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After outcry, SOA Watch receives new permit proposal for annual protest

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The city of Columbus, Ga., facing growing public opposition to its attempt to restrict the dimensions and location of the SOA Watch annual demonstration at Fort Benning, Ga., has issued a new proposal that would permit a return to the traditional site. The new proposal also apparently lifts the limit on the number of people allowed to participate.

The city has faced an outpouring of public opposition to the restrictions, announced earlier in the summer, including a letter signed by 12 members of Congress arguing for reinstatement of the broader permit granted in past years.

Lawyers for the city in a letter Tuesday to SOA Watch said city authorities are now willing to allow the demonstration to return to its usual site along Fort Benning Road, permitting activists to use two of four lanes leading up to the main gate. In prior years, the city closed the street and allowed use of the entire roadway.

"We would propose that both northbound lanes be converted to two-way traffic ... and the center median and southbound lanes can be utilized for your purposes on Saturday November 22nd and Sunday November 23rd," the letter stated. The city's lawyers were not available immediately for comment.

The SOA Watch initials refer to the School of the Americas, the former name of a military program at Fort Benning that trained Latin American military figures, including many later involved in atrocities in civil wars in Central America. Each year, SOA Watch holds an annual protest and teach-in just outside the fort's main gates. The movement still urges the closing of the program, which in 2001 was renamed the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation.

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This year will mark the 25th anniversary of the protest as well as one of the events that sparked the first demonstration: 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 movement was founded by then-Maryknoll Fr. Roy Bourgeois, who remains a leader of the organization. Bourgeois was dismissed by the Vatican from the priesthood in October 2012 for his support of women's ordination.

Hendrik Voss, national organizer for SOA Watch, said the organization was glad to see the city's latest proposal and would discuss it over the next few days before releasing a final decision on the matter.

The new proposal, which makes no mention of the number of people permitted to participate, came in the wake of a significant outcry from human rights and social justice organizations, thousands of individuals who signed an online petition, and the letter from 12 members of Congress. The signers included two members of Congress from Georgia, John Lewis and Hank Johnson.

In their letter, the members of Congress said the rationale given for the restricted permit -- interfering with traffic to the base -- was not sufficient to deny protesters their First Amendment rights, especially since "many alternative entrances" exist to enter and leave the base.

They also protested that "the limit of 200 protesters" allowed by the limited permit "is insufficient to deal with the expected attendance for the event," which fluctuates but has often reached into the thousands.

Citing the overriding interest in preserving First Amendment rights, the representatives said that while rerouting traffic might pose an inconvenience, "these types of disruptions are part and parcel of our country's proud tradition of vigorous free speech."

"We are incredibly humbled by the outpouring of support from so many people around the country, who are standing with SOA Watch and for our First Amendment rights," Voss said. The organizer said nearly 7,000 people signed an online petition presented to the city, which also received letters opposing the restricted permit from 75 human rights, peace and religious groups. Those groups included Pax Christi chapters, 10 chapters of Veterans for Peace, at least three orders of Catholic sisters, the Presbyterian Peace Fellowship, and the Catholic social justice lobby NETWORK.

[Tom Roberts is NCR editor at large. His email address is troberts@ncronline.org.]

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