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Police Arrest 22 at SOA Watch Protest in Georgia

by Jim Mustian

Columbus police arrested about two dozen people Saturday after dispersing a large, chanting crowd of SOA Watch demonstrators marching up Fort Benning Road.

Law enforcement officers search protesters after arresting and handcuffing them Saturday afternoon during the annual SOA Watch protest in Columbus, Georgia. (Photo/Mike Haskey) Law enforcement officers search protesters after arresting and handcuffing them Saturday afternoon during the annual SOA Watch protest in Columbus, Georgia. (Photo/Mike Haskey) At least 22 had been booked into the Muscogee County Jail by 8 p.m. Saturday, Muscogee County Sheriff John T. Darr said. Their charges were not available, but authorities said most appeared likely to be charged with failure to disperse or criminal trespassing, both of which are misdemeanor offenses.

Among the arrested were at least one reporter and a TV photographer who was detained while filming the arrest of a demonstrator. SOA Watch officials were preparing a statement that said three reporters were arrested from the same foreign news agency, but the Ledger-Enquirer could not verify their affiliation late Saturday.

The arrests came at the end of a relatively placid day that featured a number of musical acts and speakers opposing the military institute formerly known as the School of the Americas at Fort Benning. As the event drew to a close, about a dozen police officers carrying bunches of zip ties formed a barrier in front of a crosswalk at Torch Hill Road. When the Puppetista procession reached the northern end of the permitted protest zone, police Chief Ricky Boren walked into the crosswalk, looked up at several men on stilts and said, "If you step over this line, you will be arrested."

Several protesters who were not among the procession had gathered to photograph the scene, creating a confusing congestion as police sought to disperse the crowd.

"It sounded like it was going to be a lot more organized than it was, and it got kind of confusing when the police stepped in before we were told they were going to," said Katie Wineland, 19, a Bluffton University student who attended the events. "I think it's unfortunate that people who are trying to voice their opinions nonviolently would need to be arrested, but that's just because I support the (SOA Watch) cause."

Most of the arrests occurred in front of the Circle K on Fort Benning Road as dozens of protesters continued to demonstrate and loitered about. Some shouted and argued with police officers who asked them to continue moving. Several people, including this reporter, were threatened with arrest as they stood and watched.

Those arrested were quickly ushered into buses parked across the street and taken to the Muscogee County Jail, where they were still being processed late Saturday.

Brooks Franklin, an SOA Watch defense attorney, said most of them would likely spend the night in jail and appear for a special preliminary hearing at 3 p.m. today in Columbus Recorder's Court.

Tristan Call, a Vanderbilt University student, said his partner was standing beside him and was arrested while holding a blue Puppetista.

"We all know the risks that we are taking," he said outside the jail. "I'm very proud of her."

Franklin and other attorneys gathering at the jail said they did not know exactly what to anticipate at today's hearing. In previous years, most demonstrators faced federal charges for crossing onto federal property at Fort Benning.

An elderly man and woman also were taken into custody after they entered Fort Benning off Interstate 185. Louis John Vitale, 78, and Nancy H. Smith, 78, were turned over to the U.S. Marshals Service and will appear before a magistrate, said Monica Manganaro, a Fort Benning spokeswoman.

The annual vigil draws thousands of people who oppose the military institute at Fort Benning. The event is designed to draw attention to the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, which protesters say has trained militants who violate human rights in Latin America. Post officials maintain that they teach human rights and democratic values.

Police said Saturday's attendance was significantly lower than previous years. Capt. J.D. Hawk put the crowd at about 4,700, calling that a generous estimate.

Hendrik Voss, the national organizer for SOA Watch, disputed that figure but did not provide an alternate estimate.

"The Columbus police have a track record of low balling the numbers," he said. "We were very pleased with the numbers that came out and the diversity of the crowd."

Attendees like Robbie Gooding came from as far away as Minneapolis.

"We know it's probably not going to close this year," Gooding said of the institute. "But I think it's one of the best things we can do right now. It's a way for us to come together in solidarity and see if this is going to be the last year, and that's what we're hoping for."

While the participants congregated and visited booths promoting a panoply of anti-war causes, locals like Diane Moore of Columbus took advantage of her venue on Fort Benning Road to sell red beans and grilled chicken sandwiches.

"Every human being needs to eat," Moore said, pausing during an interview to tell a dismayed demonstrator that she was out of bottled water. "It's not the best ever because the crowd is not as large as it has been in past years. But we've done tremendously well."

Meandering through the crowd was Ed Best Jr., 63, of Maryville, Tenn., who said he has attended the event the last three years.

"I just come along for the ride. I'm here because my wife is active in the peace movement (back home)," Best said.

Like several others interviewed, Best said he was disappointed that President Barack Obama had not closed the institute upon taking office.

"There was a lot of hope before he got into office that things would change with policy toward Latin America," Voss said. "But the militarization of Latin America has only accelerated since he is in office. It's our job to educate broader sectors of society and once we do that, there's no way that the school will stay open."

The vigil resumes at 7:45 a.m. today when the group Veterans for Peace plans to march to the gates of Fort Benning.

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