Two months after the city of Columbus placed restrictions on a permit for the annual School of the Americas Watch protest at the Fort Benning Road gate, city officials offered a compromise plan on Tuesday that would allow the group to protest and keep two lanes of traffic open as requested by Fort Benning.
The latest plan came after SOA Watch rejected an alternate plan to move the 25th annual protest with thousands of supporters outside Stone Gate to a location along South Lumpkin Road.
City Attorney Clifton Fay, who has worked with the Columbus law firm of Page Scrantom Sprouse Tucker Ford on a proposal, hopes organizers will accept the latest offer.
“We assume they will accept this,” Fay said Wednesday. “If they don’t, all bets are off. We have given the exact location they asked and part of the road is going to stay open at the request of the Army for two-way traffic.”
The new proposal was drafted by attorney James C. Clark Jr. of Page Scrantom for the city of Columbus. It was sent Tuesday to Kathleen Desautels and Liz Deligio, two supporters of the SOA Watch.
Hendrik Voss, a national organizer for SOA Watch, said organizers planned to get together next week to consider the new plan from the city. He said he hasn’t seen the proposal, but he noted the Benning Road location is important to the group. “That is very much sacred ground for us,” he said.
Voss said the group has received support from thousands in their fight for First Amendment Rights to protest. Support included almost 7,000 people who signed a petition on the group’s website and 12 members of Congress who signed a letter supporting the group’s right to protest.
“While the demonstration may impede traffic and constitute an inconvenience to Fort Benning, these types of disruptions are part and parcel or our country’s proud tradition of vigorous free speech,” the letter stated.
Members of Congress appearing on the letter include John Conyers Jr., Jim McGovern, John Lewis, Hank Johnson, Sam Farr, Danny K. Davis, Barbara Lee, Michael Capuano, Peter DeFazio, Jan Schakowsky, Maxine Waters and Luis Gutierrez. Fort Benning is in U.S. Rep. Sanford Bishop’s district, but he wasn’t among the supporters.
Changes for the protest started when Col. Michail S. Huerter, garrison commander on post, sent a letter on June 12 to Columbus Police Chief Ricky Boren requesting the road be accessible for vehicular and pedestrian traffic during the Nov. 22-23 protest. Keeping the entire road open would prevent the group from setting up a sound stage and other activities would be limited along the right-of-way within five feet of the curb or along the pavement.
A two-lane section of the southbound lanes on the west side of the street will be closed for some 1,500 feet up to Stone Gate, the entrance to Fort Benning. Although reduced in space from previous protests, the area would still allow room for a stage.
The proposal also calls for converting northbound lanes to two-way traffic, going north and south. It would leave the center median and southbound lanes for SOA activities.
“It is a compromise offer and we think it’s very fair and hopefully that will be accepted and everybody can move on,” Fay said. “We still think Lumpkin Road is a better place for them because it gives them a lot more room. They have rejected that up to this point.”
Fay said officials at Fort Benning police have signed off on the road plan.
Protesters 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 at Fort Benning were linked to the slayings.
The school closed in December 2000 after 16 years of operation on post. A new school opened in 2001 with a new name and curriculum, the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, but the protests have continued.