A Direct Action Organized by Witness Against Torture 01/08/08

Ed Kinane [Ed is a member of the Dr. Dhafir Support Committee Advisory Board.]

A year ago, on 11 January ’07, the fifth anniversary of the opening of the U.S. concentration camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, dozens of us solemnly assembled inside Federal District Court in Washington, DC. While we were allowed to do a liturgical program there, we were arrested for refusing to remove our bright orange Close Guantanamo T-shirts. (Shouldn’t T-shirt slogans be protected speech?) Just outside the court building that day many other demonstrators, some in orange jump suits, were also arrested.

Most of us didn’t give our real names or provide photo ID. Instead we declared, “I am representing Guantanamo prisoner [name].” The Gitmo prisoner I represented was Maasoum Mouhammad of Syria. We were booked, charged with disorderly conduct, and released hours later. My citation had me as “John Doe #33.” Our cases were eventually dismissed.

U.S. Supreme Court — One Year Later

This year on Friday, 11 January we again held a mass protest against Guantanamo — this time inside and outside of the U.S. Supreme Court. Long-time DC activists couldn’t recall when there had ever been a mass protest inside the august Supreme Court building.

12:15 pm — As I approached the building there were a dozen or so cops out front. When I sought to enter, the security guard asked if underneath my jacket I was wearing the T-shirt of “one of the groups who were coming here later.” When I said yes, he said I couldn’t enter with it on. He suggested I leave and return without it. Since it was raining out, he gave me a poncho.

12:40 pm — Returning without the banned T-shirt, I was readily admitted. I spent the next three quarters hour playing tourist in the lower floor gallery. Having got into town too late, I missed the action orientation at St. Stephen’s Church the day before. I didn’t know who our person designated to hold our ID was, so I tucked my driver’s license into my sock.

1:25 pm — Seeing security guards dashing around, I immediately took an elevator up to the main floor where, hitherto incognito, we protesters were to converge at 1:30. A line of demonstrators was already kneeling on the floor of the main hall. I was one of the few not wearing a Close Guantanamo T-shirt. Linking arms, I joined in chanting “CLOSE IT DOWN.” Security guards were already taking our people away. The sedate liturgy Witness Against Torture had planned had been thwarted.

Although I didn’t witness it from the very beginning, to my knowledge this direct action was performed — on our part — in total nonviolence. I didn’t hear Security give any order or tell us we were under arrest. Nor did I hear them telling us our rights or giving us an opportunity to leave the premises. Nor did I see of any of the police rough stuff — either during the arrest or during our subsequent detention. In my experience the guards and police were professional throughout our detention.

1:35 pm — With our hands cuffed behind our backs, Security took about 40 of us downstairs into the bowels of the building. For the next three or four hours we were detained either sitting in a meeting room or divided by gender standing facing each other along corridor walls just outside the meeting room. I learned later that about 40 more were arrested outside on the steps leading up to the SC and were booked elsewhere.

When Security asked for our names and ID, most or all of us gave our Guantanamo name instead of our real name. As in last year’s Superior Court action, the idea was to get those Guantanamo names into the court record. (I don’t know if that has practical, legal implications….) I said I was here representing Maasoum Mouhammad. To avoid a further charge I didn’t claim to be Maasoum. Not volunteering picture ID or our real name would assure that this time we would be held not only until arraignment but until we could be identified.

We were all searched. My personal effects, including cash, belt and shoe laces, were inventoried and put in a transparent bag labeled Maasoum Mouhammad. A woman guard patting me down from behind said, “I have to check your groin.” She then ran her hand front to back across my crotch.

Eventually each of us was photographed along with a guard. Later a grim-looking functionary arrived and read aloud a prepared statement. The gist of it, if I recall right, was that those prisoners providing photo ID and agreeing to “go stet” — i.e. agreeing not to be arrested in the next six months — could be released today with a citation. However those refusing to go stet would be held for arraignment on Saturday…or Monday. The functionary directed a Latino subordinate to re-read the statement aloud translating it into Spanish. None of us there needed the translating and none of us then took the offer. Eventually 26 of those arrested agreed to go stet. They were given a July 11 court date which would be canceled with charges dropped if they weren’t arrested in the meantime.

