Loving his neighbor via protest


Mission: The Rev. Roy Bourgeois is under growing fire as he plans another demonstration to close a military training school in Georgia with a dark history of violence.

November 13, 2001|By Scott Calvert | Scott Calvert,SUN STAFF

COLUMBUS, Ga. - The sign outside Father Roy Bourgeois' tiny apartment here says, "Welcome to Fort Benning." But lately, the sprawling Army base and its host city have been anything but hospitable to the 63-year-old Catholic priest.

Bourgeois is a drawling Cajun who served in Vietnam as a Navy lieutenant before embracing nonviolence and entering the seminary. This weekend, as he has for 11 years, Bourgeois plans to lead thousands of protesters who will be demanding the closing of a U.S.-run school for Latin American soldiers on the base.

The 55-year-old school has a dark past, with a number of notorious alumni tied to killings of civilians in Central and South America. Known for most of its existence as the School of the Americas - foes prefer "School of Assassins" - it was reborn this year as the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation.

Though officials have renamed the school, revamped the curriculum and declared a stronger commitment to human rights, Bourgeois and his allies are unmoved. They insist that it remains a training camp for violent thugs, and so the protests continue.

Past demonstrations have seemed almost choreographed. Protesters, who have included actor Martin Sheen, would rally near Fort Benning's main gate, stage a mock funeral procession onto the base and be stopped by military police. First-time trespassers would get letters barring them from the base, while repeat offenders - an 88-year-old nun among them - faced criminal charges.

The Sept. 11 attacks have broken that routine. The grudging tolerance the base and city showed past gatherings seems to have rotted like a Georgia peach left in the sun.

The base, on high alert like all military installations, asked Columbus Mayor Bobby G. Peters shortly after the attacks to deny protesters permission to assemble in front of the main gate, now protected by a barbed-wire fence. The mayor agreed and went even further, asking Bourgeois to put off the gathering until next year.

"This year is different," Peters says, speaking of a need to balance free speech and public safety. "Most common-sense people can see why it's different."

Bourgeois has rejected the request. School graduates have killed and tortured people in El Salvador, Honduras and elsewhere, he says, and even in a time of war those victims "cannot be forgotten."

Protesters even draw a link between their aims and President Bush's war on terrorism. "We feel that now more than ever is a time to speak out against terrorism everywhere," says Briana Binkerd-Dale of the School of the Americas Watch, a group Bourgeois founded.

That logic angers school officials. "I'm really insulted and offended they would try to capitalize on what is in the news and try to paint us that way," says Col. Richard Downie, the institute's commandant since January. The idea that he trains terrorists "might make for a great episode on X-Files," he says, but it is false.

The dispute has led to some odd moments: The protesters say their mock funeral procession Sunday does not need a city parade permit because funerals do not require permits. After Peters countered that a funeral can't be a funeral without a body, Bourgeois mused about putting a body - a live one - in a coffin.

The ground rules keep changing. First. Peters told marchers they could rally in Benning Park, a mile and a half from the gate, but not hold a parade. After the City Council deemed that too close to a neighborhood, the mayor offered Golden Park, farther still from the gate. But he said protesters have to disperse before Sunday afternoon's Columbus Riverdragons minor-league basketball game. And still no procession.

The area has not always been home to the school, which opened in Panama in 1946 and remained there until 1984. The aim was to improve Latin American armies and promote democracy. But, in an era when the United States sometimes overlooked human rights problems in the name of fighting communism, even the Army acknowledges some alumni committed wrongs.

Still, the Army says the school has trained more than 60,000 students. "Nobody condemns Harvard because the Unibomber went there," former Army Secretary Louis Caldera once said.

The school's infamous alumni include former Panamanian Gen. Manuel Noriega and Roberto d'Aubuisson, who led death squads in El Salvador. Others were members of a Honduran army unit, Battalion 316, that engaged in kidnapping, torture and executions of several hundred suspected "subversives" in the 1980s.

And according to a United Nations panel, 19 Salvadoran officers who attended the school were involved in the killings of six Jesuit priests in El Salvador on Nov. 16, 1989.

That was the first time Bourgeois heard of the school.

Born near New Orleans, Bourgeois studied geology in college so he could get rich in the oilfields of Latin America. But after graduating in the early 1960s, with U.S. involvement in Vietnam deepening, he enrolled in officer candidate school in Newport, R.I.

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