COLUMBUS, GA -- Members of School of the Americas Watch (SOA Watch) hand-delivered a letter to the Columbus City Police Department this morning detailing ways in which the current City policy of erecting a pen around protestors violates Constitutional rights. The new fences also present serious safety concerns for organizers of the annual Vigil at the gates of Fort Benning.|
The letter comes in response to a meeting yesterday between SOA Watch and officials of the Columbus City Police Department in preparation for this weekends demonstration. Vigil organizers declared that in spite of the new enclosures, they still expect more than 10,000 people to gather this weekend in a spirit of nonviolence to call for the closure of the School of the Americas/ WHINSEC.
On October 15, a Federal Court of Appeals ruled unanimously that the Citys policy of searching each person attending the Vigil is a violation of the First and Fourth Amendments of the US Constitution. Just weeks after the ruling, the city of Columbus erected eight-foot-tall chain link fences along Fort Benning Road, where protestors have gathered peacefully every November since 1990.
The citys plan to restrict public access to the protest site violates the First Amendment, said Sr. Kathy Long, OP. Penning in a crowd that includes small children, people in wheelchairs and the elderly seems more than unsafe. It seems reckless.
In previous meetings, Police Chief Ricky Boren assured SOA Watch organizers that there were 41 breaks in the fence where people would have free access to enter or exit Fort Benning Road. In a meeting yesterday, however, he reversed course, informing Vigil organizers that only two six-foot-wide points of entry and exit will be made available to those attending the demonstration.
Limiting access to two entryways effectively requires protestors to get permission from the Police to enter the protest site, a Constitutional violation according to the 11th Circuit Court ruling. In todays letter to the Police Chief, SOA Watch organizers ask that the City reverse its decision in light of First Amendment and safety concerns.
Audrey Stewart, SOA Watch Legal Collective volunteer, will be at this weekends demonstration with her 17-month-old son, Gabe.
Im concerned about constitutional violations, but as a mother, Im most concerned about safety, said Stewart. Like many other families, I bring my son to this Vigil to Close the SOA because I know it is a safe place for children.