1700 + Martin Sheen arrested at Fort Benning

1700 + Martin Sheen arrested at Fort Benning

By By Jon McGinty

By Jon McGinty

Freelance Writer

Over the weekend of November 18-19, nearly 7,000 people gathered in rain and unseasonably cold weather to voice their protest against the School of the Americas (SOA) at Fort Benning in Columbus, Ga.

This was the 11th such gathering since SOA Watch, a human rights organization founded by Fr. Roy Bourgeois in 1990, started calling attention to the School and its graduates’ record of abuses.

The SOA is a U.S. Army facility which has trained more than 56,000 Latin American soldiers in counter-insurgency tactics and commando operations since its inception in 1948. According to SOA Watch, past graduates of the School include some of the most notorious human rights abusers in Latin America. Many have been implicated in dozens of coups, massacres, kidnappings, tortures, rapes and murders in their countries.

On Sunday, November 19, 3,500 protesters “crossed the line” into Fort Benning in a solemn, 10-person-wide,

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funeral procession.

Most marchers carried white crosses inscribed with the name of a victim of an SOA graduate. As the names and ages were chanted over a loudspeaker, everyone responded with “Presente” (I am here). The procession was led by dozens of black-robed marchers in white death masks carrying coffins splattered with red paint to resemble blood.

When the procession reached a roadblock of military personnel about a mile into the base, they stood in the rain for several hours until they either walked back to the gate or were transported off the facility by buses.

Approximately 1,700 protesters were arrested and processed, up from 47 at last year’s event. Over the 10 years of arrests at the SOA protest, 50 people have collectively served 30 years in federal prisons for demonstrating their concerns about the School.

Among those arrested this year was actor Martin Sheen, who has for several years been a public supporter of the movement to close the School.

“You all know what I do for a living,” said Sheen before walking on to the base. “This is what I do to stay alive.”

More than 375 law enforcement and military personnel were on duty, patrolling the demonstration. Security was more intense because of reports that anti-globalization protesters like those who destroyed property in Washington, Seattle and Philadelphia were planning “high-risk actions.” The non-violent tradition of SOA Watch was upheld, since no destructive confrontations occurred.

Efforts to close the SOA by eliminating its funding failed by only 10 votes in Congress this past summer. Our legislators came up with a “compromise” amendment to the Defense Authorization Bill. That compromise will close the SOA on December 15 and re-open the facility on January 17 under a new name, the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation.

Although this “new” institution will include a civilian oversight board and mandate human rights courses for students, even congressional supporters of the SOA labeled the changes as “cosmetic.”

Rev. Bob Campbell, 43, from Freeport, attended the protest at Fort Benning this year for the third time. During previous visits to Latin America, Campbell talked to people who had experienced abuses by SOA graduates.

“They see the SOA as the place where the U.S. trains criminals to take away the voice of the people,” says Campbell.

Barry Miller, 59, from Downers Grove, Ill., marched across the line onto the Army base for the first time this November.

“I was most impressed with the procession,” says Miller. “When you hear the leaders call out the names of victims and we answer ‘Presente,’ you realize they aren’t really voiceless any longer.”

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