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Fort benning protest thanksgiving 2004

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Ft. Benning Fields Protest Rally
Provided By: The Associated Press
Last Modified: 11/19/2004 10:35:46 AM

COLUMBUS, Ga. (AP) -- While up to 10,000 protesters rally against a Fort Benning school for Latin American soldiers this weekend, a similar number of hometown folks and American GIs will gather elsewhere in the city for a day of food, games and music, including a concert by patriotic country crooner Lee Greenwood.

Organizers of the God Bless Fort Benning Celebration, which will be held Saturday at the Columbus Civic Center, say their event is not a counter demonstration, but rather a show of community support for the sacrifices of the Fort Benning soldiers and their families, especially while the nation is at war.

A group known as School of Americas Watch demonstrates outside the main gate to Fort Benning each November to call for the closing of the School of Americas, now known as the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, that trains soldiers, police officers and government officials from Latin America.

SOA Watch claims the school's graduates were involved in human rights abuses in the 1980s and even now enforce a U.S. foreign policy that exploits the people and resources of Latin America.

But Miriam Tidwell, an organizer of the God Bless Fort Benning Celebration, said the institute is the equivalent of a neighborhood watch for Latin America that plants "little seeds of democracy" which prevent minor problems from becoming major problems.

Her husband, Jack Tidwell, is a retired Army lieutenant colonel. As a cancer oncologist, he runs the Tidwell Cancer Treatment Center in Columbus.

"He sees this whole thing like cancer," she said. "If you find cancer early, you can cure the patient. WHINSEC is ... like radiation. It kills the cancer by radiating these (democratic) ideas."

She and her husband got the idea for the celebrations after one of the protesters called a soldier a "baby killer" in front of his wife and children in a restaurant.

"My husband burst out crying on the spot," she said.

Their event has grown from a small two-hour informational gathering in 2002 to a daylong festival that is expected to attract thousands.

"This town loves its military," Tidwell said. "This is just showing Columbus and the military that we care.

"If they have 10,000, then we have 10,001," she said.

Besides Greenwood, a Grammy-award winner who wrote and sang the hit song, "God Bless the USA," the festival will include a basketball clinic by the Harlem Globetrotters and a basketball game featuring the Columbus Riverdragons and the Huntsville Flight of the National Basketball Development League.

SOA Watch hosts the protests each November to mark the Nov. 16, 1989, slayings of six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper and her teenage daughter in El Salvador. A congressional task force found that some of the soldiers responsible for the massacre had been trained at the School of Americas, which moved to Fort Benning from Panama in 1984.

Although the protesters won a court victory last month when an appeals court banned police from using metal detectors to screen demonstrators, they will now face temporary 8-foot-high fences erected by the city along their parade route.

SOA Watch will host some preliminary events Saturday, followed on Sunday by its demonstration.

Twenty-seven protesters were arrested last year, mostly for slipping through a fence and trespassing on Fort Benning property.

They may find it harder to trespass this year. The Army has erected a second fence topped by coils of barbed wire, running parallel to the outer fence.

(Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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