Published on Sunday, November 19, 2000 in the Atlanta Journal Constitution
Fort Benning School Braces for Protesters
by Yolanda Rodriguez
As many as 12,000 protesters against the U.S. Army's School of the Americas are expected at Fort Benning in Columbus today.

Thousands will risk arrest, in what has become an annual tradition, when they join a procession that crosses onto the military base.

School of Assassins
Large crowd gathers outside of the Fort Benning gate during the 1999 School Of the Americas Protest (Sherri LaRose/Ledger-Enquirer)
The protesters allege that the school teaches Latin American military personnel tactics to use against their own people. It is scheduled to shut down next month and reopen under a new name, the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Protection, in January.

The new school and curriculum will be reviewed regularly by Congress, the State and Defense departments and civilians from academia, clergy, and international nongovernmental organizations.

But even with the changes the protests are likely to continue, said Randy Serragio, one of the organizers for School of Americas Watch, which each year trains thousands of people in nonviolent action.

"The Pentagon was forced to respond to protests," Serragio said. "They have a name change and have added a human rights module. But these are cosmetic changes. It's just the same old school."

The protests at the school began about 10 years ago in response to the Nov. 16, 1989, murder of six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper and her 15-year-old daughter in El Salvador. A United Nations truth commission identified 26 soldiers involved in the killings. Nineteen of them were SOA graduates.

But Army officials counter that very few human rights abuses have ever been directly linked to the school. According to the Defense Department, in the 50-year existence of the school it has graduated 61,000 students. Of those, less than 1 percent have ever been linked to human rights abuses.

In March, nine people --- including a nun, retired ministers, missionaries and veterans --- were convicted of trespassing onto the base during last year's protest.

Actor Martin Sheen, who plays the president on the NBC drama "The West Wing," is expected to be among the protesters.

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Published on Sunday, November 19, 2000 in the Columbus (GA) Ledger-Enquirer

SOA Watch Says Peaceful Protesters Welcome To Join

By S. Thorne Harper

It may have rained on their parade Saturday, but demonstrators demanding the closure of the U.S. Army's School of the Americas at Fort Benning remained steadfast in their plans to enter the post today and plant corn seeds on military property.

"The rain will only help the corn grow," said Randy Serraglio, SOA Watch spokesman and organizer.

Martin Sheen
'West Wing ' actor Martin Sheen, left, marched on to Fort Benning property and was arresedt as part of the 1999 School of the Americas Watch protest. The SOA Watch group is calling for the school's closure, which provides advanced training for Latin American soldiers. (Sherri LaRose/Ledger-Enquirer)
With targeted property destruction associated with protests last year in Seattle lingering in the background, security was tight but cordial as anti-corporate groups merged with SOA Watch for the first time since the annual demonstration began 10 years ago.

The protesters are scheduled to march onto Fort Benning at 10:40 a.m. today, after a 9 a.m. memorial service marking the 20th anniversary of the murders of Archbishop Oscar Romero and four churchwomen from the United States.

In a month that has proven difficult to count ballots in the U.S. presidential race, calculating the demonstrators at Saturday's parade and rally was not possible, Columbus police said. "We don't have as many here as we did this time last year," said Columbus police Chief Willie Dozier.

But at least hundreds stood in a cold drizzle of rain as perhaps 200 others paraded down Fort Benning Road carrying puppets and placards - some depicting Vice President Al Gore and Texas Gov. George W. Bush as themselves puppets of a corporate world order.

Organizers of the weekend protest, meanwhile, passed out corn seeds Saturday and urged demonstrators to plant them on the post.

Corn, organizers said, is a powerful Latin American cultural symbol.

"Corn is life," said Serraglio, who spent six months in federal prison for crossing into Fort Benning during a previous SOA protest. "It carries a powerful spiritual meaning as well. In suffering it is important to keep hope alive. We are talking about planting hope for the future."

In the 10 years since the protest of SOA began, Columbus police, the U.S. Army and SOA Watch have come to work closely to orchestrate the demonstration and keep it peaceful.

"Hopefully it will be pulled off in a fashion where everything will go as planned," said Columbus police Assistant Chief Wesley Mott, who serves as the liaison between the military and the protesters.

Serraglio said some "direct action" members had joined the protest only as a source of peaceful protest.

"If they come here to protest peacefully then they are welcomed as part of the family," Serraglio said. "But if they come here to commit violence they are not part of the SOA Watch family."

For the first time since demonstrations against the school began, authorities closed nearby South Lumpkin Park for the weekend as a precaution. Columbus police, meanwhile, provided 100 officers to this year's protest while Fort Benning put 250 military police officers on call.

During last year's protest at a World Trade Organization meeting in Seattle, direct action members targeted corporate businesses for property damage. Direct action organizations believe that multi-national corporations are part of a military-industrial complex that is stripping away human rights.

"Columbus police and military police are concerned that some violence may be brought here," Serraglio said. "But we're concerned about the violence generated out of the School of the Americas."

2000 Ledger-Enquirer