As I walked in the streets of Washington DC in an orange prisoner jump suit and with a hood over my head, my hands behind my back, I could see only the back of the “prisoner” in front of me and the outlines of the imperial buildings on Constitution Ave. Tired from fasting and interrupted sleep, my mind was empty of thought, my heart full of sadness and empathy. I listened to the traffic and sirens, the marching orders and guidance of our handlers, and – once – the voice of a mother trying to explain to his children who we were.
We were activists with Witness Against Torture, enacting one of our street actions during a January week of mobilization against the continued unlawful and immoral imprisonment of those still in Guantánamo. That week we brought the haunting images of these men into the public view and into official buildings such as the Capitol, White House, Department of Justice, CIA Headquarters, Union Station, and the National Portrait Gallery. We also vigiled outside of the British Embassy and the Papal Nuncio and turned up with Code Pink at the homes of John Brennan and Dick Cheney to call them out for their roles in ordering the imprisonment and torture of the men at Guantánamo. Twenty-one of us were arrested at the Capitol late in the week for disruptions in the Senate Gallery and Visitor Center calling attention to the recently released, but seemingly soon forgotten, torture report.
Witness Against Torture began its yearly week of actions in DC in 2007, five years after the opening of Guantánamo, and has continued every year since, always on and around January 11, the date of the opening of the prison camp in Cuba. Marked by fasting, community building, and contemplation, the week is understood to be a form of accompaniment and voicing for those unjustly imprisoned. Despite the recent prisoner releases from Guantánamo, there still remain 54 who were cleared for release some five years ago, and another 68 who are slated for “indefinite detention.” None have been charged or had their day in court.
This year, the witnessing went beyond Guantánamo to make the vital connection to the killings of black men and women by police and the mass incarceration of black and brown people all over the United States. Through the week, we made common cause with the DC Hands Up Coalition, culminating our week by joining them in their weekly vigil and marching with them in the streets to the DC Metropolitan Police central cell block.
The parallels between the African American prisoners caught in the U.S. injustice system and the Muslim prisoners in Guantánamo (all of them are and always have been Muslim) are clear: racism & Islamophobia; impunity for police murders & for torture; solitary confinement; indefinite detention & life sentences. The same white supremacy that drives the militarization and police violence within this country also drives the brutality of the CIA and U.S. military in our many wars and covert actions abroad.
Behind the banner “White Silence = State Violence,” Witness for Torture calls for our white brothers and sisters throughout the country and world to stand up and together raise our voices against the violence being done in our names, done to protect our so-called national security and to preserve our privileged white status. We invite all to join us in the spirit of the song we sang all week:
We’re gonna build a nation
That don’t torture no one
But it’s gonna take courage
For that change to come.
It is not necessary to don the jumpsuit and hood in order to feel the de-humanization that our country is perpetrating far and wide. But it does take the spirit and conviction to see that what is done to “the other” is done to us. That we all deserve dignity. That our own government has become a major human rights violator. And it will take the courage to act on our convictions, to stand against white supremacy everywhere.