In its 13th year, the protest has attendance that swells to the thousands. College students join Catholic nuns and retirees, marching to the gates of the base with white crosses and wooden coffins, symbolizing deaths of Latin Americans. The atmosphere swings between that of a funeral and a spring break party. Men and women dressed in black robes and covered in fake blood lie on the grass before the gate, a reminder of innocent lives lost. Solemn tears mix with massive, exuberant shouts as people walk around the chain-link fence onto base property, subjecting themselves to the judicial system for federal trespassing. Crossing the line, they call it. Thousands have risked imprisonment at Fort Benning, including actor Martin Sheen.
....Hotels and restaurant owners can't help getting a little giddy when protest time rolls around. At the Colony Inn, a small, family-owned hotel just up the road from the gathering, the lobby was so full Saturday morning that by mid morning, the desk clerk hadn't had time to put up the "no vacancy" sign. Minivans and station wagons filled the parking lot, and a sign out front read "No Parties!"
"We started filling for this weekend months ago," manager George Snyder said. A longtime resident of Columbus, Synder said he has mixed feelings about the protest. He supports Fort Benning; soldiers and their visitors provide yearlong revenue. But the protesters are considerate and don't cause him trouble.
"Some townspeople have got the wrong idea about these protesters," Snyder said. "Tonight the protesters will be staying here along with the soldiers. It's a GI payday, so lots of the soldiers will be pretty tore up, but there won't be any words between any of them, that's for sure."
Snyder's reaction is common among hotel and restaurant owners. They may not agree with the protest, but they aim to please. The protest means big bucks for the city, according to figures from the Columbus Convention and Visitors Bureau. Although the town forked out close to $137,000 in overtime pay and personnel for the weekend, it pulled in close to $5-million this year from the 5,400 protesters, said Peter Bowden, deputy director of the bureau.