In spite of Obama’s campaign promises to close Guantanamo, and in spite of the fact that he signed an executive order to close the prison on his second day in office, Guantanamo remains open. There are still 170 men illegally detained there. Most of them are innocent of any wrong-doing and have been cleared for release by our government. Yet they have no hope of ever being charged with any crime, having a trial, and worst of all, no hope of ever being released and reunited with their loved ones. They were tortured under the Bush Administration. Though torture may not continue in the same way under the Obama Administration, being held indefinitely with no hope of ever again holding your loved ones in your arms, looking into their eyes, building a life together – that would be torture.
It was with these thoughts in mind that I was compelled to leave my own family, and again return to Washington, DC to participate in an action of nonviolent civil resistance with Witness Against Torture (WAT) (www.witnesstorture.org ) on June 23, 2011.
I arrived in DC on Wednesday June 22 and went directly to the Department of Justice where WAT has been focusing a lot of their energy as we work to close Guantanamo and end all torture by our government. As I emerged from the subway and walked towards the DoJ, I saw a familiar and stirring sight. Activists with orange jumpsuits and black hoods, and with their hands behind their backs were standing solemnly in the shadows of the massive justice [sic] building. What a symbol of the power differential between the activists from WAT and the government. As Max says, we are up against the most powerful empire in the history of the world. We come in the dead of winter and in the heat of summer, and we cannot and will not give up.
Wednesday evening we met to plan for the action on Thursday. It is always a wonderful reunion as I come together with these people who I have come to know and love as family. I feel like this story is becoming too familiar as we come together over and over to speak out against the crimes of our government. Yet I know ever more deeply every time I take action that this is what I am called to do, and I must answer that call.
I woke up early on Thursday morning with that queasy feeling in my stomach, knowing I was going way outside of my comfort level in risking arrest. Malachy and I had an egg and cheese bagel and a bottle of juice with the understanding that it could be 30 hours before we would eat again as we were expecting we would be held overnight and not see a judge until late the next day.
In preparing for the possibility of arrest, I was traveling light that day. I removed my wedding ring. I carried my cell phone, toothbrush and paste, and lip moisturizer that I would hand over to a support person before I risked arrest. Malachy and I decided we would only bring a photo copy of our driver’s license as identification rather than the actual license. We wanted to see what the response of the police would be if we had only had a copy of our identification. We also wanted to avoid having to return to the Capitol Police Station to retrieve any property after we were released, as were expecting to be released from the Court House after arraignment the next day.
We then walked to the White House and met up with others from WAT. Amnesty International and TASSC joined us and we listened to a few speakers at the White House before we processed to the Department of Justice in a “Walk of Shame”. It is an eerie sight to witness the procession of activists with the jumpsuits and hoods, hand behind their backs, processing through the streets of DC. Because of my vertigo I am unable to walk safely with a hood and so I hand out flyers and talk to people along the route.
After some time standing in front of the DoJ, we continued the procession to the Supreme Court where we listened to more speakers talk about what is happening in Guantanamo. Then we continued the procession briefly onto the Capitol grounds and then the group disbanded for a short break and to regroup for the action.
We have been to the White House. We have talked to members of Congress. We have been to the Supreme Court. There is no justice, no rule of law to be found for these men in any of the three branches of government. So, it is up to us as citizens to take action, and demand justice. It is our obligation under Nuremberg to speak out against the crimes of our government. It is our First Amendment right to petition our government for a redress of grievances. WAT is calling for the closure of Guantanamo, freeing all prisoners who have been cleared for release and ensuring they are safely resettled, producing charges and prosecuting all other prisoners in US courts, opening all US government detention centers to outside inspections by the Red Cross or other such groups, and conducting a criminal investigation against all those who designed and carried out torture policies.
Fourteen of us were committed to risking arrest that day in an action of nonviolent civil resistance. Our purpose in participating in the action is not to break the law, but to uphold the laws as our government continues its lawless policies. We went to the gallery that overlooks the floor of the House of Representatives. We were fortunate that they were getting ready to vote and almost all the members of the House were present on the floor. I saw my Representative Tammy Baldwin, Dennis Kucinich, and many other familiar faces.
My heart was pounding as I waited for Carmen to start the action. At the chosen moment Carmen rose and in a loud voice started reading a statement about the grave need to end the abuses that continue at Guantanamo. This is the statement that was read by several members of our group as the action began:
Today the House of Representative is in the process of contemplating not the passage of a bill but
the commission of a crime. Provisions in the proposed Defense Appropriations Bill grant the United
States powers over the lives of detained men fitting of a totalitarian state that uses the law itself as
an instrument of tyranny. The law would make the prison at Guantanamo permanent by denying
funds for the transfer of men to the United States, even for prosecution in civilian courts.
