Hoping to set the record straight

By Laura Ann Sills - email

COLUMBUS, GA (WTVM) - Human rights activists call it the "School of Assassins," while Military Officials call it a necessity.

We're talking about The Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, or WHINSEC, formerly School of the Americas.

Saturday's annual SOA Watch Protest brought in thousands of people to the Valley area.

WHINSEC Officials answered the questions from more than 700 protestors during an Open House Saturday.  One person on the panel was even a former SOA graduate.  "Wether you're in your sixties and you've been used to protesting for social change or wether your 18-19 years old and you're getting extra credit for a Sociology course to come here, we don't think you're getting the full story," says Linda Gould, SOA graduate.

Also on the panel was Washington lawyer Steven Schneebaum, "We have a responsibility as the region super-power to try to make things better in the region and the way to do that is to promote the rule of law, which is just what this institution is attempting to do."

Activists gathered at Ft. Benning's Main Gate  for their annual protest.  They insist the school teaches torture techniques to soldiers from Latin American countries. Their mission is to have it shut down.

People travel from all over to participate.  Erin Diffenderfer is a student from Ohio.  She wasn't afraid to show her emotions, "I'm really upset with School of the Americas graduates and upset that our country is spending money on things like this and we're not standing for the human rights of everyone, when that's such an important part of our countries values."

WHINSEC Officials hope after today, they've set the record straight. The School's Chief of Staff, Jose Marreno, says they go above and beyond the required eight hours of ethics and human rights classes.  "If you believe in stability, then you believe in the same values and principles we believe in."

Protestors span all ages and come from different socio-economic backgrounds, but most of them emphasize this protest is by no means against the soldiers who serve our country.

"I am in no way against Ft. Benning, I appreciate our soldiers where ever they serve," says Dominican Sister Stella Storch.

Protests will continue through Sunday.  A few protestors plan to breech the fences, step on Ft. Benning soil and be arrested.

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