by the World Can’t Wait writers group
Refusing to surrender to the passivity and moral relativism of the current political landscape, activists in New York City took a determined and inspired stand against torture on May 28. Scores of protesters—about half of whom wore orange jumpsuits and black hoods to symbolize those tortured by our government—took part in a captivating and evocative day of action to demand prosecutions of Bush war criminals and the release of roughly 2000 torture photos that President Barack Obama is suppressing.
The day, already crucial because it was part of a series of actions World Can’t Wait organized in 16 cities across the country raising these same demands, took on additional importance because of three major developments during the previous week:
- On May 21, Obama and Dick Cheney gave “dueling national security speeches,” in which Cheney overtly defended torture on the grounds that it saved American lives, while Obama sought to legitimize the fundamentals of Bush’s torture and detention program by shrouding them in a mist of constitutional rhetoric.
- In the process, Obama took a fascist step that even Bush had never taken explicitly; he asserted the right to implement indefinite preventive detention.
- On May 27, the Daily Telegraph reported that the photos Obama is covering up include those showing the U.S. military raping prisoners. Then, on May 28 itself—the day by which the Obama administation had originally promised to release the photos—the Justice Department instead filed a motion with an Appeals Court to block the images.
At Grand Central: Piercing the Normalcy with a Demand for Justice
At 5:00 pm, 22 resisters formed a line of “detainees” in the jumpsuits and hoods. The procession entered one of the busiest and most famous places in the world—Grand Central Station. The protester leading the detainees yelled to bystanders: “These detainees are being taken by the U.S. government to Guantanamo! We can hold them forever without charges! President Obama just proposed prolonged detention!” The line of detainees headed for one of the two ornate staircases in the Grand Central Grand Concourse.
Once at the top of the steps, the protesters unfurled a large black banner with bright orange letters that screamed, “TORTURE=WAR CRIME/ PROSECUTE!” and one that said “RELEASE TORTURE PHOTOS!” A large hand-made sign brought by an artist, joined the others with the message: “F*CK YOO; BYE BYE BYBEE!; BURY BRADBURY; SUBTRACT ADDINGTON; GONE-ZALES; CHASE CHENEY”
Other protesters, including the detainees, held enlargements of three of the Abu Ghraib photos released by Australian media of a naked prisoner being attacked with dogs, a guard punching a group of detainees, and a detainee shackled in an extremely painful stress position.
As the banners and signs were dropped over the balcony, a round of applause erupted from spectators in the terminal below. The demonstrators then began loudly chanting: “TORTURE IS A WAR CRIME—PROSECUTE!” and “FACE THE TRUTH –RELEASE THE PHOTOS!”
The demonstration, visible from the other end of the grand concourse, attracted hundreds of people at a time who gathered to watch the demonstration and to take photographs. Some stopped for only a few seconds, and some for longer. Hundreds were gathered at any one time and many thousands observed the action.
Media from Reuters and PBS filmed the protest. Obama’s motion to block the torture photos was the lead story on the next morning’s episode of Democracy Now, and the piece included audio and video footage of the demonstration, featuring scenes of the detainees marching through Grand Central.
The program showed World Can’t Wait spokesperson Samantha Goldman rebuking Obama’s rationale that blocking the photos was necessary to stem anti-American sentiment. “What inflames anti-American sentiment is U.S. military bases around the world,” Goldman said. “What inflames anti-U.S. sentiment is torture. It’s what we’re
actually going over there to do. That’s what inflames anti-American sentiment.”
Those participating in the demonstration included students from the Hunter College Campus Anti-War Network (CAN) and others from the Borough of Manhattan Community College (BMCC), one of which was attending his first-ever protest, and felt particularly compelled to act given the revelation that some of the torture photos depicted rape.
The demonstration certainly fired up reactionaries as well. A veteran of the U.S. military in his early 30s approached the protesters and quoted from the Dick Cheney Bible: Torture is necessary to save American lives; you people don’t understand what is really going on; unless you were there, how do you know what’s happening?
A former Marine who was among the demonstrators angrily denounced what the other veteran was saying, and a heated debate ensued. “I came back [from the war] and I
learned something,” the protester. “Apparently, you didn’t.”
