Fighting Racism and Torture from Ferguson to Guantánamo

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Fighting Racism and Torture from Ferguson to Guantánamo

Witness Against Torture members in the U.S. Capitol shortly before being arrested by Capitol Police on January 12, 2015. (Photo: WNV/Justin Norman)

On January 12, in the cramped entrance of D.C. Metro Police headquarters, Witness Against Torture addressed a phalanx of officers in song: “We remember all the people / The police killed / We can feel their spirits / They’re with us still.” The song was written for the occasion by Luke Nephew, anti-torture stalwart and poet for movements from climate justice to Black Lives Matter. (Nephew’s “I Can’t Breathe” has become an anthem for the latter.) The anti-torture group had gathered in Washington to mark the 13th “anniversary” of the opening of the detention camp at Guantánamo in January 2002. Here protesting domestic racism at a D.C. jail, Witness Against Torture, or WAT, broke new ground for itself.

Earlier in the day, WAT members were arrested at the U.S. Capitol. Some interrupted Senate proceedings to call for the prosecution of those authorizing or committing torture, as detailed in the Senate’s own report on CIA interrogations. Others were cuffed in the visitors center holding banners reading “We Demand Accountability for Torture and Police Murder!”

Woven between the two actions was the demonstration by the Hands Up Coalition DC at the Department of Justice, attended in force by anti-torture activists. In driving rain, the mother of Emmanuel Okutuga, killed by police in nearby Silver Spring, Md., addressed the crowd through sobs.

WAT conceived its suite of actions under the slogan “From Ferguson to Guantánamo: White Silence Equals State Violence.” The goal was to link mass incarceration at home and indefinite detention overseas, impunity for police murder and for CIA torture as dual dimensions of systems of state violence rooted substantially in racism.

Behind the efforts at this synthesis lay challenges commonly confronting today’s activists: to analytically connect diverse oppressions; to build alliances based on their interconnection; and, for majority white groups like WAT, to support with appropriate deference and recognition of structural privilege movements led by people of color. The particular, sometimes halting journey of anti-Guantánamo activists toward new solidarities may be instructive for others contending with these challenges.

Guantánamo and solidarity

Solidarity has long been at the heart of efforts to close Guantánamo. The movement’s signature gesture — to don in public the orange jumpsuits and black hoods first worn by Guantánamo detainees — is both an act of identification with, and an attempt to represent, men whose bodies and plights are largely banished from view. Solidarity fasts softly echo the hunger strikes at Guantánamo. Witness Against Torture’s frequent arrests use the voluntary loss of freedom, however brief, as a means for empathizing with men snatched into open-ended detention.

Arrests can extend solidarity in more pointed ways. WAT’s largest arrest action was at the Supreme Court in January 2008, when the justices were considering whether Guantánamo detainees could file habeas challenges to their detention. In custody, the activists gave police the names of detained men in lieu of their own. The detainee names made it into the court docket of the WAT members standing trial for their trespass. A core purpose of the action was fulfilled: to symbolically give the detainees the day in court they had been denied. (The Supreme Court soon granted habeas rights, though their impact has since been whittled away by conservative judges.)

During the January protests that just concluded, WAT brought the images and told the heartrending stories of detainees into the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery, insisting that the museum’s visitors see and hear them too.

Witness Against Torture members demonstrating in the entrance of DC Metro Police headquarters on January 12, 2015.  (WNV/ Justin Norman)

All these expressions of solidarity aim to give voice, visibility and hope to those voiceless, hidden away and often hopeless. The greatest barrier to the release of prisoners has been official neglect and public indifference. So any effort to remind the world of their very existence by means other than demonizing caricatures helps. Word of such protests has long made it through attorneys to their clients at Guantánamo, who have expressed profound thanks.

There is a deeper dimension to the connections forged with the detained men. Here WAT’s status as a largely Anglo-American group, with strong roots in the Catholic Worker and broader social gospel traditions, is significant. So much of the U.S. “war on terror” — and so much terrorism — is predicated on fear, suspicion, separation and radical othering. To transcend hardened barriers of nation and faith both in the specific recognition of the detainees’ humanity and on behalf of universal ideas like due process is itself to resist the war’s very logic.

Torture in your backyard

For years, WAT’s near single-minded focus on Guantánamo and overseas torture has felt valuable, even necessary. Broadening one’s message can mean diluting one’s power.

But such focus has also felt narrow. Guantánamo and other “war on terror” facilities are hardly the only U.S. prisons practicing gross abuse. Extended solitary confinement, denounced by medical and human rights bodies as a form of torture, is used on a vast scale in domestic prisons and jails. To ignore this parallel reality is to see only part of a larger picture of penal violence. It can also put concern for the suffering of distant others over that of people “right here at home” — a bias that has long dogged much domestic activism focused on U.S. foreign policy.

