This reflection on my time working on Chelsea Manning support and awareness in her home state was published by the Oklahoma Observer in the June 2017 issue (paywall) under the title “In Oklahoma, A Celebration Seven Years In The Making” (page 25) and was a companion piece to “At Last, Freedom For A Prisoner Of Conscience” by Jeremy Kuzmarov. There was minor editing in that version, in order to fit. My article about the Manning court martial was published in the July 2013 edition of The Observer.
[Slideshow below.] I have more photos — lots more — that I’m collecting to display in one place; once done, you’ll be able to find those on my Google+ collections page.
It might have looked like an impromptu yard sale to passers by, but on the afternoon of May 17 on a grassy corner in downtown Oklahoma City, the motley collection of vinyl banners, posters, t-shirts, palm cards, stickers and buttons on display was in fact a celebration of successful activism and freedom for our local prisoner of conscience (as designated by Amnesty International), Chelsea E. Manning. Because on that day, she walked out of Fort Leavenworth, the result of a commutation by President Obama.
We displayed many of the items we had used over the years-long campaign to support Chelsea. We spoke about our own personal feelings about her or the work we were now happily laying down. Notable to me was how everyone spoke about Chelsea as if she were a personal friend, someone we knew, and were looking forward to welcoming home. That’s the effect Chelsea has on people, even those of us who have, in fact, never met her.
Manning, born and raised in Crescent, Oklahoma, just a few miles north of OKC, became a cause for me in 2010, shortly after her arrest by the US Army. That July, my organization, Center for Conscience in Action, held a march and vigil to the Capitol, where we played the video that became known as “Collateral Damage,” which was one of the many files she released through Wikileaks earlier that year, that exposed State Department and military wrongdoing that the American people deserved to know about.
In subsequent years, our activities with the call for freeing Chelsea included, protests, letter-writing campaigns, petitions, forums, fundraisers and birthday parties every Dec. 17. I even traveled to Maryland for her court martial in 2013, with a press pass from the Oklahoma Observer in hand. Along the way, the local Amnesty International chapter got involved and provided vital support and resources.
I wrote articles, op-eds, and of course letters to Chelsea herself. I followed her support network at chelseamanning.org, and later on enjoyed reading her own writings in The Guardian and on medium.com and Twitter.
Throughout this, it should be remembered, Chelsea’s name and her cause was a global phenomenon. She was far, far better known outside of the US than inside. Such is the fate of most US dissidents.
Many big names came to support Chelsea, from entertainment icons to political “celebrities.” At one point, a campaign called “I Am Chelsea Manning” published photos of such people as comedian/author Russell Brand and Daniel Ellsberg of Pentagon Papers fame. As part of that project, I contributed photos of the GI Rights Hotline volunteers and the OKC Amnesty International chapter.
It was a disorienting campaign at times, with unexpected issues or complications arising along the way. Just after the court martial, the now convicted GI announced that she identified as female and planned to transition. We learned that Army doctors had, in fact, diagnosed Chelsea with gender dysphoria prior to the trial.
On one hand, this made the cause more difficult to explain and find support for, but on the other, it demonstrated a person fully committed to personal integrity at any cost, which served to echo her rationale for releasing the documents in the first place. For many of us, it only served to make many of us love her as a person, and not just as a just cause. Her bravery was not an abstract thing, but a personal statement about her own truth.
Ultimately this “problem” proved to be a blessing, in my opinion, as it raised awareness about gender dysphoria and transgender rights, and brought new supporters into Chelsea’s cause. Now I see it as the beautiful example of intersectionality it is.
But it did lead to so many unnecessary and frustrating struggles (and legal challenges). She had to fight for every little dignity – the right to have appropriate gender pronouns used by the Army, to receive medically advised treatment, to groom herself as the gender to which she was transitioning.
And when it seemed bleakest to her, there were suicide attempts, which kept her supporters so concerned not just for her liberty, but for her very life. Thankfully, a light broke soon afterward with new hope for relief, a reduction of sentence at the least.
The final push came as Obama’s presidency drew to a close, with an appeal, which included an apology from Chelsea, and for her supporters a renewed drive to seek clemency. A petition on the White House website garnered hundreds of thousands of signatures and possibly helped move Obama to mercy.
In the end, Chelsea, while anticipating her freedom, decided to continue to appeal the 35-year sentence, which most fair observers of military law recognize as unprecedented for the crimes of which she was convicted. There were grave irregularities by the prosecution, and the judge may have been biased. All this is still to be resolved, but true to her nature, Chelsea fights on for what is right. The court’s decision may not have much impact on Chelsea herself, but it might prevent such injustice from occurring again.
Here in central Oklahoma, the most frequent question I get as the “face” of the efforts to support Chelsea Manning, is “Is she coming home?” I always answer the same: I hope so, but it will only be for a visit. She is making her new home on the East coast, near family and friends, and starting a new life. That said, we very much hope that our hometown hero will come back for an in-person celebration to meet her Oklahoma friends. We will be ready when you are, Chelsea!