A week ago today, Pfc. Bradley Manning surprised both detractors and supporters by reading a thirtysomething-page statement articulating the specific Whats, Hows and—most importantly—Whys of his disclosures to the popular media site WikiLeaks. In the week since Manning’s dramatic statement, media coverage of the case has shifted from a trickle to a steady storm as even mainstream outlets such as the Guardian, X and Y now echo the message of the 25-year-old army private’s supporters. With no public record or transcript of court proceedings, it is indeed these grassroots supporters who have kept an important faith, serving as a bridge in between the mainstream media’s rare spikes of coverage and its more frequent lulls.
In wrestling with outright propaganda from the government and skepticism from a poorly informed public, Manning supporters have grappled to find converts and their own meaning to this somewhat enigmatic young man willing to give up his own life for the common good of believers and critics alike. If the description sounds like something out of the “Acts of the Apostles” account of the early church, the parallel is somewhat fitting—this past Thursday was their Pentecost. For if the three years since Manning’s arrest have been marked by the dogged determination of underdogs, last week’s qualified admission of “guilt” has mushroomed his following into a bigger movement than ever.
“It’s a rather dramatic moment in the history of his own case and our own country’s history,” says former NSA executive and fellow whistleblower Thomas Drake. “The statement he read completely contradicts the government’s allegations and assertions. He was privy to war crimes, privy to the dark side of diplomacy, government lies and malfeasance and a massive abusive of even the projected national security state oversees. He was eye witness to evidence, he was eye witness to atrocities. He chose to stand up and do something about it. It was an incredibly courageous act that he performed in the public interest. That is the classic definition of whistleblowing.”
Hearing this claim from Manning himself has seemed to make all the difference for both the media and sectors of the public formerly undecided on the issue. Of course, support for Manning previous to this was far from obscure: the Bradley Manning Support Network to date has raised nearly $1M for his defense; no less than three Nobel Peace Prize laureates (including Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu) have petitioned fellow laureate Barack Obama for justice for Manning; and, in addition to the usual whistleblowers, critics and peaceniks like Daniel Ellsberg, Chris Hedges, Michael Ratner, Jesselyn Radack, Peter van Buren, Cindy Sheehan, Michael Moore, and others, musicians such as Graham Nash and Conor Oberst, as well as actor Jon Cusack and U.K. comedy icon Graham Linehan have publicly commented on Manning’s behalf.
Although the initial WikiLeaks publications made headlines, along with Manning’s arrest and treatment—triggering strong reactions from some of the country’s leading legal academics and the resignation of an Assistant Secretary of State, the subsequent stretch of incremental pre-trial hearings, trial schedule delays and character assassination has often allowed mainstream media outlets to reduce or forego their coverage. Testimony from Manning himself late last year and, more recently, this past Thursday has helped humanize him for those following the case less closely. “This put a human face on Manning and undermined the corporate media and military false description of him,” says attorney and Bradley Manning Support Network steering committee member Kevin Zeese. “His most recent courtroom testimony, where he took responsibility for his actions, explained how he took care not to hurt the military or government and explained the rationale for his actions. All of this from the arrest until today has resulted in a building of his prominence. When the court martial trial is held there will, of course, be more.”
“Bradley Manning Served Democracy…” (Independent UK), “GI’s WikiLeaks Admission Energizes Supporters…” (Associated Press), The U.S. Press Failed Bradley Manning” (Firedoglake), “The Face of Heroism” (The Guardian)—these are just a few of the headlines that popped up in the hours after Manning’s statement in court on Thursday, February 28. Since then, he has been nominated for a third year in a row for the Nobel Peace Prize.
“The coverage has changed because it’s the first time we’ve heard straight from Bradley what his motivations were,” says New York playwright Claire Lebowitz, 30, who has attended several sessions at Fort Meade. “If you’ve just been following the government propoganda which the mainstream media mostly does, they’ve been trying to pathologize him for the past three years. But now people can actually talk about the issues because it’s clear he felt a sense of moral obligation and outrage and that people needed the information.”
