With support from the commander of the Maneuver Center of Excellence at Fort Benning, the Stone Gate entrance to the post will be closed for the annual School of the Americas Watch protest in Columbus, Mayor Teresa Tomlinson said late Thursday.
The decision was made by Maj. Gen. Scott Miller two days after the city of Columbus sent SOA Watch supporters a compromise plan that would allow the protest along Fort Benning Road but also keep two lanes of traffic open for motorists during the Nov. 21-23 event.
“It looks like our partners at Fort Benning are now comfortable with the Columbus Police Department’s ability to maintain peace while having a successful SOA Watch demonstration and the Army will accept the inconvenience of the closure of one of its gates during this event,” Tomlinson said.
The Washington-based SOA Watch has been battling the city over the location since the garrison commander requested Columbus police keep the four-lane road open this year. That plan was opposed by SOA because it would prevent the group from setting up a sound stage and holding other activities in the area.
While the group pushed for using the location, the mayor said Fort Benning needed the Benning Road gate open after the Custer Road bridge was damaged by heavy equipment. At least 3,000 vehicles use the Stone Gate entrance weekdays and on weekends.
“They really felt like they need it for access to the base,” Tomlinson said. “If Custer Road has been repaired and that had been possible, then they would have felt differently about it. Their people were telling them that they needed it open for access to the base, ingress and egress.”
Hendrik Voss, national organizer for SOA Watch, was unavailable for comment late Thursday. He has said the group has a First Amendment right to protest at the entrance of Fort Benning.
This is the 25th year the group has gathered to protest the former School of the Americas and call for closing the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, which opened in 2001.
U.S. Rep. Sanford Bishop Jr., whose district includes Fort Benning, said Thursday he wasn’t aware of the road plans but supports the group’s right to a peaceful protest. Bishop has voted against closing the school that trains soldiers and law enforcement personnel from the western hemisphere.
Tomlinson said she hopes the protesters understand the accommodations Fort Benning is making in good faith.
“I think we would have been successful had they challenged it, but that is not the point,” the mayor said of closing the road. “The point is to balance the competing interests and I do have to commend Gen. Miller. The command staff said they would take a rather significant inconvenience under the circumstances of a road being down and to allow SOA to continue as it has in the past.”
With plans to improve Fort Benning Road, the mayor hopes there is more flexibility in the future.
“When that happens, it will be a major road construction project,” she said. “If that happens, I will have to ask all stakeholders where can we be heard and without having to be at one particular location.”