Students protest army camp Print
By Jon Custer, Independent Florida Alligator

Nearly 15,000 protesters assembled outside the gates of Fort Benning, Ga., this weekend in an annual gathering intended to shut down a training program for Latin American soldiers.

The protesters opposed the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, the successor of the School of the Americas.

Between 1946 and 2000, the school trained more than 60,000 troops from around the Western Hemisphere -- many of whom later used their skills to torture, kidnap and kill innocent civilians.

"I'm just here to honor the people that were unjustly taken from life," said University of Florida liberal arts and sciences junior Nataly Thomen, one of more than a dozen UF students and Gainesville, Fla., residents who made the five-hour trek to the base in Columbus, Ga.

"I'm doing it for my family," said Thomen, who lived in El Salvador during a civil war where many who perpetrated atrocities later were found to be SOA graduates. "I realized that the government I was living under was responsible for the disaster my family had to endure."

She said one of her cousins was kidnapped and never heard from again, and a pregnant neighbor was ambushed and shot by the military in an Indian village.

"You can't defend this school," she said. "I feel like if I'm not doing anything; I'm just wasting my time."

UF liberal arts and sciences senior Heather Hutchinson added: "I think it's been proven to be responsible for a lot of atrocities in Latin America, and I don't see what good it's done."

Saturday, protesters turned the blocked-off residential street leading to the main gate into a colorful, frenetic street festival with speakers, musical acts and a "puppet brigade" featuring dozens of giant, brightly colored puppets.

SFCC student Rio Taylor donned a monkey outfit and carried a sign reading, "The SOA drives me bananas."

This year, police set up checkpoints around the protest area with metal-detector wands, a move fought in court by the SOA Watch and by the American Civil Liberties Union. Many protesters registered their disapproval with vouchers announcing they did not consent to the search, and one person was arrested for refusing to be scanned.

"This is a shame," said Roy Evritt, a protester from Atlanta whose 8-year-old son was forced by police to remove the stick supporting his "Christ at Work" sign. "These people didn't even articulate a reason why they searched us." Police countered, saying the metal detectors were standard procedure -- not intended to infringe on anyone's rights.

"This is just one of those things you have to do," said Maj. Stan Sweeny of Columbus Police. "Police officers don't have politics. It's our job to make sure [the protesters] can do what they want in a peaceful manner."

SOA Watch volunteers also acted as "peacekeepers," trying to ensure that the thousands of protesters stayed within the bounds of the organization's non-violence pledge and cooperated with police.

"We're there to be a buffer; we're not there to tell people what to do," said peacekeeper Keith Bierbaum. "Everybody does their own thing."

Sunday morning, after more speakers and an Indigo Girls concert, the lengthy traditional funeral procession began. A column of marchers standing 10-wide carried white crosses with the names of those killed by SOA graduates to the front gate as an announcer solemnly read the names followed by "Presente" -- Spanish for "present."

As the day progressed, the gate turned into an impromptu memorial littered with crosses, ribbons and banners.

Black-clad protesters doused in fake blood staged a "die-in" at the gate's entrance while others climbed atop the "Welcome to Ft. Benning" sign.

In past years, protesters would illegally run onto base property en masse as an act of civil disobedience, but last year a 13-foot fence topped with barbed wire was installed across the entrance.

This year, protesters found a gap at the side of the entrance near the woods, and a trickle slipped through to perform symbolic acts on government property before being escorted away by military police. By the end of the day, 95 people were arrested and will be held in county jails overnight for hearings.

A counter-demonstration set up by Columbus residents drew a small crowd near the entrance to the protest area, where blasting Latin music competed with the solemn chants of the funeral procession.

"We're celebrating and showing our respect for what the soldiers are doing," Dr. Jack Tidwell said. "It's time that another side of this is shown."

(C) 2002 Independent Florida Alligator via U-WIRE