1,700 Arrested at Soldier School
Sunday November 19
By ELLIOTT MINOR, Associated Press Writer
COLUMBUS, Ga. (AP) - Police arrested 1,700 protesters who had marched into Fort Benning on Sunday demanding the closing of the Army's School of the Americas, a training center for Latin American soldiers.
About twice that number, including actor Martin Sheen, had entered the west-central Georgia post, chanting and carrying cardboard coffins and crosses, while others continued the protest outside the gates.
The demonstrations have been spearheaded for 11 years by Roy Bourgeois, a Catholic priest who served in Bolivia. Bourgeois blames the school for human rights abuses committed by some of the school's former students.
Army officials termed the charge absurd.
``I'd characterize it as false and as propaganda,'' Maj. Gen. John LeMoyne, the post commander, said at a news conference Sunday. ``Roy's thesis is based on emotion and falsehood.''
Wearing plastic parkas, many of the protesters shivered in near-freezing temperatures and occasional rain as they marched to a point where they were halted by military and civilian police.
Police officials estimated 6,500 people gathered outside the gate for the protest, about half the number that appeared last year. The group School of Americas Watch organizes the demonstrations each year near the anniversary of the Nov. 16, 1989, killings in El Salvador of six Jesuit priests. A United Nations (news - web sites) panel found 19 Salvadoran officers involved in the slayings had been trained at the school, the group said.
Col. G.T. Myers, Fort Benning's provost marshal, said most of the protesters arrested Sunday were charged with trespassing, given a warning and released. Some who poured fake blood on the street were charged with damaging government property, he said. A few of those charged may be prosecuted by the U.S. attorney's office, Myers said.
Sheen, who plays the nation's president in the television show West Wing, was arrested, Myers said, but the colonel said he did not know what laws the actor was accused of breaking. Sheen has joined the protests for the past three years.
All those arrested were given letters barring them from visiting Fort Benning for five years. Those barred from the post who are charged with trespassing there again within that period could be subject to a year in prison.
Bougeois and Sheen gave brief pep talks before the march.
``I have a directive I mean to share with you,'' Sheen said. ``To the secretary of Defense: Dear Mr. Cohen, as the acting president of the United States, I want you to declare the School of the Americas closed.''
The School of the Americas is scheduled to close on Dec. 15 and be replaced by the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation. The new school will be run by the Defense Department, under guiding principles of the Organization of American States. Bourgeois has said the name change is just cosmetic and his group will continue to protest against the school.
Shortly after Sheen's speech Sunday, he joined a procession that marched slowly through the post's main gate. At the front of the procession were demonstrators wearing white death masks, black robes and carrying coffins.
After they had advanced about one-quarter mile, they poured fake blood on themselves and ``died'' in the street. Police rushed in to tag them, photograph them and cart them off on stretchers to waiting buses.
Sister Mary Johnalyn, 68, of West Allis, Wis., said she was photographed, fingerprinted and given a ``ban and bar'' letter, meaning she is barred from Fort Benning for five years. She said she was charged with damaging U.S. property for spilling fake blood.
``I was a missionary in Mexico and I found those people so loving,'' she said. ``I don't want them to come up here and learn to be ugly murderers. I'm also here to honor those who suffered and died.''
Processing the large number of demonstrators could take until early Monday, Myers said.
That wasn't good news for John Dunn, 27, of Cleveland.
Dunn said he drove a charter bus with 50 passengers to Fort Benning and was expected to drive them back on Sunday night. He joined the demonstration impulsively.
``I'm taking my chances like everybody else,'' he said. ``It's a little more chancy for me because if I'm not there to drive them back, I'm in trouble.''
On the Net:
School of the Americas: http://www.benning.army.mil/usarsa/
School of the Americas Watch: http://www.soaw.org/