COLUMBUS, Ga. – Numbers have always been important to Father Roy Bourgeois and the organizers of the annual SOA Watch protest at the gates of Fort Benning, Ga.

They expect a crowd of almost 20,000 to attend this year’s event, more than half coming from colleges and high schools.

One of the groups urging for the closing of the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation – they still call their target the School of the Americas – is 1,000 Grandmothers, a group inspired by the Holly Near song of the same name.

Twenty-eight Jesuit universities will be represented on Saturday and Sunday, reminding others that it was the 1989 murder of six Jesuit priests, a housekeeper and her 14-year-old daughter in El Salvador, allegedly by School of the Americas graduates, that inspired the first SOA Watch protest.

The number of protesters arrested for trespassing onto the post has varied over the years – 36 a year ago, 16 in 2004, 40 in 2003 and 85 in 2002. More than 200 have served federal prison sentences.

And, for the first time this weekend, SOA Watch protests will be held simultaneously in seven Latin American countries – Ecuador, El Salvador, Paraguay, Colombia, Chile, Peru and Bolivia.

But the number that really has protest leaders giddy these days is 15, the difference between yeas and nays cast last June in the House of Representatives that kept funding for the institute alive for another year.

Since 1996, Congress has debated several times whether to cut funding for the institute.

“We came very close this June,” said Christy Pardew, a communications associate with SOA Watch, referring to a vote on an amendment to House Resolution 5522, the Foreign Operations, Export Financing and Related Programs Appropriations Act for fiscal 2007.

The vote: 188 to cut the legs from under the institute; 218 to keep it afloat.

“After last week’s election, we feel pretty confident that the next time this comes up for a vote, we’ll have the numbers,” she said.

It’s that congressional vote that keeps key figures in the movement like Pardew and Event and Outreach coordinator Eric LeCompte motivated.

The annual pilgrimage to Columbus is “a time of hope,” said LeCompte, 30, who works in the organization’s Washington office.

But doesn’t it frustrate you to make repeated trips here, making the same arguments, only to see the institute keep its doors open?

“Not at all,” he said. “The frustrating part comes in working with the legislators. Coming down here fills me with energy.”

The protesters, many from as far away as California and upstate New York, have already journeyed here and will have a full plate of activities between Friday and late Sunday, when the annual funeral procession to the main Benning Road gate often spawns the climbing of fences into Benning.

“There won’t be many significant changes from past years,” said Chile native Joao Da Silva, communications coordinator. “There will be more of an emphasis on Latin American music and speakers.”

So don’t expect to see Pete Seeger, George Wendt or Martin Sheen in attendance.

But Sister Helen Prejean, author of “Dead Man Walking,” and Charles Steele Jr., national president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, are on the agenda.

Several hundred marchers who left Selma, Ala., on Sunday en route to Columbus, will also participate in the protest. The “Living the Dream” movement includes individuals and organizations representing major civil rights, human rights, environmental, peace and justice groups.

Judy Cumbee, a peace activist from Alabama, explained her involvement by saying, “Our tax money needs to go to serve human needs, not militarism.”

“The bond between the civil and human rights groups and our organization is very strong,” LeCompte said. “Many of the people in our group were part of the civil rights movement of the “60s.”

Motorists should be aware that the South Lumpkin Road and Benning Road entrances to the post will be closed this weekend and that traffic on Victory Drive is expected to be heavier than usual through Sunday evening.

(c) 2006, Columbus Ledger-Enquirer (Columbus, Ga.).

Visit the Ledger-Enquirer Online at

Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.


ARCHIVE PHOTOS on MCT Direct (from MCT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): SOA WATCH

AP-NY-11-18-06 1545EST

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