OWS Takes a Road Trip for Bradley Manning, Brings Baggage

December 17th, 2011 was a big day for the Occupy Movement: the three month anniversary of Occupy Wall Street; one year since Mohamed Bouazizi’s self-immolation that sparked the Tunisian revolution and in turn the Arab Spring, and the 24th birthday of PFC Bradley Manning, the US army intelligence analyst accused of giving WikiLeaks the information that led to Bouazizi’s act and the events that followed.

These are the events I outlined to the New York City General Assembly by means of introducing our proposal to fund a bus trip from Occupy Wall Street to Fort Meade, Maryland, for Bradley Manning’s Article 32 pre-trial hearing on December 16th. On that freezing Saturday night, I didn’t predict that the trip, which was unanimously passed by the GA that night, would end up being dominated by yet another theme central to the Occupy movement: patriarchy.

In retrospect, though, I suppose I could have guessed. Since becoming the coordinator of CODEPINK’s “Hands Off WikiLeaks” campaign seven months ago I’ve struggled with the degree to which the WikiLeaks community is dominated by men. Sure, there are plenty of female, queer and transgendered Bradley Manning supporters, but we are a tiny and much more disparate group than the overwhelmingly male Anonymous crowd with their vast network of Guy Fawkes mask-wearing followers. That now ubiquitous mask, which universalizes the white male as the default “anonymous” identity, will never represent me.

So when my friend Clark put me in touch with two women interested in organizing a bus trip from Occupy Wall Street to Fort Meade for Bradley Manning’s pre-trial hearing, I was immediately on board. As soon as I met Alexa O’Brien, a writer for wlcentral.org and Heather Squire, former coordinator of OWS’ off-site kitchen, I could tell they meant business. In less than a week, and with what must be an OWS record of just one 1.5 hour meeting, we had the bus on the road.

OWS On The Road

Friday, December 16, 5:00 am: I’m happy to see a few familiar faces arrive, including Arona Kessler, whom I first met at a Bradley Manning rally in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, last summer. As people get settled, I stand at the front of the bus to do a head count. It’s only at this point that I truly grasp just how few other women are on board: seven out of a total 39 passengers. Eight if I count Elaine, our busdriver — and soon to be guardian angel. As if on cue, a man a few seats back fixes me with a vacant, sloppy stare, shouting “are you going to be our personal escort?” I pause, tell him I find his comment offensive, and proceed with the roll call, feeling more and more like a disgruntled schoolteacher on a class field trip.

It’s going to be a long ride.

After taking what will become a defining feature of the trip — a ten-block detour to loop back and pick up one more straggler — we are finally on our way. I curl up on my seat, hoping to add to the one hour of sleep I managed to catch in between preparing for the trip and heading to Liberty Plaza at 4:00 am. Immediately, the sound of Creedence Clearwater Revival crescendos from the back of the bus. Deciding there is no rational explanation, I decide to ignore it as a hallucination. Then the fighting begins. Several people shout turn it down, turn it off, with no effect. An irate white-haired man, whom I later identify as veteran gay rights activist Jim Fouratt, paces the aisle. “Who’s in charge here?” Deliriously tired, I lamely mutter something about “leaderless movement” and look back at Heather. She is either sleeping or pretending to sleep. She’s been up all night making sandwiches for the trip and I don’t blame her one bit. Alexa is already half way to Fort Meade, having traveled separately in order to arrive early and attend the hearing as a citizen journalist. I sigh and head to the back of the bus, where a group of about six or so men are sitting expectantly, one of them wielding the offending ipod. I am unsurprised to find they stink like whiskey. After about ten minutes of painful negotiations, during which they argue they shouldn’t have to “suffer” because some people “weren’t smart enough” to sleep before getting on the bus, they grudgingly agree to turn off the music “for a while.”

Taking Fort Meade

We arrive at Fort Meade military base just after 9 am and are promptly directed by scores of police cars to the “protest corner” outside the main gate. I’m relieved and delighted to find Joan Stallard, a long time CODEPINK member, among the 60 or so people gathered. I introduce her to Arona, who proudly displays her CODEPINK t-shirt with the same Gloria Steinem quote as our sign, “The truth will set you free, but first it will piss you off.” After getting breakfast and the vigil underway I search for Emma Cape, the Campaign Organizer for the Bradley Manning Support Network, who greets me with a big hug. We are both eager to attend the hearing and head towards the base to try to get in the courtroom at the first recess. A few other bus passengers follow suit.

As we wait for clearance to enter the base, TV screens broadcast the news that Bradley’s attorney, David Coombs, has asked for the officer presiding over the hearing, Army Lt. Col. Paul Almanza, to be recused. Almanza had denied all but two of the defense’s requested witnesses while approving all 20 requested by the government. Since Almanza is also an employee of the Department of Justice, Coombs is arguing he cannot be an impartial judge in the case.

The mile-long walk to the base’s courthouse feels like a pilgrimage, with every step bringing us closer to our hero. I still can’t believe I might actually get to see – in the flesh – the young man who may have had the single biggest impact this decade on the movements for peace and democracy to which I have devoted my life.

