Richard Hyatt: More of the same at annual protest

November 21, 2013 

Spotted Sunday at the 2012 SOA Watch protest at the gates of Fort Benning. 11/18/12

MIKE HASKEY — mhaskey@ledger-enquirer.com

The theatrics haven't changed much in 23 years. Singers deliver old familiar protest songs and speakers rant and rave with the same passion and conviction they wore when a small group of demonstrators first marched on Fort Benning's Main Gate.

Crowds aren't as large as they once were, and the event no longer draws A-list liberals but, for supporters of the School of the Americas Watch, the cause is just as just.

This weekend Father Roy Bourgeois and his merry band of protesters will rally on Benning Road to object to the presence of a school now known as the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation.

Having a front row seat to this textbook example of political protest has been enlightening -- and the cast seldom changes.

There is Bourgeois' rag-tag group with their handmade puppets and somber funeral procession. There are professional soldiers sworn to defend a place where they work and serve. Caught in the middle are officers and deputies of the Columbus Police Department and the Muscogee County Sheriff's Department with a mandate to keep the peace and enforce the law.

For years I was a reporter on the scene, watching this peculiar dance come together. When representatives sat down to plan it, they seemed candid and open but each of them knew the other side was holding back something, a surprise move that wouldn't be revealed until show time.

Then there were the backstories. Such as Maj. Gen. John LeMoyne, the post commander, for the first time acknowledging the presence of a protester at the gate. This wasn't just any protester. This was Medal of Honor recipient Charlie Lietky.

"He asked what kind of coffee Charlie drank -- regular or decaf," related Bourgeois. "Next time the general came through he had a cup for Charlie."

There were the appearances of big screen stalwarts Martin Sheen and Susan Sarandon. Sheen portrayed President Josiah Bartlett on TV's "The West Wing," and in character he read a decree: "As the Acting President of the United States -- hence the Commander and Chief -- I hereby decree that the School of the Americas should cease to exist immediately."

My most striking memory took place on 12th Street, not Benning Road. It was 2001, weeks after terrorists took down the Twin Towers. The post was on full alert and people wondered if Bourgeois would cancel the protest. He didn't, the priest got into a verbal joust with Mayor Bobby Peters.

The ACLU got involved and so did the federal courts. All eyes were on U.S. Magistrate G. Mallon Faircloth, a former University of Tennessee football star who had sent aging priests and nuns to prison for their role in the protest.

It was Faircloth's moment, and he was prepared. He talked about war and history and legacies. More than anything, he talked about the U.S. Constitution.

Delivered without notes, his 36-minute ruling was remarkable. Faircloth went against the city and said years of tradition had established that roadway as a public forum and a site for political dissent.

"We are all here to protect the American way of life and to protect it with the Bill of Rights and the U.S. Constitution," the judge said. "If we can do that, we will leave a legacy to our children's children."

Richard Hyatt is an independent correspondent. Reach him at hyatt31906@knology.net.

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