Salvage Our Tattered Constitution: Close Guantanamo and the SOA

Ed Kinane

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for redress of grievances.
-The First Amendment of the US Constitution

Long before Guantanamo prison opened in 2002, there was the School of the Americas. That notorious anti-insurgency training camp at Fort Benning, Georgia, was founded in 1946. Under one name or another, the SOA has been promoting torture and other terrorist tactics - as "official US Army doctrine" - for decades.

Guantanamo targets enemies-or supposed enemies-of the US empire in the Middle East. The SOA targets enemies-or supposed enemies - of the US empire in Latin America. Both subvert the US Constitution.

Standing Against Torture
In September 1997 several of us (a potter, a Jesuit priest, a Roman Catholic nun and Syracuse's Kathleen Rumpf) were arrested for stenciling "SOA=Torture" on Benning's main entrance sign. That equation had been confirmed by the torture manuals, secret textbooks (outed in 1996 through the Freedom of Information Act) that the SOA used for instructing its students, mostly Latin American military officers. The five of us each served about a year in federal prison for seeking to expose US torture.

Torture doesn't just happen in the remote prisons of empire; it can happen here at home. In the Syracuse Public Safety Building unruly or mentally ill prisoners used to be shackled and hung naked from the bars of their cell for hours on end. Kathleen exposed the practice in 1992 - a story featured on "Sixty Minutes."

This past September 1, Labor Day, I was arrested again - this time for silently walking around the NY State Fair, shackled, in an orange jump suit and black hood with a sign on my chest, CLOSE GUANTANAMO.

Refusing to post the $1500 bail, I spent a week in jail before Town of Salina Judge John Kinsella ordered my release.

The District Attorney charged me with trespass on private property and with creating a public disturbance. On December 8 Judge Kinsella, seeing not only the private/public contradiction but also a lack of evidence, dismissed those charges.

One might think the judge's dismissal would be the end of the matter. But no, in January the DA appealed. It's unclear why he is willing to waste more taxpayer money. It's unclear why Onondaga County's chief prosecutor would deny a nonviolent activist's First Amendment right of free expression about a policy matter in an obviously public venue. The DA, Mr. Fitzpatrick, doesn't seem to understand that, with a new president in the White House, he is on the wrong side of history.

Close Guantanamo Fast
Back in the nineties, in the early days of the SOA Watch campaign, we often fasted. In 1994, a dozen of us fasted for 40 days on the steps of the Capitol in Washington. During the Clinton administration it was possible to get a permit for such actions.

This quite public fast generated solidarity and recruited more activists to the SOA Watch cause. It provided the opportunity for Kathleen Rumpf to enlist our former Congressman Jim Walsh in co-sponsoring legislation to close the SOA. Over the years, uncharacteristically, Mr. Walsh co-sponsored several anti-SOA bills.

This past January in Washington, DC the grassroots group Witness Against Torture (witnesstorture.org) held a nine-day fast to SHUT DOWN GUANTANAMO. The fast began on January 11, the seventh anniversary of Guantanamo's opening. Every morning until Inauguration Day we gathered in Washington's Dupont Circle in our orange jump suits and black hoods. We would then process silently, single-file, hands clasped behind our backs, a couple of kilometers closer to symbols of the Washington power structure. Each day our colorful procession numbered about 30 fasters/"prisoners." Every minute scores of pedestrians and motorists would see us and perhaps give a moment's thought to the Guantanamo prisoners.
Witness Against Torture members vigil in orange jump suits (Guantanamo prison garb) in front of the Obamas’ new home. The vigil is part of WAT’s campaign to urge the President to release the Guantanamo prisoners before the end of his first 100 days in the White House. Some prisoners illegally held in Guantanamo are Uighurs, an Islamic ethnic minority found in western China. Photo: Mike Benedetti

Our daily destinations, where we would stand vigil, included the Hay-Adams Hotel (then hosting the Obamas), the Inaugural reviewing stand outside the White House (lots of tourists), or the Obama transition headquarters (where Mr. Obama's motorcade passed us), etc.

We may never know what impact our presence - and the several-years' long Witness Against Torture campaign to close Guantanamo-had on Mr. Obama. But almost his first official act as President was to begin closing Guantanamo. We hope closure will occur much sooner than the year Mr. Obama is allowing the process. For the 250 men dangling there yet another year isolated from their loved ones will surely be excruciating.

I also hope that Mr. Obama also will soon either issue an executive order or urge Congress to close the School of the Americas (now known as the Western Hemisphere Institute of Security Cooperation).

Why Guantanamo Must Be Closed
Guantanamo has trashed our reputation across the planet. It embodies the utter hypocrisy of the Cheney/Bush line that we are in Iraq to bring democracy to the Middle East. With its denial of habeas corpus and other due process, that prison mocks the US Constitution. More, it mocks the US conscience.
GET INVOLVED
While President Obama has promised to close Guantanamo within the year, Witness Against Torture (WAT) and a range of co-sponsors believe that rogue prison can be closed sooner. Accordingly, on January 20 WAT launched its "100 Days to Close Guantanamo & End Torture" campaign. The campaign, extending thru April 30, includes a daily presence outside the White House, as well as film screenings, lectures and community meetings in Washington and across the country. To learn more check out www.100DaysCampaign.org.

The remaining Guantanamo prisoners-some from China, many from Yemen-are held illegally. Some have been held for nearly seven years. Many have been tortured in multiple ways. Dozens are now on a protracted hunger strike and some are being force-fed. Some, in their desperation, have sought to kill themselves.

Cheney/Bush claimed that all those in Guantanamo were "terrorists" and are "the worst of the worst." But most were captured by bounty hunters and not by US soldiers. It is the rare Guantanamo prisoner who could be tried in a US Court without his case, like mine, being thrown out for lack of evidence. Under our legal system neither hearsay nor confessions extracted under torture are legitimate.

As shameful as Guantanamo is, as victimized as its prisoners are, they are not my only interest. Having had my own First Amendment rights suppressed too often, my involvement in this issue, frankly, is self-protective. Guantanamo and the other US black hole prisons (e.g. Bagram in Afghanistan) are a threat to us all-even apart from the seeds of "terrorist" retaliation they may sow.

If the Cheney/Bush administration could get away with ramming the Patriot Acts through Congress and could brazenly maintain such prisons abroad, what keeps such practices from metastasizing to the US? What protects activists, Muslims, and other minorities here from similar barbarity?

Years ago Pastor Martin Neimoeller, a former U-boat captain, ended up in one of Hitler's concentration camps. Neimoeller's words haunt me:

First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out because I was not a socialist.

Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out because I was not a trade unionist.

Then they came for the Jews and I did not speak out because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me and there was no one left to speak for me.


Ed has been heartened by the local print media's coverage of his State Fair arrest and subsequent prosecution. Fortunately many here still cherish the First Amendment.