Thousands arrive for SOA Watch protest at Fort Benning

benw@ledger-enquirer.comNovember 21, 2013 

Some streets will close and more police are on duty this weekend as thousands converge on Columbus for the 23rd annual School of the Americas Watch protest against the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation at Fort Benning.

"Our main focus is to commemorate those who have died and to hear from the survivors of torture from SOA graduates," said Hendrik Voss, a national organizer for SOA Watch.

Since the Rev. Roy Bourgeois started the organization in 1990, SOA Watch has raised awareness of the institute after the 1989 slayings of six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper and her 16-year-old daughter in El Salvador. While some soldiers trained at the post have been implicated in the murders, Voss said graduates are still taking leadership roles in human rights violations.

The School of the Americas closed its doors in December 2000, and the new school opened under its current name in January 2001.

Protesters are to meet at the Columbus Convention & Trade Center today before leading a convoy to Lumpkin, Ga., for a vigil and rally on the town square. They will then go to the Stewart Detention Center where immigrants are held for detention proceedings.

The protest moves to the Stone Gate on Benning Road Saturday for speeches from Edward DuBose, former president of the Georgia State Conference of the NAACP, Bourgeois and songs. The protest ends Sunday with a mock funeral for those who have died.

Over the last 22 years, Voss said more than 300 people have been arrested and collectively served more than 100 years in federal prison for trespassing onto Fort Benning.

"We support civil disobedience for people to put their bodies on the line to make a statement like that," Voss said.

During the three days of protests, Voss said there will be about 70 workshops from drone warfare to grass roots organizing strategies.

Lee Rials, a public affairs spokesman for the institute, said 1,575 students are projected to train at the institute during fiscal year 2014. Currently, there are 62 from nine countries taking part in the Command and General Staff Course. The operating budget for the school is about $10.8 million.

Rials said the doors of the school will be open from 1-3 p.m. today for anyone to tour the facility and learn about the institute's curriculum.

"We always reach out to them," he said,

Police Capt. J.D. Hawk said the Benning Road gate will close at 5 p.m. today. Motorists traveling should use the main gate on Interstate 185. Visitors to the National Infantry Museum should use South Lumpkin Road.

Columbus Police Department will get help from the Muscogee County Sheriff's Office, the Muscogee Marshal's Office and the officers from the Muscogee County Prison.

Police say they don't anticipate any problems for the annual event.

"It will be the same as usual, we hope," Hawk said.

Voss hopes there are no issues with undercover police trying to enter their workshops. He accused an undercover police officer of trying to enter workshops.

"They said they will talk to their people and give them an orientation and they should not instigate these things," he said. "We hope this will have an impact and we don't see the same scene we saw last year at the convention center."

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