It was 6 a.m. on Nov. 16, 1989, when a gardener named Obdulio Ramos saw that six Jesuit priests and his wife and daughter had been gunned down by soldiers in El Salvador.
From these killings came the movement that 20 years later Columbus knows as “SOA Watch.” Eric LeCompte, one of the organizers of the annual protest held here every November to mark the anniversary of the assassinations, said 18 of the soldiers involved were graduates of the Fort Benning school once called “the School of the Americas.” It is now the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation.
Over the years the protest had drawn thousands to gather at the Army post’s Fort Benning Road gate to sing and dance, demonstrate and mourn. And each Sunday, the protest’s last day, some always cross onto Fort Benning, to be arrested for trespassing on federal property, typically facing three to six months in jail.
The protest began with Father Roy Bourgeois in 1990, but the birth of the movement is traced to that morning 20 years ago in El Salvador.
LeCompte said he is unsure how many will attend this year’s protest.
“I think because it’s the 20th anniversary, a lot of people are coming for the event,” he said. The Jesuits have 46 high schools and 28 universities, and delegates from each are expected to attend, he said.
Tour and discussions
The demonstration has a central aim: Close the institute. But were the institute shut down today, the protests might still go on, as the movement wants to change U.S. policy in Central and South America. LeCompte and other organizers claim the United States supplies military aid and training to the countries so an elite class that controls most of the wealth can protect the status quo, not to defend themselves from outsiders.
Those with the institute argue that they teach human rights and democratic values, and for the ninth year they are inviting demonstrators to come take a tour.
About 700 have asked to attend the institute’s open house, officials say.
Three tours will take visitors to the Pratt Hall auditorium in Ridgway Hall for a panel discussion on the institute, U.S. foreign policy, and related issues.
The panel’s to include institute commandant Col. Felix Santiago, the institute’s chaplain, the director of its “Democracy, Ethics and Human Rights” program, a U.S. State Department official, an officer offering her expertise on both the U.S. Southern Command and the Army, a human rights lawyer who once chaired the institute’s Board of Visitors, and a dean from the Army’s Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth, Kan.
The institute describes itself as “a Department of Defense Education and Training Facility at Fort Benning, assigned to the Combined Arms Center, U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command. The institute offers 18 resident courses and eight mobile-training-team-taught courses to the military, law enforcement, and civilian personnel of the Organization of American States.”
More than 1,300 students took courses there in the federal 2009 fiscal year.
The SOA Watch schedule calls for demonstrators to gather at the Fort Benning gate south of Victory Drive at 11 a.m. Saturday and 8:15 a.m. Sunday. The last event Saturday is a Puppetistas pageant set for 4:15 p.m., and the concluding ceremony Sunday is at 2 p.m.
The Indigo Girls — Emily Saliers and Amy Ray — are to perform Sunday morning. They were to follow an address by Bourgeois, the SOA Watch founder, but LeCompte said Bourgeois is in Louisiana caring for his ailing 96-year-old father.
Some Columbus residents have asked whether the demonstration will affect the National Infantry Museum and Soldier Center, which is between Benning Boulevard and South Lumpkin Road.
Museum representative Cyndi Cerbin said the post’s gate on Fort Benning Road will close at 5 p.m. today. Fort Benning Road there becomes Benning Boulevard, on which the museum has its main entrance, so that won’t be accessible, she said.
Museum traffic will be rerouted onto South Lumpkin Road, where visitors can enter the complex from that side, she said. The museum’s hours are 9 a.m.-5 p.m. today and Saturday and 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Sunday, she said.
One difference people will notice during this year’s SOA Watch gathering is that no “God Bless Fort Benning” rally will be downtown. That event, which for years was held to counter the protest and show appreciation for soldiers training on post, was changed to “Boots on Broadway” and held this year in late October.
LeCompte said he would miss “God Bless Fort Benning” because last year it included a free concert and free food, and he feels people should get out and stand up for their beliefs.