Supporters of Bradley Manning, the soldier accused of releasing hundreds of thousands of documents to WikiLeaks, are about to do something that many progressives may find counterproductive, if not downright distasteful, in the midst of a close election. This week, beginning on Thursday, September 6, they plan to stage a wave of nonviolent direct actions across the nation as President Obama gives his acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention.
The basic template was demonstrated on August 17, when Manning supporters occupied several Obama campaign headquarters on the West Coast, including those in Oakland, Los Angeles and Portland. The groups demanded that Obama apologize for a statement in 2011 when he said that Manning “broke the law,” which appears to assume the soldier’s guilt even before the case went to trial. They also demanded that the president ensure that no one else should endure the kind of barbarous treatment that Manning suffered at the military base in Quantico, where he was consigned to solitary confinement (against the advice of psychologists), deprived of sleep and routinely forced to strip naked.
Activists were arrested at the Portland and Oakland actions, but while it might be expected that discord between the Democratic Party and a progressive group might catch headlines, relatively few national mainstream media outlets covered the story.
“We are planning to replicate [those occupations] on a bigger scale in dozens of cities across the U.S. on September 6, the final day of the DNC, when Obama will be making his acceptance speech,” says Nathan Fuller, spokesperson for the Bradley Manning Support Network. “If he said anything on the matter, it’d be better than his silence since declaring Bradley Manning guilty.”
It is an open question how effective such tactics will be as the election reaches a fever pitch. Voters, pundits and policymakers remain focused on the frail, and profoundly unequal, economic recovery. Meanwhile, other factors further complicate Manning’s case. Whistleblower protection laws cover individuals who call out specific instances of wrongdoing, which Manning allegedly did when he leaked the “Collateral Murder” video that reveals a U.S. helicopter gunning down civilians and journalists in Iraq. But he allegedly also leaked hundreds of thousands of other documents, many of which did not implicate the U.S. in wrongdoing.
“What makes it difficult is that a lot of the leaks go beyond exposing war crimes to some issues that are a little more ambiguous morally and legally,” says Stephen Zunes, Professor of Politics at the University of San Francisco, and an expert in the tactics of nonviolent resistance. “The other problem is that the Pentagon Papers case was very much something that was part and parcel of a mass movement against an ongoing war, whereas we’ve supposedly withdrawn from Iraq and foreign policy issues aren’t nearly as front and center.”
Since the onset of the Great Recession, most mass activism has been focused on issues of inequality, the faltering economy and the safety net. The massive protests against the Iraq War in 2002 and 2003 have not been repeated. The limited American casualties in both that conflict and the war in Afghanistan, and the professional nature of the contemporary American military — there is no draft — have kept the worst effects of the conflicts from much of the American population. It is a very different context than the one that, in 1971, prompted Daniel Ellsberg to leak the Pentagon Papers, which revealed extensive executive branch overreach and secrecy regarding American aggression in Vietnam. The mass sentiments and roiling unrest that provided the backdrop for Ellsberg’s leaks do not exist.
I attended one of Manning’s pre-trial hearings while reporting for The Stranger, and the lack of a significant media presence was readily apparent; you could count the press representatives on one hand. The Bradley Manning Support Network’s energetic efforts haven’t received much attention either, in part because they don’t have a larger social movement to latch on to. That may change, however, as we get closer to the time of the trial itself. Last week, it was announced that his trial would finally take place early next year, from February 4 to March 15. (Previously, it was thought that his trial would take place this autumn.) By that point Manning will have been held for over 1,000 days.
The inhumane conditions of Manning’s earlier containment in Quantico, and the Obama administration’s attempts to justify it, may still rouse a mass base of Manning supporters. When P.J. Crowley, then a spokesperson for the State Department, called the military’s treatment of Manning “ridiculous and counterproductive and stupid,” he was promptly sacked. The firing received widespread attention, including condemnation from the progressive blogosphere. Washington Post blogger Ezra Klein wrote, “This is a moment in which both those who serve in the administration and those who support it need to ask whether the Obama administration is keeping sight of its values now that it holds power.” Such concerns suggested that the politics of Manning’s case do not rest on perceptions of America’s wars, but upon concerns over personal liberties and executive power.
The pre-trial hearings that focus on Manning’s treatment at Quantico will be held in late November, allowing several weeks for the furor over the election results to die down. Manning’s lawyer, David Coombs argues that the military’s only real concern in doing so is circumventing negative publicity, not Manning’s well being. Fuller says the Bradley Manning Support Network will use these hearings to re-focus attention on the case.
Another possible point of leverage is the “aiding the enemy” charge that Manning faces — which could, in theory, result in the death penalty. (The prosecution has stated it is not seeking that outcome.) This charge is confounded by the fact that Manning is not accused of spying for a foreign power or working in alliance with a terrorist group. According to a chat log allegedly between Manning and a hacker (who subsequently turned him in), the documents were released in the hope that they would change American perception of the war.
If Manning is found guilty of “aiding the enemy” it seems very likely that he will spend the rest of his life in prison. The superfluidity of such a sentence, coupled with the outrages perpetrated against Manning during his imprisonment at Quantico, could serve as his best hope for a reprieve.
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