The annual School of the Americas Watch weekend kicks off today, more than a week after the FBI released documents showing the Columbus Police Department and Muscogee County Sheriff's Office collaborated with the FBI on counterterrorism surveillance of the group.
Release of 429 pages obtained by the Partnership for Civil Justice Fund for SOA Watch has mobilized supporters for the three-day event that includes 50 workshops, a protest Saturday at the Stewart Detention Center in Lumpkin, Ga., and a mock funeral procession Sunday in Columbus to remember victims of human rights violence, said Hendrik Voss, national organizer for the Washington-based organization. Last year, the funeral attracted more than 1,330 supporters. But this year's protest has broadened its focus not only to close the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation at Fort Benning, but also to shut down the private prison for immigrants in Lumpkin.
Voss said this week marks the group's 25th anniversary and there has never been violence during the annual vigil, but the FBI continued its surveillance of the protest.
"Because the climate is where the FBI says there may be violent elements coming in," he said. "For 25 years, we have a history of nonviolent protest. We are trying to change the status quo politically."
Whether they are in uniform or in plain clothes, officers are at nearly all public events, from festivals to marches, said Mayor Teresa Tomlinson, who also serves as the city's public safety director. The safety of citizens is the No. 1 goal, she said.
"Our police department uses professional, best practices law enforcement techniques to protect not only the citizens, but participants, in events such as SOA," Tomlinson said in a statement. "Our officers have been keeping peace and maintaining a safe forum at the SOA event for many years now. We do not discuss publicly particular strategies of crowd control or peace maintenance in order to ensure the safety of all." Voss said documents show the surveillance started in July 2000 and continued until 2010. He doesn't know if the investigation is continuing. During that period, the FBI worked with the police department, the sheriff's office, the Georgia State Patrol and the military police.
In October 2005, an FBI report noted concerns of a militant group infiltrating the peaceful protest.
"The peaceful intentions of the SOA Watch leaders has been demonstrated over the years," the report stated. "The concern has always been that a militant group would infiltrate the protesters and use the cover of the crowd to create problems. At this time, there are no specific or known threats to this event."
Police Maj. J.D. Hawk said the staff is aware of the group's vigil in Lumpkin, workshops in Columbus and the mock funeral on Sunday, but officers have to be prepared.
"We still have to be prepared for the other folks that are coming," he said Thursday. "There will be people on site but the big day is going to be Sunday."
Hawk said police will conduct regular procedures for security at the site but noted the recent terrorist attacks in Paris. "We are in kind of a hyper-vigilant mode," he said.
Hawk said you have to conduct counterterrorism for any event.
"We will be doing some of that ourselves," he said. "It's something you have to do for any event now. They don't just go to non-events and start this."
At 5 p.m. today, the Stone Gate entrance on Benning Road to the post will close at Torch Hill Road. Traffic will be diverted onto South Lumpkin Road. Access to Fort Benning will be at the Interstate 185 gate.
Stone Gate will remain closed until Monday morning unless there is a change. It's possible the gate may open late Sunday of early Monday. Signs are posted in the area to direct motorists on Victory Drive and South Lumpkin Road. Visitors to the National Infantry Museum & Soldier Center may use South Lumpkin Road.
SOA Watch has protested outside the Stone Gate on Benning Road since 1990, a year after the 1989 slayings of six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper and her 16-year-old daughter in El Salvador. Soldiers trained at the School of the Americas were linked to the deaths before the school closed in December 2000 and reopened under its new name of institute in January 2001.
Changing the school's name didn't change the group's focus.
"As a movement, we will always be very much focused on the School of the Americas," Voss said.