I am finding it difficult to write this brief reflection from my J11 experience at the Fast for Justice in DC. Not because I have nothing to say, I usually have too many thoughts to keep up with. I struggle with the idea of sharing my perspective. This information isn’t new or special especially to a community who has been witnessing for years. I don’t know nearly enough and am aware that I never will but I am grateful for the chance to continue learning and growing with you all. I want to say my ability to be arrested was a privilege and isn’t deserving of praise. I knew my body would be safe and I would make it out of January 11 alive and essentially unscathed. Emotionally different but nonetheless safe. I am not comfortable with the idea of praise for these actions mainly because our resistance is necessary and urgent. I am grateful to honor what we are doing and our intentions but we must remember there is always much more to be done.
“Freedom should be much more precious for the human being than all the desires on earth and we should never give it up regardless of how expensive the price must be.” -Tariq Ba Odah
I won’t go into detail of why the confirmation of Jeff Sessions’ for the position of essentially the “people’s lawyer” was greatly contested. I am grateful our community at Witness Against Torture was part of that resistance. At that time we knew Sessions was an exemplary “Tough on Crime” candidate with a reprehensible record, including his support of the use of torture. His two day hearing was interrupted by many activists protesting and bringing to light his trail of racist, sexist, and xenophobic sentiments. WAT headed to the hearings on January 11 with a clear message; NO TORTURE SESSIONS.
I woke up on January 11 heavy. I felt grateful to wake up surrounded by community and ready to act but still vigilant in the need to slow down and reflect on what this day meant. 15 years of destruction of human dignity.
I drank my tea from the porcelain cup belonging to Musab Omar Ali. A Yemeni man, captured on September 11, 2002, held without charge for 14 years. (I now know he was transferred to Oman on January 16.) I felt heavy for many reasons but mostly because I knew our fast was an act of solidarity with hunger strikers, but when we are free to eat again they continue to languish and wait in uncertainty.
After breaking our fast and spending time reflecting together the handful of us planning to interrupt congressional hearings headed out. I was given strength knowing there were other actions my WAT family would participate in, simultaneous to our own. They would be taking over the streets and eventually the Hart Senate Building to publicly mourn the 9 men who died while imprisoned at Guantánamo and continue to demand its closure.
We made our way to the building and stand in the rotunda area waiting in line until a group of police lead us up the marble staircase to the hearing room. One police officer almost amusingly asks “you’re not gonna make any trouble are you?” to which our small group gently chuckles and brushes the comment off, and I simply shake my head. Similarly to what people must feel when they see a dozen orange jumpsuits in the streets of DC, my thoughts are jarred by the mundane “business as usual” approach of those who traverse these halls of congress. Their complete disconnect to the consequences their actions have on real live people.
We are led into the hearing room through a pair of massive wooden doors and I immediately hear the voice of Civil Rights Champion John Lewis. I quietly find one of the few open seats scattered throughout the room keeping my eyes on where my friends are able to find seats.
I am nervous and trying to remember my words, the words of the men, and why I am here. I am brought back to the where I am by Lewis, and his words as they ring throughout the room “But we need someone who is gonna stand up, speak up and speak out for the people…” Although this felt like as good of time as any to stand up, I looked around at my fellow WAT members and their eyes didn’t meet mine. I sat patiently.
Next up to speak was former U.S. Marshal Jesse Seroyer, he begins by speaking in support of Sessions and I once again feel the anger boiling. “He’s a good and decent man,” he said, “He believes in law and order for all people.” Again here is this narrative of “good”, the false belief that our country has somehow ever operated under “equal justice for all”. The idea that decency comes from your ability to sign policies of destruction and discrimination, all with a smile on your face. The man finishes speaking and I am at the edge of my seat. I wait for my friend Don to stand up,“Close Gitmo, Stop Torture”, he is calling out as he is removed swiftly from the room. My mind constantly wondering ‘Who are the real troublemakers here?’
As soon as the door closes I stand up shaking, with my anger outweighing my nervousness. Our point is to disrupt as much as possible and not let business continue. I pull out my sign which reads “We The People Must Do More To End War” and start speaking. I am trying to collapse the worlds between people sitting in this room and the human beings I have spent my week focusing on. Human beings sitting in cages. I make sure I am making eye contact with as many people as possible. I couldn’t tell you what I said, the words came out of my mouth and just as soon evaporated from my mind. I know it was about the men and their families, the humanity we refuse to acknowledge.
I am quickly and forcefully pulled through the large wooden doors. My sign is taken from me and the only words my brain catches, as my hands are tightly bound behind my back, are “I thought you told me you weren’t gonna cause any trouble?” My brain is reeling, as it always is when I spend time in places where “Justice” happens.
I am mostly infuriated by the toothless words used to defend evil systems. The banal way people sit behind desks and walls writing policies that will deny dignity and still feel able to claim that they are operating under the values of “liberty and freedom”.
I am taken downstairs where I find Don and we give each other warm glances. I speak freely with my arresting officer, occasionally she responds or nods as she continues to remove all my belongings and pats me down. It is both my first arrest and the first time she has arrested someone. I can tell she is nervous, as she makes comments looking for ways to demonize us and justify her work.
We were put into the back of a van and we waited. My anxiety ebbed and flowed as I am not a fan of tight spaces. I try to collapse the worlds again and refocus on liberation and the men. There is no comparison to my time confined and the suffering these men and so many others have been subjected to. I gently sing some of the songs we have shared throughout the week and they bring me comfort. We sit and wait. Eventually making it to the police station where we are brought inside. I find great comfort in the large group of familiar and loving faces, the festival of resistance. We spend many hours together discussing the actions and passing the time as we are individually processed and booked. Experiences there are ones I hold close and reflect on as I continue to look at the system in both an institutional and interpersonal lens, (there is too much to share on these thoughts for this ‘brief’ reflection.)
I end my day heading back to First Trinity Lutheran Church where I am greeted with love and community. I have similar feelings now to how I began the day: grateful but still vigilant. The real troublemakers continue unscathed while so many under the control of this unmerciful system feel hopeless.
Looking back at Sessions, one of many in the long line of creeps that were confirmed. Our fears about him were sadly, but not surprisingly, true. Most recently, he advised Trump on increasing the population at Guantanamo stating “it’s just a very fine place for holding these kind of dangerous criminals.” The deception and outright lies continue.
The canyons seem to be widening. And the destruction of dignity is raging unabated. It can be hard to get through a day. I am given strength when I think about my time with Witness Against Torture. The necessity of being rooted in the stories, words, and art from the men in Guantanamo are the things which continue to guide me and keep me going. I hold onto the responsibility we each have in creating the world we all deserve. It will take courage to continue but because of all the beautiful resistance I have witnessed I will continue to hope and resist.