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Columbus (GA) Ledger-Enquirer
November 20, 2000

Marching On

Fears of violence unrealized; Benning commander meets protesters to present Army's side of story

By Richard Hyatt, Staff Writer

Peppered by a rain that could not make up its mind and shrouded by a fear of violence that never came, more than 3,500 protesters solemnly marched Sunday onto Fort Benning, singing and chanting their individual messages against the School of the Americas and the graduates that make up its alumni.

Led by demonstrators wearing death masks and somber black robes and carrying symbolic coffins on their shoulders, marchers braved arrest and filed on the military installation for the 11th year. And though the number of marchers was dramatically down, the number of protesters being processed by military authorities rose from 14 to 1,700, a decision the post's commanding general said was to remind SOA Watch organizers that the Army will not allow Fort Benning to become part of a political protest.

"We want to put them on notice that we will not condone the politicalization of the United States Army, said Maj. Gen. John LeMoyne, who watched the confrontation from a nearby hillside.

More than anything, he wanted to talk about efforts to evangelize with protesters who crossed over the line, giving them the Army's side of the School of the Americas story.

"I went down into the group myself today, to engage them in conversation, trying to open their minds to the other side. And they listened, enough so that 1,400 of them turned around and walked back without breaking the law, LeMoyne said.

LeMoyne was joined by chaplains and members of the SOA staff in the unusual effort. Army officials have acknowledged they have lost the information war to the Rev. Roy Bourgeois and his followers. Sunday, they tried to outflank the Catholic priest who has been living only a few feet from their main gate since 1989.

"Father Roy doesn't want his people to hear the other side and, frankly, we took advantage of today to do just that, LeMoyne said.

In addition to the marchers who were detained, Fort Benning authorities arrested around a dozen individuals who tried to enter the post on South Lumpkin Road. Columbus police reported no weekend arrests.

Local police had a detachment of specially trained and equipped officers in reserve. Maj. Russell Traino said he was thankful his people never had to leave the warmth of their nearby apartment. "I'm glad all they had to do was watch a football game, he said.

More than 100 law enforcement personnel from the police department and the Muscogee County's sheriff's department patrolled the site. Fort Benning had 275 military police and Department of Defense officers on duty. A special unit from the Georgia State Patrol was also in reserve.

Security was more intense because of concerns about reports of rogue protesters coming here to join the effort. However, SOA Watch's nonviolent tradition continued.

"They said it would be a peaceful demonstration - and it was, said Col. Joe Torres, Fort Benning's garrison commander for the past five days.

Col. G.T. Myers, the post provost marshal, said he has been in frequent contact with Bourgeois. "Listening to what was being said on the stage, it was evident the message was more far-reaching this year, Myers said.

Wesley Mott, the assistant chief of police in Columbus and the longtime leader of the department's SOA detail, said new wrinkles used by protesters Sunday were alarming. "There was more action, but still non-violent, he said.

Bourgeois and Mott exchanged warm handshakes as the protest ended near dark Sunday. The Maryknoll priest said the weekend went smoothly. Before the change of weather, organizers had anticipated 12,000-15,000 people. Officials estimated around 6,500 people clustered around the makeshift stage on Sunday.

"We're after commitment, not numbers, said Bourgeois, maintaining the protest will continue to be peaceful. "We're very clear. You come in the spirit of nonviolence or you move on."

Still, there were surprises. Long after the first wave of protesters crossed the line, smaller groups followed. Instead of staying on the south side of the road, they crossed the grassy median to the other two lanes, laying down in the roadway. Later, groups of large puppets pranced across the line.

Processed for the first time, activist actor Martin Sheen was among the group of protesters detained Sunday night. It was his third time crossing the line but the first time he has faced charges. The U.S. Attorney's Office in Macon will make the decision on which of the 1,700 being processed will be charged.

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