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SOA Watch gears up for 20th anniversary protest

Emboldened by a fresh piece of congressional legislation requiring the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation to release the names of its students and instructors for fiscal years 2009 and 2010, the civil rights activists behind the annual School of the Americas protest are more confident than ever the Fort Benning-based institute will be shuttered in the coming year.

“I wouldn’t work on this issue if I didn’t think it wasn’t possible for us to win on this issue,” said Eric LeCompte of SOA Watch, the group that has protested the training institute since 1990. “We have the ability to close this school.”

The first wave of protest participants will converge on Columbus in less than two weeks, carrying with them the raw materials needed to bring this three-day event to life. As always, the demonstration will take place the weekend before Thanksgiving, from Nov. 20-21. Beginning Nov. 19, organizers will hold a series of training sessions for protest participants. That training continues into Nov. 20.

Historically, most of the action happens on Saturday and Sunday, when hordes of demonstrators assemble outside the Army post’s Benning Boulevard gate.

“We expect tens of thousands to come,” LeCompte said of this year’s event. “We already have a lot more hotels that are filled up in the area and in particular the downtown area.”

The usual cast of characters will be in attendance, LeCompte said, from the larger than life puppets to the solemn, cross-bearing abolitionists to the bumper sticker and T-shirt hawking vendors.

Special guests will include recording artists Amy Ray and Emily Saliers of the Indigo Girls, who are expected to perform Nov. 22, likely following the mock funeral procession. Sunday is also typically the day that some protesters trespass onto Fort Benning in a show of civil disobedience.

Hundreds over the years have done so and later served federal prison sentences.

The protest, which started in 1990 by a handful of people, is always held around the anniversary of the Nov. 16, 1989, killings of six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper and a teen at the hands of El Salvadoran soldiers, many members of which were graduates of the School of the Americas, a name the institute was called prior to 2001.

“From our perspective the school has not changed,” LeCompte said. “You can take a bottle and write poison on it, but it’s still a bottle of poison.”

Col. Felix L. Santiago, the institute’s third and current commandant, said in an interview before last year’s protest that the SOA and WHINSEC are not the same school and that there are “a lot of misconceptions out there” regarding the current program. For that reason, Santiago and his predecessors have each year invited protesters to tour the school and participate in a forum.

Lee Rials, the institute’s public affairs officer, said the tours will take place Saturday, Nov. 21 at 8:30 a.m., 10:30 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. Already, more than 600 demonstrators have signed up, Rials said.

Last year, some 715 visitors toured the institute, according to Ledger-Enquirer reports.

“Every commandant thinks it’s really an outstanding way to reach out and talk with the people who are not necessarily leaders of the opposition, but people who may want to know what both sides of the story are,” Rials said of the free tour. “So they come here and we have seen some indications that people go away with a better understand of what WHINSEC does.”