Lessons from Protesting Guantánamo

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Foreign Policy in Focus

Lessons from Protesting Guantánamo

by
Bryan Farrell

It was nearly three in the morning, on a recent Saturday, when the door of a Washington DC jail cell slammed closed with me inside. After an already grueling day in police custody that began at 1:30pm and included being handcuffed for eight hours straight at one point, the ability to move freely (albeit in a 5x7 cell) was a welcomed relief. I climbed up to the top bunk, which was more like a cold metal shelf, and sat with my legs pulled in toward my chest for warmth. "When will I get out of here?" I despaired. "Will I get out of here? What if something goes wrong and they just forget about me?"

Several hundred miles away, my parents wondered the same things, except that unlike many detainees and their families, they had been expecting my arrest. I decided to participate in a nonviolent action on the steps of the Supreme Court to protest the beginning of the seventh year that prisoners are being held in Guantánamo Bay without habeas corpus rights and subjected to torture.

These prisoners, once referred to as "the worst of the worst," are virtually all innocent. By the Pentagon's own estimate, 92% have not committed any crime against the United States. In fact, foreign bounty hunters were paid by the U.S. government to capture many of those who are now detained. It was this information, along with the horrid stories of physical beatings, forced stress positions, and trickery (such as guards posing as lawyers) that convinced me that resistance was necessary.

Although it was my first time taking such a risk, I was joined by a group of civil disobedience veterans who had a good idea of what to expect. Wearing orange jumpsuits with black hoods, we ascended the steps and then knelt silently halfway up, where we were arrested for the ironic violation of "speech at the Supreme Court." We expected to be held in custody for a few hours until being issued a citation, similar to a traffic fine. Just about everyone who had risked arrest before, including those who had done so a dozen times or more, said it would be rare to spend the night.

Seeing as how we thought it would probably be over before they could begin to worry, I decided full disclosure with my parents was the best option. Little did I realize, however, that arrests and jail time are never that innocuous when they're actually happening to you or someone you know.

It wasn't until I was shivering away in that cell, recapping the day's events, and pondering with complete uncertainty what would happen to me, that I began to really understand the horrors of torture and imprisonment. What I went through is only a pinprick compared to the evils faced by the near 800 men and boys who have passed through Guantánamo, but it is surprising how little it takes to set someone over the edge both mentally and physically.

After eight hours of being handcuffed behind the back, my arms started to throb with constant pain and fatigue, while my wrists got sore and cut-up. The guards wouldn't help. Often times they adjusted the cuffs so that they hurt more than before you complained. All the while, it was a struggle to get just a few sips of water. There was even a sign outside one cell I was in that read: "Do not ask for water." And forget about food. Even though our lawyers told us that we should have been offered some every 12 hours, I went all 30 hours of my incarceration without a morsel.

I was able to tough out these hardships, especially as one of the youngest protesters in the group. But of the 82 who were arrested, most were twice my age or older - with some even in their eighties. So, it was not surprising that a good many were suffering from nausea and dehydration. That's not to say I was lucky, however. My age and inexperience worked against me at times, as I was most unprepared for the psychological aspects of imprisonment that I encountered.

For starters, there's the waiting. It took one police jurisdiction hours to figure out how to ship us off to the next. The lines of communication between precincts are tangled in an intricate web of bureaucracy that ends up having more to do with when you get released than the actual charges you might be facing. Once I realized this, I felt consumed by complete helplessness. Not only did I lose control of my destiny, but some unknowable inhuman force was also controlling it.

Then again, there's nothing human about the entire process. Officers referred to us as "prisoners" and "bodies," showing the line of division between them and us, like we were some kind of subspecies. However, there was one saving grace: the camaraderie of friends who had been through similar situations-even if many did admit that this was their worst experience.

I spent the morning of my court hearing at a different jail, reunited with the rest of the group. Although we were divided up into four consecutively cramped cells and branded with leg shackles, the community experience is what helped me turn the corner and remember what it was that we were doing.

We sang songs of solidarity with words like "Ain't afraid of your jail 'cause I want my freedom" and listened to stories by the group's elders about their years of resistance work. I began to feel less focused on my own situation and more inspired by the rich history of nonviolent direct action that I was now a part of.

Gandhi said nonviolence was "as old as the hills" and Dr. King described it as "the answer to the crucial political and moral questions of our time." None of that has changed. So many invaluable rights and freedoms were gained over the last century by the work of people who were willing to oppose hatred and oppression with love and forgiveness.

With that in mind, we each took to the court room and gave the judge not only our own names, which most had refused to speak up to that point, but also the name of a Guantánamo prisoner, marking the first time any of these captives have ever been mentioned in a US court. But while those men stayed locked away, we were all set free. Many (including myself) will soon have the record of that arrest dismissed thanks to our courageous lawyers from the National Lawyers Guild, who struck an agreement with government prosecutors.

Despite the feelings of personal achievement, the grim reality is that even if Guantánamo is shut down-and many top US officials have spoken publicly in favor of such an action, including President Bush and Defense Secretary Robert Gates - there's no telling what will happen to the remaining 275 prisoners. Some could be extricated with little hassle, much like the more than 500 released or transferred out over the last few years, while others face an ironic legal snafu that prevents the deportation of foreign nationals to countries where they face the risk of torture. Those prisoners may have to wait for the US to find a country willing to grant them asylum, which will not be an easy task so long as our government refuses to share the burden.

Even more unknown is the fate of the 80 or so prisoners the government actually intends to prosecute - no more than 40 of which, according to various intelligence estimates are genuine terrorists. Trials may take place in Guantánamo before military commissions, a procedure the Supreme Court deemed in violation of international law in 2006, but was then reinstituted by the Military Commissions Act months later. If these commissions fail, prisoners could be transferred to the US mainland, where they would face trials in actual US Courts. The one problem being that prosecutors may guide the juries to overlook torture not only as an unreliable means of gathering evidence, but as an illegal act committed by our military.

According to a recent Pew Research poll, nearly two-thirds of Americans can justify torture under certain circumstances. Perhaps that is because most people have never experienced imprisonment. Those who have know that even the most seemingly innocuous jail stay has enough moments to convince you that the only real line between stress and non-stress positions is the one crossed upon leaving court a free person.

When I passed over that line back into the "real world," my first act was to call home and relieve my parents of their anguish. Even though they later admitted that everything went pretty much like I told them it would, I'll always remember how I felt sitting in that cold lonesome cell and the email my mother sent me around the same time. It said, "We are sick with worry."

Imagine how sick the families of those remaining prisoners are after six years, receiving messages from their husbands telling them to move on, or hearing about the force-feeding, waterboarding and suicides. We should all be sick by now, sick enough to find more ways of expressing our solidarity with those who continue to suffer. It may be the least we can do, but it has the potential to lift spirits and carry imaginations to a future where torture is extinct and empathy reigns supreme.

Bryan Farrell is a New York based journalist and activist, whose writings have appeared in The Nation and In These Times. He can be contacted at www.bryanfarrell.com.

Copyright © 2008, Institute for Policy Studies

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