Abandoning the civilian courts, the bill would be the ultimate concession that the rule of law and
cherished American values cannot survive the fear and hatred that have consumed this country.
The proposed bill makes restrictions on the transfer of detainees even to foreign countries so severe
that no one — whether cleared for release by our own government or acquitted in trials — could be
expected to leave Guantanamo. It therefore mandates the indefinite detention even of innocent
human beings, which is the very essence of tyranny. Congress has an obligation to uphold the US
Constitution. All Americans have the obligation to defend human rights. The proposed bill makes
America a callous and reckless jailer, unworthy of the name of democracy. It must be defeated.
Guantanamo must close. Those unjustly bound must be freed. Justice must rule.
As Carmen began reading this statement a roar of noise rose from the House floor as many members stood and began to boo Carmen. I believe it was primarily the Republicans who were doing this. I was stunned. This seemed so unprofessional and sophomoric.
Because Carmen was sitting away from a door in a crowded gallery, it took a few minutes for the police to reach him and remove him. As Carmen was being removed Tom stood and continued reading the statement as members of Congress continued to boo. The police removed Tom and the next person began speaking. After the statement was completed, the rest of us began to stand and speak out for the closure of Guantanamo. From where I was sitting I could see from an open doorway into the hallway and there were several officers running through the halls as they came together to stop our action. It was a rolling action that disturbed Congress for several minutes, and that was our intention. We need members of Congress to hear our message and think about what it means to continue to illegally and indefinitely hold innocent men in Guantanamo. David Barrows was the last person to speak out and his voice projected over the crowd as he boomed, “Close Guantanamo. Stand up for human rights. Close Guantanamo. Stop killing the bill of rights.”
As we stood in the hallway right outside the House gallery, they began to handcuff us and do an initial search. Reporters tried to get close to us and Carmen continued to explain to them why we were there. The police began clearing the gallery of all observers because they were not sure if there would be others who would try to interrupt Congress.
Fourteen of us were arrested at around 4:30 pm and we were separated, men and women. The seven women were Ellen Barfield, Martha Hennesey, Judith Kelly, Bev Rice, Josie Setzer, Alice Sutter, and me, Joy First, and the seven men were David Barrows, Tom Casey, Mark Colville, Brian Hynes, Malachy Kilbride, Mike Levinson, and Carmen Trotta. The men were put in the back of one police van and the women were put in another, and we were transported to a DC station where they often process mass arrests.
We were expecting to be processed and then transferred to Central Lockup to spend the night and then wait in chains the next day to be arraigned in the late afternoon or early evening. The officer in charge asked us if any of us had any outstanding cases, and said that he did not want to hear that we did because that would be bad news for us. There are a couple of rules the police generally follow when we are arrested in DC. If we have an outstanding case, we are usually held overnight and then arraigned the next day¸ or if we live more than 50 miles from DC we will also be held overnight and arraigned the next day. I was expecting I would be in custody until 7:00 pm or so on Friday as they generally arraign the activists at the end of the day.
Being in handcuffs is always the most physically challenging part of the experience for me. They use plastic cuffs that are very painful on our wrists and after a few hours in cuffs my shoulders are really aching. So, as I sat there I remembered my brothers in Guantanamo who have been held in painful stress positions for many many hours and even for days. As I think about missing my family for a few days I remember my brothers in Guantanamo who have not seen their loved ones for nine long heartbreaking years. I know this is where I must be and what I must be doing.
After providing identification, our cuffs were removed. Both Malachy and I were told that a copy of our drivers license was not acceptable identification. The police told me I was going to be in trouble for not having my actual license, but nothing ever came of it, and throughout the processing experience they treated our copy as if it was a valid identification. Next we were thoroughly searched and patted down, and then asked a number of questions to establish our identity, including getting a picture taken with an officer. These photos will be used in court, and the officer in the photo will be identified as the arresting officer even though it is the same officer in all 14 photos, and it is not the officer who actually arrested each individual activist. This is what will be used in court to prove our identity and prove we were at the scene of the “crime”.
