Gators Observe Protest
A record 16,000 Americans gathered for the 15th annual protest against the School of the Americas, more recently known as the Western Hemisphere Institution for Security Cooperation at Ft. Benning, a military base in Columbus, Georgia. Among the crowd were 10 UF students acting as legal observers, watching for potential legal conflicts between law enforcement officers and protesters. The turnout also included such celebrities as Martin Sheen and Susan Sarandon, who arrived to speak out against the “School of Assassins.”
The newest twist was a fence surrounding the protest area and swarming with police officers, making it easier for them to regulate the crowd. John Meehan sees the fence as a mistake by police.
“I thought it backfired,” he said. “It provided much more opportunity for protesters to hang crosses, to hang banners. I thought it was counter productive for the police. It did work for them in a sense because it had the effect of reducing the amount of police they had on staff, but it was absolutely unnecessary. This protest in its entire history has been nonviolent.”
The students participated in the event through the National Lawyers Guild, which joined the legal collective to monitor illegal police practices and make the protesters aware of their rights.
Sara Denny got involved to protect the right to peacefully dissent. She voiced observers’ concerns about potential legal problems. “I was really concerned with freedom of assembly and freedom of speech, and that the police didn’t treat the protestors inappropriately,” she said. “I was expecting intimidation, harassment, just basically violating peoples’ constitutional rights under the law without any kind of consideration.”
The legal observation team manned checkpoints and kept a close watch on the city police, county sheriffs and prison guards monitoring the crowd. Part of the program every year involves members of the crowd crossing the line between Columbus and Ft. Benning and being arrested for trespass, which carries a penalty of up to six months in prison and up to a $5,000 fine. Bail was typically set at $1,000 in past
years. Meehan objects to the stiff bail.
“I think the bail is excessive in that this type of crime, trespassing, normally involves people being released on personal recognizance, as opposed to a thousand dollar bond,” he said.
At last count, 20 members of the crowd had been arrested and faced potential jail time, including a 78-year-old blind man who crossed the fence topped with barbed wire with assistance. Trisha Low was on hand when the first two people were arrested.
“I thought the most powerful part of the protest was seeing the guy and girl holding hands walking through the base for a quarter of a mile before getting stopped,” she said. “They prayed in between the two gates and it was very moving.”
Saturday was a day of peaceful vigil. Nonviolent civil disobedience was on the schedule for Sunday, when the crossings occurred and a reading of the names of victims from South America took place. Following was a solemn funeral march with thousands of members of the crowd adorning the gates with crosses bearing victims’ names.
Both days featured a parade of puppetistas — puppeteers operating huge, colorful puppets signifying such noble ideas as farmers’ rights. The parade concluded with a 16-foot tall face touting democracy made of cardboard and carried by 15 people.
Problems protestors encountered in past years include speakers blasting from behind military gates, illegal searches of protestors and low flying, hovering helicopters, which were a problem this year as well.