By and by all of us had our rear handcuffs replaced with front cuffs — a great relief since my upper arms had gotten quite sore.

District 5 Police Station

Soon, however, our hands were again cuffed behind our backs. A van took six or seven of us males to a police station somewhere in the Northeast area of DC. (Other prisoners were taken to other DC jails.) Our bagged property was left behind at the Supreme Court; we were issued no receipt.

As we entered the District 5 station, a woman officer immediately asked each of us if we needed medical care (we didn’t). A plainclothes policeman snipped off our plastic cuffs and told us to face the wall. He then patted us down, turning our pockets inside out.The officer delved into the (very tight and hitherto ignored) coin pocket of my jeans, finding the $5 bill I had tucked away.
— What is your name?
— I’m representing Guantanamo prisoner Maasoum Mouhammed.
— Is that the name on your ID card?
— No.
— If you don’t give us your real name, this money will be considered “found” and you’ll not get it back.
— I don’t think you are a thief….
The $5 bill was confiscated.

As part of the search we had to take off our laceless shoes and turn our socks inside out. My drivers’ license fell on the floor and was also confiscated. I had lost my anonymity. We were then taken to a brightly lit cellblock and locked in a holding cell. It had a metal bench running along the short wall, a metal table with two attached benches, and a metal toilet partly obscured by a narrow partition. There was no sink or drinking fountain.

At times we were joined by two or three other (non-political) prisoners. We could hear — but not see — that some of the women from our action were also being held in another cellblock. Despite requests to do so, at no time during our detention were we permitted to make a phone call.

In the wee hours I was taken just outside the cellblock to be photographed and fingerprinted — a high-tech process. There’s no messy ink (except for a single thumb print) and the computerized fingerprinter is linked to a database. Later I was issued a plastic Metropolitan Police Dept ID bracelet with a small mug shot, my (real) name, date of birth, an “M,” a “W,” and a number: 311000583161.

On my way back to the holding cell I asked for water and was permitted to drink from a spigot in the cellblock corridor. Dehydrated, I drank deeply. During the night we were each offered two slices of white bread with a small piece of cheese and a slice of baloney. It was the only food provided during the over 30 hours of my detention.

Eventually a guard returned my drivers license. Not wanting it to be confiscated further on, I put it back in my sock. What with the bright lights and the noise from the non-political inmates, I got less than an hour’s sleep all night. It didn’t help that every time a cellblock toilet flushed, it was with a mighty WHOOOSH.

DC Superior Court

We were held at District 5 until later Saturday morning. Then four of us were cuffed together and transported across town in a black maria to the DC Superior Court. Upon arrival there U.S. marshals cut off our plastic cuffs and put us all in leg irons. The number 120 — my new ID — was written on my bracelet. We were then marched single file, hands behind our back, to the holding cell area. I was put in a small cell with a different mix of six or seven other males of our group. There wasn’t room to stretch out. The only furniture was a bench along the wall seating four, a sink and a toilet with no privacy and no toilet paper.

During the day we were occasionally visited by our pro bono lawyers Mark Goldstone and Ann Wilcox of the DC Lawyers Guild. They occasionally spoke to us through the barred cell door. One of the guys, with more than the usual legal complications, was visited by his own lawyer. We were also visited by folks gathering info from each prisoner to expedite our release. I gave them my real name and home address, etc.

My cellmates included one or two young men who hadn’t ever been arrested before. But most of us, I’d venture to say, have been arrested numerous times. These included author and nonviolence trainer, Ken Butigan, and one of the Guantanamo actions’ key support people, Paul Magno — who hadn’t planned to be arrested here. As at our previous two detention sites, all of us were at least compatible if not convivial.

The hours passed in good humor and with Catholic Worker activists telling stories of past direct actions. A highlight was Brian Terrell and Art Laffin telling about an elaborate direct action in Honduras in 1988. Another highlight was Brian telling about the Voices’ Occupation Project in Iowa during the current presidential campaign season. (See vcnv.org.) By the way, Brian and a vanload of young people had driven all the way from Iowa for this Supreme Court action.

