Making Guantánamo history

    On Jan. 11, the National Museum of American History unexpectedly allowed a "temporary exhibit" on Guantánamo created by activists to continue until close.
    Witness Against Torture installs temporary exhibit on Guantanamo at the National Museum of American History (WNV/Witness Against Torture)
    Witness Against Torture installs temporary exhibit on Guantanamo at the National Museum of American History (WNV/Witness Against Torture)

    The National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C., is the repository of the nation’s story. While it has spotlighted some of the country’s struggles for justice in its permanent collection and temporary exhibits — including an occasional focus on U.S. movements for civil rights, labor, disabilities and peace — much has been left out. One omission has been the ongoing struggle to end torture and indefinite confinement at the U.S. Naval base at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. On January 11, Witness Against Torture and other groups sought to correct this by installing a temporary exhibit of its own.

    Since 2007, Witness Against Torture, or WAT, has organized annual nonviolent actions every January in Washington to mark the opening of Guantánamo. The group calls for an end to torture, the closure of the prison and the release of or due process for the inmates there. This year, WAT organized a week of thought provoking actions beginning January 6, including at the Supreme Court, Union Station and the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.

    On January 11, Witness Against Torture appeared at the museum. Supported by 150 activists who had marched from the White House — and by two banners unfurling from an upper balcony emblazoned with the message, “Make Guantánamo History” — a now-familiar tableau appeared at the far end of the museum’s cavernous atrium: Men and women in orange jumpsuits and black hoods, the garb of the detainees held at the U.S. prison, sitting or standing in stress positions. The WAT curator introduced the exhibit to the throngs of visitors, and then a song washed through the hall with this recurring refrain: “We’re going to tell the nation/No torture/No more.”

    An Occupy-style “mic-check” ensued, with the booming phrases of the speaker repeated by the assembled. With an almost liturgical call-and-response cadence, the story of Guantánamo was told: After over a dozen years, 155 men are still being held; 124 have never been charged; 76 have been cleared for release and are still there. The message was clear: The nation must recognize that this is part of our recent history, must see it as part of our story and must be addressed.

    A powerful double meaning was unmistakable. To “make Guantánamo history” involves bringing its violence into the light — to illuminate that it is an ongoing aspect of U.S. policy that must not be ignored or forgotten but seen clearly for what it is. In short, to recognize that it is part of our history. But “making this policy history,” of course, also means ending this policy — relegating it to the past once and for all.

    This double meaning was also conveyed in the second part of WAT’s exhibition, which was staged at the same time in front of the “Price of Freedom: Americans at War” exhibit on the museum’s third floor. As organizers explained, the intention was “to revise this exhibit to include twelve years of torture and indefinite detention as the bitter cost of the United States’ misguided pursuit of ‘national security.’ In a booming chorus, members of Witness Against Torture and other groups read from a statement that closed with the lines: ‘To honor freedom and justice and the struggles of Americans for these things, we must end torture, close the prison and make Guantánamo history.’”

    While WAT curator Carmen Trotta spoke, a security guard rushed up and yanked the hoods from the participants. Security began closing down the exhibit and moving people downstairs.

    Then the unexpected happened.

    The head of security and a National Parks Police officer appeared. Rather than dispersing the WAT people — and, as expected, arresting them — they discussed the situation with Trotta. They said the group could stay until closing time, some four hours later, as long as they agreed to leave when the museum closed, remain peaceful — and would answer the questions of visitors! There is a powerful video of this exchange, and Carmen’s face is a mixture of disbelief and gratitude. He immediately agreed to the conditions and he shook hands with the men. The exhibit proceeded until the museum closed.

    It is easy to imagine the outcome going very differently. The fact that WAT’s action was allowed to continue was likely due to a mix of factors, including the determined but nonviolent presence of the participants; the larger group of supporters; and a calculation that the decorum of the museum was more likely to be maintained by accommodating this “new temporary exhibit” than by evicting it. But perhaps the museum let this play out because it recognized that WAT’s drama is an example of the very thing it exists to document. Dissent had made its way into the museum itself, and the facility ultimately found a way to recognize and even welcome it. Who knows — a permanent exhibit might open on Witness Against Torture one day.

    Marie Shebeck, my colleague at Pace e Bene Nonviolence Service, actively participated in this week of action. She was moved by the participatory democracy on display, where everyone’s ideas were valued and the actions grew organically out of this sharing. This inclusive process went into building the witness at the museum, with its design, as Marie put it, “to bring the men’s stories into the public space. We chose this museum because that’s where people go to learn about American history, but Guantánamo is not talked about there. We wanted to do something creative — with songs, visuals and a mic-check — to help the reality of Guantánamo to become part of American culture.”

    Witness Against Torture — and, in an unexpected way, the National Museum of American History — took a step in this direction on January 11.

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