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SOA Watch protesters missing at Stone Gate

Ben Wright

benw@ledger-enquirer.com

ROBIN TRIMARCHI rtrimarchi@ledger-enquirer.comSOA Watch coordinator Chris Inserra, second from left, talks with Brother Utsumi Gyoshu, left, Quinn Wilson, Sister Denise Laflan and Nancy Smith as crew members set up the stage for the Sunday vigil at the Fort Benning main gate. Inserra first attended an SOA Watch in 1997, where she began to read the memorial names from stage. Gyoshu and Laflan are members of the Nipponzan Myohoji Buddhist order in Atlanta. Smith was arrested during the 2010 SOA Watch, and served six months in prison in Danbury, Connecticut.  11.21.15
ROBIN TRIMARCHI rtrimarchi@ledger-enquirer.comSOA Watch coordinator Chris Inserra, second from left, talks with Brother Utsumi Gyoshu, left, Quinn Wilson, Sister Denise Laflan and Nancy Smith as crew members set up the stage for the Sunday vigil at the Fort Benning main gate. Inserra first attended an SOA Watch in 1997, where she began to read the memorial names from stage. Gyoshu and Laflan are members of the Nipponzan Myohoji Buddhist order in Atlanta. Smith was arrested during the 2010 SOA Watch, and served six months in prison in Danbury, Connecticut. 11.21.15 rtrimarchi@ledger-enquirer.com

In a School of the Americas Watch protest that broadened its focus to include the Stewart Detention Center in Lumpkin, Ga., instead of Stone Gate on Benning Road, 11 supporters were arrested Saturday after crossing onto the private prison facility.

Hendrik Voss, national organizer for the Washington-based organization, said all supporters were released from the Stewart County Jail after paying $100 fines. They are expected at the final protest today in Columbus to remember those who died from violence in Latin America.

Voss said the crowd of 1,400 were part of a rally in Lumpkin before they marched 45 minutes to the prison operated by the Corrections Corporation of America.

A broadened focus at the prison 36 miles from Columbus left nothing to do for dozens of police officers watching the annual vigil against the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation.

Stewart County officials confirmed 11 protesters were arrested but didn’t know how many people were at the facility.

Sheriff Larry Jones was at a funeral and not at the gathering.

For the 16th year, Denise Laffan, a Buddhist from the Nipponzan Myohoji in Atlanta, and other members walked more than 100 miles in a Walk For Peace to Columbus.

They took part in the rallies in Lumpkin and at the prison. She said the new focus makes sense in the SOA Watch protest.

“More and more, we are understanding immigration, police and U.S. foreign policies are intertwined,” Laffan said. “I think that is the understanding.”

Playing their drums, Laffan said her group was up front when the supporters locked their arms together and stepped across the yellow tape.

“It was beautiful,” she said.

Kevin Caron, 29, of Atlanta walked across the line for the second straight year at the facility.

“Nothing has changed,” he said of conditions at the prison.

Caron said many issues moved him to step over the line.

“Conditions have been documented at the prison,” he said.

“I feel what is happening at Stewart is wrong for many different reasons. Things are awful.”

With only a handful of supporters, Laffan said she wasn’t bothered by the reduced activity Saturday on Benning Road.

“They are very strong and committed,” she said.

“As long as they keep flowing with whatever the changes are, it will be all right.”

The SOA Watch started protesting at the Fort Benning gate in 1990, a year after the Nov. 16, 1989, slayings of six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper and her 16-year-old daughter in El Salvador.

Soldiers trained at the School of the Americas, which operated at Fort Benning, were linked to the deaths before the school closed in December 2000 and reopened under its current name in January 2001.  Voss said the detention center in Lumpkin houses immigrants fleeing from violence.

“We say we are standing in solidarity with people of Latin America,” he said. “When those people are forced from their home country because of SOA violence, they are being mistreated. We extend our solidarity with them.”

The protest continues today on Benning Road at Stone Gate.

Veterans For Peace will walk from the Columbus Inn on Victory Drive to the gate at 7:45 a.m. After a call to close the institute that trains military and law enforcement personnel from the Western Hemisphere, there will be a speech from Tawana Honeycomb Petty, a Black Lives Matter activist.

A solemn funeral procession to remember those killed by violence is set for 10:45 a.m.

It will be followed by a colorful street theater with puppetistas constructed by supporters during the week.

“They are recruiting more people from the crowd to be part of this street theater,” Voss said.

Voss said he isn’t sure about any protesters crossing onto the post.

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