In the late afternoon, the marshals, calling out our new ID numbers, started taking us — three or four at a time, still in leg irons — down some corridors to court for arraignment. I was almost the last prisoner to be arraigned. When my turn came around 8 pm I was heartened to see several of our steadfast support people — including my friends Cynthia Banas and Cathy Boylan — in the gallery.

Before Judge Robert Richter, flanked by Mark Goldstone, I answered to my real name but of course said I was there on behalf of Maasoum Mouhammad. Like most (48) of us I pled not guilty…which, if our prosecution continues, means in the weeks to come there’ll be a trial and an opportunity for each defendant to make a statement in court about Guantanamo.

I heard no charges read and received only a notice to return to DC Superior Court at 9:30 am February 12. In an email from Witness Against Torture organizer, Matt Daloisio, I later learned we were charged with “unlawful free speech on supreme court grounds” and that those of us arrested inside the building were also charged with “causing a harangue within the supreme court.” It was now around 8:30 pm and, the marshals having removed my leg irons in court, I was free to leave. Support people out in the corridor provided snacks and fluids and hugs.

Minutes later the Superior Court building closed. Outside, attorney Mark Goldstone addressed those of us still remaining. He told us he had had to badger the marshals to get them to give us the meager amount of drinking water that we eventually got. It was mighty cold out. I was wearing only a T-shirt and a winter undershirt. My other layers of winter clothes were with my personal property still at the Supreme Court building a kilometer away. Instead of going back there, I jumped in a warm vehicle heading back to the Dorothy Day Catholic Worker house in Northwest DC for dinner.

Not only were we released without our winter clothes, but we had no money for public transportation or even a phone call. Hooray for support people, the unsung heroes of these actions! They keep track of us as we are shunted through the penal system and they are the ones who try to be there when we are released — sometimes in remote neighborhoods and sometimes in the chill wee hours.

The assault on a prisoner’s dignity begins well before charges are dropped or one is found guilty. My 30 hours detention was both tedious and, thanks to the camaraderie, stimulating. I was struck by how calmly, with one minor exception, all my cellmates handled their detention. Curiously, upon release I didn’t feel exhausted, famished or depleted. This surely has to do with acting in an essential struggle and amid much solidarity deeply informed by an ethic of nonviolence.

Early Sunday morning I returned to the bowels of the Supreme Court and redeemed my property. The Security folks took my photo along with my stuff — including my confiscated $5 bill — spread out on a table. I met up with Ithaca Catholic Workers Danny Burns, Clare Grady, and youngsters Kate and Leah for a lift north as far as Binghamton, NY — where I caught a bus back home. My partner Ann and housemate Aggie were waiting at the bus station and treated me to dinner out. On Friday they had taken part in the anti-Guantanamo action outside Syracuse’s WSYR AM radio station (a Clear Channel broadcaster of talk shows promoting Guantanamo and torture).

Besides ours, on 11 January there were scores of other anti-Guantanamo actions around the U.S. and the world. Thanks to these the Guantanamo prisoners may now just have a bit more visibility. The Sunday Washington Post Metro section, page C3, carried Michelle Boorstein’s short (16 column inches) article about our action and detention. But on page C1 the Post featured a much longer article (plus two photos) about Saturday’s No Pants Day in the New York and Washington subways….

Hundreds of Guantanamo prisoners are now mired in a gruesome fate. They have been denied habeas corpus and due process. Few if any after all these years have been tried and found guilty. My greater concern, however, is the grotesque violation of the U.S. Constitution that Guatanamo embodies. More, I’m concerned with the erosion of law and the rise of penal vindictiveness here in the U.S. Guantanamo is the camel’s nose under the tent. Bush Inc.’s contempt for human rights in Guantanamo paves the way for similar official criminality in the U.S.

Pastor Niemoeller got it right.

Kinane, active with the Syracuse Peace Council, spent five months with Voices in the Wilderness in Baghdad in 2003. Reach him at edkinane@verizon.net.