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Mar 19th
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SOA Watch Vigil Persists Despite Heavy Infiltration and Intimidation by Authorities PDF Print E-mail
Written by Tamar Maya Sharabi   

Between Friday, November 19 and Sunday, November 21, 2010, thousands of people gathered at the gates of Fort Benning for the 20th anniversary of the Vigil to Close the School of the Americas. The program included speakers, music, film screenings, reflection and organizing. Guests from several Latin American countries, torture survivors and family members of murdered or disappeared victims of the school’s graduates, shared their personal experience and their resistance to the SOA. This year, the vigil focused especially on U.S. relations with Mexico, Honduras and Colombia.

The “puppetistas” closed Saturday’s day-long rally, leading vigil attendees to accompany those planning to cross through the highway entrance onto Fort Benning. As the crowd amassed at the exit of the permitted vigil site, police stopped people from walking in the street and instructed participants to use the sidewalk to leave the area. ImageMinutes later dozens of people were arrested while making their way out of the permit zone, even as they were following police instructions.

Police targeted media as well as demonstrators. Other vigil participants walking by the area were arrested when they tried to take photos of the unexpected arrests.

“We had a dozen or so people who were wrongfully arrested, people who were just on their way to their cars who happened to be in the area, certainly arbitrarily,” said Bill Quigley, legal director of the Center for Constitutional Rights and one of the lawyers for the SOA Watch movement.

Despite carrying clearly visible press cards for the international news outlet Russia Today, two of their accredited journalists were among those arrested , along with a reporter from KGNU Community Radio in Boulder, Colorado.

Perhaps most disturbing of all, Columbus resident Curtis DeMarco Thornton was arrested in the midst of the unjust roundup. DeMarco Thornton has been working in his local barber shop for the past eight years. On the day of the arrests, he was parking cars in the shop’s private parking lot. DeMarco Thornton was interested in the puppetistas, and was arrested when, as he explained, “I see these folks every year and I just wanted to take a picture of them on those stilts.”

Infiltrated Direct Actions and State Intimidation

The day before these disturbing arrests, a direct action meeting was held with the all-volunteer SOA Watch Legal Collective. The meeting began with a pledge of nonviolence and transparency. In addition to those who had made decisions to risk arrest and federal prosecution by walking onto the military base, a small group of people decided they would attempt to stop traffic in another nearby site by holding a banner that read, “STOP, The Road for the SOA Ends Here.”

When the road blockade took place the following day, ten people were immediately arrested as they stood on Victory Drive, a mid-sized road near the vigil site. One of the blockade participants, Lauren Stinson, turned out to be an undercover police agent working with the Columbus Metro Narcotics Task Force. In court the following day, Stinson testified and incriminated the other blockade participants. During court, SOA Watch learned that of the twelve who participated in the blockade, seven were undercover police officers.

Additionally, the Coalition for Immokalee Workers (CIW), a longtime SOA Watch partner and 4,000-member-strong, worker-based organization that campaigns for farmworker rights, was denied a demonstration permit by the city of Columbus.

CIW is currently organizing a national campaign calling on supermarkets to do their part to pay farmworkers one penny more per pound of tomatoes as part of their Fair Food campaign. During SOA Watch’s presence in Columbus, “Security and officers followed anyone who looked like they came from the vigil” inside the local Publix – in fear they might stage a demonstration there, according to Allison McCrary, a member of the SOA Watch Legal Collective. CIW was also denied permission to bring their mobile Modern Day Slavery Museum, constructed inside a produce truck, onto the permitted zone for the SOA Watch convergence. The Museum documents several cases of slavery that farmworkers have faced in the US.

Astronomical Bonds and Fines, State Charges Still Pending

Following Saturday’s arrests, an usual Sunday arraignment and trial was held at the Columbus Recorders Court for the 22 arrested. All but one of those arrested were found guilty.

“The city, county and state made very clear they wanted to send a message to the SOA Watch movement that they didn’t want civil disobedience on the city side and the state side,” said lawyer Bill Quigley. “They put astronomical bonds on those arrested for misdemeanors. The usual bond in Columbus, Georgia for misdemeanor is $400, and there were a number of SOA Watch people who received $4,000 bonds.”

Among the 21 convicted were the journalists and local resident Curtis DeMarco Thornton. The charges included picketing, unlawful assembly, failure to disperse and parading without a permit. Total bail and fines amounted to tens of thousands of dollars, not including further pending state charges and fees.

“I think [the arrests and stiff prosecution] speak to the power of puppets to excite peoples’ imaginations, to speak truth in a way that words don’t,” said puppetista Lisa McLeod, when asked why she might have been targeted.

The outpouring of support for the arrestees and the movement was tremendous. Supporters from around the country sent in loans and donations to ensure that all the prisoners would get bailed out of jail within hours of the judge’s sentencing.

Four Human Rights Activists Serve Six Months

Since 1983 the SOA Watch movement has grown significantly.  Despite government infiltration and increased intimidation from authorities, Father Roy Bourgeois has stayed positive about the movement.

“Whenever they gave harsh sentences and stiff fines it brought more people into the movement,” reflected Father Roy. “I’m convinced that this injustice, this meanness and harshness—it will bear fruit.”

From the first actions on the base to the gathering’s 20th anniversary this past November, civil disobedience continues to be the backbone of the movement. Four people crossed onto the military base this year and have begun their jail sentences at the local Muscogee County Jail, awaiting transfer into the federal prison system.


Tamar Sharabi is an environmental engineer and independent journalist. Since her first visit to the SOA Watch vigil in 2006, she has been trying to connect small scale sustainable engineering projects with human rights empowerment. She lived in Honduras for two years and covered the June 2009 coup as a multimedia journalist and continues to work on an independent film on the subject.

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Freedom to assemble doesn't apply...
written by Star Womanspirit, August 27, 2011
It appears that the covers are off and it's obvious that plutocracy is alive and well in the former democracy of the USA. Freedom to peaceably assemble is no longer a right in our country. Too bad they aren't infiltrating the banksters to avert the next financial collapse but they are too busy protecting the profits of Wall Street and the Banks to worry about the rights of real people.
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written by LARRY Hmanist/VFP/IVAW/IWW/GREEN, November 10, 2011
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