Americus man arrested during weekend protest

A 60-year-old Americus, Ga., man was the only weekend protester at Columbus' Fort Benning Road gate to get arrested for criminal trespass during the 22nd "SOA Watch" demonstration targeting the military training school now called the Western Hemisphere for Security Cooperation.

Shortly after noon Sunday, Robert Norman Chantal, a longtime SOA Watch supporter known for wearing clown makeup with the words "Study War No More" on his forehead, used a collapsible ladder to climb over the fence authorities erected to keep demonstrators from entering the Army post.

He was arrested for violating federal law and later released on his own recognizance, a Fort Benning representative said. He is to face a U.S. District Court judge Jan. 9.

Benning authorities and Columbus police reported no problems with this year's demonstration, which did not draw the thousands of participants of its peak years. The crowd estimate Saturday topped out at 2,205, and hit 1,900 Sunday, said police Capt. J.D. Hawk. The peak last year was 3,007, he said.

Many of those visiting Columbus for the annual demonstration are regulars like Chantal, but every year it draws some young newcomers like Arlo Cristofaro, a 17-year-old from Northfield, Minn.

Longtime observers may not have been impressed with this year's turnout, but it seemed big to him.

"I had no idea there were this many people that were so enthusiastic and so excited about it," he said. "There were so many young people that were just a little older than me."

He said he also was struck by the creativity of the protest.

"I really loved how they incorporated art into it, especially with the theatrical puppets. That was something I think was done very, very well," said Cristofaro, a senior at Arcadia Charter School. "They had the music playing constantly, and all of the art on the sides, and the T-shirts. It was just beautiful how much creativity they put into it."

To him it was like traveling 24 hours to an outdoor festival.

"It totally is like a festival, which is super cool," he said.

Though the Sunday gathering is more somber, with a funeral procession for people slain in Latin American countries, the celebratory spirit of the gathering provided "a perfect balance of the two," he said, adding, "I'll be back for many, many years."

And like Chantal, "I will cross that fence one day," he said.

Cristofaro, who hopes eventually to teach writing for a living, said the weather here adds value to paying a visit to Georgia in November, in light of what it's usually like in Minnesota this time of year.

"It was like 35 or 40 in Minnesota," he said. "It was like we got off the bus here and we were just like, 'Oh! Sweaters done!' It was so wonderful."

The protest occurs around mid-November each year to commemorate the slayings of six Jesuit priests, a co-worker and her daughter on Nov. 16, 1989, in El Salvador. Some of the soldiers involved in the cold-blooded killings were found to have been trained at what was then called the School of the Americas. The U.S. Department of Defense changed the name of the school in 2001, and maintains it operates on ethical and democratic principles.

Roy Bourgeois, the Catholic priest who started the protest in 1990, is a Vietnam veteran who said he doesn't believe the institute's claims of having reformed its training program.

"One thing we didn't learn in the military is democracy," he said.

The institute's primary focus is serving soldiers and law enforcement officers in Latin American nations. Though some countries in the region no longer participate, institute spokesman Lee Rials said the program had about 2,300 trainees for the federal fiscal year that ended Sept. 30.