Fort Benning

Scaled-back SOA Watch vigil may attract about 100 protesters

Father Roy Bourgeois, front center, joins others in marching on Nov. 22, 2015, at the SOA Watch protest at the gates of Fort Benning.
Father Roy Bourgeois, front center, joins others in marching on Nov. 22, 2015, at the SOA Watch protest at the gates of Fort Benning. mhaskey@ledger-enquirer.com

A scaled-back School of the Americas Watch vigil may attract 100 protesters Saturday instead of thousands at the Stone Gate on Benning Road, the organizer said Thursday.

Hendrik Voss, national organizer for the Washington-based group, said the 26th anniversary event won’t have a stage at 2500 Fort Benning Road or workshops and concerts at the Columbus Convention & Trade Center but a group of devoted supporters for a one-day event. Since 1990, activists have called for the closing of the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation at Fort Benning, formerly known as the School of the Americas.

“We are very much looking forward to it,” Voss said. “The gates at Fort Benning have been part of the movement.”

The protest started in 1990, a year after the 1989 massacre at the University of Central America in El Salvador left six Jesuit priests, 16-year-old Celina Ramos and her mother Elba Ramos dead.

Nineteen of the 26 soldiers implicated in the deaths of six priests, their housekeeper and her daughter, attended the School of the Americas. In 1984, the school moved to Fort Benning and operated there until it closed in December 2000. The school reopened on post in January 2001 under its new name, the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation.

Voss said he will arrive in Atlanta on Friday and drive a pickup truck to Columbus. “The pickup truck will be the stage,” he said. “We are going back to the roots when it was a handful of people there. This year, we will have a vigil and speak out with a lot of longtime activists from around the country.”

The truck will provide music for the event that kicks off from noon to 3 p.m. Voss said activists are expected from California and some will arrive with a caravan from Cleveland, Ohio.

“We very much emphasize local action,” Voss said. “We will have maybe up to 100 people, but I think it will be max of 100 people, I would assume.”

The annual protest has required hundreds of police officers for thousands of activists but is expected to be reduced with the scaled-back crowd. Police were unavailable for comment late Thursday on plans for the smaller event.

The protest in Columbus is expected to end sometime before 6 p.m. Voss said protesters are expected to lead a caravan to the Stewart Detention Center in Lumpkin, Ga., for a vigil from 6-8 p.m. or later. The prison is operated by the Corrections Corporation of America and holds about 1,800 immigrants for deportation proceedings.

Because of the protest, Fort Benning officials said Stone Gate will be closed from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday. All visitors to the post are encouraged to use the Interstate 185, Eddy Bridge and Harmony Church access points.

Benning Road will remain open but inbound and outbound traffic will be routed through the National Infantry Museum and hotel parking lot onto South Lumpkin Road.

Visitors to the museum should use South Lumpkin Road. Motorists are encouraged to avoid Benning Boulevard between Victory Drive and Benning’s Stone Gate.

Although the vigil is reduced this year, Voss said the group’s efforts will go on.

“We will continue that tradition until the school is closed,” he said.

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