For years, the question on the closing day of the annual SOA Watch protest has been not whether demonstrators will be jailed after trespassing onto Fort Benning — but how many.
The number of activists staging acts of civil disobedience was 85 as recently as 2002, but had dwindled to just four last year. On Sunday, authorities said only one person scaled the fence separating the military post from the crowd of protesters calling for the closing of the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, underscoring the event’s diminished participation this year.
“I think it really reflects all these Occupy protests going on around the country,” said Bill Quigley, an SOA Watch attorney and professor of law at Loyola University in New Orleans, who has seen years when anywhere between a half dozen and 80 protesters crossed the line. “It’s a good thing that there’s so much going on around the country, and I think it reduced the turnout this year.”
Charged with one federal misdemeanor count of trespassing onto a military base was Theresa M. Cusimano, 43, of Denver, an activist who served time in prison after crossing onto the base three years ago with a group of five other protesters. Cusimano posted $1,000 bond and was released Sunday afternoon, Quigley said.
She faces up to six months in prison if convicted.
Columbus police reported an even lower turnout on Sunday — 3,007 people — than the previous day, raising questions about whether authorities will scale back their wall-to-wall presence at future SOA Watch demonstrations. In years past, police have measured crowds of more than 12,000 people, but attendance was also significantly lower at last year’s event.
“It’s hard to do something like that — scale back — with the way things pop up with protest groups,” said Capt. J.D. Hawk of the Columbus Police Department. “The minute you scale back, you get blind sided. We’ll just have to take a look at the environment next year.”
Hawk, who has been overseeing the department’s response to the event for five years, spoke of “unprecedented cooperation” between SOA Watch participants and the police. “I’ve never had one go with zero incidents of any type,” as this year did, Hawk said.
The two sides avoided a repeat of last year’s clash, in which about two dozen people were arrested for demonstrating outside of the permitted area on Fort Benning Road.
“The people have been extremely, extremely cooperative with law enforcement,” said Police Chief Ricky Boren. If the numbers continue to dwindle, Boren said, “We’ll have to totally redo the way we do business because you’re getting thin to the way that it was 15 or 20 years ago.”
As usual, SOA Watch organizers disputed the police estimate of the crowd, saying they measured Sunday’s attendance at about 5,000. “The numbers is not the main thing,” said Hendrik Voss, the movement’s national organizer. “You get 70,000 people out for a football game and that doesn’t do anything. Overall it was a great atmosphere and a good event.”
Voss said a number of people contemplated crossing over onto Fort Benning, but have opted instead to commit acts of civil disobedience next spring when the SOA Watch marches on the White House in Washington, D.C. More than two dozen activists were arrested in April during a “die-in” there, Voss said, a demonstration designed to bring the group’s message to President Barack Obama’s “doorstep.”
“We definitely wanted to keep up the nonviolent direct action campaign,” Voss said.
Sunday’s event featured an appearance by actor Martin Sheen, who excited the crowd with an impassioned address. He quoted Robert F. Kennedy and recited “Where the Mind is Without Fear,” the poem by Nobel Prize laureate Rabindranath Tagore.
“I’m delighted to be here with the reminder that lost causes are the only causes worth fighting for, and nonviolence is the only weapon to use to fight with,” said Sheen, who after his speech was surrounded by enthusiasts seeking autographs. “We are not asked to be successful, we are only asked to be faithful.”
On hand for Sunday’s events was Dr. Lawrence D. Egbert, the anesthesiologist who has replaced Jack Kevorkian on the national forefront of America’s debate over assisted suicide. Egbert, 84, of Baltimore, has been charged in several states, including Georgia, for his role in the controversial practice.
The table Egbert set up this weekend was designed to promote healthy living, and to provide free first aid and over-the-counter medication to protesters. The most frequent ailment he treated at last year’s event was bug bites, he said, while this year a number of participants complained of head and stomach aches.
“Most people, if they’re going to do this, realize it’s a bit arduous,” Egbert said of attending the vigil. “It could get hot or it could get cold, but people, if they’re not well and healthy, don’t usually come.”