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General News    H2'ed 11/28/10

Pushing the Boundaries at Fort Benning: Is This "The End of the Road for the SOA?"

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Triple Goddesses at Fort Benning by Photo by Coleman Smith

It all comes down to how you react
Now you're face to face, seeing it all
Dispersal warnings, they're making the call
They got busses to pack, with people like you
When they did that in the 50's the movement grew
--Ryan Harvey, lyrics from "See it Through"

Federal, City and State authorities were busy in Columbus, Ga., on the weekend prior to Thanksgiving. Arrests of people from 17 to 90 years old included stilt walkers and puppetistas, four credentialed press, local barber Curtis Thornton, a dozen participants in a planned road blockade, priests, veterans and students, along with many others attempting simply to make it back to their cars outside the "permitted protest area" following the 2010 vigil at the gates of Fort Benning, Ga.  

At least five undercover police infiltrated the action.

Franciscan Friar Louis Vitale, 78, and Catholic Worker David Omandi, 24, spent the Thanksgiving holiday in Georgia's Muskogee County jail. They face six months imprisonment after sentencing by U.S. magistrate judge Stephen Hyles. Both pleaded "nolo contendre"-- a plea that accepts charges without admission of guilt--on the Federal charge of trespass onto Fort Benning. This is the fourth conviction for Fr. Louis, a human rights activist who has already served prison time for acts of conscience at Fort Benning.

Omandi scaled the first of three barbed-wire topped fences at the Fort Benning gate on Sunday. Vitale walked on to the post at the I-85 entrance on Saturday accompanied by Nancy Smith from New York who pleaded "not guilty" and will return for trial on January 5, 2011. Christopher Spicer, 28, of Seattle who also scaled the barbed-wire topped fence on Sunday and pleaded "not guilty" is also scheduled for a January 5 trial.

An estimated 5,000 gathered in Columbus throughout the weekend in the 21st year of SOA Watch protests calling for the closure of the notorious U.S. Army School of Americas/WHINSEC, the counter-insurgency training school whose graduates are linked to decades of documented human rights atrocities and massacres throughout Central and South America.

Another 24 persons apprehended outside the "permitted protest zone," were charged with city and state violations on November 20. Charged but not taken into custody were Jesuit priest Bill Brennan, 90, seated in a wheel-chair and accompanied by ordained member of Roman Catholic Womenpriests, Janice Sevre-Duszynska. The two took part in a city-side purposeful action with a more than a dozen others that briefly shut down the Victory Drive highway entrance to Fort Benning with a large sign that read, "Stop: This is the End of the Road for the SOA."   In a special hearing before Georgia State Judge Stephen Smith on November 22 the two were found guilty and sentenced to a six-month probation. Brennan was ordered to pay $50 in fines; Sevre-Duszynska $500. Others with pending state charges will likely go to court in January, according to court officials.

The SOA Watch movement in online and printed materials distributed prior to the November gathering, invited activists to form Affinity groups and send representatives to a " spokescouncil" meeting held during the weekend in Columbus "to   finalize the scenario and coordinate how and when the actions occur." Those considering actions that might risk arrest were urged to participate in nonviolence training and to attend the "direct action preparation meetings" held at the Columbus convention Center on Friday night.   At these open meetings, organizers announced the likelihood that undercover police were in the room.

Lauren Stinson, an undercover narcotics agent with the Muscogee, Ga., county sheriff's office, was among five or more undercover agents on duty. She participated in the blockade of the southbound lanes on Victory Drive.   As many as five of those taken into custody were never put in jail and never ended up in court, according to SOA Watch organizers, who viewed videos of the arrests.

Stinson testified against several defendants who were tried before Columbus Recorder's Court Judge Michael Cielinski on Sunday afternoon. Charges included unlawful assembly, failure to disperse, and parading without a permit. The total of bonds and fines exceeded $75,000, according to SOA Watch. At the end of the hearing, held in a courtroom packed with close to 100 supporters, Judge Cielinski also issued an order banning some of the defendants from the town of Columbus, Ga., for 18 months.

Undercover agent Stinson admitted she had participated in two planning meetings prior to the street blockade. SOA Watch legal team lead Attorney Bill Quigley questioned the narcotics agent in the courtroom:   "Did you advise them you were a police officer?" Stintson replied, "No. They didn't ask."

Maria Ramirez, 23, of Washington, D.C., was the only defendant that had all charges against her dismissed after the judge viewed several hours of video tape taken at the scene by police and press. State charges are still pending on some defendants, and four have appealed their city convictions, including Kaelyn Forde, 23, and Jonathan R. Conway, 27, of the news group Russia Today, who were found guilty of demonstrating without a permit and failure to disperse and fined $290 each. The two were also charged with "insubordination to authority."

Cecelia Kluding, 17, of Boulder, Colo., told the judge she was covering the event for a community radio station out of Boulder. She testified that when she attempted to show her press credentials to an arresting officer, "I was told it didn't matter that I was part of the press." Kluding was found guilty of city violations and paid a $290 fine.

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Clare Hanrahan is an Asheville, N.C. author, activist, organizer and speaker who has been participating in and reporting on direct action events throughout the Southeast U.S.A. for decades. Hanrahan was raised in Memphis and has lived and worked (more...)

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