Chelsea Manning: State torture and the red stripe

How the United States’ empire tortures its political prisoners and the call to defend LGBTQ people

Chelsea Manning
Arrested on March 8 for contempt of court in her refusal to cooperate with a grand jury investigation into Wikileaks, Chelsea Manning has endured weeks of torture in the form of solitary confinement. | Photo: Sean Gallup/Getty Images

By Cassandra Devereaux

The United States, an empire as vicious as it is venal, is torturing yet another political prisoner.

On March 8, Chelsea Elizabeth Manning was apprehended, imprisoned and thrust into prolonged solitary confinement by the federal government. The arrest was ordered for contempt of court in her refusal to cooperate with a grand jury’s investigation into Wikileaks. On April 4, she was finally released into the general population of the prison.

Formerly a member of army intelligence, Manning came to the public’s attention when she provided the website with hundreds of thousands of classified military documents relating to the Afghan and Iraq wars of subjugation. The horrors exposed range from astronomical rates of civilians slaughtered by U.S. military to its paid contractors’ rape of children via sexual trafficking. Manning won the admiration and respect of revolutionaries and the disdain of reactionaries when, upon conviction, she came out as transgender and started her gender transition. Her sentence of 35 years was commuted, after seven were “served,” by outgoing President Obama, which enraged then-President-Elect Trump. President Trump went on to characterize her as an “ungrateful traitor” who would have still been in prison under his administration.

Two years into his administration, this perceived wrong has been “corrected.”

One might wonder why she refuses to cooperate with the grand jury considering that she has already testified about the extent of her interactions with the website. After all, she had already been offered immunity for her testimony. Her website explains her reasons this way: “Due to their secretive nature and limitless subpoena power, the government has utilized grand jury processes as tools for garnering information about movements by questioning witnesses behind closed doors. Since testimony before grand juries is secret, grand juries can create fear by suggesting that some members of a political community may be secretly cooperating with the government. In this way, grand juries can seed suspicion and fear in activist communities.”

Manning herself has said, “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.” Having suffered so deeply, to endure that same torment again rather than collaborate with the empire in its campaigns of repression, is a heroic choice.

According to a report from Chelsea Resists, which serves as an advocacy pipeline for her, she had been held in what the William G. Truesdale Adult Detention Center euphemistically terms “administrative segregation.” As described by Chelsea Resists on March 23, “Chelsea can’t be out of her cell while any other prisoners are out, so she cannot talk to other people, or visit the law library, and has no access to books or reading material. She has not been outside for 16 days. She is permitted to make phone calls and move about outside her cell between 1 and 3 a.m.” Her stint in solitary confinement laster a total of 28 days.

Dana Lawhorne, the sheriff of Alexandria, Virginia where Manning sits in her cell, denies that this constitutes prolonged solitary confinement while also denying some of Chelsea Resists’ revelations. Nevertheless, Juan E Mendez, U.N. Special Rapporteur on Torture puts the lie to Lawhorne’s contrivances. According to Mendez’s definition as recognized by the United Nations  (as well as human rights organizations and psychiatric professionals), over 15 days of confinement for 22 or more hours a day constitutes prolonged solitary confinement and is understood to be torture. Mendez wrote, “…prolonged, indefinite solitary confinement is a violation of the prohibition against torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment found in international human rights law. By violating this prohibition, U.S. authorities not only abuse the rights of prisoners, they undermine the human rights that protect all of us from abuse.” To describe his reasoning, he continues, “There is strong evidence suggesting that solitary confinement, even for a short period, adversely impacts on mental health. The gravity of these impacts increases with the passage of time and they may eventually become irreversible. Research in this field has established that solitary confinement can cause mental illnesses, including a syndrome described as ‘prison psychosis,’ which manifests in symptoms including anxiety, depression, anger, cognitive disturbances, paranoia and psychosis, and can lead to self-harm. Moreover, the isolation and absence of witnesses in solitary confinement can facilitate the commission of other acts of torture and ill-treatment.”

Why was Chelsea Manning been kept in solitary confinement? The use of torture as an attempt to compel Manning to cooperate with the grand jury seems an obvious reason, but this sort of devious artifice tends not to be the one acknowledged by the powers who utilize it, so what justification does the “justice” system offer? Quite tellingly for Manning, Sheriff Lawhorne invokes “safety and security reasons.”

