Monday, November 21, 2005

Annual Protest Draws Ire of Those Supporting Troops

COLUMBUS, Ga., Nov. 20 - They arrived by the busload this weekend in this Southern river city, protesters from St. Louis, Chicago, San Francisco and other cities across the country, slightly bedraggled, clutching boxes of cereal, which, it turns out, is a young protester's M.R.E.

Though tired, they were energized at the prospect of demonstrating outside of the gates of Fort Benning, calling for the base to close its training school for Latin American officers.

Some, including four middle schoolers from Chicago, were not yet born when massacres occurred across Central America in the 1980's, many of them carried out under the orders of people who had trained at the school.

Even so, the estimated 15,000 protesters were eager to keep alive the annual demonstration, which began in 1990 when a Roman Catholic priest of the Maryknoll order, the Rev. Roy Bourgeois, and a few of his friends staged a hunger strike outside the school to protest the murders in 1989 of six Jesuit priests and two workers in El Salvador, murders that involved 19 soldiers who had graduated from the academy.

That small protest touched off demonstrations in this historic city that are now as much a staple of fall as the Alabama-Auburn game. On Sunday, according to the Muscogee County Jail, 38 demonstrators were arrested when they passed the school's fences, a crime that carries a federal penalty.

Residents of Columbus, a conservative city that takes great pride in its soldiers and the base, which pumps millions of dollars into the local economy, have endured the annual protest with increasingly clenched teeth, especially as its focus has broadened to other issues, including calls for an end to the Iraq war.

While the protest is largely peaceful, the locals say they have come to see it as a slap of disrespect to the soldiers from the base who are fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq. To many residents, there is no distinction between being antimilitary, calling for an end to the war or calling for the closing of the military school, the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, once called the School of the Americas.

"I don't support the war, but I support my husband and the other guys over there who are doing their jobs so we can have the freedoms we do," said Allison Trejo, 29, whose husband, Gilbert, is serving in Iraq.

That the soldiers fighting in Iraq and elsewhere are defending the demonstrators' right to protest was a refrain repeated over and over again by Fort Benning supporters.

The base has lost more than 40 soldiers since 2003. Many residents and Army families say that to pull out of Iraq now would dishonor that sacrifice.

In 2002, after Jack and Eve Tidwell, a prominent local couple, said they had heard a protester call a uniformed soldier a baby killer, they started a morale-boosting day of diversions for soldiers, called God Bless Fort Benning Day, held the same weekend as the protest. The event is a kind of "anti-rally rally," said Peter Bowden, the president of the Columbus Convention and Visitors Bureau.

Mrs. Tidwell said this year's fair, held Saturday, had a special emphasis on families. Families with children and packs of recruits just days from graduating from basic training roamed the exhibits, boarded Huey helicopters for rides, listened to a country music concert, enjoyed carnival rides and perused booths displaying hunting knives, machine guns and assault weapons.

Mrs. Tidwell said she thought about 15,000 attended.

A few blocks up and around a bend in the Chattahoochee River, more than 1,000 of the protesters, many from Jesuit schools, attended workshops on peace and ending poverty by not only serving but empowering the poor and oppressed.

They spoke not only of Central and South America, where they said they continued to collect evidence of human rights violations that they could link to the school, but also of New Orleans and Iraq, where they pointed to the abuses at the Abu Ghraib prison.

"If we're going to put ourselves out there and spend billions of dollars on this war against terrorism, training people in terrorism tactics is the most ridiculous hypocrisy," said Elizabeth Tucci, a 19-year-old pre-med student from LaCrosse, Wis.

Lee Rials, a spokesman for the academy, said that it did not teach torture and that no evidence had ever proven that its graduates had learned torture or other illegal tactics at the school.

The Jesuits commemorated their own dead at a nighttime ceremony, by reading the names of 46 members of the order working for human rights who were killed around the world over the last three decades.

There was some mischief reported over the weekend, including loud music blasted at the demonstrators' tent Friday night. As involved as each side was in its own efforts, there seemed to be little face-to-face dialogue between the two groups.

Still, at midnight Saturday a group of soldiers recently graduated from basic training staying at the downtown Marriott ran into a group of college women by the lobby elevators.

A debate started (accompanied by a few flirtatious remarks by the soldiers), but it ended suddenly when both sides said the same thing: they just wanted to help the Iraqi people.

The soldiers said they expected to be shipped off to Iraq soon.

"We'll do everything we can to get you back safe," said a youth minister with the women, alluding to his hope that the protests would help bring the troops home. "That's what we do."



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