Organizers of the 25th annual School of the Americas Watch protest on Fort Benning Road may have to consider changes after the post garrison commander requested that Columbus police keep the road open this year.
In response to that request, SOA Watch organizers said supporters wouldn’t be allowed to erect a stage on the street outside of Stone Gate where speeches, music and a funeral procession will be held Nov. 22-23. Organizers have threatened legal action if the nonprofit group is not allowed to hold its annual protest against the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation at the main gate. The School of the Americas operated at Fort Benning for 16 years before closing in December 2000 and opening with a new name and curriculum in 2001.
Hendrik Voss, an SOA Watch organizer, said the group remains hopeful but wants to remain at the main gate for political reasons.
“We are still in negotiations with the city and we hope that we will be successful and eventually be at the main gate of Fort Benning,” Voss said Wednesday. “They should not just look out for the interests of the military but look out for the oath that they took to protect the Constitution and to also protect our First Amendment right to have a protest at the gate of Fort Benning.”
While Columbus police responded to the post’s request, a post public affairs spokesman said the city owns the road leading up to the gate. “Therefore, the decision rests with the Columbus authorities as to whether to close the gate or not during the SOA Watch protest,” Rick Rosado said.
City Attorney Clifton Fay said the city of Columbus is trying to be supportive of the U.S. Army. “They say they need it open,” Fay said of the road. “Columbus usually tries to help them.”
Fort Benning’s request was made in a June 12 letter from Col. Michail S. Huerter, garrison commander, to Columbus Police Chief Ricky Boren.
“After much consideration, I have determined that normal day-to-day operations are paramount to the proper functioning and mission of the installation and continued closure of the northern boundary during the SOAW weekend is restrictive to that end,” Huerter wrote. “Fort Benning requests that Fort Benning Road be accessible to allow vehicular and pedestrian traffic to enter and exit the installation freely, securely and without delay.”
Boren notified the Rev. Roy Bourgeois, founder of the group, of changes in a June 23 letter. Protesters would have to conduct activities along the right-of-way within 5 feet of the curb or along the pavement on the road.
Although the group normally attracts thousands to the area each year, the city permit would allow a limited number of protesters. Boren suggested the organizers consider a location on the southern end of South Lumpkin Road near the military reservation.
“We have offered what we think is a better site on South Lumpkin Road, south of the National Infantry Museum,” Fay said. “They could actually close the entire roadway, they could set up a stage that they wanted and it’s adjacent to Fort Benning. We think that is a very attractive offer. Chief Boren has invited the organizers down here to look at South Lumpkin Road and any other possibilities. We have had good discussions. We’re just going to have to be limited on Fort Benning Road.”
Voss said the group has been asked to apply for a new permit for the South Lumpkin Road location, which is not appealing to SOA Watch supporters.
“We are getting a lot of support from organizations throughout the western hemisphere with groups saying we will be with you at the gates of Fort Benning,” Voss said. “They support our First Amendment right to be at the main gate of Fort Benning. Right now, we are still hopeful that we can come to an agreement that we can get back to the gate.”
SOA Watch protesters from across the United States and the western hemisphere have gathered at the main gate since the first anniversary of the 1989 massacre of a 16-year-old girl, her mother and six Jesuit priests at the University of Central America in El Salvador. The group has claimed that graduates of the School of the Americas were linked to the slayings.