by Frida Berrigan
Protesters against Guantanamo in Washington, D.C., on January 11, 2008. Photo by Keith Ivey, via Flickr.
In a world full of injustice—from battered women to clubbed seals to the Club of Europe, from neglected children to nuclear weapons to mountain top removal, from torture at Guantanamo to torture at Bagram to torture in Chicago’s prisons to the torture of the death penalty, from famine in Somalia to deforestation to families being broken by Arizona’s immigration laws—how do you choose what to work on?
Most people choose what affects them most personally, what they feel like they can change, what breaks their heart. Some people choose what seems most strategic: if this small thing changes here, it might move all these other things along in the right direction. Some people race from topic to topic to topic, needing to be everywhere and in the middle of everything. Some combo of the first and second stance seems like the right place to be, right?
I start with all this because I have been thinking about Guantanamo. The notorious and often forgotten gulag is in the news again this week because the Senate voted on Tuesday to retain a provision within the National Defense Authorization Act that would allow the military detain terror suspects on U.S. soil and hold them indefinitely without trial. In addition, the measure—which passed in a bipartisan show of fear-mongering and brutality—would close the door to civilian trials for terror suspects and place restrictions on resettling the dozens of men at Guantanamo who have been cleared for release.
“Congress is essentially authorizing the indefinite imprisonment of American citizens, without charge. We are not a nation that locks up its citizens without charge,” said Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) as her fellow Democrats voted down Mark Udall’s (D-CO) amendment that would have killed the measure.
Wouldn’t it be nice if Feinstein’s words were true? But we don’t have to look as far at Guantanamo or Bagram to see people being locked up without charge. In fact, one of the tactics of the police’s response to Occupys around the country has been arresting people and then releasing them without charge—locking people upjust to get them out of the way.
Back to Guantanamo. I have been working hard on this issue for six years. At just about this time in 2005, I was getting ready to fly to Cuba with 24 friends. We planned to walk to Guantanamo—right onto the U.S. naval base and visit the prisoners, spend time with the guards, and bring letters from the men out so that we could send them to their families. We got as close as the Cuban military zone that surrounds the base and there we fasted and prayed and maintained a 24 hour vigil for five days. We held a press conference and international journalists from many outlets based in Havana came to speak with us. We called U.S. Southern Command and the base constantly, alerting them to our presence and requesting permission to enter the base. We hoped that somehow—between our persistent prayer and our constant contact with authorities—the men imprisoned there would find out we were there and why. And they did. We don’t know how, but a month or so later, through a lawyer for a group of detainees, we received a message of gratitude and hope.
A lot has changed in those six years. Back then, there were more than 700 men at Guantanamo. George W. Bush was in the White House. Most Americans didn’t know much about the issue.
Today, there are 171 men who remain at Guantanamo, more than 60 of whom have been cleared for release but remain in detention because of White House cowardice, political horse-trading and Congressional intransigence. President Barack Obama, who campaigned on a promise to close Guantanamo, has replaced Bush in the Oval Office but not shuttered his terrible extra-legal creation. There are dozens of award-winning documentaries, countess important and informative books and thousands of column inches of news coverage of the prison, and even Harold and Kumar got in (and out) of Guantanamo.
But a lot hasn’t changed. Not for Shaker Aamer and the 170 others who are still at Guantanamo. But, we are still at it. Still trying. Why? Because we have been changed, maybe. Because the times demand our action and our effort. Why do I still care? Why am I still passionate about this issue after six years? Because in the name of justice for men at Guantanamo I have been pushed to do things I would have thought laughable and terrifying. To walk far and sleep on the ground, to go without food for days at a time, to court a big fine and possible jail time by flying to Cuba, to speak before thousands of people, to get arrested at the Federal Court, the Supreme Court, the Capitol, the White House, to stay up late and get up early and walk around in a decidedly unflattering orange jumpsuit in the January snow and July humidity. Because I have found an amazing community of people to work and struggle and weep and laugh with. Because no one is free when others are oppressed and shutting eyes and ears and hearts is not an option.
Right after New Year’s, Witness Against Torture is going to Washington again. I’ll be there. We begin our “Hunger for Justice” fast on January 2 and will fill the courtroom at Moultrie Superior Court the next day to support 14 friends who were arrested interrupting the House of Representatives with the call “shut down Guantanamo” in July. We’ll fast through January 11, which will mark 10 long years of detention and torture and lawlessness for so many. We’ll stand with Amnesty and Pax Christi and so many other groups in a human chain that will stretch from the White House to the Capital. We hope to have 2,771 people stand on that day, one for each of the men detained at Guantanamo and Bagram. TheCenter for Constitutional Rights will hold a press briefing and the National Religious Campaign Against Torture will host an interfaith service. There will be activities throughout the city to draw attention to this shameful anniversary. And then we will break the fast on January 12th.
To be honest, I would rather not go. I will be cold and uncomfortable and hungry. I will miss my husband and our little girl. But there are men at Guantanamo whopaint amazing pictures of a life they can hardly imagine anymore. There are men who write poetry and who pray to God for justice, for release and for people like me not to forget them. So I won’t. That is my passion right now. Not forgetting, not getting comfortable with the suffering of others.
This article was reprinted from WagingNonviolence.org, a source for news, analysis, and original reporting about nonviolent activism, as well as for discussion of the theory behind it.
Frida Berrigan serves on the Board of the War Resisters League and is a columnist for Waging Nonviolence.