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21 Years Later, Guantánamo Is Still Open — And We Are Still Protesting

Above Photo: Witness Against Torture in front of the Capitol Building. Facebook / WAT.

Witness Against Torture continues to serve as a visible reminder to a forgetful U.S. public that Guantánamo is still a crime and an affront to humanity.

Guantánamo is 21 years old now. It can legally order a beer.

That is the line that rattled around my sleep-deprived, hungry head as I joined friends, old and new, for Witness Against Torture’s Fast for Justice this January.

It’s a glib and flippant line, but noting this quintessentially American milestone somehow seems fitting, given that Guantánamo is entirely an American-made disaster.

The prison that started out as a provisional, secret, slapdash gulag on the lee side of the Cuban state of Guantanamo is now a rebar-enforced institution with hundreds of millions of dollars flowing into it every year for a dwindling but entrenched population. It survives despite Supreme Court rulings against it, the accumulation of literally millions of billable hours by some of the best legal minds in the United States and Europe, decades of fervent and smart and courageous protest, and four presidents.

Witness Against Torture is a small part of that protest movement. We were founded in 2005, when 25 of us went to Cuba with the plan of marching to Guantánamo to see the prisoners. In the process, we would publicly violate the Bush administration’s travel related bans on Cuba and have an opportunity to draw attention to the treatment of “war on terror” prisoners while on trial. Denied entry to the U.S. Naval base at Guantánamo that at the time held more than 700 Muslim men and boys captive, we fasted and held a 24-hour-a-day vigil for five days, organized a press conference, called the base demanding to be let in, and ultimately left vowing to return.

Once back in the United States, we heard through their lawyers that the men at Guantánamo were aware of our protest and presence and that their hopes were renewed by our efforts. We then decided to focus our attention on state-side activism to ensure that the American people did not ignore the plight of the men.

We have been doing that ever since, organizing yearly mobilizations in Washington, D.C. around Jan. 11, the date in 2002 that the first plane load of men arrived shackled and blinded at Guantánamo. Each year, we fast, don orange jumpsuits, organize spectacle and disruption and public prayer to draw attention to the uniquely American criminality of labeling Muslim men and boys our enemy, visiting gross violence against their persons, refusing them due process, and wrapping it all in secrecy and euphemism — then telling the American people that these actions are carried out in the name of U.S. national security.

We returned to Cuba in 2015, in the twilight of the Obama administration, to give him one big push to do the right thing before moving out of the Oval Office. But nothing followed.

We were back in D.C. this month for the first time since January of 2020. It was good to be together, masked and a much smaller circle, but in person, within arms reach. We gathered to be a visible reminder to a forgetful U.S. public that Guantánamo is still open, still a crime, still an affront to humanity.

Courage, Muslim brothers

We started at the Pentagon, joining the Dorothy Day Catholic Worker community in the Monday morning vigil, a discipline they have held since 1987. We were 25 strong, wearing orange jumpsuits and carrying an array of well-worn signs, some dating back to the early days of our movement. In a single file, wreathed in a disciplined silence, we stood on the escalator as it slowly moved our group out of the depths of the station and into the early morning half light at the Pentagon.

The massive headquarters of U.S. war making was busy in the dawn hours. There was a queue of more than 100 Pentagon workers waiting to get through security as we walked by. Our mournful quiet, somber faces and “Shut Down Guantánamo” signs let them all know this was not just another manic Monday.

We sang, “Courage, Muslim brothers, you do not walk alone, we will walk with you, and sing your spirit home.”

The moon was nearly full, hanging bright in the sky as it got lighter and lighter. Facing the Pentagon, we watched the War Department turn from gray to an almost salmon pink in the early morning sun that rose over our shoulders during our hour of witness.

Many of us meditated on the moon — delighting in its beauty and its constancy of change, noting that the same moon hanging over the Pentagon shines down on our families back home and over the 35 men still languishing at Guantánamo. It also shined over all of the Witness Against Torture community fasting and witnessing in their own communities too.

“Courage, Muslim brothers, we seek your liberty, We will stand with you, until we all are free.”

I found myself hoping that our plaintive song would be an earworm, niggling into the brains of all who heard it. I imagined the workers — an enlisted woman in khaki and heavy boots, a maintenance man in his green and brown uniform, an office worker in ungainly heels — humming to themselves as they mopped or made copies or put graphics into PowerPoint presentations.

