Throughout history, human civilization has been cursed by tyranny. Time and again, power is concentrated in institutions that rule by coercion and force. Humans have suffered through totalitarianism, dictatorships, and fascism repeatedly. Untold suffering and death have occurred.
But such times have always been marked by resistance. Courageous individuals and movements have fought back with a variety of tactics from open revolt to furtive sabotage. The rate of success in overthrowing particular tyrannical institutions has been mixed (though none of them ever last forever anyway of course) but that is not the only way to weigh the value of freedom fighters. Is it not worthy, in and of itself, to strive on behalf of life?
Here in the USA, we are living through a time of increasing tyranny. Certainly, the entire experiment has been tyrannical from the start, given the genocide and slavery that founded the nation, and the brutal militarism that wrought its imperium; however, the last few decades have seen a ramping up of assaults against our individual rights and collective liberties that seriously contradict the idea of a “free country.” Under the auspices of fighting “terror,” the amendments in the Bill of Rights have been getting crossed out like items on a grocery list. Since the ascendancy of Trump to the White House, these trends have accelerated. What was once characterized as “creeping” fascism is now “leaping” and it’s a bipartisan affair. The attacks on leftist journalism since the 2016 election, for example, have been coordinated more by Democrats and their allies than by Republicans. (See my “Cowardly New World: Alternative Media Under Attack by Algorithms.”)
This is definitely a moment when we need resistance. And I mean real resistance, not the faux hashtag Resistance(TM) of Democratic partisans who, had Hillary been the winner, would “be at brunch now.”
What does “real” resistance look like?
Chelsea Manning just showed us.
On Thursday, May 16th, the famous whistleblower was put in federal prison. Her offense? Refusing to testify before a federal grand jury.
As reported by the Real News Network, she declared to the judge who inflicted the punishment on her: “The government cannot build a prison bad enough, cannot create a system worse than the idea that I would ever change my principles. I’d rather starve to death than to change my opinions in this regard. I mean that quite literally.” When the judge countered with, “There’s nothing dishonorable in discharging your responsibility as a US citizen,” Manning retorted: “I believe this grand jury seeks to undermine the integrity of public discourse with the aim of punishing those who expose any serious, ongoing, and systemic abuses of power by this government.”
That’s called “speaking truth to power,” and in this instance it was not merely symbolic. The consequences of this choice could keep Chelsea behind bars for 18 months.
What’s more, the judge upped the ante monetarily. After 30 days, Chelsea will be fined $500 per day while imprisoned, and after 60, $1000 per day. If she is held for the maximum period, the total would be around half a million dollars. This is not typical. According to a statement from her lawyers: “While coercive financial penalties are commonly assessed against corporate witnesses, which cannot be jailed for contempt, it is less usual to see them used against a human witness.”
Chelsea had previously been jailed for two months for refusing to testify to another federal grand jury, and had been free for just one week on May 16th. She had been released only because the previous grand jury’s term had ended. They are currently limited to a maximum length of 18 months, but this new grand jury is virtually identical and is essentially a continuation of the first.
So, what are grand juries and why is Chelsea opposed to cooperating?
Though the government presents grand juries as instruments of justice, their methods fall outside normal legal processes and deny participants rights they would otherwise have. Here is a great summary from grandjuryresistance.org:
“Unlike the ‘petit‘ jury, which is used to determine guilt in a trial, a grand jury consists of 16 to 23 jurors who are not screened for bias. The purpose of the grand jury is not to determine guilt or innocence, but to decide whether there is probable cause to prosecute someone for a felony crime. The grand jury operates in secrecy and the normal rules of evidence do not apply. The prosecutor runs the proceedings and no judge is present. Defense lawyers are not allowed to be present in the grand jury room and cannot present evidence, but may be available outside the room to consult with witnesses. The prosecutor and the grand jury members may not reveal what occurred in the grand jury room and witnesses cannot obtain a transcript of their testimony.”
Wow, that’s an intimidating setting, even if you’re not guilty of anything. At the risk of being cliché, it seems appropriate to call it, “Kafka-esque.”
On May 6, while still imprisoned during the first grand jury, Chelsea released a statement about her insistence on non-cooperation that read in part:
“After two months of confinement, and using every legal mechanism available so far, I can—without any hesitation—state that nothing will convince me to testify before this or any other grand jury for that matter. This experience so far only proves my long held belief that grand juries are simply outdated tools used by the federal government to harass and disrupt political opponents and activists in fishing expeditions…
“The way I am being treated proves what a corrupt and abusive tool this truly is. With each passing day my disappointment and frustration grow, but so too do my commitments to doing the right thing and continuing to refuse to submit…
“I can either go to jail or betray my principles. The latter exists as a much worse prison than the government can construct.”
On May 16th, before going before the judge, Chelsea told reporters: “In solidarity with many activists facing the odds, I will stand by my principles. I will exhaust every legal remedy available. My legal team continues to challenge the secrecy of these proceedings, and I am prepared to face the consequences of my refusal.”
