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March On 

Despite deterrents, a strong North Carolina contingent marches in the nation's largest anti-war gathering

The pressure got heavy. The U.S. Army and local city officials were hard at work trying to persuade peace activists to skip this year's massive protest effort to close the Army's School of the Americas at Ft. Benning in Columbus, Ga.

Twice before the Nov. 18 action, the local newspaper ran a full-page ad calling on protest organizers to postpone "indefinitely" the annual rally and march that culminates with civil disobedience at the base.

Using Sept. 11 as its impetus, the City of Columbus went to court and gained an injunction to stop the march, claiming the assembly could bring violence to the streets of the city. On Nov. 16, a federal magistrate lifted the injunction, saying the annual event had an 11-year history of nonviolent assembly, and the march could go on.

"I was sworn to uphold the Constitution," U.S. Magistrate G. Mallon Faircloth said. "I think I did that today."

Maryknoll Catholic priest Roy Bourgeois, founder of SOA Watch, which organizes the event, said he gave consideration to the wishes of the locals, but the word he got from activists around the country was "march on."

Just weeks after Sept. 11, with the United States in the throes of war, Bourgeois said there was no time like the present to go forward with what has become the nation's largest anti-war gathering since Vietnam.

Bourgeois, who has spent more than four years in federal prison for protesting U.S. policy in Latin America, says the SOA, now renamed the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, serves as a training school for Latin American soldiers, many of whom have been implicated in human-rights violations and murders in their native lands.

One of the people who urged Bourgeois to go forward was Raleigh activist Gail Phares, founder of the Carolina Interfaith Task Force on Central America.

"Clearly we're concerned about things that happened in New York and D.C.," said Phares. "It makes it more important than ever that we give our witness as people of peace, people of justice, people of concern. I had no doubt that we had to be here."

Phares, herself a former Maryknoll missionary, hopes Sept. 11 sensitized people to what the U.S. government is doing abroad with a foreign policy that has resulted in the deaths of tens of thousands of Latin Americans. "I hear people saying, 'Why do they hate us?' or 'Why are they doing this?' and those are good questions," said Phares. "So many people are not critically conscious, and they're manipulated easily by the government."

Phares, who conducted eight nonviolence trainings around the state before Nov. 18, said as many as 600 North Carolinians were among the approximately 10,000 people who joined the action that culminated with a solemn mock funeral procession to the fenced gates of Ft. Benning.

Many marchers carried white wooden crosses, each bearing the name of a person martyred in Latin America. Others carried pictures of Latin Americans missing or killed. As they reached the gates, people placed the crosses and photos and other memorials on and around the fence, turning the long gate into what Bourgeois termed a "memorial wall."

More than 50 marchers left the procession and went around the fence and entered the base. They were immediately taken into custody by military police. About 30 others were arrested by Columbus police late on the night of Nov. 18 after erecting a peace encampment in the street in front of the gate. By the following Tuesday, all of those arrested were released on bond or had accepted plea bargains.

North Carolina's delegation to the SOA ran the gamut from high-school students to senior citizens who have spent decades in the trenches fighting for peace and justice.

Making his first trip was 16-year-old Leesville Road High junior Ian Cotter of Raleigh, who came to Georgia with his parents, Maureen Costello and Rob Cotter, and three of his friends from Chapel Hill. Cotter, who traveled to Nicaragua last summer on a teen delegation with Witness for Peace, said Sept. 11 is waking people up to what's going on around the world. Many people, he believes, are hiding "behind a banner of patriotism" as they criticize peace protesters.

Dave Biesack, a computer software designer from Fuquay-Varina, came to Ft. Benning with his wife Debbie and the couple's three young daughters, Ellen, Laura and Valerie. Biesack said he brought his children to Georgia as an act of faith, "to teach them that they have to act in order to change the world, to make it a better place; that they have to see Christ's presence here and in other places in their lives, to look for that and to grow with that."

Paul Amrheim, director of social concerns for the Catholic Community of St. Francis in Raleigh, agreed with Phares that Sept. 11 was beginning to raise peoples' awareness about global politics.

"I understand that more people are taking an interest in foreign policy, and that I think is good," he said. "I think we as Americans have been tremendously naive about what happens in the rest of the world. I think the events of Sept. 11 brought home the fact that we need to be involved, and we need to know what's happening, but we have a long way to go."

Wes Hare, an outspoken member of Chapel Hill's Church of the Reconciliation, a Presbyterian congregation, came to the protest with his wife Jane.

"I never considered not coming," said Hare, who has attended the protest for the last five years. "From my point of view, there's more reason than ever to be here."

Hare helped sell "Peace is Patriotic" T-shirts, bumperstickers and pins at the march. He said the current war with Afghanistan is being prompted by "the Lemming syndrome"--like "lemmings running into the sea because their leader decides it's time. I think, tragically, our country is wrapped up in its own power and glory, and SUVs kind of characterize that, and we somehow think it's our God-given right, and anybody that interferes with our alleged God-given right to have all of these things needs to be destroyed. In simplistic terms, that's what I think people think, and I think that's tragic."

Bourgeois said most of the people working to close the SOA are people who "are rooted in their faith, rooted in nonviolence," inspired by the likes of Martin Luther King Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi.

"We gather in the name of peace," said Bourgeois. EndBlock

  • Ten thousand protesters descend on a counterinsurgency school at Fort Benning, Ga.

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