Overall, the demonstration at Grand Central drew forth sharply polarized reactions: Some people booed the protesters, openly insisted that torture was required to save American lives, or said that releasing the photos would ensure another attack on the U.S. However, in addition to those who cheered when the banners were unfurled, many observers and
photographers came by to thank the participants for taking a stand against torture.
On to Greet the War Criminals
After about an hour, the detainees filed out of Grand Central Station. Next stop was the Union League Club, where David Petraeus—commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan and Iraq—was receiving an award for “distinguished public service.” A public service award for the architect of the 2007 troop surge in Iraq? For a leading general in wars that have resulted in one million Iraqis murdered, millions more displaced, and at least thousands tortured and indefinitely detained? To be presented by John Negroponte, Bush’s former U.S. Ambassador to the U.N., and then to Iraq? NO THANK YOU! To add to this spectacle, war criminal Hall-of-Famer Henry Kissinger was on hand as well.
As they arrived, a small group of pro-military, pro-torture flag-wavers was on the scene, standing behind a police barricade, holding a banner that declared: “I [love] GITMO. LOCK THE TERRORISTS AWAY.”
As three resisters conducted a waterboarding demonstration, demonstrators held large orange banners that read, “NO EXCUSE FOR TORTURE! Prosecute Bush Regime War Criminals!” and “War Criminal Free Zone,” along with mug-shot posters of Petraeus and Negroponte, Abu Ghraib photographs, and signs reading , “RELEASE THE TORTURE PHOTOS!” and “Waterboarding is torture.” While pedestrian traffic was very limited, a high volume of cars passed by during the protest, and several honked their horns in support.
The initial demonstration in front of the Union League Club concluded with a speak-out in which participants talked about why they felt compelled to turn out and resist torture, and to demand prosecutions and the release of the photos. A Vietnamese woman drew parallels between U.S. torture, and the torture that her grandfather endured at the hands of French occupiers.
As they departed the police-imposed protest “pen,” the demonstrators marched very slowly, lingering across the street from the entrance of the Union League Club until ordered to move by the police. Given the presence of vicious war criminals in their midst, the group was not ready to go home. They felt they had still not been heard inside the Union League Club, so they circled the block and marched back towards the Club. As they approached it, cops grabbed World Can’t Wait’s Director, Debra Sweet, and held her for several minutes, eventually giving her a disorderly conduct citation and releasing her.
As attendees started to stream out, the protesters chanted “Arrest the war criminals!” and “Shame on you!” Loud agitation called out the crimes of Petraeus, Negroponte and Kissinger. The crowd filtering out of the club, which consisted largely of older people, was visibly taken aback by the demonstrators’ presence.
A Repudiation; an Inspiration, and a Challenge
To fully appreciate the importance of May 28 actions in New York, it is worth stepping back and reflecting on the political climate in which these actions took place.
We are currently living in a society in which the knowledge that our government authorized drowning human beings, slamming them into walls, cramming them into boxes, and shackling them in incredibly painful positions for days a time is not greeted with immediate and widespread howls of protest. We are living in a country in which massive numbers of people barely seem to bat an eye when they discover that their government is hiding photos of U.S. soldiers raping prisoners. We are faced with a national discourse that treats torture as a “debate,” with many Americans unwilling to say that torture is always a crime, whether or not it produces information.
We are offered a “choice” between Dick Cheney and Barack Obama’s visions of morality, both of which are founded on the principle that American lives must be protected at any and all costs, no matter how horrifically the rest of the world has to suffer in the process. We are confronted with a pervasive lack of understanding that the perpetrators of crimes against humanity must be held accountable in order to prevent recurrence of these crimes, and in order to grant justice to the victims.
Given all of this, it is tremendously important that demonstrators delivered an unequivocal, uncompromising, and visually stirring indictment of the U.S. torture state, and raised a clear demand that the architects of this torture state be prosecuted. Taking such a stand, in a visible and perseverant manner, has the potential to slice through the ambiguity and American chauvinism enveloping our society, compelling others to resist as well.
More broadly, the dedicated, visible, and unwavering resistance that demonstrators in New York modeled on May 28 must now be replicated exponentially, along with the defiant spirit that fueled this resistance, in order to inspire still larger numbers of people to step up and demand an immediate end to the crimes of their government.