We were told that the fingerprinting machine was broken and we would have to go back to the main Capitol Police Station near the Capitol to get fingerprinted. There was talk that we would likely be released, but I didn’t trust the police who said this as some of us had outstanding cases and some of us lived more than 50 miles from DC. I still did not really believe they would release all of us. They cuffed the men, loaded them into a police van and the women sat on chairs in a large garage where we were being processed and waited…… and waited……. and waited. It was probably a couple of hours before they cuffed us again to transport us for fingerprinting.
Once back at the main Capitol Police Station, the women were divided and locked into a couple of holding cells. We didn’t know where the men were at this point. It took another couple of hours to fingerprint the seven of us, take our picture again, and ask us a few more questions. While I was being fingerprinted I asked the officer if we were going to be held over and he told me that everyone was going to be released. Finally, about 1:30 am my name was called as I was sitting in the holding cell. I thought they were going to ask me more questions, but they took me to the door and released me. It was so good to see David sitting in the lobby area putting his laces back in his shoes. Malachy was waiting for me outside.
Matt and Beth were there as support and had drinks and granola bars for us. Another supporter was waiting to give people rides to wherever they needed to go. It is a comfort that when we risk arrest and are taken into custody, we know there are people outside waiting to take care of us. That is an experience most people in DC jails do not have, and something the men in Guantanamo definitely do not have.
As we went back to the Hotel Harrington I was very shocked and dismayed to hear that Brian was being held overnight in Central Lockup when I thought we were all being released. I was even more shocked and could hardly believe it when I heard about the circumstances that occurred that led to Brian’s being held overnight when the rest of us were released.
A few years ago several of us who were arrested participated in an action organized by WAT. Part of this action involved not having our identification on our person when we were arrested. Rather, we told the police that we were there on behalf of a particular prisoner being held in Guantanamo and we gave the name of the prisoner as the specific person we were representing. Brian was involved in that action and gave the name of a prisoner. We were then fingerprinted and the name of the Guantanamo prisoner was attached to our fingerprints. They were eventually able to identify us because we had been arrested before and our fingerprints were on file in the computerized system and they could match us with fingerprints from previous arrests.
So, on June 23 when Brian was arrested he gave the police his driver’s license which identified him as Brian Hynes. When the police did a fingerprint search they found the name of the prisoner being held in Guantanamo listed as his real name and Brian Hynes listed as an alias. The officer in charge accused Brian of lying about his identification and said that he was really the person whose name he gave from Guantanamo – even though he had a valid drivers license listing his name as Brian Hynes.
This was absolutely absurd and the officer in charge knew it was absurd. The officer knew this was not a prisoner from Guantanamo. This particular officer is often very friendly with activists and talks to us in a very personal way, but can also quickly switch and act in a very sadistic way towards us. This reminds us that we should never forget who is in charge and has complete control over our lives during the time we are in custody. One time when I was arrested, he was bantering with me about my grandchildren. A short time later we were cuffed to be transported. An officer cuffed me loosely because we were all so sore from spending so much time in cuffs. The other officer, who can be friendly and then sadistic with us, walked up behind me and yanked the cuff so painfully tight around my wrist just because he could and to show me that he had power over me. This is a lesson for us to better understand the lives of the men in Guantanamo whose experiences are so extremely more devastating than ours while in custody that we can’t even really compare them. But we can try to understand the treatment of the men in Guantanamo when we think of the enormous power differential between the prisoners and the guards.
Brian was arraigned and released the next day. The rest of us have an arraignment date set for July 12 and then we will set a trial date. We were charged with unlawful conduct and will likely get a jury trial because we face 6 months in jail for the action. We will work together to figure out a way to continue our witness in the courtroom as we continue the struggle for justice for the men in Guantanamo.
And, in the meantime, we move on to make plans to continue to speak out against the empire through acts of nonviolent civil resistance. The National Campaign for Nonviolent Resistance (NCNR) is supporting and endorsing october2011.org. This is an event that will begin with the occupation of Freedom Plaza in Washington, DC on October 6, the 10th anniversary of the invasion of Afghanistan, the longest running war in the history of our country. We will be there making our voices heard regarding the wars, the environment, healthcare, education, other human needs, etc. etc. etc – all the evils of the empire. Please go to the website october2011.org and pledge to join us in DC beginning October 6.
As part of this bigger event, NCNR will be organizing an action at the NSA in early October. We must come together. We must all speak out. Our government has become so removed from the will of the people, and is beholding to too many large corporations that give them money. The Bush Administration committed many illegal actions, but too many criminal acts continue under Obama’s watch. Now is the time for the people to come together and take back our government.