An organizer for SOA Watch said Thursday the group will be doing things differently this year -- protesters plan to commit acts of civil disobedience on Saturday instead of Sunday.
“Saturday might look a bit different this year,” said Hendrik Voss, national organizer for SOA Watch, a movement that for two decades has drawn thousands who oppose the military institute formerly known as the School of the Americas.
Instead of risking federal arrest by crossing onto Fort Benning, Voss said demonstrators from all corners of the world plan to cross onto the city side of the authorized protest zone at the main gate of Fort Benning.
“There is no permit for us to march out that way,” Voss said. “We don’t know for sure how the police are going to respond to that. There is a slight chance that people might be arrested for parading without a permit when they go out the back.”
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Demonstrators have already started to descend on Columbus to take part in the protest that starts today. As in years past, organizers have scheduled a full weekend of demonstrations designed to draw attention to the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, a school on Fort Benning that protesters say has trained militants who violate human rights in Latin America. Institution officials have maintained that they teach human rights and democratic values.
Arrests have been as much a staple of the event as the white crosses bearing the name of civilians killed in what protesters call “SOA violence.” On its website, SOA Watch boasts that 297 people have collectively served almost 100 years in federal prison for trespassing onto federal property.
But Voss predicted that more people would risk a city arrest “given that the federal judge has thrown the book at people who have crossed onto the base.”
“The penalties on the city side are a lot lower,” he said. “Now, this year, more people are planning to accompany them.”
Assistant Police Chief Charles Rowe said officers have been made aware of the protesters’ plans and have “held discussions” with SOA Watch representatives.
“Like any other incident that we become involved in, we evaluate what’s happening and make a decision at that time” as to whether to make an arrest, Rowe said.
He said some participants left the permitted protest area last year but were not arrested. “We’ll just have to wait and see if something does occur,” he said.
The SOA Watch demonstrations are timed each year to mark the anniversary of the deaths of six Jesuit priests who were killed in El Salvador in 1989. Organizers say 18 of the soldiers involved in the attacks were graduates of the School of Americas.
Those slayings have motivated people like Gary Cozette to attend the SOA Watch demonstrations each year. Cozette, 59, of Chicago, lived in El Salvador for a time and said he knew the priests.
“It’s hard to measure the outrage I felt at the time,” Cozette, now program director for the Chicago Religious Leadership Network on Latin America, recalled in a phone interview Thursday. “But I converted that anger into a lifelong commitment to demilitarization in Latin America.
“I go every year and will continue to go until it’s closed,” Cozette said, adding he is coming this year with a group of about 40 people, many of whom planned to drive through the night to arrive today.
Others came from even farther away. Voss is a German citizen who said he became involved in SOA Watch to avoid conscription.
And on Wednesday, an exhausted Rosie Wong, 31, completed a nearly 24-hour journey from Sydney, Australia, arriving in Columbus after taking three flights. Wong, who was born in Hong Kong, said she thinks it’s important to be counted among the protesters this weekend, though she doesn’t intend to be arrested as she plans to travel on to Central America after the events.
“It’s really unacceptable that the School of the Americas has continued all those decades,” Wong said as she walked along Veterans Parkway en route to a gathering at the Quality Inn. “It’s a school where people learn how to kill, torture, run death squads and form military coups. It’s just wrong in every single possible way.”