Not good enough

Later that day, I stood shoulder to shoulder with a dozen other people dressed in orange jumpsuits and black hoods, the afternoon sun pouring through the little holes in my hood. More often than now, the public who passed by as we stood in front of the Capitol murmured, “Guantánamo? What’s that?” or “I thought that closed a long time ago!”

It’s one of the reasons to be visible and public in our protest, something that couldn’t happen in the increasingly curated and echo-ey online spaces we inhabited during the pandemic.

Guantánamo is still open, and British journalist and campaigner Andy Worthington gave us the snapshot of “progress” on emptying the prison. He noted:

  • 779 men have been held at the prison since it opened on Jan. 11, 2002.
  • Under the administration of President George W. Bush, 532 men were released.
  • The Obama administration released 196.
  • One man was transferred out of Guantánamo in spite of President Trump’s obstructionism and Islamophobia during his time behind the Resolute Desk in the Oval Office.
  • So far, nearly two years into the Biden administration, five men have departed from Guantánamo.

“Not good enough,” Worthington said. After all the numbers and the data and the rapid-fire recounting of the myriad ways in which the Bush administration, Obama administration, Trump administration and Biden administration have failed the men at Guantánamo, their families and the rule of law, Worthington dropped this wisdom: In choosing to establish the “war on terror” prison at the U.S. Naval base at Guantánamo 21 years ago, “the United States created a category of humans who have no rights.”

Mic drop.

He meant that many of the hundreds of men released from Guanatanmo face a whole new set of problems once they depart. For many, it is a tenuous sort of freedom, leaving Guantánamo for uncertain and difficult futures in third nations where they are viewed — at best — as objects of fear and scrutiny. Many live far from their families, without passports or a way of earning a living. And there is no one in the United States who is responsible for safeguarding their rights or resolving the many issues that arise for them in new and strange countries.

This issue has been recently reported on by The Intercept and other outlets. Mansoor Adayfi, a Yemeni man imprisoned at Guantánamo for more than 14 years, is now living in Serbia. Adayfi, the author of the recently published “Don’t Forget Us Here,” told The Intercept, “Guantánamo doesn’t leave you as soon as you say: Hi, goodbye. Nope, it hasn’t finished with you yet. So we still live in Guantánamo 2.0.”

Over all these years, there is plenty of blame to go around. But, now, at the beginning of 2023, Worthington laid responsibility for closing Guantánamo — and transferring the men cleared for release out of the island prison — squarely at the feet of the current president, Joe Biden. “Biden and [Secretary of State] Blinken need to accept responsibility,” Worthington said. “They have two more years to get this done.”

Andy Worthington’s website is a rich trove of information, analysis and connection to the wider Close Guantánamo movement. Worthington calls on campaigners to focus on the cases of Moath Al-Alwi and Khalid Qasim in particular, two artists who have been cleared for release. They need the United States to arrange for safe settlement in new countries, as U.S. law bars them from returning to Yemen.

Al-Alwi was one of the first men brought to Guantánamo. A self taught and gifted artist, who makes fanciful models of boats, his work has been shown at John Jay College of Criminal Justice and was featured in a New York Times op-doc and elsewhere. In 2015, he penned a letter published in Al Jazeera, writing: “I hear the war in Afghanistan is over. This war was supposedly the reason I remained trapped, rotting in this endless horror at Guantánamo Bay. I write this letter today to ask, if this war has ended, why am I still here? Why has nothing changed?”

Qasim was only 25 when he was captured on his first trip outside of his home country and ended up in Guantánamo. There he paints vividly alive sea scenes and abstracts that express his deep frustration at his imprisonment. He has been at the prison for about half his life, and has spent seven years of his imprisonment on hunger strikes in protest.

Cleared for release, these men could be free tomorrow if the administration were serious about closing this grim chapter of our history.

Keep going, go deeper

On Jan. 11, 2023, I pulled a frayed orange jumpsuit up over my jeans and pulled a hood down over my hat. For 16 years, members of Witness Against Torture have been doing this awkward set of motions. You’d think we would be accustomed to it all by now, or good at it. But it stays awkward, and maybe it should because every year we suit up with the hope that there will not be another year to come.

