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When Manners Get You Nowhere: 30 Weeks of Protesting Torture in 2010

Justin Norman

Three years ago, if someone had suggested to me that I don an orange jumpsuit, black hood, and haul a cross down the street in opposition to torture, I would have laughed at them. Yet here I am at the end of 2010 having pulled that stunt or something akin to it more than 30 times in the past mike.benedetti

Street protests in America today are far less common than they have been in years past, but they are particularly out of place in the relatively upscale business districts of West Des Moines, Iowa. There, week after week, a small, rotating group of ordinary people carry out the old tradition of holding signs inscribed with simple messages. These range in tone from straightforward pleas -- "Shut down Guantánamo", "No More Torture: Not Here, Not There, Nowhere", "Free Shaker Aamer" -- to sarcastic slogans -- "USA: Torturing Our Way to World Peace", "Don't Worry, We'll Tell You What to Confess!"

Note from the marketing department: if you are looking to convert strangers to your ideas, waving signs on a street corner is not your best bet. Nor is shouting through a megaphone, waving a corporate logo-stamped American flag, or acting unruly in general. All of this we did on a regular basis in 2010, and all of this was greeted with predictable hostility from those who passed. We were threatened with violence repeatedly, told we were ungrateful for our freedom, accused of being anti-American, and informed that we would soon burn in hell for defending the "terrorists" our brave soldiers had fought so hard to lock away.

It was all of the things I had imagined it would be when street protesting was first proposed to me after a screening of the film, Ghosts of Abu Ghraib. "Counter-productive", "antagonistic", and "mind-numbingly pointless" were phrases that came to mind back then, and it seemed clear that friendlier modes of communication were abundant. After all, how is it that I learned what I know about torture? The books I've read are far more informative than a five-word slogan waved on poster board, and a large number of them -- written by people far more knowledgeable than I -- are readily available to the general public.

For an American soldier's perspective on torture one could turn to Inside the Wire by Erik Saar or How to Break a Terrorist by interrogator Matthew Alexander. To view US detention and interrogation policies from the eyes of innocent detainees, Moazzam Begg's Enemy Combatant or Murat Kurnaz's Five Years of My Life could be easily acquired. Or to put the latest round of American torture in perspective, a copy of historian Alfred McCoy's A Question of Torture or Darius Rejali's Torture and Democracy would come in handy. Likewise, writings from lawyers, psychologists, scientists, and journalists are no more than a few clicks away for anyone who is interested.

But the problem, of course, is that most people are not interested. Who wants to read a book about some of the most unpleasant things imaginable when you can just believe the brief summary on the evening news? Even the film screening I'd attended -- a far less time-consuming affair than trudging through 400 pages of misery -- was meagerly visited, with less than 20 people in the room. No, I thought, if people are going to pay attention to this, the issue needs to be brought to a place in which they already gather.

Being raised as Christians, my friend Kirk Brown and I figured that churches would be a prime space for this. After all, one of Christ's central commands was to "love your neighbor as yourself" with specific emphasis on caring for the hungry, sick, and imprisoned. Many innocent captives in the War on Terror easily fit that description. So over the course of a few months we researched and wrote a presentation about two detainees: Dilawar of Yakubi, a 22-year-old peanut farmer who was tortured to death at Bagram Air Base, and Ahmed Errachidi, a London gourmet chef who was held in Guantánamo for five years before being released without charge. Controversy was kept to a minimum as the US itself had declared both of these men completely blameless, and reactionary feelings of helplessness would be partially overcome by inviting our audience to pray for and write letters to torture survivors and their families.

But the project was a near-complete failure. After visiting more than one hundred churches throughout Des Moines, Johnston, Adel, Van Meter, Indianola, and Waukee, and making dozens of follow-up calls and e-mails, we discovered that one thing was consistent across nearly every denomination: Guantánamo did not matter. Or if it mattered, it was not important enough to even warrant reviewing our proposed presentation. The mere fact that it was centered on people who had at one time been labeled "the worst of the worst" was enough to scare pastors away. One of the more forthcoming leaders we spoke to told us that it was simply politically inconvenient. "I agree with you that torture is wrong," he said, "but if you give this presentation we will lose membership." In the end, only one church agreed to let us present, and only if we cut the script in half.