Trans and gender nonconforming people are often subjected to this form of torture under the justification of “safety.” We are to believe that their coexistence in gendered prisons place them and their fellow inmates in jeopardy. This stated concern for safety is naturally not extended to critique the use of men as guards in women’s prisons, a problem that actually exists in the real world. This is because truth and reality are beside the point. This is the familiar cocktail of hate and fear that has ever been used to poison transgender peoples in the policies of the oppressor class. This is the foul venom that drives transphobic bathroom bills. The belief is that a transgender woman, by virtue of being a trans woman, is by nature a predator. Should she have a penis, the reasoning goes, she intends to use it to rape. Should she no longer have one, then she is a twisted soul who has “mutilated herself” and therefore is a threat to “decent people.”

There is no way to win, nor is there intended to be. This is not a matter of the logical but the ideological. As transgender and gender-nonconforming people, we are not to be understood, we are to stop existing, either by being terrorized into hiding and self-denial or by dying. Whether that death is by suicide or murder matters little; they want us out of sight and therefore out of mind. Solitary confinement is very successful at promoting this, and this has affected Chelsea Manning. She twice attempted suicide while in prison and posted a cryptic tweet last summer of herself standing on the ledge of a building implying suicidal ideation. This tweet resulted in two police officers breaking into her home with drawn guns. While police are frequently used to check in on people suspected of being at risk of suicide, for them to break into her home with firearms drawn speaks to their fear not only of those who defy gender taboos but also dissidents who stand against the political structures they represent and the economic masters their violence serves.

It also deserves to be understood that solitary confinement is a common practice for political prisoners in this imperial core. Black Panthers Huey Newton and Mumia Abu-Jamal experienced it, as has American Indian Movement activist Leonard Peltier. Fighting for liberation against the dictatorship of bourgeoisie is often met with spurious charges and torture if you are Black or Indigenous or otherwise belong to an oppressed nationality. It should be no surprise that those who experience transphobic oppressions receive similar treatment. The empire deals with those who challenge it from the same toolkit.

Having survived her previous prolonged solitary confinement, Manning appears to continue to bear the scars. She has spent more of her adult life in prison than outside of  it, and has expressed difficulty processing and integrating all that has happened to her. In an interview published October 7, 2018, she couldn’t even begin to explain her feelings about what happened, saying, “Some of it I haven’t been able to talk about. Solitary confinement, I just can’t talk about. I’ve not been ready to talk about it. I’ve blocked it out. I just can’t.”

In 2018, Manning made a bid to unseat a Democratic incumbent in his seat for Congress. In a tweet during her campaign, she said that “establishment dems always happily vote for a warmer friendlier police state – change won’t come [through] any ballot.” Her campaign platform included unconditional free healthcare, completely open borders, the abolition of prisons and freedom for prisoners. She hoped to end U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), characterizing them as gestapo undertaking a project of ethnic cleansing. The wall of her apartment is decorated with a picture of Emma Goldman, and she commented, “The rise of authoritarianism is encroaching in every aspect of life, whether it’s government or corporate or technological.” She’s posed the question of why it is that we even have a president, and why we rely on repressive institutions like the police. Upon her release, she described a moment of revelation to The Guardian by saying, “I was out, but I saw that while I had been away, the prison had moved out here as well. That’s how I feel. I feel like I haven’t left, we’ve just exchanged prisons.” Walking around Brooklyn, she noted, “There was this immense police presence and they were militarized. I’ve been part of an occupying force in a foreign country, and I know what that looks like. That’s what I saw in Brooklyn – an occupying force.” Whatever else can be said of her political convictions, opposition to the brutality of capitalism and its surveillance apparatuses are consistent themes, ones that are and in and of themselves of revolutionary character.

