Supporters arrive for annual SOA protest

Three months after rejecting the city of Columbus' efforts to move the annual protest on Benning Road, School of the Americas Watch supporters started arriving late Tuesday for the weekend vigil.

Hendrik Voss, a national organizer for the Washington-based SOA Watch, said a meeting with police will take place today to discuss the event, which will be held through Sunday at Fort Benning's Stone Gate. The nonprofit group threatened legal action against the city after a plan was presented in August to keep two lanes of traffic open to grant a request from the post garrison commander.

That plan was set aside after Maj. Gen. Scott Miller, commander of the Maneuver Center of Excellence, said the road would remain closed during the annual protest. In its 25th year, SOA Watch supporters have gathered at the gate since 1990 to protest the former School of the Americas where Western Hemisphere soldiers trained and to call for closing the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, which opened in 2001. The group is protesting the 1989 massacre of six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper and her 16-year-old daughter in El Salvador that was linked to some graduates of the School of the Americas.

Voss said the group is hoping for a smooth, safe vigil and that there won't be any roadblocks placed in their way.

"We hope the police will be professional about it," said Voss, who arrived in Columbus late Tuesday. "We see that the role of the police is to protect Constitutional rights and to protect our First Amendment rights. It is not about us against the police. We have our beef with the base and the School of the Americas and that police should be there to help protect our right to free speech."

Police Lt. J.F. Ross said the event will be held under the same parameters used in previous years.

Voss said he expects thousands at the gate for the vigil. He learned Wednesday that two buses with 70 people each are headed to Columbus on a 23-hour ride from Minnesota.

"We have people from around the country who are coming," he said. "We can expect thousands of people will converge at the gate."

New this year will be hundreds gathering at the Stewart Detention Center on Saturday morning in Lumpkin, Ga., the largest private prison for immigrants in the United States. Voss said the protesters will call attention to the connection between people fleeing Latin America and those held at the detention center.

The Rev. Roy Bourgeois, founder of SOA Watch, said the event has grown to become the largest annual anti-militarization gathering in the nation. "We stand with those whose bodies, lives, families and communities have been torn apart by militaries, police and prisons on both sides of the border," he said. "We call for the closure of the for-profit Stewart Detention Center just 30 miles from the SOA and at the gates of Fort Benning we will continue to call out the names of the martyrs killed by SOA/WHINSEC graduates."

The vigil at the gate starts at 12:30 p.m. Saturday with speakers from North, Central and South America. The event ends Sunday after a funeral procession to commemorate victims.

Lee Rials, a public affairs spokesman for the institute, said about 40 protesters from California, Illinois, Pennsylvania and New Jersey are invited today to the new $28 million campus at Fort Benning. Before the vigil, the institute has always invited groups to learn more about the training.

The 1:30 p.m. tour includes a trip to classes in session where visitors can talk to students and instructors.

"It's just as valuable for them to come onto a military installation to sort of see that we are normal people rather than whatever they have imagined or got from movies," Rials said. "That is as much an education to come to see us."

The visit ends with a meeting in the auditorium where protesters can ask questions. "I think it will be good for them," he said.

No tours are available on the weekend, but Rials said anyone can schedule a visit during weekdays to learn more about the institute.

In preparation for the event, the Stone Gate on Benning Road is closed from 6 p.m. Friday to 6 p.m. Sunday. Motorists are encouraged to avoid the area if possible.

Visitors to the post can access control points through Interstate 185, Eddy Bridge and Harmony Church. South Lumpkin Road will remain open for visitors to the National Infantry Museum & Soldier Center. Residents on post may use outbound lanes of Benning Boulevard to reach the museum.

Motorists entering the post will be stopped and vehicles may be searched. Identification may be requested from drivers and adult passengers.