She also said: “Jails and prisons exist as a dark institution. And despite that, it doesn’t frighten me or disturb me. I’ve already been to jail, I’ve already been to prison, so attempting to coerce me with a grand jury subpoena is just not going to work… Ultimately, this is an attempt to place me back in confinement. I think that the questions are the same questions I was asked at the court-martial seven or eight years ago. They’re not asking anything new.”
Why are the powers-that-be harassing Chelsea like this?
First, both Chelsea and her lawyer, Moira Meltzer-Cohen, see this as part of the Trump administration’s desire to reverse as much as possible of Obama’s legacy. Obama commuted Chelsea’s original 35 year term to seven years, which led to her release in May 2017. Trump is on record, in a tweet of course, of calling Chelsea a “TRAITOR.” As far as Chelsea is concerned, the Trump administration’s treatment of her is way for them “re-litigate the court-martial.”
Up until now, presidents have respected the pardons and commutations made by their predecessors, but Trump is different. It’s definitely too bad for Chelsea that she got trapped in what amounts to a pissing match.
Secondly, Trump aside, the ruling class resents Chelsea’s exposures of the workings of the US military and the government. Here is historian Vijay Prashad addressing this topic on journalist Chris Hedges’ show, “On Contact”:
What they are really going after [Julian Assange] for is the leaks that came through Chelsea Manning. Because what Chelsea Manning—who is in fact an international hero and should not right now be in prison—what Chelsea Manning showed us was, of course, as I said, the ‘Collateral Murder’ video—but much more than that, she deeply embarrassed the United States government for the way its diplomatic corps was operating during, for instance, during the Arab Spring. …It also showed you, and this is very important—for a keen reader of the State Department cables it showed you how the ambassadors were no longer actually running policy. So you saw the ambassadors in Yemen, the ambassadors in Egypt, write letters back to Washington, DC, and saying that, you know, Defense Department officials are coming here, national security advisors, and they are sidelining us… For an American citizen, that should be very chilling, that diplomacy—we see from these cables—is no longer being run in a political way by the State Department, but diplomacy is being run by the Defense Department, and even more dangerously, by the anonymous national security state. And I think that’s something that the US government doesn’t want out there in the public. …To have the evidence for that is very significant.
I suspect that Obama’s commuting of Chelsea’s sentence was considered inappropriate by many in corporate/military oligarchy. Honestly, I was shocked by Obama’s choice at the time, and felt like it was arguably the best thing he did while in office (though the list of his positive accomplishments to choose from was certainly short). These grand jury summons provide an opportunity to the oligarchs to renew punitive measures against Chelsea, and that sucks.
Third, this is about attacking the press.
Because grand juries are secretive, we don’t know the whole story, but it has been publicly revealed that these relate to Julian Assange, and that Chelsea’s testimony is wanted for making a case against him and WikiLeaks. (So don’t expect many—if any—Democrats to speak out on Chelsea’s behalf, because they all hate WikiLeaks and Assange too.)
As Meltzer-Cohen put it: “The American government relies on the informed consent of the governed, and the free press is the vigorous mechanism to keep us informed. It is a point of pride for this administration to be publicly hostile to the press. Grand Juries and prosecutions like this one broadcast an expanding threat to the press and function to undermine the integrity of the system according to the government’s own laws.“
Strict control of the press is a hallmark of authoritarian regimes. However one feels personally about Assange, it cannot be denied that WikiLeaks has done no more than play the traditional role of publisher. No less a figure than Harvard Law professor Alan Dershowitz (hardly a radical) has stated that he believes “there is no constitutional difference between WikiLeaks and the New York Times.” Daniel Ellsberg, who leaked the Pentagon Papers to that newspaper of record in 1971, unequivocally stated that “the truth is that EVERY attack now made on WikiLeaks and Julian Assange was made against me and the release of the Pentagon Papers at the time.” Ellsberg also warned: “This is the first indictment of a journalist and editor or publisher, Julian Assange. And if it’s successful it will not be the last…” “None of them have been put on trial up till now. But in this case, if that’s all it takes, then no journalist is safe. The freedom of the press is not safe. It’s over. And I think our republic is in its last days, because unauthorized disclosures of this kind are the lifeblood of the republic.”
So with this grand jury the stakes are high, not just for Chelsea personally, but for press freedom and an open society generally. We should all be grateful that she is not cooperating. It is in the interest of the public at large that this grand jury fails in its goals.
Writer Kenn Orphan put it well (as usual) when he recently wrote that the members of the ruling class “know how dangerous Chelsea Manning is to the daily workings of the death cult that is American Empire. She stands to expose the sham for what it is. And without working class kids to act as cannon fodder to protect the wealthy’s booty abroad they would be lost. They fear Manning’s courage because they can neither plumb its depths nor navigate its landscape. It is an alien to them” [my emphasis].
Chelsea’s act of resistance is public and her motivations are clear. She is providing an example of a tactic—dedicated non-cooperation—that if followed by enough people in enough ways, would lead to dramatic, widespread, systemic change. Put in her position, I have no idea if I would be so principled. But if I ever do find myself there, and I am able to stand strong, I will have Chelsea to credit, in part, for inspiration.
To donate to Chelsea’s legal defense fund, go here.