Anniversaries are normally festive occasions. But the general mood at the 20th annual School of the Americas (SOA) Watch protest at Fort Benning, Georgia was closer to a death knell than a milestone.
It used to be a significant event of the Catholic Left. At its height a few years ago, more than 15,000 gathered to protest the School of the Americas, now renamed the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (WHINSEC).
The event still attracts a broad cross-section of leftist, dissident Catholic groups and causes, from drug legalization, abortion, and homosexual “marriage” to Liberation Theology and women’s ordination. However, the movement is dwindling fast. Even The New York Times acknowledged how "signs of decline were everywhere."
SOA Watch demonizes WHINSEC, which provides training to soldiers from Latin America, for alleged human rights abuses. At the same time, SOA Watch organizers and participants ignore or give tacit support to the likes of Fidel Castro, Hugo Chavez, the FARC guerrillas of Colombia, and other leftist dictators or terrorist groups. Pro-Castro propaganda can be found at the event.
This year, however, the drop off in attendance was staggering. The SOA Watch crowd dwindled to a few thousand, less than half the total from two year ago.
The decline accelerated after SOA Watch founder, Maryknoll Father Roy Bourgeois, was excommunicated by the Vatican in 2008 for his dissident stance on women’s ordination. Since then, the Maryknoll order has pulled its funding for the event. The Jesuit order, which used to send students from all its colleges and universities, also moved elsewhere.
Rally for the Troops
For the fifth year in a row, TFP Student Action volunteers have made the trek from Pennsylvania to Fort Benning in Columbus, Georgia, to counter-protest this overtly socialist event and publicly express support for the troops. At first they joined the God Bless Fort Benning rally sponsored by local residents in Columbus. However, even after this event was sadly discontinued, they continued making the trip.
“SOA Watch is a socialist, Marxist, communist organization that opposes our military and the noble ideals it stands for,” affirmed John Ritchie, TFP Student Action director. “That’s why we’re here, to support the American soldier who puts his life on the line to defend our nation. We need to show our gratitude.”
With red capes, TFP standard, the American flag, and large signs saying “God bless our troops” and “The American soldier keeps the peace, not socialist protesters,” Student Action volunteers rallied in downtown Columbus at 13th and Broadway and outside the main gate of the base at Victory Dr. and Fort Benning Rd.
On Saturday, November 20, the TFP took out a full-page advertisement in the Columbus Ledger-Enquirer, titled “We Support Our Troops: 10 Reasons to Protest... Against the Protesters.”
The residents of Columbus were extremely supportive of the TFP campaign. Car after car honked. Many waved or gave a thumbs up. One man stopped at a red light, waved in support, and held up a copy of the Ledger-Enquirer with its front-page picture of the TFP campaign the day before. One soldier in uniform was so enthusiastic he approached and gave a donation on the spot to "get drinks for everyone."
On Saturday, TFP volunteers entered the protest perimeter to educate and distribute hundreds of 10 Reasons to Reject Socialism flyers, which sparked many debates.
But many young people in the crowd were simply bussed in, with little or no knowledge of what SAO Watch is about. Some, it was discovered, even disagreed with the basic premise of the protest.
"I disagree with the leaders of SOA Watch," one college student told a TFP volunteer. "I don’t think we should protest against the School of the Americas. I just disagree with the foreign policy of the United States as a whole."
The police, many of whom are military veterans, were favorable to the TFP message. One officer after reading the flyer said, "I am all over that. Don't even get me started. These protesters are the same people that spat on my father when he came back from Vietnam." Another police officer approached and said "I read it in the newspaper this morning, the 10 reasons, and it was good stuff."
After the rally for the troops, TFP volunteers took advantage to visit the National Infantry Museum nearby. The 190,000 square foot museum, inaugurated in 2009, is truly outstanding, a fitting monument to the long history of heroism of the American Infantry.
Upon leaving, a museum guide approached: "Are you one of the counter-protesters? Thank you so much for coming all the way down here from Pennsylvania. You were so calm and articulate on the news. The troops can’t get directly involved in the debate. But you have no idea how many people you reach. You represent so many of us. Thank you."
God bless our troops!