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Having been struck down almost unanimously by those worshiping one of the most prominent torture victims in history, our attempts to urgently yet politely point a spotlight on torture had failed. Likewise (and less surprisingly), blog posts I wrote were ignored, satirical podcasts that tackled the issue humorously were shrugged off, and invitations to book studies rejected. Finding myself at a loss to communicate this very important yet very overlooked issue to people, I turned to the method that I least wanted to participate in. Together with Kirk, I bought some black paint, a white board, stenciled the question "Torture for Liberty?" onto it, and perched myself atop a pile of snow by a shopping center in West Des Moines in February, 2010.

And for more than 30 weeks in 2010, that tradition has continued, looking far less tidy and polite than any of my preferred modes of communication. Security officers from the nearby mall accused us of trespassing, police threatened to arrest us for using a 10-watt bullhorn within a 50-watt sound ordinance, angry drivers fabricated stories about us running in and out of traffic in attempts to have us jailed, and insults, racism, middle fingers, and sodas were hurled at us time and again through both the steaming heat and freezing cold.

Note from the marketing department: you catch more flies with honey. Or so the saying goes. Yet one thing I have learned from all this is that people will do nearly anything to avoid talking about victims and survivors of American torture, regardless of what method is employed to communicate it to them. If it's not complaints about political inconvenience, it's whining about tone of voice, wording of slogans, not having all the facts, or just plain looking like a lunatic. Indeed, many of those who comment on the videos and photographs I've posted documenting the vigils would rather focus on our lack of manners than the spotlighted subject matter, allowing the issue of our rudeness to trump the issue of hundreds of innocent men and children being tortured and indefinitely detained.

But despite the general unpleasantness of street protests, one thing is certain about them that is certainly not the case for books, films, and multimedia presentations: they cannot be easily ignored. For at least a few seconds between traffic lights, hundreds of drivers are jolted out of their normal routine and forced to reconnect with something their tax dollars are paying for. The image of a man in an orange jumpsuit laying on a cross is a visual reminder that Christ was tortured by the "just doing my job" soldiers under the empire of his time much like many of those held in American detention centers today. For a few hours each week, the sight of a hooded detainee is pulled from the shadows where victims have been deliberately hidden and thrust into the light of everyday life. It is, in short, working to remember those whom the government works so hard to make us forget.

Of course, when it comes time to suit up and go out there next week, it will not sound that grandiose. It is nothing new, nothing profound, nothing all that exciting. It is a group of four or five people holding signs on a street corner, sharing gloves and conversation to keep from thinking about how damn cold it is outside.

Note from the marketing department: if you smile more, maybe people will actually listen to you. One common denominator of our critics is that they are almost never willing to do anything about the issue themselves. So they raise a middle finger and drive off. They post a message online about how ineffective our methods are. They do anything they can think of to keep from focusing on the issue at hand, and they go about their day. They do this because to them, it doesn't matter that less than 1% of detainees have been convicted in the nine years of the Guantánamo detention center's existence. Those are just passing statistics that have no bearing on the average citizen despite our financial connection to them. No, sadly, facts do not matter, and neither does emotional resonance, and neither does a kick in the teeth.

But it is no longer in the hope of successfully marketing ideas to people who don't want to hear them that I continue to stand in protest. It is out of the desire to love my neighbors as myself, knowing that if I was locked away in a cell for years, one thing I could not tolerate was people discovering this but doing nothing about it. I do it because if my letters to detainees ever make it past the censors, perhaps somewhere in a dark cell one of them will be reassured that they are not forgotten. Perhaps one of them will be encouraged that they are publicly remembered week after week, and that not all Americans are buying the lie of their universal guilt. Perhaps that is too much to hope for, but it is better than voting for presidents and officials who don't keep their word. In any case, if it was me in the cell and you on the street, I think I'd appreciate the lack of indifference.

Justin Norman is an activist and photographer from Des Moines, Iowa. He is on his way to Washington, DC to join Witness Against Torture's Fast and Vigil for Justice.

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