COLUMBUS, Ga. - At least 20 demonstrators were arrested Sunday, on charges ranging from trespassing to wearing a mask, as a record 16,000 people protested against a Fort Benning school for Latin soldiers.
Seventeen of the arrests were federal trespassing charges for people who scaled chain-link fences, some topped with coils of barbed wire, to carry the protest into military property, said Bill Quigley, legal adviser for the protest group.
One who attempted to enter illegally was Ed Lewinson, 74, a blind, retired Seton Hall University professor. One protester was charged with the unusual crime of wearing a mask. A law aimed at the Ku Klux Klan makes it illegal to wear masks in Georgia except on "special occasions," although the rule is seldom invoked.
Organizers of the star-studded protest by School of the Americas Watch said concern about the war in Iraq and President Bush's re-election boosted attendance to the record 16,000.
Oscar-winning actress Susan Sarandon addressed the group on Saturday, and Martin Sheen, who plays the president in NBC's "West Wing" TV series, delivered a fiery speech on Sunday.
George Wendt, who played norm in the TV series, "Cheers," carried a cross during the group's traditional funeral procession to honor alleged victims of SOA graduates. Because of the huge number of protesters this year, the procession lasted more than two hours, about an hour longer than usual. Some carried signs that said, "Drop Bush, not bombs," and "Shut down the SOA."
"All we can do is be a presence," said Sheen, who has been arrested but not jailed for trespassing during previous demonstrations. "It's no secret that the country has been very much to the right... Any protest is taken as unpatriotic. So it's very important to speak up."
SOA Watch has been holding vigils at Fort Benning's front gate since 1990 to call for the closing of the School of the Americas, now known as the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation. They blame school graduates for human rights abuses, including murders of six Jesuits in El Salvador in 1989, and exploitation of the poor and the natural resources of Latin America.
"We gather to revive the memory of those who have died at the hands of this combat school," said the group's founder, the Rev. Roy Bourgeois, a Catholic priest who served as a Naval officer during the Vietnam War. "How do you teach democracy behind the barrel of a gun? If they are so concerned about teaching democracy, then why not close this school and send these students to some of our fine universities."
In previous years, Army officials have held news conferences to deny the group's claims, but this year they offered no response.
The Army recently erected a second 10-foot chain link fence, topped by coils of concertina wire, inside the post's outer fence, which was topped by strands of barbed wire. But neither of the fences proved adequate to stop some of the young protesters, who seemed to scamper over the barriers with relative ease.
The vigil attracted college students and activists, young and old, from all over the country.
Speakers included a Marine veteran of the Iraq war and a mother who lost her son in Iraq.
"The pre-emptive war and the torture is an affront to God," said Celeste Zappala, whose son, Sherwood Baker, 30, was killed on April 26. He was a member of the Pennsylvania National Guard.
"Let us not think of these casualties as just casualties," said Zappala, from Philadelphia. "They were someone's beloved."
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