Free Chelsea Manning now

August 26, 2013

Whistleblower Chelsea Manning's decision to come out as transgender should deepen the commitment of every activist to fight for her freedom, writes Katrina Bacome.

IN EARLY 2010, Chelsea Manning, then known as Bradley Manning, made a decision that would alter the course of her life forever.

Manning was a Specialist in the U.S. Army at the time, and her position as an intelligence analyst gave her access to the contemptible reality beneath the shiny veneer of America's wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Over the course of several months, Manning passed along hundreds of thousands of documents and materials to WikiLeaks, an organization which provides an anonymous way for whistleblowers to get important information into the hands of the public.

In the documents that would become known as the Iraq War Logs and the Afghanistan War Logs, Manning exposed the military's standing orders to ignore the many allegations of physical and sexual abuse and torture of detainees perpetrated by the Iraqi Security Forces. She exposed contractors trafficking children in Afghanistan, and many instances in both countries where large numbers of civilian casualties went conveniently unreported between 2004 and 2009.

A protest for Chelsea Manning (then known as Bradley Manning) outside Fort Meade
A protest for Chelsea Manning (then known as Bradley Manning) outside Fort Meade (Stephen D. Melkisethian)

Released by WikiLeaks in April 2010, the now infamous "Collateral Murder" video shows civilians and journalists being indiscriminately slaughtered in a Baghdad air assault in July 2007. Manning spoke of this incident in a statement she made during the proceedings:

They [the Aerial Weapons Team] dehumanized the individuals they were engaging and seemed to not value human life, and referred to them as quote-unquote "dead bastards," and congratulated each other on their ability to kill in large numbers. At one point in the video, there is an individual on the ground attempting to crawl to safety. The individual is seriously wounded. Instead of calling for medical attention to the location, one of the aerial weapons team crew members verbally asks for the wounded person to pick up a weapon so that he can have a reason to engage. For me, this seemed similar to a child torturing ants with a magnifying glass.

While saddened by the aerial weapons team crew's lack of concern about human life, I was disturbed by the response of the discovery of injured children at the scene. In the video, you can see a bongo truck driving up to assist the wounded individual. In response the aerial weapons team crew assumes the individuals are a threat. They repeatedly request for authorization to fire on the bongo truck, and once granted, they engage the vehicle at least six times.

In addition to revealing these disturbing truths, Manning brought to light secret U.S. drone strikes carried out in Yemen, as well as the fact that Egypt's State Security Investigation Service, a wing of the police force which has committed obscene human rights violations, received training from the FBI.

Chelsea Manning was demoted from Specialist to Private First Class just three days before her arrest in May 2010. In an article from, Nicole Colson explained the conditions Manning faced while awaiting trial:

Before the court-martial began, Manning spent three years imprisoned, including more than nine months subjected to inhumane conditions that included solitary confinement, sleep deprivation and being forced to strip naked in front of guards each night. Incredibly, U.S. officials claimed at the time that this was for Manning's "protection." It took a public outcry and a call from UN Special Rapporteur on Torture Juan Mendez, Amnesty International and others before these deplorable conditions were finally eased.

Imprisonment up until the court-martial was a brutal display of intimidation and dehumanization, but the trial itself was a spectacle that would daunt any person. Manning was charged with 22 offenses under the Uniform Code of Military Justice, the most dangerous of which was the charge of "aiding the enemy." Had she been found guilty of aiding the enemy, it could have meant life in prison. Despite the Obama administration's desperate attempts to circumvent any reasonable justice by declaring, even before the court-martial began, that Manning was guilty, she was ultimately acquitted of this charge.

MANNING HAS now been found guilty of 20 offenses, including theft, fraud and six specifications under the Espionage Act, and sentenced to 35 years in prison. In an editorial on the day of sentencing, the unparalleled severity of Chelsea Manning's punishment was rightly questioned by Britain's Guardian newspaper:

[Chelsea] Manning has received a prison sentence that was 10 years longer than the period of time after which many of the documents [she] released would have been automatically declassified. The military judge handed down the longest ever sentence for a leak of U.S. government information.

[Ms.] Manning, according to this logic, did more harm than the soldier who gave a Jordanian intelligence agent information on the build-up to the first Iraq war, or the Marine who gave the KGB the identities of CIA agents and floor plans of the embassies in Moscow and Vienna. [Ms.] Manning did three times as much harm in transmitting to WikiLeaks in 2010 the war logs or field reports from Iraq and Afghanistan, as Charles Graner did. He was the army reserve corporal who became ringleader of the Abu Ghraib abuse ring and was set free after serving six and a half years of his 10-year sentence.

What has become abundantly clear during this course of events is that the Obama administration is waging an absurdly overzealous war on whistleblowers, and has no qualms about demanding overly harsh punishments to protect its dirty deeds. The Espionage Act of 1917, which was originally intended to stifle dissent over the First World War, seems to be the weapon of choice in this campaign.

