An estimated 125 to 150 School of the Americas Watch protesters rallied in Lumpkin, Ga., Friday before marching to the Stewart Detention Center where immigrants are held.
The gathering outside the lockup was the first event sponsored by SOA Watch as part of the 23rd annual protest against the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation at Fort Benning. The group has rallied outside the Benning Road gate to close the school since 1990, when it was School of the Americas. After the school closed in December 2000, the institute has operated under its new name and curriculum since January 2001.
For today and Sunday, thousands are expected outside the gate for a series of speeches and songs while about 70 workshops are held at the Columbus Convention & Trade Center.
Arturo Viscarra, advocacy coordinator for SOA Watch, described the march as moving and successful. “I think it was a very powerful experience for the majority of the people,” he said. “It was a lot of moist eyes.”
Viscarra said people are concerned about the remote detention center because of conditions inside the facility and frustration in the way individuals are treated. The private prison in Stewart County is owned by Corrections Corporation of America and is the largest in the United States.
While the protest was in Lumpkin, a Fort Benning official said more than a dozen SOA Watch supporters from Saint Joseph’s University in New Jersey visited the institute.
Lee Rials, a public affairs spokesman for the institute, said they were asking questions and trying to get acquainted with the institute.
“They are just interested in seeing who we are and what we are,” Rials said. “For college students, I think it is important to just see the Army installation like Fort Benning. They see us as a community and just as important as seeing the institute.”
To control the huge crowds, the Stone Gate on Fort Benning Road was closed Friday afternoon and will be shut until 5 a.m. Monday. Visitors may still enter Fort Benning through the main gate at Interstate 185, Sand Hill, Eddy Bridge and Harmony Church checkpoints.
Drivers and passengers 17 and older will be asked to present identification. Pedestrians using the Chattahoochee RiverWalk also must show an ID to enter the post.
Workshops start at 8 a.m. today at the Trade Center. The rally at the Benning Road gate is from 12:30 p.m.-4 p.m.