A scaled back School of the Americas Watch crowd flocked to the Benning Road gate, but one of the largest crowds ever converged on the Stewart Detention Center where five protesters were arrested Saturday morning, the Stewart County Sheriff said.
Sheriff Larry Jones said two women and three men were each charged with misdemeanor criminal trespassing after crossing a picket line at the center operated by Corrections Cooperations of America. Each was taken into custody but later released on $250 bond.
"It was peaceful and everything other than them crossing the line," Jones said. "The only problem it created was all that paperwork."
For the first time in the 25 years of protesting at the Benning Road gate, SOA Watch protesters took part in two events, one in Columbus and the second 30 miles away in Lumpkin at the facility for detained immigrants. Jones said more than 1,000 people were at the detention center while police said only 826 were counted in Columbus.
Jones said the group usually has only about 100 protesters in Lumpkin, Ga., but this year was the largest. The event is normally held the day before the vigil at the Columbus gate calling for the closure of the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation at Fort Benning. Before the institute opened in 2001, the former School of the Americas operated for 16 before closing in December 2000. Graduates have been linked to a 1989 massacre in El Salvador and other atrocities in Latin America.
Hendrik Voss, national organizer for the Washington-based group, identified the protesters as Maureen Fitzsimmons; Rebecca Kanner, a former prisoner from Michigan; Anton Flores, the vigil organizer from the Alterna Community and the Georgia Detention Watch Coalition; Jason McGaughey of Washington; and Kevin Caron of the Georgia Peace and Justice Coalition.
Flores raised a banner after his release.
"Love crosses borders -- fear erects walls," he said.
Clare Hanrahan of Asheville, N.C., marched with the group in Lumpkin and arrived later on Benning Road in Columbus. The group marched from the courthouse square for more than a mile and a half to the detention facility.
"We stood at the gates and prayed and sang and told a story about the oppression that's on the people who are locked up," said Hanrahan, a longtime SOA supporter who crossed the line herself in 2000 at Fort Benning. The 66-year-old said she was moved by a resident who said Lumpkin doesn't have a coin-operated laundry, a senior center, a library or even a pizza parlor.
"She said, 'We don't have anything here but we have this prison,'" Hanrahan said.
While standing near some Buddhist monks, Hanrahan didn't cross the line when others stepped forward. But she said she knows why one might break the law.
"I believe sometimes we are called to take bolder action cause simply petitioning isn't working," she said.
One of the highlights on Benning Road was a visual display from the puppetistas, with activists on stilts and dozens portraying a snake. Kevin Collins of Knoxville, Tenn., said the snake symbolizes the empire and a man dressed in a black hat was the monopoly. They were joined by others portraying the SOA and Christopher Columbus.
"We were killing native people, taking their resources and feeding it to the snake and recycling it to the community of resistance," Collins said. "We struggle to break ties with the community in resistance and communities. When everything is transformed into a butterfly, the resources come back. The bad guys are diminished and run off."
With his wife and kids, Collins said he has worked with the puppetistas for the last 10 years at the protest.
"The reason we keep doing it is because this vision sticks with me," he said. "Wherever I go and see some visual stuff that sticks with me. The message ties to the vision and visual artistry, whether it's a poster or visual shows. If I can tie a speech with visual art, then I can remember what is going on."
Watching a documentary on the SOA Watch was enough for 16-year-old Tara Husni to get on a bus with two friends from Lincoln Ontario. "I watched a documentary on it to inform myself," said Husni, who had a circle with "No SOA" painted on her hands.
The Rev. Roy Bourgeous, founder of the SOA Watch, said the group will continue efforts to close the institute by lobbying members of Congress next year.
"In April, we will go to Washington to lobby to tell members of Congress that the dollars to the school is a theft from the children in our schools and whose budgets are being cut," he said.
The group will not go away, Bourgeois said.
"We are keeping our hands on the plow," he said. "What goes on at WHINSEC continues to be an obstacle to Democracy. We are going to keep doing what we are doing."
The annual protest ends today after a vigil and solemn funeral procession to commemorate the victims of violence.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 protest ends today. Here is a schedule of events:
8 a.m.: Veterans for Peace march with friends to the Benning Road gate
9 a.m.: Speakers, musicians and nonviolence guidelines at the Benning Road gate
10:30 a.m.: Vigil and solemn funeral procession to commemorate victims
1:30 p.m.: Closing