Over a thousand cross-bearing protesters marched solemnly outside the main entrance to Fort Benning on Sunday hoping to close the school on the base that trains officers from Latin America in the military arts. They have been at it for twenty-six years and have accomplished little more than the renaming of the school in 2001 to the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation. It was the smallest turnout in years, down from its peak of over 30,000, and will be the last, as the movement will refocus its energy on immigration issues and gather somewhere along the Mexican border next year.
The waning interest didn't put a dent though in the fervor of those who participated in this annual three-day event. The day before eleven protesters were arrested outside the Stewart Detention Center thirty miles away that houses 1,700 prisoners on immigration issues. Workshops were held all afternoon and into the night Friday and Saturday at the Columbus Convention Center. It was no easy task to decide which to attend with as many as ten convening at the same time on a wide range of issues--the fight for fair food, increasing the minimum wage to $15, gold mining in Guatamala, Mexico's crimes against humanity and US complicity, the victims of right-wing violence in Venezuela, torture, the left and US elections, campesinos in Colombia.
Tables lined the hallways of the center dispensing materials from a wide assortment of organizations and causes and vendors--the Progressive Catholic Coalition, the Baptist Peace Fellowship, the Deported Veterans Support Group... One could hardly walk a few feet without being accosted by someone with a petition to sign.
Bernie Sanders was constantly invoked and Donald Trump constantly reviled. During the Saturday night Rythms of Resistance concert one of the singers told of someone going to a bookstore and asking for Trump's book on immigration, though he didn't know the title. The bookseller was offended by such a preposterous request and told the guy, "Get the fuck out of here!" He responded, "That's it. Do you have it in paperback?" The concert also featured a short rambunctious speech by Jill Stein, running for the presidency on the Green Party ticket, as she did in 2012.
I was fortunate to be joined by fellow cyclists Dwight (in orange) and Bob (in yellow) so we could split up and attend different workshops. Dwight had driven over from Springfield, Missouri, where he had been teaching at Missouri State University. He had spent a week in Florida testing his new hip of five months on a mini-bike tour. He was thrilled to have culminated it with a wind-assisted, 115-mile day, his longest ever. Bob drove down from Hammond, Indiana. He is an equally ardent cyclist and has biked all over the world. His next trip will be to Vietnam in January. Both Dwight and I had biked there and had plenty to recommend.
Bob also had recommendations for us, particularly several travel websites he uses to find cheap air fares--kayak, flightdeals and travelzoo. He has been retired from the railroad business for nearly a decade and is free to take advantage of a bargain flight whenever he sees one. A quick look revealed round-trip offers to Moscow for $534 and Uraquay for $238. Dwight and I had to restrain ourselves from booking something then and there.
Bob is ever ready to hop a flight. He has led an extraordinarily full life of adventure. He's run marathons all over the country, including Chicago fifteen times and Las Vegas twice. He's skied all the major western resorts and would have been skiing Whistler outside of Vancouver over Thanksgiving if he had found a cheap flight. He also had a stint as a wind-surfer until he broke his collarbone in Argentina on a bike trip nearly ten years ago that led to his retirement from the railroad after thirty-five years. The break didn't adequately heal, so he has been advised by two specialists not to risk the strain of holding back the sail on a wind surfboard. Vietnam offers exceptional windsurfing. He's going to have a hard time resisting giving it a try.
Bob kept me regaled with his life of adventure on our eleven-hour drive back to Chicago. He had only briefly met Dwight once before, so had the treat of hearing his many tales during our time together in Columbus. Being able to hang out with two such vibrant characters was a fine reward for my two-week thousand-mile ride down from Chicago. And so was hanging out with all the deeply committed, cause-oriented folk who had congregated in Columbus for the weekend. Many were trying to enlist others for their particular cause.
A young man, who was attracted by my loaded bike, hoped I would be interested in joining him next summer biking around Michigan trying to halt a pipeline. He had ridden his bike from Detroit to New York this summer for a climate change conference as a protest against fossil fuels ruining the planet. He had hoped I had ridden my bike to Columbus with a similar intent. He couldn't believe that I didn't have a harangue, like so many others here, about something that irked me. I had a similar experience at the Sundance Film Festival one year when a script scout insisted that I must have a script for sale and accused me of holding out on him. Like film festivals, this gathering was a most energizing experience and gave a window on many important subjects around the world. It will be hard not to bike down to the Mexican border next November for its next incarnation.