As Glenn Greenwald commented on Obama's abuse of the statute when the U.S. government charged NSA leaker Edward Snowden with three felonies, two of which were under the Espionage Act:

Prior to Barack Obama's inauguration, there were a grand total of three prosecutions of leakers under the Espionage Act (including the prosecution of Dan Ellsberg by the Nixon [Department of Justice]). That's because the statute is so broad that even the U.S. government has largely refrained from using it. But during the Obama presidency, there are now seven such prosecutions: more than double the number under all prior U.S. presidents combined. How can anyone justify that?

For a politician who tried to convince Americans to elect him based on repeated pledges of unprecedented transparency and specific vows to protect "noble" and "patriotic" whistleblowers, is this unparalleled assault on those who enable investigative journalism remotely defensible?

CHELSEA MANNING is a courageous woman. She is a heroine in the fight against the secrets and lies of U.S. imperialism. She deserves our respect and gratitude for putting herself at great personal risk in order to stir debate around America's nefarious activities in Iraq, Afghanistan, and around the world.

What Chelsea Manning does not deserve, what no human being deserves, is transphobia. She does not deserve to have her credibility, her sanity, or her "motives" questioned by a media that, in large part, willfully uses the incorrect name and pronouns while reporting on Manning's gender identity.

The day after she was sentenced, Manning said in a statement:

I want to thank everybody who has supported me over the last three years. Throughout this long ordeal, your letters of support and encouragement have helped keep me strong. I am forever indebted to those who wrote to me, made a donation to my defense fund, or came to watch a portion of the trial. I would especially like to thank Courage to Resist and the Bradley Manning Support Network for their tireless efforts in raising awareness for my case and providing for my legal representation.

As I transition into this next phase of my life, I want everyone to know the real me. I am Chelsea Manning. I am a female. Given the way that I feel, and have felt since childhood, I want to begin hormone therapy as soon as possible. I hope that you will support me in this transition. I also request that, starting today, you refer to me by my new name and use the feminine pronoun (except in official mail to the confinement facility). I look forward to receiving letters from supporters and having the opportunity to write back.

Thank you,
Chelsea E. Manning

Chelsea Manning, like many transgender women, will be serving her sentence at a men's prison, the United States Disciplinary Barracks (USDB) at Fort Leavenworth in Kansas. Officials for the USDB were quick to point out that as a military prisoner, Manning will not have any access to the hormone therapy she needs.

Denial of transition-related medical care and discrimination on the basis of gender identity is all too commonplace in America's prison system. Just last year, activists and supporters of CeCe McDonald, who was imprisoned for defending herself against a group of transphobic and racist attackers, had to stage a call-in campaign to pressure the prison where McDonald was housed to correctly administer the hormones she had a valid prescription for, as well as a court order allowing. She was prescribed 20 milligrams, but the prison would only give her 6 milligrams. Any change in the dosage of hormones carries a significant risk of serious side effects.

In 2011, a lawsuit forced the Federal Bureau of Prisons to amend its policies and allow transgender people who are incarcerated to access basic medical care, including hormone therapy, in federal prisons. State prisons, however, operate under a different set of rules and have a variety of responses to trans health care needs, most of which still infringe on the rights of trans people and put their health and safety at risk.

In order for a transgender person to be placed in a prison that aligns with their gender, and not the sex they were assigned at birth, typically, it is required that the person be "fully transitioned" by surgical means. This crude attempt to police genitalia ignores the needs and circumstances of a sizable portion of the trans population.

Not all transgender people want surgery, and the implication that you cannot be fully transitioned unless your body is surgically altered only adds to the stigma against trans people and trans bodies. For transgender people who do want and need surgery, the high out-of-pocket costs render these procedures inaccessible, especially given that trans people suffer double the rates of poverty and unemployment of those of the general population.

A National Transgender Discrimination Survey titled "Injustice at Every Turn" further explains some of the experiences transgender and gender non-conforming people face within the criminal justice system:

One-fifth (22 percent) of respondents who have interacted with police reported harassment by police due to bias, with substantially higher rates (29-38 percent) reported by respondents of color.

Six percent (6 percent) reported physical assault and 2 percent reported sexual assault by police officers because they were transgender or gender non-conforming.

Twenty percent (20 percent) reported denial of equal service by police.

Almost half of the respondents (46 percent) reported being uncomfortable seeking police assistance.

While 7 percent of the sample reported being held in a cell due to their gender identity/expression alone, these rates skyrocketed for Black (41 percent) and Latino/a (21 percent) respondents.

Respondents who served time in jail reported harassment by correctional officers (37 percent) more often than harassment by peers (35 percent).

Physical and sexual assault in jail/prison is a real problem: 16 percent of respondents who had been to jail or prison reported being physically assaulted and 15 percent reported being sexually assaulted. African American respondents reported much higher rates of physical and sexual assault in prison, by other inmates and corrections officers, than their counterparts.

Health care denial was another form of abuse in prison, with 12 percent of people who had been in jails or prisons reporting denial of routine health care and 17 percent reporting denial of hormones.

Radicals have been very vocal about our support for whistleblowers like Chelsea Manning. We must be equally vocal about the rights, health and safety of all transgender and gender non-conforming people, both in and out of prison.

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