more negative," she muses. "Last year more people were open-minded. They asked about it at the table. This year people walk by with their heads down, or say something ignorant. Since September 11, there's more of a shutdown mode.

"The university didn't want us to do the reenactments, thinking the students were too on edge, too emotional," Clausen continues. "But terrorism is terrorism. We're trying to draw a connection and show how the [World] Trade Towers connect with this. If you really want to stop terrorism you've got to shut down the institutions that teach it."

 

To look at Jack Nelson-Pallmeyer's tiny office, you'd never know that he grew up more or less oblivious to social issues. The alcove is overflowing with books and papers, most of which raise uncomfortable questions about injustice, discrimination, and violence. The phrase "Blessed are the peacemakers" skips across his computer's idle screen. Yet when the Civil Rights movement and the Vietnam War were shaking the nation, Nelson-Pallmeyer was focused on his career as a high school sports star in Coon Rapids.

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