|Statement by SOA Watch regarding the arrest of three local youth at the vigil and action at Ft. Benning November 19th:|
After the vigil and action at Fort Benning on November 19th, there were reports of three local African-American youth singled out for harsh treatment. Eyewitnesses reported that these three were separated form the rest of those exiting the base after being told by the MP's that they would not be arrested if they left. Witnesses said the youth were placed face down on the wet ground and handcuffed amidst racist statements. The three youth themselves reported that they were taken to a separate processing center, subjected to abusive and threatening language and left miles from home with no way to get back.
Following up on the article "City Police Target Columbus Youth" posted on the Atlanta IMC website, I called Chief Mott of the Columbus Police Department. Chief Mott denied that the Columbus police had arrested anyone leaving Fort Benning on November 19th. I asked him to check for a police report involving the three local youth mentioned in the article. He was familiar with the case and said that Department of Defense police had detained them on post.
I then called Rich McDowell, public affairs spokesperson for Fort Benning. He said that he was aware of the incident and that it was MP's who picked up the three youth. Unable to answer questions that I began to ask, he said he would consult with the MP's and call me back.
When he called he said that he had gotten the information I needed from the MP's. His version of the events was that the three had been detained by the MP's because they were chanting anti-SOA Watch slogans and they were worried what would happen when they reached the crowd outside. McDowell said that they were taken to the MP headquarters rather than to the processing center where other protesters were being taken. He said this was because they were obviously minors, unaccompanied by parents. He said that they were released from the MP station after the MP's had contacted their families. He had no information as to which family members were contacted or who had picked them up.
I asked for an explanation of why they were handcuffed face-down on the ground as some other demonstrators were that day. He did not deny that this had happened, but would make no statement that directly addressed it. He said that is standard procedure for those resisting arrest and that it is the safest way to arrest someone under those circumstances. He did not identify any behaviors by the three youth that would have justified such intervention.
I asked him for a comment about the eyewitness statements that the MP's had made racist remarks, calling the arresting officers "dogcatchers." I also asked about statements made by the youth that the officers involved had used abusive and threatening language including "This is the kind of stuff you can get killed doing." He said something to the effect that no one but those directly involved will ever fully know the truth about what happened. He said he doubted that anything like that could have happened, that these officers had been trained to remain calm in situations like that and "they knew they were going to be under the microscope" at this demonstration. He went on to say "Knowing the MP's involved, I find it very difficult to believe they said something like that unless those kids really did something to provoke them." (emphasis added)
It seems likely that Columbus police were not involved in the arrests of these three youth. It is difficult to imagine that Ft. Benning would own up to a public relations nightmare like this if they weren't actually involved. In the past, there has been a police force working with the MP's on the base. Called either Defense Protective Services or Department of Defense Police, they wear uniforms resembling those of civilian police forces. This could account for possible confusion on the part of the three youth.
McDowell was unable to offer any satisfactory explanation as to how or why this arrest happened. His statement that the three youth were chanting anti-SOA Watch slogans is in direct opposition to the statement of numerous eyewitnesses who agree that the three were actively participating in the protest. His explanation of why they were processed separately is inadequate given that there were numerous other minors processed and released with the MP's making no contact with their families. His statement that he couldn't imagine the MP's reacting this way unless someone provoked them implied that this would have justified abusive and threatening behavior.
Much was put into perspective by McDowell's closing statement. He said, "The things people are putting out there that our MP's did are just outrageous. Frankly, it's like the things SOA Watch puts on the webpage. How anyone can believe that people are taught to torture and kill here is beyond me." It seems like the usual line of defense, to attack the credibility of those who make the allegations.
Clearly, these three youth were singled out and treated differently from the vast majority of the protesters. Was it to send a warning to other local residents who might join in the resistance to SOA violence? Was it easier for the MP's to single these three out for harsher treatment because they are young and African-American? Nonviolent action often brings to light the structural violence in a way that hits closer to home. A system that supports violence abetted by the SOA, directed against those who are most vulnerable in Latin America is obviously capable of singling out the most vulnerable protesters here for harsher treatment.
SOA Watch thanks these brave youth for joining in the protest against the School of the Americas. The risk for them was, and is, much greater than it is for most of us. Thanks also to Sadie AlManeer, Warren Goodwin and Cliff Wilmeng for taking the lead on this. We have put Sadie in touch with a Columbus area attorney, who volunteered to help with the legal follow-up from the vigil and action. We will provide updates as they continue to investigate this incident and follow-up with the three youth and their families.
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