Columbus, protesters reach shaky accord

A battle over First Amendment rights apparently has been averted in Columbus, where city officials have agreed to allow two days of pacifist demonstrations and a march protesting a training camp at Fort Benning.

Until last week, Mayor Bobby Peters had been deadlocked over the issue of the march with Father Roy Bourgeois, founder of the annual School of the Americas Watch rally, which brought an estimated 6,000-8,000 protesters to Columbus last year.

After Fort Benning erected a security fence around its perimeter in the wake of Sept. 11, Peters initially asked Bourgeois to cancel this year's event, scheduled for Nov. 17-18. Peters then approved a demonstration permit for Saturday, but refused to permit Sunday's gathering unless Bourgeois agreed to drop the march, which has traditionally taken protesters onto the Army base, where many are willingly arrested for trespassing.

The mayor had threatened to have Bourgeois and his colleagues arrested by city police if they attempted the march, a clear violation of constitutional law, says ACLU lawyer Jerry Weber, who represents School of the Americas Watch.

He and Bourgeois met last week with Peters and city attorneys in an often-heated negotiating session in which Weber says he pointed out that, because the march takes the form of a solemn funeral procession and city bylaws require no permits for funeral processions, the city has no basis to prevent the march.

Peters has granted the demonstration permit for Sunday — gatherings for both days will be at the Golden Park stadium — and is working with Bourgeois on where the march will begin and end, Weber says.

"It will end up in some visual proximity to the base because they will want to see the base if they are praying for the closure" of the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, formerly the School of the Americas, he says.

Located on the base, the school has provided military training to a number of Latin American dictators and soldiers responsible for murders and human-rights violations.??

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