Above all, prisoners themselves broke through the wall separating concern for torture abroad and in the United States. Inspired in part by the mass hunger strike in Guantánamo in the spring 2013, tens of thousands of inmates in California launched hunger strikes that summer to protest solitary confinement in U.S. prisons.

Their act prompted new, long-term solidarity fasts by U.S. activists linking the issues of indefinite detention and solitary confinement, abuse at Guantánamo and California’s prisons. Opposition to solitary confinement edged into WAT’s messaging. Veterans of anti-Guantánamo work, the National Religious Campaign Against Torture developed sophisticated advocacy around the practice, dubbed by the group “torture in your backyard.” A new premise took hold: that America tolerates Guantánamo in part because it tolerates routine cruelties in its domestic prisons — whether overcrowding, draconian sentencing or prolonged isolation. One injustice presupposes the other. Both must be fought.

And then there is the issue of race, at the foundation of America’s criminal justice and penal systems.

From Ferguson to Guantánamo

This year’s annual White House protest on January 11 featured something not felt in years: hope that Guantánamo might actually close. In 2014, the Obama administration released 28 men from the prison — the most since Obama took office. Years of advocacy was at last bearing real fruit.

Something else bolstered the protesters’ spirits: the recent rise of the Black Lives Matter movement. With it came both an obligation and an opportunity to again deepen the analysis of state power, connect more dots and link struggles.

The starting point is a chilling parallel, delivered by the collision of news cycles. From the failure on December 3 of a grand jury to indict the police officer who killed Eric Garner, countless Americans concluded that there is no justice for black and brown people. The rule of law stands broken because laws are not enforced equally. Just days later, the Senate released its report on CIA interrogations, which plainly revealed violations of law. But no one involved with the torture program will face any legal consequence. White police may get away with murder, just as the national security establishment may get away with torture.

Zainab Chaudry of the Council on American-Islamic Relations addresses a rally to close Guantanamo at the White House on January 11, 2015.  (WNV/Justin Norman)

Race and even religion have had only a muted place in the rhetoric of the domestic opposition to Guantánamo and torture. Arguments about damage to the nation’s laws, values and security typically lead. But Guantánamo, as a Muslim activist at the White House rally stressed, is unique as a place for the indefinite detention of exclusively Muslim men. The detainees — only a tiny fraction of whom may be described as radical jihadis — certainly see themselves as victims of racial-religious anti-Muslim persecution. And some make connections between their treatment and racism in the United States. Last summer, while anger at the death of Michael Brown raged, an attorney tweeted from the base: “At the #Guantánamo prison for Yemenis, talking a lot about #Ferguson and the deep roots of the racism & dehumanization here.”

Their conversations suggest final parallels. Behind so much racial profiling lies the equation of blackness with criminality. Islamophobia, at root, marks all Muslims as potential terrorists. Supporting both prejudices is the assumption that the lives, dignity and rights of some people are more worth defending than those of others.

In dialogue with diverse voices, Witness Against Torture pieced together this skeletal analysis linking Ferguson and Guantánamo. The next step was to take it into the streets, the U.S. Capitol and the D.C. jail. The group decided not to speak out on behalf of an abstract, universal humanity, even as it invoked universal rights. Instead, it chose to acknowledge its status as a mostly white group working to break white silence and to invite other whites to do the same.

‘It’s gonna take courage’

This effort to link issues and movements comes with familiar risks. One is a real or perceived opportunism, wherein partisans of a particular cause enter into coalitions primarily to enhance the prestige of their “own issue.” Another is that making connections between oppressions can blur important, qualitative distinctions between them, diminishing the autonomy of individual struggles.

Related to this, viewing all problems as horribly systemic can lead to the conclusion that the whole system must come down for anything to be solved. The push for sensible goals and urgent imperatives (like grand jury reform or the speedy release of more men from Guantánamo, whatever the final disposition of the prison), recedes behind the cosmic goal. Finally, white protestations of anti-racism can easily become mawkish displays of self-righteousness serving to elevate whites.

Aware of these perils, the anti-torture activists making trouble on a rainy January day in Washington, D.C., did not feel stopped by them. Singing as they marched through the city, the protesters shifted from the lyrics memorializing victims of police violence to those of another of Luke Nephew’s songs: “We’re gonna build a nation / That don’t torture no one / But it’s gonna take courage / for that change to come.” Part of the courage needed — whether to end racism or torture — is the will to build bridges, aware of who we are and the power, and limits, of our voices.

Jeremy Varon

Jeremy Varon is an organizer with Witness Against Torture and a Professor of History at The New School.

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