Our Guantánamo walk on Jan. 11, 2023 was smaller than it has been in the past. But 15 of us in jumpsuits and hoods still cut a dramatic figure walking across Constitution Avenue. The weather was warm, our bellies were full from a quick but delicious breaking fast circle, and we were energized by the presentations we had the day before. Mansoor Adafyi, released from Guantánamo in 2016 and living alone and isolated in Serbia, shared in a Zoom call that the Witness Against Torture protests were part of what kept him going at Guantánamo: “We heard about you protesting at the White House, hunger striking and singing. And we knew that our voices were being heard, that people in the U.S. were speaking on our behalf.”

Dr. Maha Hilal, a researcher, organizer and author of “Innocent Until Proven Muslim,” called for deeper analysis and a rejection of false narratives and easy tropes of Guantánamo as a stain on America’s moral fabric or a recruiting tool for global jihadists. As she writes, “For a start, Americans must face that they endorsed forcing hundreds of Muslim men and boys into a dehumanizing prison, where torture was de rigueur, to provide themselves with a fleeting sense of safety — and then chose to look away as the abuses and innocence of many prisoners were exposed.”

James Yee was also somber. The former Army Muslim chaplain to the men at Guantánamo, shared his fear that Guantánamo will close “with the death of the last man held there.” But even as he was not optimistic about the Biden administration’s courage around Guantánamo, he rekindled our hope anew by reminding us that someone can hold onto their morals and humanity even when deployed to what Mansoor called the “place created outside of our humanity.” Yee paid a high price for that moral fortitude and writes about his experience of arrest, solitary confinement and ultimate exoneration and honorable discharge from the military in his memoir “For God and Country: Faith and Patriotism Under Fire.”

With this wisdom in our ears, we started out on the two-mile trek to the White House, single file, our vision obscured by the hood, aided in navigation by the hardest working activists. By not donning the hoods and jumpsuits, they sign up for a tough assignment: part chaperone, part guard, part leafletter, part photographer, part police liaison, part public interpreter.

Because we were a small and stalwart group, we permitted ourselves a little nostalgia. We paused at the Federal District Court, where in 2007, Witness Against Torture filled the atrium with more than 400 people and banners, signs and singing. Most people were arrested without identification, giving the names of Guantánamo prisoners as a way of bringing their names and identities into U.S. courts. We paused, remembering that action, the court case that followed and the friends we’ve lost since then: John Downing, presente! Jerimarie Liesegang, presente!

We paused again at the Department of (In)Justice, recalling the action in 2011 when 60 members of Witness Against Torture blocked all the entrances calling on then Attorney Gen. Eric Holder to release all the men from Guantánamo. Despite stopping the flow of traffic in and out of the building for the better part of two hours, the police declined to arrest anyone.

In 2016, we ringed the DOJ with a demonstration making the connections between the police murder of Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old Black boy playing in a Cleveland park and the Islamophobia that keeps Muslim men interred at Guantánamo. One of our banners was emblazoned with “Kill White Supremacy, Not Our Children #Justice4Tamir.”

We sang as we marched on towards the White House.

The walk seems to get longer every year, and marching along and singing under the black hood definitely left me winded and tired by the time we reached Lafayette Park across from the White House. But there was more to our day. We were met at the park by more activists and friends, and in short order were assembled as a line of 35 figures in orange jumpsuits and black hoods, each holding the name of one of the 35 men who remain at Guantánamo. Banners with messages like “Close Guantánamo” and “Justice for Guantánamo Survivors” lay on the ground.

The whole rally, which was short and to the point, was live streamed. Maha Hilal and James Yee both spoke. Witness Against Torture organizer Herb Geraghty emceed and dealt with an array of technical difficulties and surprises with calm aplomb, including the untimely death of our sound system. Herb drew the audiences’ attention to the effort to raise money for the Guantánamo Survivors Fund — to support those men who have left Guantánamo but remain in third countries, unable to work or travel or get adequate medical care.

Our “only-in-Lafayette-Park-moment” of the year occurred when the imam was offering a beautiful closing prayer without the benefit of a sound system just as someone out of Pennsylvania Avenue had cued up “I Can’t Get No Satisfaction,” by the Rolling Stones at a teeth shuddering volume.

It was distracting and annoying, but it occurs to me that it is a good anthem for the long frustration of 21 years of Guantánamo — and 16 years of coming to the White House to mark Jan. 11 as a day of national shame. Maybe not the whole song, but at least the “Cause I try, and I try, and I try, and I try” part.

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