For immediate release
July 22, 2014
Contact: Hendrik Voss, 202-234-3440
Constitutional Rights Under Attack in Georgia
Police Deny Street Permit for Annual Vigil at Fort Benning, Georgia
Columbus, Georgia – The Columbus Police Department, continuing its history of antagonizing the movement to close the US military training camp known as the SOA/WHINSEC (School of the Americas, renamed Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation), has this year placed unjust, unsafe and unconstitutional restrictions on the annual SOA Watch Vigil, essentially attempting to shut down the peaceful protest at the main gates of Fort Benning.
In a letter to grassroots solidarity group SOA Watch, Police Chief Ricky Boren explained that the thousands expected at this year’s Vigil, the group’s 25th, would have to somehow limit themselves to no more than 200 and stay on sidewalks five feet back from the street. The permit for the stage and sound, which has for years lifted up the voices of those targeted by the infamous military training school, like Padre Melo from Honduras, who’s been threatened since speaking out against the SOA graduate-led coup in 2009, was also denied.
Nevertheless, SOA Watch pledges to return to Ft. Benning, hold the annual vigil, and continue its nonviolent tradition of protecting family-friendly, safe and legal protest. In response to police chief Boren, the human rights group writes, "we have responsibilities and freedoms under our constitution to peacefully assemble and to speak truth to power."
“This year, more than any other, we are called to demonstrate our solidarity with the people of Latin America, 25 years after SOA graduates committed the brutal massacre at the University of Central America,” said veteran and founder Father Roy Bourgeois. He continued, “When our military training continues to target communities, forcing the unaccompanied migration of thousands of refugee children, we must speak out. It is no surprise that when the stakes are this high, our movement is faced with political attacks on our constitutional rights.”
The Columbus Police Department and the military have a history of active opposition to SOA Watch’s right to free speech, including harassment and intimidation by plainclothes officers, low-flying helicopters used to disrupt the solemn vigil, changing insurance requirements in a last-minute effort to target SOA Watch, and more. In 2001, the city tried to stop the protest in court; in 2002, police conducted mass warrantless searches of all participants, for which SOA Watch filed suit. In both cases, federal courts vindicated the movement’s constitutional right to free speech and assembly.
Thousands of human rights activists have gathered every November for the demonstration since the first anniversary of the 1989 SOA graduate-led massacre of 16-year-old Celina Ramos, her mother Elba Ramos and six Jesuit priests at the University of Central America in El Salvador. The November Vigil commemorates those who have been killed by SOA/WHINSEC graduates, and calls for the closure of the institute, which perpetuates coups, torture, extrajudicial killings, and human rights abuses in the face of social and political problems. The SOA/WHINSEC made headlines in 1996 when the Pentagon released SOA training manuals that advocated torture, extortion and execution. Among its graduates are at least 11 dictators as well as leaders of infamous Central American death squads. Currently, SOA graduates are linked to the Honduran military coup and the repression campaign against social movements there, among other humanitarian crises.