Clash of wills
Rights versus security in Fort Benning protest
It's only a couple of weeks after President Bush's eager signing of the so-called PATRIOT Bill reaffirmed many Americans' concerns that civil rights would be eroded in the name of homeland security. But who'd have guessed one of the first high-profile showdowns in this arena would occur in laid-back Columbus?
Whether an annual pacifist march scheduled for next weekend degenerates into a mass arrest and a potentially costly legal quagmire for the west Georgia city depends on who blinks first in a First Amendment standoff between the mayor and a prominent missionary whom city officials have denounced as unpatriotic.
Late last week, Mayor Bobby Peters had refused to approve routine gathering and parade permits to a protest group headed by Father Roy Bourgeois and threatened a court injunction to block the march. On the other side, ACLU lawyers are contemplating a legal half-nelson designed to force the city to allow the march on constitutional grounds.
As negotiations have stalled, all parties concede they're at a loss to guess what will happen next.
This will be the 12th November that Bourgeois (pronounced like the social stratum) has organized a weekend of demonstrations to protest Fort Benning's School of the Americas, recently renamed Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation. The event brings thousands of clergy and lay protesters to Columbus seeking to draw attention to the school's long history of providing early army training to many of Latin America's most notorious dictators and blood-stained military leaders.
In the past, Bourgeois has had little trouble getting the proper city permits to hold two days of peaceful demonstrations and candlelight vigils just outside the stone gates of Fort Benning. The events have culminated in a large-scale, but by all accounts orderly, march onto the Army base, resulting in thousands of arrests. Last November, more than 3,500 protesters were charged with trespassing; 24 remain in federal prison, serving six-month sentences.
But Peters and Bourgeois share at least one point of agreement: This year, things have changed.
Soon after Sept. 11 rocked the political landscape with seismic force, the massive Army base, like many around the country, braced for possible attack. Top brass ordered a high chain-link fence topped with barbed wire erected around Fort Benning's lengthy perimeter. While not yet complete, that work began at the main entryways, including a gate that soon will span Fort Benning Boulevard, where the protesters have traditionally gathered.
On 9-11, Bourgeois, founder and leader of the School of the Americas Watch, was giving a speech at a New Jersey school. As he watched the smoke rising in the distance from lower Manhattan, he struggled over whether to scrap a year's planning and call off the demonstration.
"Right after [the attacks], I wondered how our message would be received," he says. But calls to associates convinced him there still was strong backing for his mission of using peaceful protest to close down the School of the Americas. "We felt it was more important than ever to show support for non-violence. This is no time to withdraw, even though we know that being here could be seen as un-American."
By the time the mayor contacted him two days later, the priest was resolute.
"I told Father Bourgeois that, because of what's going on in the country, if you were to skip this year out of respect for the victims, [the city] would commend you publicly and I believe your stock would go up," Peters recalls. "But he seems focused on doing just what he wants to do."
So Peters asked him to move the event to a more practical location, seeing as entry onto the base was no longer an option. Bourgeois agreed and, when he returned, they went scouting for sites. From that point on, their accounts begin to diverge.
According to Bourgeois, the two settled on a nearby city park also close to the base, but the mayor quickly withdrew the offer after Fort Benning's outgoing commander, Maj. Gen. John Le Moyne, gave his thumbs-down to that alternative.
"The general told the mayor, 'We're on high alert; keep protesters away,'" Bourgeois says. "I call him Lt. Peters because he's taking his marching orders from Gen. Le Moyne. There's no reason to protect the fort against us; it can protect itself."
The mayor instead offered Golden Park, home of the minor-league Columbus RedStixx baseball team and a solid five-mile jaunt from the Army base.
Bourgeois said that was fine for Saturday's demonstrations and concerts, but he wanted to shift operations closer to Fort Benning on Sunday to facilitate the traditional march, which takes the form of a silent funeral procession. There, negotiations hit a roadblock.
Peters says he'll grant a demonstration permit for Sunday only if Bourgeois abandons his plans to march and flatly refuses to grant a parade permit under any circumstances. He counters that it's Bourgeois who has flip-flopped on where to stage his mass rally. "Father Bourgeois has been very evasive and changed his plans several times."
The mayor, who heads the city's public safety efforts, denies he is bowing to the military, but is simply thinking of civil security. "We're responding to three or four bomb threats a week. The police are really stressed. The public sentiment in Columbus is fearful, so when you have 10,000 or so strangers coming to town, that would concern anyone."
It certainly concerns the City Council. At an Oct. 23 meeting broadcast on the local cable-access channel, the board savaged the priest in absentia.
"Father Bourgeois, in my opinion, is just a professional protester," a frustrated Peters said in his opening salvo. "He could care less about Columbus, Ga., or the School [of the Americas]. That's just another issue to protest. This is his livelihood."
Councilman Bob Poydasheff, a retired full-bird Army colonel who is opposing Peters in a run for mayor, betrayed his military background through his word choice: "There's a clear and present danger there'll be volatility in this demonstration."
Likewise, Councilman Charles E. "Red" McDaniel vented: "I think it's a shame and a disgrace these people want to do this at this point in the nation's history. We're at war and Fort Benning has no time to mess with these people."
But what really irked Bourgeois was Peter's off-handed contention that, during Vietnam, the clergyman had passed his time "in a tree at Fort Benning protesting the war."
Actually, Bourgeois served four years as a Navy officer, earning a Purple Heart in Vietnam, an experience that helped persuade him to enter seminary studies. Peters, an attorney and former police detective with no military service, likely was mistakenly referencing an incident in which Bourgeois climbed a tree at the base as part of an SOA Watch protest a few years ago.
Bourgeois, a soft-spoken Maryknoll priest who looks younger than his 63 years, came close last year to achieving his goal of shutting down the school.
After working in Latin America for several years, he first came to Columbus in 1990 upon discovering that several of the soldiers responsible for the murders of six Jesuit priests in El Salvador were graduates of the Army-run training program.
He lives in a tiny unit in a small, unnamed apartment complex across the street from the entrance to Fort Benning — that is, when he isn't serving prison time for his acts of protest, which included splashing blood on the SOA's Hall of Fame. Bourgeois has spent almost four years behind bars so far and maintains an untroubled air at the prospect of returning.
His work over the past decade resulted in a move to close the school that was narrowly defeated in Congress last year. The school's supporters reacted by placing it under direct control of the Department of Defense and claiming a greater emphasis would be placed on "teaching democracy" to its students.
As the situation now stands, Bourgeois has made clear his plans to convene his Nov. 18 gathering at a park just off Benning Drive and then lead the procession a mile-and-a-half down the road to the base, where he expects to peacefully disperse. Peters has made equally plain his intention to have the priest and his colleagues arrested for holding a parade without a permit.
ACLU lawyer Jerry Weber, who represents SOA Watch, says the group has the Constitution on its side. "Under the First Amendment, they have the right to gather and march. I don't think the city has any discretion to turn down a parade permit and it would look bad for the city to arrest nuns and priests." He says he hasn't decided if he'll file a pre-emptive lawsuit against the city.
But the final say over whether Bourgeois and his protesters spend a night in the pokey may lie in the hands of Assistant Police Chief Wesley Mott, who has overseen the SOA Watch security detail every year so far and expects to be in charge again next weekend.
Mott hedges a bit when asked if he'll arrest protesters who form a parade Sunday. The determination will have to be made on the spot, he says, as to whether the unpermitted procession fits the legal definition of "parade" in violation of city ordinance.
"I hope not," he says.