Special Reports

SOA Protest carries on

About mid-afternoon, the motorcycles came through, an estimated 800 or so that travel up Victory Drive from the God Bless Fort Benning rally downtown and cut over to Torch Hill Road to loop by the protest site and head back.

They make a deep rumble at the Torch hill turn and then roar back to Victory, and protesters usually just watch and wave, though the annual motorcycle brigade is not a pro-protest parade.

Mike Ring knew it wasn’t. “It was the thrill of my life,” he said sarcastically after the bikes went by.

Ring came from Wall, N.J., for the protest, his fifth trip here. He’s familiar with the annual motorcycle run from the downtown rally out to the protest.

“It’s done because of this,” Ring said. “But I don’t let that kind of thing agitate me so much that I get disturbed.”

Ring is among the “prisoners of conscience,” those who have trespassed onto Fort Benning in a show of civil disobedience. Unlike others, he did no time for that 2004 crime. He got a year’s probation and a $1,000 fine.

His daughter-in-law is from El Salvador, he said. Growing up there, she walked by dead bodies on her way to school. She fled the country after being labeled a “student protester,” which marked her for arrest. Had she been arrested, she would have disappeared, he said.

That’s why he crossed the line. “I had to do it,” he said. “I really had to do it.”

He and wife Mary notice a different air about the demonstration now. “The police here are very polite,” said Mary Ring. Added her husband, “It just doesn’t seem as hostile as it used to be.”

With a forest-green beret on his head and a bowl of grits in his hand, Columbus native Bo Bartlett walked among those protesting the Fort Benning institute once called the School of the Americas and thought about what a remarkable day this is for his hometown.

Bartlett, an artist, now splits his time between Washington State and Maine, but tries to come home to Columbus every year for the annual SOA Watch protest.

This morning he had been downtown, listening to speakers at the Columbus Convention & Trade Center. “The auditoriums were full,” he said. After gathering there with the protesters to talk and sing about peace and justice, he walked over to Broadway to get a cup of coffee, and entered the God Bless Fort Benning rally, where he was surrounded by soldiers. He said there he heard someone shout, “I am a killing machine!”

“Talk about juxtaposition,” said Bartlett, who described the experience as “surreal.”

And inspiring: “This is a celebration of democracy,” he said of the city’s twin events, which invite folks either to show their appreciation to Fort Benning or protest the post’s Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation. Columbus is the kind of town that can accommodate both, he said.

Later he gave a ride to some protesters en route to the Fort Benning gate, and upon learning his vocation, they wondered whether he had any paintings about the protest.

He does have one, he said, called “Swords to Plowshares,” which depicts muscular men at a forge beating swords into plowshares, with people behind them plowing fields. The setting, he said, “is a day much like this,” bright and clear.

Bartlett has a Web site, www.bobartlett.com.

Earlier today, on a cold morning, Cindy Pintos stood along Fort Benning Road waving a poster advertising $10 parking for people en route to the SOA Watch protest.

Like the morning breeze, business was brisk, and picking up.

All bundled up but shivering, Pintos said she'd been at the entrance to the Main Gate Plaza since 7:30 a.m. Just north of Torch Hill Road and south of Victory Drive, the plaza lot is prime property for protest parking.

But it's not for profit, said Pintos. The owner gives the money to the Korean Rock Presbyterian Church.

Across the road, others similarly hawked convenient parking for the event. Ten dollars seemed to be the going rate.

Among those shelling out 10 bucks was a contingent from the University of Georgia. "We don't really know the area," said one, who wondered where he might find a Bank of America ATM. Another said the group would rather pay for easy parking "when it's 32 degrees out."

Columbus Police Capt. J.D. Hawk said the protest crowd looked thinner than it did at that same time a year ago. "I think the cold might not be helping them," he added.

Eric LeCompte, one of the SOA Watch organizers, said the numbers always grow as the day goes on. He said at least 7,000 participants were still attending events downtown, and more buses were expected to come in Saturday night.

SOA Watch founder Roy Bourgeois said the protest has a renewed sense of hope this year because of recent election results.

"Our hope is stronger than ever," he said. "It's possible next November, a big fiesta."

He and other organizers believe that with the recent gains among Democrats, Congress could close the Fort Benning school now known as the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation.

Along the road to the Fort Benning gate, many of the usual activist groups set up booths: Veterans For Peace, Witness for Peace, Sisters of Mercy of the Americas, and Congregation of Sisters of St. Agnes, whose poster said, "Our habits have changed, but not our mission."