COLUMBUS, Ga. — Longshot Democratic presidential hopeful Dennis Kucinich joined thousands of protesters in a demonstration Sunday against a U.S. Army school that opponents accuse of fostering human rights abuses in Latin America.
Kucinich used the occasion to emphasize his opposition to the Bush administration for leading the U.S. into war in Iraq and now threatening to attack Iran.
"We reject war as an instrument of foreign policy," the Ohio congressman told the crowd, estimated by local police to number about 10,000.
Kucinich said one of his first acts if elected president would be to shut down the school at Fort Benning, Georgia, which trains Latin American soldiers, police and government officials.
The Army's School of the Americas moved to Fort Benning from Panama in 1984 and was replaced in 2001 by the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, under the Defense Department.
The annual protests outside the gate to the military installation are timed to commemorate six Jesuit priests who were killed along with their housekeeper and her daughter in El Salvador on Nov. 19, 1989. Some of the killers had attended the School of the Americas.
The military has acknowledged that some graduates committed abuses after attending the School of the Americas, but has said in the past that no cause-and-effect relationship has ever been established.
The new Western Hemisphere Institute has mandatory human rights courses, but the demonstrators contend changes at the school are only cosmetic.
Kucinich said in an interview that he will continue lobbying for the closure of the school even if his longshot candidacy for president fails.
"The type of thinking that produced this school is the same type of thinking that produced the war in Iraq and is producing a war against Iran," Kucinich said.
Fort Benning spokeswoman Monica Manganaro said the protesters are "spectacularly misinformed."
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She said the school teaches the same courses taught to American soldiers. The only difference is the school in question serves mostly people from Latin America and, as a result, the courses are in Spanish, she said.
Manganaro said visitors are welcome to tour the school.
Energizing the movement
By late afternoon, 11 people had been arrested for trespassing on federal property, Manganaro said. Ten had snuck through a hole in a fence to the property, while another protester climbed a fence, Manganaro said. All were released on bond, she said.
The Rev. Roy Bourgeois, a Catholic priest who spent five years as a missionary in Bolivia and founded the group SOA Watch in 1990 in the effort to close the school, said that while organizers preach nonviolence, taking action that leads to arrest is not frowned upon.
"When they send us to prison, it energizes the movement," Bourgeois, a naval officer during the Vietnam War, said in an interview.
The Indigo Girls performed for the protesters, who filled a road leading to the gate to Fort Benning.
Some people covered their faces with white sheets and played dead on the ground. A sign in the back of the stage said: "No more! Close the school of assassins."
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