Scaling the White House fence to close Guantánamo

Diane Wilson just moments after scaling the White House fence and moments before being arrested. (Flickr / Witness Against Torture)

Diane Wilson just moments after scaling the White House fence and moments before being arrested. (Flickr/Witness Against Torture)

Diane Wilson broke her water-only fast in style – by jumping the White House fence to protest the prison at Guantánamo. It may have been the closest the Guantánamo hunger strikers have gotten to sharing their message with President Obama. Wilson — who, since May 1, had been on a water-only solidarity fast with the prisoners indefinitely detained in the prison — climbed over the fence on Wednesday and onto the White House grounds, where she was promptly stopped and arrested by the Secret Service. After spending the night in Washington, D.C.’s Central Cell Block, Wilson was arraigned in D.C. Superior Court and faces unlawful entry charges at a hearing next month.

While in jail, Wilson — a former army medic, Gulf Coast shrimp farmer and Codepink activist – refused food and water. When she was released after more than 24 hours in jail, Wilson chose to end her fast with a margarita, some Mexican food and throngs of supporters. In the 58 days of her fast, Wilson lost 48 pounds. She told Waging Nonviolence that although she is still tired and sore from hitting the ground on the White House lawn and poking herself on the spikes that top the fence, she is slowly starting to regain her strength.

The White House protest was part of the June 26 global actions to mark the International Day in Support of Victims of Torture. Hundreds of others joined Wilson at the White House to call on American political leaders to close Guantánamo in a fair and just way, end torture, and begin making amends to those persecuted by detention policies.

Among those gathered were Veterans For Peace members Elliot Adams and Tarak Kauff, both of whom are also participating in a solidarity fast. Adams was arrested as he attempted to chain himself to the White House fence, but he was released without charge, perhaps after the police learned he was on day 41 of an open-ended hunger strike.

“I just can’t sit and enjoy my life when my country is doing such terrible things to these people,” said Adams.

Meanwhile, 20 other people, including activists from Witness Against Torture, were also arrested in symbolic acts of civil disobedience at the White House. They were released after several hours, charged with disobeying a lawful order and given a notice to appear in court next month.

“I had never been arrested before,” said Helen Jaccard of Veterans For Peace. “But if you really care about justice, there comes a time when you have to be willing to cross that line. Today was that time for me.”

Inspired by the hunger strikes, human rights activists with Witness Against Torture have been organizing a Fast for Justice for the past several years around the January 11 anniversary of Guantánamo. But since the current prisoner hunger strike began in early February, hundreds of activists have participated in a continuous rolling fast in which three to five people take turns fasting one day a week.

With the reinvigorated momentum in the effort to close Guantánamo, the handful of others choosing to fast have willingly taken their activism to another level. One of them, S. Brian Willson, ended his 28-day fast after being hit by an SUV while hand-cycling to the daily Close Guantánamo vigil in Portland, Ore. But others are carrying on. A new coalition website, CloseGitmo.net, highlights who these people are, what they are doing and why they are willing to put themselves at such risk on behalf of the detained men in Guantánamo.

For someone on a water-only fast, time is of the essence – particularly as one nears two or more months without food. People can die while on hunger strike, and they often endure permanent physical damage. During the 1981 Irish hunger strike, 10 people died protesting the conditions of their imprisonment, including IRA member Bobby Sands, on day 66 of his hunger strike.

Without downplaying the very real risks to health and life that those fasting take, Kauff — who joined Adams in the 300 calorie-per-day, liquid only, open-ended hunger strike on June 8 — compared his sacrifice to that of those in the prison, saying, “I am not kept in solitary confinement. I do not have my head shoved into a toilet bowl as I am told to drink. I am not strapped down for two hours while a tube is painfully pushed through my nasal passage so I can be force fed.”

Adams, who has fasted before but never for this long, said, “I am very aware that I am digesting my body for energy.” He is feeling more tired, experiencing significant memory loss and pain, and needs more sleep. But his commitment to creating a movement that will force politicians to shut the prison down is what keeps him going.

“Asking the politicians [to close Guantánamo] is waste of time,” said Adams, who served 15 years in local elected office. “But a broad based grassroots movement that cuts across demographic lines can close it.”

Indeed, high-risk actions such as a hunger strike can have a significant effect in publicizing an issue in the public consciousness and put pressure on those in positions of power, as was the case with the hunger strikes that the Suffragettes in Britain undertook a century ago. This was also the case last month, when President Obama re-affirmed his commitment to begin releasing the 86 prisoners still held at Guantánamo Bay who had been cleared to leave by his inter-agency task force in January 2010. But so far, none of those men have been released and the hunger strike has continued.

As of June 28, the strike has engulfed most of the prison, with 106 of 166 inmates refusing food. According to Navy spokespersons, 44 of them were being force-fed — a brutal process that Sen. Diane Feinstein recently urged against, along with the American Medical Association and the New England Journal. But, according to the Associated Press, military medical staff continue to comply with their orders. In fact, Guantánamo’s medical staff has soared in numbers in the past months to deal with hunger strike.

The hunger strikers both in Guantánamo in the U.S., however, are resolved not to relent until concrete steps to close the prison begin.

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