Chelsea Manning is currently serving the 6th year of a 35 year prison sentence due to her involvement in a massive military security breach in May of 2010. This breach involved a leak of hundreds of thousands of documents detailing u.s. war crimes in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as thousands of documents exposing torture and other crimes against humanity committed throughout the Third World by the u.s. For her involvement in the leak, she was charged with “aiding the enemy” and branded a traitor to amerika. After her trial that she came out as a transgender woman, something that she had avoided previously because as she felt it would distract from the real purpose of her case: to alert the world to the atrocities she had witnessed the united states military engage in routinely. In leaking this information, she had become an enemy of the united states government. Now, 6 years after her arrest, she is appealing her original sentence on the grounds that it is both cruel and unprecedented.
Conditions of Her Imprisonment
Since her arrest, she has been kept in relative isolation, unable to communicate, except by letter, to the outside world. Even the sparse information we do receive is likely clouded by military censorship and other bureaucratic measures to ensure her condition is “appropriately” reported. While the government certainly cannot restrict all information—as they were not able to control the information regarding her torture while incarcerated in Kuwait—they certainly can have an impact on what we do hear from her.
Though what of her condition? For 6 years she has not only been kept isolated in solitary confinement in military prisons, but she has been held in men’s facilities and exclusively guarded—and tortured—by male soldiers. In her current venue of imprisonment she has been prevented from growing her hair past the standard male military haircut (2 inches), an attack on her rights that is specifically related to her being transgender. Though, for someone such as herself, a traitor and a queer, it is considered a fitting condition for her holding. After all, she has betrayed the u.s. in favor of those it has long worked to hold down.
Though, can it be said that she is a particularly important prisoner politically? Seemingly, her treatment serves no purpose other than to remind her of the crimes she committed against the world’s #1 criminals: the bloodthirsty amerikan imperialists. For the sake of her conscious commitment to the people whose countries have been occupied and whose people have been murdered, she has been branded a traitor to the united states. Perhaps, though, she is a traitor. Certainly it would seem every conviction which has led her to this decision would appear entirely out of character for a soldier, let alone an imperialist one.
A Martyr or a Traitor?
This raises an important question on the nature of her actions; the entire military command structure has already labeled them treacherous and unamerikan. President Obama himself affirmed her guilt before the court had even come to a decision, inappropriately wielding his authority over those carrying out the proceedings (which should have resulted in an immediate mistrial). It would seem, anyway, that many groups have already made the decision on this question: to them she is a traitor. Though, in this respect, her accusers are spot on. She certainly has not been loyal to the imperialist warmongers who ordered, defended, and attempted to actively cover for the war crimes being knowingly committed throughout the world by their loyal soldiers. However the seeming correctness of their appraisal of her actions has not denied the fact that she is a martyr. Perhaps not to them, but to all those people who have witnessed and suffered underneath the looming threat of the imperialist amerikan war machine.
She is both a traitor and a martyr. Not because the imperialist military structure says so, but because she actively betrayed not only the interests of the leadership which she was serving, but the interests of her nation and class. This of course makes her a traitor, but in the context of her nation being the principal enemy of the majority of the world, she has placed herself in good company. Beyond that she has presented herself not only as a symbol for amerikan resistance to the genocidal policy of its criminal leadership, but as an icon of 21st century resistance for the queer community, having defied the military command as well as having accepted a discharge over remaining in the closet. For these reasons, she has demonstrated herself to be a friend of the global majority, and her actions—as well as the price she has paid for them—to be sincere solidarity to them.
The Struggle for Political Prisoners
Now should be a time for action. Still today so many political prisoners who have bravely resisted the global tyranny of the united states remain imprisoned for decades or even until the end of their lives. Chelsea is only one example of a long history of inhuman torture and imprisonment, while those such as Mumia and Peltier remain behind bars after more than 30 years. We cannot forget the struggles of political prisoners so long as they remain imprisoned; not only because of the inhuman conditions which they face, but in order to keep the spirit of their actions for which they were locked away by the imperialist fatherland, alive. For Chelsea, this presents a particular opportunity and responsibility among those in the queer community. She represents not only a sister of ours who has been tortured and isolated for years, but someone who has waged an important struggle against amerikan imperialism which we should not forget.
What Chelsea Manning’s struggle means for the queer community is an opportunity to bring together our political energy toward an internationalist perspective. We must remember why it is that she has been imprisoned, not simply who she is. She has been imprisoned for exposing of the real face of u.s. imperialism to an amerikan public who—aware that they benefit directly from such imperialism—could not have cared less. The struggle for her freedom is not simply about Chelsea Manning as an individual anymore than the struggle for any political prisoner’s freedom has been. Her struggle represents an opportunity to broaden the minds of people to include the struggles of the Global South, which have been absent from discourse on queer/women’s liberation, in the future of the movement for revolutionary change.
It is not enough simply to vigh for the freedom of Chelsea Manning as an individual because she is transgender. To limit it to this would be missing the point of why it is she was incarcerated in the first place, and further obscuring the united states’ relation to the Global South. We must instead strive to be traitors like Chelsea, to betray the interests of the country which has not only abused and tortured queer people for so many decades, but which has swallowed up and exploited entire nations for the benefit of the people here. To really understand the significance of Chelsea as an icon for queer liberation, we must first learn to understand queer liberation as inseparable from anti-imperialism. Thus we should work in any way we can to liberate her from imperialist custody and integrate ourselves and the movement for queer liberation entirely with the movement against imperialism.
Free Chelsea Manning!