Sarah Snider participated in her first SOA Watch protest in 1998 with her good friend Joe DeRaymond.
Last month, after battling brain cancer for less than two years, DeRaymond died. That left Snider to carry out his final wish: to participate in one last protest at the gates of Fort Benning.
So, when Father Luis Vitale announced he planned to cross onto the Army post during the final day of the 19th annual SOA Watch demonstration, Snider asked the 77-year-old Oakland, Calif., native to carry with him DeRaymond’s remains.
“To the end, he wanted to come back here,” Snider said of DeRaymond. “So, I brought his ashes and Father Louis Vitale crossed with three others this morning and he carried his ashes.”
Vitale was one of four protesters who was arrested shortly before 9 a.m. Sunday and charged with trespassing on federal property after he entered Fort Benning through its Interstate 185 access control point.
This was Vitale’s third time to step onto Fort Benning during the SOA Watch protest. He said he’s already spent time in prison for actions taken at Fort Benning and Fort Huachuca, Ariz., and he expects to receive the full six-month sentence when he appears before a federal magistrate in January.
“The evil is still there,” Vitale said. “It’s the right thing to do. We have to protest.”
Military police also arrested Nancy Gwin, 63, of Syracuse, N.Y., Michael Walli, 61, of Washington, D.C., and Kenneth Hayes, 60, of Austin, Texas, for trespassing on post, according to jail records and SOA Watch officials.
The protest seeks to close the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation — formerly known as the School of the Americas — a school located on Fort Benning that trains Latin American soldiers and that SOA Watch advocates say is linked to human rights violations in Latin America.
This year’s event marked the 20th anniversary of the killings of six Jesuit priests and the wife and daughter of Obdulio Ramos by soldiers in El Salvador. Eric LeCompte, one of the organizers of the protest, said 18 of the soldiers involved in the slayings were graduates of the Fort Benning school.
Hayes has been at the SOA Watch protest every year since 1997. Sunday was the first time he stepped onto Fort Benning since they began putting up a fence in 2001.
“I felt like I should be doing more,” Hayes said on why he crossed. “I always had excuses.”
Hayes said he isn’t convinced by a public relations campaign in favor of WHINSEC. “It’s fairly obvious the school hasn’t changed. I’m not naive about it. I realize what’s going on.”
Like Hayes, Gwin has come to Columbus every year since 1997. In 1998, she carried a small casket with a 2-year-old child inside who had been killed in a massacre in El Salvador, she said.
Her granddaughter was 2 years old in 1998. Now, she’s 13.
“And there are still things that are going on,” Gwin said of the institute.
Gwin said the school’s closure would send a powerful message to Latin America. “To say, ‘We are closing this school to make an equal relationship with you,’” she said. “It’s a small step, but it says we’re looking for a new future.”
Walli was the only protestor who refused to post bond following his arrest, said Hendrik Voss, communications coordinator for SOA Watch. He is scheduled to appear before a federal judge at 10 a.m. today. Vitale, Gwin and Hayes will go to federal court January 25 and 26, LeCompte said.
Despite the rain and cold, thousands gathered on Fort Benning Road south of Victory Drive for an afternoon of singing, dancing, demonstrating and mourning. The Indigo Girls — Emily Saliers and Amy Ray — took the stage around 9:30 a.m. to perform for a swelling crowd that at its peak surpassed the 6,500 mark, according to Columbus police.
In 2008, law enforcement officials estimated 8,700 protesters converged outside the gates of Fort Benning for the final day of the peaceful demonstration.
The Presente, a march in which protesters carry crosses and are led by larger-than-life puppets and stilt walkers up and down Fort Benning Road, began around 10:40 a.m. This year, the processional started at the foot of the protest stage near the Benning Boulevard gate and moved north toward Victory Drive.
Because event organizers had a permit only for Fort Benning Road, police officers attempted to reroute the processional before it spilled onto Victory Drive. Despite those efforts, about 50 demonstrators did step onto Victory Drive, causing a slight traffic backup in the lanes leading to I-185 and a few tense moments. Police gave the protestors repeated orders to return to their authorized demonstration site. After about five minutes the processional did return to Fort Benning Road without incident.
The founder of SOA Watch, Father Roy Bourgeois, along with his organization were nominated Saturday for a Nobel Peace Prize by the American Friends Service Committee, a Nobel Peace Prize Laureate.
The announcement was made in Oslo, Norway, at 9:05 a.m., Voss said.
“We are very humbled to be nominated for this very prestigious prize,” Voss said. “It’s recognition of the work of the people all across the Americas that are struggling and resisting militarization throughout the Americas.”
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