SOA Watch planners learned Tuesday that Columbus, Ga., officials have lifted all restrictions previously placed on a permit for the group's Nov. 22-23 demonstration outside the main gates of Fort Benning to protest the training of foreign troops at the Army facility.
Hendrik Voss, national organizer for SOA Watch, said the city had reversed its earlier restrictions after receiving letters of support from individuals and peace groups from throughout the United States as well as from international peace and human rights groups. The city also received a letter signed by 12 members of Congress, including two from Georgia, saying that the city's concerns about safety and restricting traffic to and from the fort were insufficient to deprive the group of its First Amendment rights.
The city has attempted on other occasions to limit the scope and dimensions of the protest, but courts have ruled against the restrictions. This year, citing safety concerns, Columbus officials first attempted to severely restrict both the area of the protest, suggesting an alternate site a distance from the fort, and the number of demonstrators allowed. The city said it would allow 200 people to attend the gathering that has regularly attracted thousands.
SOA Watch responded that the restrictions were unreasonable and unacceptable and began negotiations with the city. At the same time, groups supportive of the protest began contacting the city.
In a letter dated Aug. 19, the city revised the initial restrictions and said it would allow SOA Watch to use two of the four lanes of Fort Benning Road leading to the main gates and also lifted the restrictions on the number of people permitted to attend.
In the most recent correspondence, the Columbus police department told SOA Watch officials: "Based on Ft. Benning's decision to leave the gates closed on Ft. Benning Rd. this year, permits have been issued approving the location and numbers as have been issued in previous years."
This year's gathering will mark the 25th anniversary of the protest as well as the murder of six Jesuit priests at the University of Central America in El Salvador along with Elba Ramos and her 16-year-old daughter, Celina. The murders, one of the events that sparked the annual protests, were planned and carried out by Salvadoran military officers trained at what was previously called the School of the Americas. The name of that program was changed in 2001, following years of effort to close it down, to the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation.
The SOA Watch movement was founded by then-Maryknoll Fr. Roy Bourgeois, who remains a leader of the organization. Bourgeois was dismissed from the priesthood in October 2012 because of his support for women's ordination. Its goal is to close down the training program, which in the past has trained military officers from Central America who have overseen or been involved in some of the region's most serious human rights abuses.