Thousands head to gates for SOA Watch

For 51-year-old Janie Stein, the drive to the SOA Watch protest every year is what she calls a “great spiritual pilgrimage.”

This year was Stein’s ninth time she and her husband Martin Bates travelled from Salina, Kan., for the annual event. Stein said they go to show solidarity in peace and take a stance against “oppressive” U.S. foreign policies.

“This country could be the beacon of light in the world if we treat people fairly,” she said.

The couple joined thousands of other protestors Saturday who gathered at the gates of Fort Benning for the 20th annual protest. The protest seeks to close the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, formerly known as the School of the Americas. It is located at Fort Benning and trains Latin American soldiers. Organizers say soldiers trained at the school had a hand in the killings of eight people, including six Jesuit priests, in El Salvador 20 years ago.

Throughout the day, attendees along Fort Benning Road sang, dance and demonstrated for a variety of causes beyond the call for the SOA’s closure.

Stein, who first attended an SOA event in 1997, said the crowd seems a lot younger than years past.

“There’s more energy than ever and it’s not going away,” she said.

Casey Olson and Cathleen Cotter travelled from St. Norbert College in Wisconsin with a few other students to join the protest. The college sophomores said the event gives them a chance to learn about different causes.

“Like stuff the government keeps from us and leads us to believe,” said Olson, 19.

Local law enforcement officials said Saturday’s event attracted about 6,900 attendees. Last year’s estimate stood at about 8,200.

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