As we enter April and we draw closer to Pride Month, we must think of those trans people who will spend this time of celebration in the custody of a cruel state and heed the countless saccharine Christmas cards which extol us to “remember the reason for the season.” Our parades may begin with the traditional “dykes on bikes” contingent, the glorious roar of their machines an inspiring cry of outlaw gender expression and sexualities, ritually claiming the street from a culture of violent repression. But soon thereafter, the liberation that Chelsea Manning and all LGBTQIA2+ people so desperately need will be drowned out by the crass din of Empire and Capital. We will see floats from beer companies. We will endure the pandering of bourgeois politicians. And then the most egregious obscenity, in this yearly celebration of our liberation, will march LGBT police officer contingents. Too many in the crowd will cheer approvingly seeing “their own” among the ranks of the violent agencies whose mercilessness sparked the insurrection that was Stonewall.

When we see this disgusting appropriation of our revolutionary legacy draped in the ubiquitous kitsch of rainbow-colored paraphernalia, we must focus our attention on the stripe that bears the color of class war and revolution. We must look to the red stripe and remember that while celebratory and defiant dancing in the streets certainly took place during those nights of militant struggle half a century gone, it was not about that. Stonewall was a rebellion. It was a popular uprising. Stonewall was an early moment when the LGBTQIA2+ community said “no more” and fought the armed institution that enforced our subjugation. We fought against police terror. We fought to end incessant torture, rape, and murder from those who wear blue and cower behind a shield and a sidearm. These were nights when the fire of Molotov cocktails lit the darkness and a clash between police and revolutionaries raged.

Look to the stripe that is the color of the blood that was spilled that night, and do not fail to understand who this crowd consisted of. The Stonewall Inn was not the place of an elegant dinner party. This was a bar of the working class, of people living on the streets, of sex workers and people struggling for that next meal. Those who gathered there were largely people of color, and frequently existing under the trans umbrella. The bar was owned by organized crime and shaken down by police via their regular brutalizing of the patrons, and thereby denying the owners a night of profit. Yet, this was one of few places for an oppressed people to find solace and solidarity against a violently hostile world.

Look to the red stripe. Recall how Stonewall was a time where an ice-cold class war flared hot, marking a remarkable and previously unimaginable moment when those the police derided as “fairies” forced those despicable brutes for just a moment into retreat. We must remember our origins in militant counteroffensive rebellion.

Look to the red stripe and reflect on the power that flowed from oppressed peoples acting as one in common purpose and solidarity.

Look to the red stripe, and think of Chelsea Manning, sitting alone in a spartan cell, deprived of human connection for prolonged, indefinite periods. Think of her enduring what is recognized internationally as torture. Consider that her imprisonment is for laying bare the murderous depravity of history’s mightiest empire. Remember that her torture flows in part from her being transgender and is surely compounded by this reality. Remember that she chose to endure this again rather than collaborate with the malignant mechanizations of the capitalist state against all peoples seeking justice and liberation.

Chelsea Manning exposed imperialism’s  mercilessness and fell victim to its wrath. She was tortured and has suffered enduring trauma. Just by living true to her own understanding of her gender, she challenges its most sacred patriarchal taboos. As we understand her sacrifices to bring the empire’s crimes against humanity to light, we must understand these actions and her choices as revolutionary. If we properly understand her in this light, we must then heed the wisdom of the charismatic Black Panther Party Chairman Fred Hampton, Sr. who taught that, “You can jail a revolutionary, but you can’t jail revolution.”

Manning was an agent of the U.S. Empire who discovered evidence of its evils and made the moral decision to expose rather than abet it. She is a brave individual robbed of those years in which others in the empire may have the luxury to figure out their place in the world. She is once more a captive guarded by heavily armed agents of the state, living the chilling truth that the United States jails its dissidents and revolutionaries, but the revolution is, as it ever has been, in our hands.

Therefore, in the spirit of Stonewall, we will look to the red stripe in our rainbow banner this June, and every revolutionary will lift their voice as one and demand, “Chelsea Manning and all political prisoners must be free.”

And then, we’ll get to work for fighting for the liberation of all working and oppressed peoples of this Earth.

Ms. Manning can be written at:

Chelsea Elizabeth Manning
William G. Truesdale Adult Detention Center
2001 Mill Road, Alexandria, VA 22314

Letters must be on white paper with white envelopes.
Use black or blue ink.
Do not decorate the outside of the envelope.
Do not send cards, postcards, packages, photocopies, or cash.
Do not send books or magazines.

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