Over the course of the weekend SOA Watch protest on Fort Benning Road, Columbus police reported only one instance of near civil disobedience.
On Saturday afternoon, one of those participating in the annual demonstration against the training school once called the School of the Americas walked to the chain-link fence blocking the Benning entrance, pulled a chain and lock from his backpack, ran it through the fence and around his body, and appeared ready to lock himself to the barrier.
Police officers observing this tried to decide what to do, and almost immediately decided to do nothing.
The man with the chain was on the Columbus side of the fence, so he wasn’t trespassing on the Army post. He wasn’t hurting anyone or blocking traffic or causing a disturbance. So, if he wanted to lock himself the fence, well OK, then. “Let him sit,” a police supervisor ordered. Perhaps the protester would stay there overnight, as temperatures dropped to the 30s.
He eventually dislodged the chain and put it back in his pack. Police told him never to bring it back into the protest venue. Whether he locked himself to the fence might not matter, but the chain could be used as a weapon, officers said.
Police Capt. J.D. Hawk estimated Sunday’s crowd at a little more than 1,700, so the demonstration in its 23rd year did not draw the masses it had in the past. But its demographics seemed to shift, as more of those present were young.
Among them were Audrey Lodes and Taylor Otis, two 17-year-olds who came to Columbus on a bus from Nerinx Hall High School, a Roman Catholic girls school in Webster Groves, Mo., outside St. Louis. It was their first year here.
“I’ve heard from a lot of people that it’s amazing, so we decided to come this year,” said Lodes. “I think that as teenagers and as young adults who are going to be a part of the culture when we grow up, we should be educated on what our government is doing, who our government’s involved with, and I think that it’s such a good cause to be down here,” she added.
“And I think it’s such a different perspective on our government than we ever see in the newspapers or in the media,” she said.
Said Otis: “And I think kids our age are definitely the future, and they need to know what’s going on; they need to know what’s happening. Coming down here is just a great way to show them, and it’s not like we’re doing any harm, you know, trying to prove a point.”
They and some friends had gathered at the gate to be photographed with Roy Bourgeois, who started the demonstration in 1990. To them, he is a hero.
“We saw a video on the way, on the bus ride over here, and he was talking about how he was at the first one, and it turned into just like thousands and thousands of people, and that’s amazing,” said Lodes.
Said Otis: “I look around, and the amount of people here trying to prove a point is amazing, and like all different ages, too. I see little boys, little girls walking around. I think that’s really nice.”
So does Bourgeois, who smiled and posed for photos with students on their first trip and with old-timers who’ve come for decades.
“A special joy is to see the diversity here,” said Bourgeois, 74. “I would say half or over half would be high school and college students.” One contingent came all the way from Canada, he noted. For some, it’s a spiritual experience. “I hear this: It’s very spiritual and that’s what I feel,” he said. Sunday’s event always includes a funeral procession for victims of oppression in Latin America. Demonstrators carry white crosses with the names of those who were killed or disappeared under authoritarian regimes. The crosses are left in the chain link fence. “Mirma Chicas, 10, El Salvador,” read one. “Pedro Chicas, 27,” read another. Crosses were there also for Pablo Emilio Gomez of Colombia and Tomas Garcia of Honduras. Some bore no names, only ages: “Child, 4 years old,” “Child, 9 months old,” “Child, age 7.”
Usually during or just after the procession, someone crosses onto Fort Benning and becomes what organizers call a “prisoner of conscience,” typically serving six months in federal prison for trespassing onto the military installation. No one crossed this year, police and organizers said.
Instead the protesters massing at the gate were given liquids with which to blow bubbles across the Fort Benning border. “Share the bubbles!” an organizer shouted to the crowd. “Blow some bubbles and pass it. Your breath crosses the line.”
Though 1,700 hardly compares to the protest’s peak of more than 10,000, it’s better than the 10 who were with Bourgeois the first year.
They came in 1990 on the first anniversary of the Nov. 16, 1989, murders of six Jesuit priests gunned down at the Central American University in San Salvadore, where Salvadoran Army soldiers executed not only the priests but also their housekeeper and her 16-year-old daughter.
A United Nations Truth Commission later determined the Salvadoran Army chief had ordered the assassination of one of the priests, Father Ignacio Ellacuría Bescoetxea, who had encouraged peace talks between the government and communist rebels. The soldiers, some of whom had trained at the School of the Americas, were told to leave no witnesses.
The annual demonstration shows such injustice is not forgotten, Bourgeois said.
“I am humbled in this movement,” he said. “We’ve come a long way since we came here and held signs and fasted. A lot of this comes from young people.”
He laughs as he notes many of the workers at the movement’s national office are in their 20s. “I’m humbled and inspired by them,” he said. “They are so committed.”
Since the protest began, the School of the Americas closed and a new training center called the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation replaced it in January 2001. Supporters say the institute emphasizes human rights and democratic principles along with its courses in leadership development, peacekeeping, resource management and disaster relief planning.
SOA Watch maintains the program only changed its name and still trains soldiers to fight and repress their own countrymen.