Four Arrested at SOA Watch Protest

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by
The Columbus Ledger-Enquirer (Georgia)

Four Arrested at SOA Watch Protest

SOA Watch founder, organization nominated for Nobel Peace Prize

by
Lily Gordon and Alan Riquelmy

Large puppets representing those killed in the Jesuit massacre in San Salvador in 1989 move through the crowd Sunday during the annual SOA Watch protest and vigil at the gates of Fort Benning. Photo by Mike Haskey/mhaskey@ledger-enquirer.com

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."

Four arrested

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.

Thousands attend

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.

Nobel nomination

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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