The turnaround we are seeing now in the media, however, might not have been possible without the dedicated witness of Manning’s supporters in the military courtroom itself. Clad in a matching uniform of black T-shirts bearing the word “Truth”, the spectators have earned themselves the nickname of the “Truth Battalion” from Manning’s lawyer. Ranging in age from the late teens to the late 70s, members of the “Truth Battalion,” and their civvy-dress counterparts are a constant in the pre-trial hearings held at Fort Meade. While Manning is prohibited from engaging members of the gallery, he has on numerous occasions passed on his appreciation for the supporters packing the courtroom; and although all supporters have shown total respect to the “dignified proceedings” and courtroom decorum, many have concluded particularly grueling sessions with some verbal thanks and encouragement to Bradley.
“I’m here because I think it’s a historic trial,” says retired university professor Blaine Stevenson, who has twice traveled all the way from Michigan to attend the hearings. “It’s a secret trial. It’s very difficult to get in sometimes, and there’s security involved to get into the base and to the courtroom. The number of seats are restricted, there’s no public transcript. The judge reads her rulings very quickly and doesn’t speak clearly all the time. This reminds me of the civil rights era in some ways because there’s a question of justice. There are problems with the government being on the wrong side of history.”
While some supporters are continuing a habit of activism, others, such as Bill Wagner, 74, say they have become galvanized within the past several years by issues related to the case. A retired manager from NASA’s astrophysicist program, Wagner has attended nearly every session so far, and is determined to continue throughout the court martial this summer. “I hung on the outskirts of protests and political events like that for my whole career,” he says. “I couldn’t do that and raise a family at the same time, maintaining the jobs I had. I retired about five years ago and I feel like I owe it to the world. I feel embarassed that we’re leaving the world as it is for our kids, between the economy going down the tubes, and the environment, and the things our govt is getting away with, in terms of the democracy problem.”
The regulars and a revolving cast of newcomers have made for a vibrant supporters community, says Emma Cape, national organizer of the Bradley Manning Support Network. With little prior introduction, members of the gallery attend vigils, help coordinate transportation and housing for each other, ensure all are outfitted with a “Truth” T-shirt, and translate the legalese of the proceedings for the rookies. “It’s a great place to be in the middle of it all,” says Wagner. “Besides, the supporters are a fun group to be with.” Some claim they are motivated by humanitarian and demilitarization concerns; for others, the case highlights a critical time for government transparency and the freedom of the press.
A common concern throughout the gallery is the troubling lack of transparency in the hearings. With no public transcript of the proceedings, the historical record has so far been largely set down by supporters’ hand-written notes and the WPM-wizardry of sympathetic journalists like Alexa O’Brien and Nathan Fuller. Although public pressure recently forced the Pentagon to bow and begin publishing select court motions and briefs, these documents are often redacted, incomplete or released months after the fact. Even Manning’s public statement, game-changer that it may be, is for now restricted. The transcripts that do exist come courtesy of supporters and journalists.
“It’s outrageous that a statement given by the defendent, read in an open court, wouldn’t be available to the public,” says retired army Colonel Ann Wright, an outspoken critic of the military’s treatment of Manning.
Sharon Stevenson, who has twice made the long journey from Michigan with her husband Blaine, says she is disappointed by Judge Lind’s decision to restrict what evidence can be presented to the public due to their low classified status. “Let’s just have an open discussion about these damages that are supposed to have happened as a result of the release of these documents,” she says. “Let’s have a full discussion, despite the fact it may be very embarassing to the State Dept and the military.”
Although their backgrounds and motivations may vary in shades, one thing spectators all agree on is that you attending the hearings are the best way to get a real sense of what’s happening in the Manning case. “You can’t get a flavor for it unless you’ve been there once and seen the set-up,” says Wagner.
Lebowitz, who has written and begun staging a play based on the case, echoes this sentiment, noting, “The suspicions I had about him, based on my research, have been confirmed. I have such respect and great admiration for him. The only way to get a true sense of what’s going on is to be in the courtroom. I think it’s historical. So, being a first hand witness, I feel like I’m better informed.”
The Bradley Manning Support Network has appealed to supporters to make a special effort to attend the first days of the court martial, scheduled to begin June 3. To get things started on a spirited note, they and a number of allied organizations will be holding what they hope will be the largest rally to date at Fort Meade on June 1.
“You need to be there,” says Zeese. “You will see an important part of history and can help get the truth out.”
Michael McKee, a member of the Bradley Manning Support Network, is covering the Manning trial for CounterPunch. He can be reached at: email@example.com