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Thousands march on the School of the Americas
F O R T B E N N I N G, 22 November 1999
Thousands March on School of Americas, Claim Army School Grads Commit Violence
By Elliott Minor
His face splattered with fake blood, actor Martin Sheen knelt beside a coffin and made the sign of the cross before he was led away during a protest to demand the closing of the Army's School of the Americas.
Sheen joined thousands who risked arrest Sunday by marching into Fort Benning to demonstrate against the school that trains Latin American soldiers and police. Opponents blame the school for human rights abuses committed by some of its graduates.
"The U.S. Army is given a mandate to protect the weak," said Sheen, who plays the president of the United States in the television series The West Wing.
"This school besmirches that mandate."
The Army estimated there were 8,000 protesters, with 3,100 marching into the post. Organizers said there were 12,000 protesters, with 4,800 entering the post.
White Masks and Black Robes
Police escorted most of the protesters, including Sheen, to buses that took them off the post, where they were released.
But 65 of the most disruptive protesters were detained and taken to a processing center to be photographed and fingerprinted. They were released after being given a letter banning them from the post for three years, said post spokesman Rich McDowell.
Twenty-three of the protesters already were barred from the post. They will be cited for trespassing, which carries a maximum penalty of six months in prison, McDowell said.
At the head of the solemn procession were protesters wearing white death masks and black robes. As they were about to be removed from the post, they spattered themselves with red dye and fell down in the street, pretending to be dead.
Many protesters carried coffins and some held small wooden crosses bearing the names of victims allegedly killed by soldiers and death squads in Latin America. Others waved banners demanding the school's closing.
School Defends Itself
Col. Glenn Weidner, the school's commandant, said he was thankful the protest was peaceful. He said students were hurt by the protesters' accusations.
"When you look at the curriculum of the School of Americas, we teach more human rights courses than any other school in the U.S. Army," he said. "Lining people up and shooting them from three or four meters is not a problem of military training. It's a lack of training."
The annual demonstration commemorates the Nov. 16, 1989, killings in El Salvador of six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper and her young daughter. A United Nations panel found that 19 of the 26 Salvadoran officers involved had been trained at the school. The Rev. Roy Bourgeois, who has spearheaded a decadelong protest against the school, said he will continue to speak out as long as there are combat courses taught at the School of the Americas. "It gives me such joy to see so many people here," he said.
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