“Prisoners of Guantanamo turn right,” yelled the marshal. “Prisoners forward!”
In response to the call, several hundred people dressed in orange jumpsuits and black hoods turned in unison, faced east on Pennsylvania Avenue, and began a slow march toward the U.S. Capitol building.
Wednesday was the tenth anniversary of the first transfer of prisoners to Guantanamo Bay as part of the “War on Terror.” To mark the date, a coalition of human rights groups—including Witness Against Torture, Code Pink, Amnesty International, and the National Religious Campaign Against Torture—held a protest in Washington, DC. The solemn procession of orange-clad demonstrators stretched for blocks, making the event the largest protest on the issue since the start of the Obama administration.
“Guantanamo is a full-system failure,” a speaker announced as the march commenced. Reflecting this distribution of blame, the procession snaked past the White House and Congress, passing near the Department of Justice, before ending at the Supreme Court. Organizers aimed to have at least 171 marchers in hoods and jumpsuits—one for each detainee still being held at Guantanamo—and they passed out well over a hundred coveralls to facilitate this. But many more people showed up with their own orange suits, adding to the line. Moreover, the silent “prisoners” were followed by a crowd of hundreds more protesters, who carried banners and chanted. Taking advantage of the extra rhyme that this issue lends to the old protest standard, they called out, “Hey, hey. Ho, ho. Guantanamo has got to go!”
Prior to the march, at a rally in front of the White House, speakers explained the many reasons why indeed the notorious detention camp must go. Amnesty’s Tom Parker outlined “ten powerful anti-human rights messages that the continued existence of the detention facility sends out to the world.” Attorney Martha Rayner read a statement from more than “100 lawyers who have represented or currently represent men imprisoned at Guantanamo Bay in federal habeas corpus proceedings.” The statement elaborated the ways in which the U.S. government, since early 2002, has “tried to make the prison camp a ‘legal black hole’ where the sanitizing light of due process and the rule of law would not penetrate.”
The speakers made their case well—just as it was made well in a recent New York Times op-ed by former detainee Murat Kurnaz, who had been rounded up on spurious charges in 2001, taken to Guantanamo, nearly drowned by interrogators, hung by his hands for days, exposed to prolonged abuse, and held for years before being released, still without trial, in 2006.
But what struck me as I marched toward the Supreme Court was how ridiculous it is, a full decade after the facility’s establishment, that the case for Guantanamo’s closure must still be made at all.
As a presidential candidate, Barack Obama constantly pledged that he would end Bush administration abuses, vowing, “We’re going to close Guantanamo. And we’re going to restore habeas corpus. We’re going to lead by example—by not just word, but by deed. That’s our vision for the future.”
Obama was elected on a mandate to do just that. And even many conservatives had come around on the issue. As Parker noted, “In his memoir Decision Points, President Bush recalls that by his second inauguration in January 2005 he had come to appreciate that Guantanamo had become ‘a propaganda tool for our enemies, and a distraction for our allies.’”
Yet still the prison camp remains.
One protest sign distributed by Amnesty at the march—a sign with black type on a bright yellow background—read, “End Indefinite Detention: Charge or Release!”
I was left to wonder at how this ever became a demand at a demonstration. The types of things I am used to seeing on protest signs—Repeal NAFTA; Make the CEOs Pay; Medicare for All—all contain at least a hint of utopianism. While they are not impractical suggestions in themselves, one would be surprised to see them enacted in full anytime in the near future. But “Charge or Release”? A demand that those being held as criminals should have the charges against them presented? How have we come to a point where this is something that needs placard space?
“The sad fact is that demanding very basic principles of American justice is actually a radical demand, given the systematic violation of these principles by our government,” said Jeremy Varon, associate professor of history at the New School for Social Research. Varon is a friend and colleague who is active in Witness Against Torture and with whom I spoke with at the march. “Simple statements like ‘innocent until proven guilty’ or ‘charge or release’—things that should be core parts of any due process framework—have become things that have to be fought for tooth and nail. And, yes, it can feel weird as someone who is actually quite radical to be asking for things that are such basic components of liberalism—in the philosophical sense of the word. But that’s the political situation we’re in.”
Varon added: “The utopian element is that we want a world beyond torture, beyond coercion, beyond tyranny, and beyond the denial of basic human rights and civil liberties. These shouldn’t be radical propositions, but they need to be defended.”
I asked him how he felt about President Obama’s handling of Guantanamo.
“Completely and totally betrayed,” he said. “At Witness Against Torture, we say that defeat was snatched from the jaws of victory. With Obama’s executive orders on day one of the administration, we thought we’d accomplished most of what we had been fighting for. We contemplated dismantling our organization and retiring our ‘Close Guantanamo’ banner. But, just as a matter of due diligence, we stuck it out in Washington in 2008 and had a ‘100 Days to Close Guantanamo’ campaign. We framed it in terms of supporting the president in his effort to realize his executive orders. And then it all unraveled terribly.”
“As many have said, the Obama administration has since restored the immoral and illegal detention apparatus of the Bush regime and given it a patina of bipartisan legitimacy. Once-controversial practices have been institutionalized and normalized. That’s squarely on the head of the Obama administration.”
Going forward, Witness Against Torture is continuing its week of protest. The group expects up to thirty arrests at the White House on Thursday. Also, some forty-five people will be breaking a ten-day fast they have been maintaining in solidarity with Guantanamo prisoners.
Late in the afternoon I spoke to another friend, writer and teacher Matthew Mercier, who had joined this fast. To my surprise, in his tenth day of subsisting only on water, juice, and tea, he seemed lucid and energetic throughout the demonstration. He assured me, however, that he often found himself fading. The night before, he told me, he had been standing vigil outside the White House with another faster between 10 p.m. and 1 a.m. “We started talking, trying to keep ourselves warm,” he said. “And we found ourselves incredibly articulate about food: What we’d put on a sandwich. The best tamale we’d ever had. The virtues of lard.”
“But it’s a small thing,” he added a moment later, “denying ourselves a little something to make ourselves aware of the suffering of others.”