What does solidarity look like? (Chelsea’s in prison again)

I have written a lot about US army whistleblower Chelsea Manning on this blog over the years. A quick use of the search function reveals 11 different posts that mention her name. The first was on her 24th birthday back in December 2011. I wrote about her being transgender six months later, a full year before the mainstream media responded with shock to her coming out. I declared an annual “Tell The Truth Day” on the anniversary of her arrest.

I painted a solidarity banner in 2012 (with Chelsea’s name change I gave it a bit of a touch-up a couple of years later). That banner got plenty of use as we would hit the streets with flyers in solidarity every time she was in court. My housemate at one point literally got a map and tried to letterbox every house in our suburb with flyers about Chelsea. I made a stencil too, and printed patches and t-shirts which I distributed around. I wrote a song about Chelsea which I sang at different venues around the country. I got arrested once in solidarity with her, disrupting US military exercises in Queensland while she was in court facing life in prison for allegedly “aiding the enemy”. I wrote to Chelsea in prison a few times too, not totally sure of what to say but wanting to send love and encouragement.

I don’t say all this to boast of my actions. Just to illustrate that for a long time, a regular part of my life was trying to act in solidarity with a stranger in a prison on the other side of the world. When Chelsea was sentenced to a 35 year prison term in 2013, I assumed it would be a part of my life for a long time to come. But then in January 2017 came the news that Barack Obama had commuted the rest of Chelsea’s sentence and she would be released.

At that point I assumed I would no longer be needing to write about Chelsea being in prison or solitary confinement for standing up for her beliefs. Turns out I was wrong. Because on March 9th; Chelsea was subpoenaed to give evidence at an investigation into Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, who famously released to the public the documents Chelsea had smuggled out of her army deployment in Iraq. When Chelsea refused to give evidence, she was imprisoned. For the last 28 days she has once again been held in solitary confinement.

It’s ironic, isn’t it? First she gets imprisoned for saying things the government wants her to keep quiet about; now it’s for keeping quiet when the government want her to say things.

The reasons for this are complex. The Grand Jury is an institution set up essentially to force people to testify against others in court. It’s a way of getting around the fifth amendment to the US bill of rights – the right to remain silent. Many people consider the Grand Jury an attack on freedom, and many have gone to prison for refusing to comply with it. Chelsea has said she is doing so in solidarity with others who resist the Grand Jury process, even though in another courtroom she has already testified all the details of her connection to Julian Assange (who she has never actually met).

In her statement before her arrest she stated: “I will not participate in a secret process that I morally object to, particularly one that has been historically used to entrap and persecute activists for protected political speech.” (For a good informative article on the issue try this)

Over the years of Chelsea’s imprisonment, a question I would grapple with was what does effective solidarity look like? For one, I spent a lot of time and effort putting her face out in the public even though I knew she had said “I wouldn’t mind going to prison for the rest of my life, or being executed so much, if it wasn’t for the possibility of having pictures of me plastered all over the world press as a boy”. I guess I thought it was worth it. When we were on the streets with flyers and banner, people would often ask “what can we do about it?” A fair question really. I would say Chelsea leaked those documents so people would discuss them and act on them; so we should do that. That her courage and dedication to the truth should inspire us to live out those same values.

In the end, the immense public solidarity shown with Chelsea was probably the main reason she was released. I have heard her say that all the letters sent to her in prison made a huge difference. In fact they probably kept her alive (she attempted suicide twice in prison anyway).

I still wonder about that question of what solidarity looks like though. Last year Chelsea was booked to do a speaking tour of Australia. Naturally I bought a ticket, though in the end the Australian government’s refusal to grant her a visa meant she appeared via video from New Zealand. Someone in the audience asked her about Julian Assange, who has been imprisoned in the Ecuadorian embassy in London for nearly seven years now, and how to support him. Chelsea replied that everything to do with those documents she leaked was in the past, and she now wanted to focus on the present. Which is a fair choice in the circumstances, but it left a bit of a sour taste in my mouth. I didn’t feel like this was the real reason she was avoiding the question.

Julian Assange has been a divisive figure among left-wing politics ever since sexual assault accusations were made against him in 2011. They have never been satisfactorily resolved.  He is by many accounts a bit of a difficult person and someone whose manner towards women is not ideal. In Australia there was bad fallout from the short-lived Wikileaks political party. In the US, Assange has become essentially a hated figure in the left after his publication of leaked Democrat party documents was seen to help Donald Trump’s election win.

There are a few reasons there why someone like Chelsea, ensconced in the world of US radical politics, may not be a cheerleader for Julian Assange. But still, I didn’t like seeing her, even when asked, offer no support at all.

For one, Julian Assange is someone who has taken powerful and courageous political acts and is now being persecuted for it. But more specifically, he took a great personal risk publishing those documents Chelsea Manning smuggled out of Iraq. The very existence of that Grand Jury is proof he’s still paying the price. Those familiar with the story know that several US media outlets had rejected the documents and going to Wikileaks was Chelsea’s last desperate attempt. Julian also frequently and unequivocally spoke out in support of Chelsea during her own trial and imprisonment.

But it was more than that. Chelsea earlier in the evening had said how much difference solidarity from those on the outside had meant to her in the misery of imprisonment. She had also said that her experiences there had led to her taking on prisoner solidarity as an important cause. I wondered how she would go showing solidarity with those in prisons across the US – many of whom I can guarantee have done much worse things than Julian Assange.

I think I can say that showing solidarity with others is not really a strength of contemporary left-wing politics. It’s confusing terrain, sure. But so much political effort seems to go towards finding points of difference with others rather than points of connection. Sometimes it seems some activists lie in wait for people they can “call out” for behaviour judged to be wrong. To reach out and support causes you are not immediately affected by means navigating a minefield of “ally” expectations, falling short can mean facing abuse or exile. International Women’s Day, which in theory brings together half the world’s population for a day of solidarity, often becomes a battleground for different expressions of feminism to duke it out. Strong critiques of prison are common discourse, but you wonder what it all means when people who say prisons should be abolished and offenders rehabilitated in the community then turn around and say they can’t handle being around a white man with dreadlocks or a woman critical of sex work.

Again, this illustrates the point that doing solidarity is difficult. But besides the benefits acts of solidarity offer to an individual, surely essential to any movement that can create positive social change is that act of finding common cause with others, of taking their struggles on as our own. Solidarity with those like us is good, but it’s when our connection extends to those who are not like us, who we are not supposed to feel kinship with, that new possibilities are opened.

Chelsea Manning’s troubles started with an act of solidarity – the connection she felt with Iraqi people meant she couldn’t ignore them being oppressed or killed by the US like she was supposed to.  He current imprisonment also comes from an act of solidarity – she doesn’t have to be in solitary confinement (I’m sure she has other things she’d rather be doing), but she has chosen to take it on in solidarity with others who face Grand Juries. Someone of her profile doing what she has will shine a light on the Grand Jury process that never normally gets illuminated.

So once again the extraordinary courage of Chelsea Manning invites us to look at our own lives and ask what price we are willing to pay to live out our values. To ask what compromises we make going along with a system that when pushed will respond with brute force. And to ask what does effective solidarity look like?

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