I spent most of the weekend of January 11, 2008 in jail. It was easily the most important thing I’ve done in my life. As part of the group Witness Against Torture, and in solidarity with numerous groups performing similar acts around the world on that day, 37 of us marched up the steps of the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington, DC wearing orange jumpsuits and black hoods to protest the torture and indefinite detainment of the captives at Guantanamo prison.
Another 45 of us waited inside the Court, disguised as tourists, until the right moment arrived to spring into action with outrage, protest songs, and demands for justice. The Supreme Court was evacuated and then closed for several hours. We were detained, processed, and held in jail until the following afternoon. Each of us used the name of a Guantanamo prisoner, refusing to reveal our true identities until the final moment of our release because we were determined to get those names into the U.S. court system.
Our action was timed to coincide with the six-year anniversary of the first prisoners arriving at Guantanamo. Nearly 300 persons are still imprisoned there. The United States government officially considers them to be unlawful combatants, and therefore unworthy of humane treatment. They face horrible living conditions and brutal treatment by their U.S. captors and are being held without any charges filed against them and without any access to legal recourse.
While such injustices are abhorrent wherever they occur, it became increasingly important to me that these crimes at Guantanamo are not only carried out by Americans, but are funded by American taxpayers. This includes me (though not for long). I felt that I had a responsibility to act.
But turning words and an increasing sense of personal responsibility into action has not been easy for me. I don’t come from a family of activists and I’d never been arrested before. In fact, my family has always attempted to be so apolitical that I’m not sure if any of them have ever even voted for a president. While I have little doubt that my closest friends would gladly denounce the treatment of the prisoners at Guantanamo as repugnant and shameful, I didn’t personally know anyone who had ever tried to do anything about it.
I’m still trying to figure out why that is. Is it that my generation is afraid to stand up to the government? Are we out of ideas? Or is it that my generation is too self-consciously cool and ironic to do something as sincere as putting our own freedom on the line for the justice and freedom of others? I struggled with this myself.
There is a feeling of inevitability among many people I know—that the world and its problems are too big for us and that there’s no way to stop what has been set in motion, whether it be the war in Iraq or the environmental destruction of our planet. One of my friends summed it up best when he recently told me, “You know, I basically feel the same way you do about everything, the only difference being that I don’t think there’s anything we can do about it.”
And who can blame him? It seems like an eternity now since a majority of Americans became opposed to the continuation of the war in Iraq, and yet it continues with no end in sight.
From a young age we are told to equate democracy with voting. We are told that we have the opportunity to participate in our government only once a year, on election day, when we cast a vote for our representative leaders. But last January, by acting against the will of my government, and in disobeying its laws that attempt to curb our freedom and demands for justice, I experienced firsthand the true nature and power of democracy.
Democracy is not about voting, democracy is about acting. Democracy is not about waiting for representative leaders to act, it’s about taking direct action ourselves, often in opposition to the will of such leaders.
On January 11, we failed to close Guantanamo and end torture. At best, I can only hope that the actions of our group, and those of the other groups around the globe, may have aided in some small way towards eventually alleviating the pain and suffering of those unjustly abused at Guantanamo.
But sitting in jail and experiencing the unjust criminal process, I got a glimpse of something else. They’re scared of us. They’re terrified of us disobeying en masse. The DC Metropolitan jail system was practically bursting at the seams with 80 extra occupants. What will they do with 1,000? What about 10,000? How will they ignore us then?
As long as we limit our dissent to permitted demonstrations and confine our protests and outrage to the confines of the metal barriers set up for us, then our unjust government has little to fear. As long as we limit our political participation to the electoral process, they point to us as a glowing endorsement of democracy, a sign that all is well and just in democratic, free America.
But when we disobey, they tremble. We must stop the war in Iraq ourselves. We must shut down Guantanamo ourselves. We have waited patiently for too long. We may have failed to close Guantanamo this time, but we’ll be back and next time we’ll bring greater numbers. The world is waiting.
Jason Laning is an artist, writer, and activist living in Brooklyn, New York.