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SOA protesters end 100-mile Walk For Peace in Columbus

Six days after walking from Atlanta, members of a Buddhist group and other School of the Americas Watch supporters completed the 100-mile Walk For Peace Friday afternoon on Benning Road in Columbus.

Led by Denise Laffaf, the group will join other protesters this morning at the Stewart Detention Center in Lumpkin, Ga., and return to Fort Benning’s Stone Gate by 12:30 p.m. for the 25th annual SOA Watch protest against the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation. Laffaf said issues at the institute and the private prison for immigrants are connected. Thousands are expected to take part in the three-day event with music, workshops, speeches and a rally calling for closure of the institute that 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.

Laffaf, a Buddhist member of the Nipponzan Myohoji in Atlanta, said the walk is one step in a long process.

“I see that we are walking to close the School of the Americas, but I’m walking in the same footsteps of the people who walked from Selma to Montgomery, walking in the same footsteps of the people in the Salt March with Gandhi in India in 1930,” she said. “We are part of a long, long history, seeking justice and recognizing dignity of all human beings. It is a long way to go.”

Waving signs and chanting, the group walked 15 to 20 miles a day to reach Columbus in time for the annual protest. Walkers are from North Carolina, New Jersey, Maine and Ohio in the United States and Austria. Crews from Fort Benning and public safety officers were busy Friday afternoon setting up fences and moving in equipment for the three-day event.

Security at protest

At least one public safety agency has scaled back staffing for security this year. Muscogee County Sheriff John Darr, who filed a suit claiming his budgets provided by Columbus Council was insufficient to carry out the constitutional requirements of the office, said no money was allocated for overtime this year. “What happens is you have to give them overtime for these individuals,” the sheriff said. “With the financial situation, there was no money allocated from the city to pay it. No overtime was not going to work so the next thing was comp time. I don’t have the luxury of having comp time right now.”

The sheriff said he couldn’t afford compensation time because of security needs in Superior Court. If there is a need for help at the event, Darr said the Sheriff’s Office has people on standby if needed.

“We have different planning in case something happens to help the police department to do our part to make sure nothing goes wrong,” Darr said. “They will be ready to respond if there is anything that happens.”

Assistant Police Chief Lem Miller said the department was aware of the sheriff’s staffing this year.

“We are going to be out there and we don’t expect any trouble,” he said. “We are there just to make sure that their constitutional rights are observed.”

Muscogee Marshal Greg Countryman filed a similar suit about funding for his office but he will provide four deputies each day for the event. Deputies will be compensated with overtime or time off, said Capt. Curtis Lockette.

SOA Watch schedule

The annual School of the Americas Watch weekend kicked off Friday with workshops, a welcome plenary and concert at the Columbus Convention & Trade Center. The event runs through Sunday with rallies at the Stewart Detention Center in Lumpkin and at the Benning Road entrance to Fort Benning. Here is a schedule of events:

Today

7:45 a.m.: Caravan departs for the Stewart Detention Center, Lumpkin, Ga.

9:30 a.m.: Vigil at the detention center

12:30 p.m.: Block party, puppetistas, musicians and speaker on Benning Road

1:30 p.m.: Mass rally with musicians and speakers from across America

4:30 p.m.: Workshops, caucuses, training and discussions at the Columbus Convention and Trade Center

7:30 p.m.: Evening concert at the Trade Center

Sunday

8 a.m.: Veterans for Peace march with friends to Benning Road gate

9 a.m.: Speakers, musicians and nonviolence guidelines at Benning Road gate

10:30 a.m.: Vigil and solemn funeral procession to commemorate victims

1:30 p.m.: Closing

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