The hearing is still in session when we arrive. Just as I’m wondering where to stash my cell phone, as no electronics are allowed in the courtroom, I see Ann Wright – former US Army colonel, prominent anti-war activist, CODEPINK friend and mentor, and one of thirteen people who, along with Pentagon Papers whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg, was arrested at the Bradley Manning demonstration at Quantico Marine Base last March. We leave our bags in her van and head into the viewing theater where the hearing is being livestreamed. A security guard makes me remove my jacket, which has a “Free Bradley Manning” patch on the back.

I had been told that the screen would go black to “censor out” sensitive information, so I’m shocked to spot Bradley as soon as I enter the theater. With his slightly grown-out hair and thick-rimmed glasses, he not only looks healthier than I expected, but also more relaxed, more stylish, and more like … a regular 23 year old. He jots down notes as the prosecution convinces Almanza of his own ability to oversee the case without bias.

At the first recess Bradley’s supporters gather outside the courthouse. Ann confers with the guards to determine how many people will be allowed in and, with characteristic efficiency and astuteness, suggests a system for deciding amongst ourselves which ten of the fifteen gathered will go in first. We all introduce ourselves and explain why we want to attend Bradley’s hearing. Heather is busy on the phone trying to coordinate our sleeping arrangements and steps back from the group, withdrawing her candidacy. A young woman named Micaela says she learned about Bradley Manning through a flier she received at Occupy Wall Street. My heart jumps a little knowing there’s a good chance she got the flier from me. Emma explains her involvement in Bradley Manning’s case and says this is her only chance to attend the hearing since she’ll be organizing the rally tomorrow. I reiterate how important it is for Emma to attend and say that I’ll give up my place if necessary so that she can go in. Ann asks if anyone will volunteer to wait until the next recess to go in and a few people step up. Realizing that it’s almost lunchtime and that entering the courtroom will leave Heather to get the food and organize lunch by herself I give up my spot, leaving us with only one candidate too many. Ann tears up tiny slips of paper, marking one with an X for the person who will have to stay outside. Emma draws first. I hear myself let out a yelp as she pulls the X. Ann shakes her head and takes back the paper, offering to give up her seat for Emma. I’m furious at the prospect of either of them not making it into the courtroom. Luckily Ann gets everyone to agree that Emma should be the first one in and they re-draw.

When we get to St. Stephens church that evening a young woman from DC named Rebecca leads us in a much-needed meditation session and graciously offers to accompany me to Occupy DC. It’s my first time visiting another occupation and I’m not sure what to expect. Within five minutes of entering the sparsely populated McPherson Square three people independently approach me to introduce themselves and welcome me into the space. Their beautiful library, kitchen and teahouse make me tear up with nostalgia for the early days of OWS and Liberty Plaza. I glimpse inside a tent with a black flag that reads “Camp Anonymous” to see a group of men intently gathered around a table by headlamp light. Night has fallen and things are starting to feel hostile. I hear yelling and see a crowd gathering around two men wielding metal rods at each other. The man who made the “escort” comment on the bus starts lecturing me not to “take it personally” and pulls me by the arm, stumbling drunk and eager to show me his tent. It’s time to go.

#D17 – International Day of Solidarity for Bradley Manning

In the morning we rejoice at our victory – yesterday’s demonstration is front page news! Waiting for the bus to leave McPherson Square I see a pink puffball bounding towards me – it’s CODEPINK DC coordinator Alli McCracken. I’m so happy to see her I practically pounce into a hug. Spirits buoyed by sleep and coffee we board the bus singing happy birthday to Bradley Manning.

It wouldn’t be an OWS bus ride with at least one detour, and this morning’s is to Freedom Plaza, where the occupiers are donating an army tent to Occupy Newark. There’s nowhere to park but Elaine risks a ticket to grant us what I promise will be one last favor. I’m nervous not just about the risk and about trying Elaine’s patience, but also because we’re delaying one of the rally’s speakers, Lt. Dan Choi, who we’re lucky enough to have riding the bus with us. I hold my breath as the minutes and blocks tick by and Elaine looks for a street wide enough to turn. Fed up with the demands coming from the guys at the back of the bus, Heather jokingly tells me it shouldn’t matter how wide the road is: “c’mon Mel, it was passed by consensus – make it happen!” Finally we loop around and miraculously, the tent team is there, tent intact. They jump back on the bus as everyone cheers. I get on the bus’ PA system to thank Elaine and apologize for inconveniencing Lt. Dan Choi, one of Bradley’s staunchest supporters and a leading activist against Don’t Ask Don’t Tell. He graciously laughs it off – “we’re running on gay time now.”

After a beautiful – though frigid – rally and march, at 3:00 pm I’m relieved to be heading home. Lt. Dan Choi boards the bus to thank us for coming and give one last rallying call:

“We can’t control the corporations. We can’t control the media. We can’t control the government. All we can control is how long we fight. Please keep fighting!”

We’ve all promised Elaine we’d be on the bus with wheels rolling by 3:30 pm, knowing that after this morning’s debacle, any further delay will violate her labor contract, putting her into overtime far beyond our budget and authority. At 3:30pm, we are still missing seven people. Apparently they are in the courtroom and won’t be let out until the hearing goes into another recess. A civil war erupts between those who think we should stay and wait for the other passengers and those who think we should leave. Elaine negotiates with the police officers and announces that they are looking for the other passengers inside the base and have allowed us to keep the bus parked for another 30 minutes. If they don’t show up before 4:00, we will have no choice but to leave.

I can tell this predicament is as painful for Elaine as it is for the rest of us. Among the people inside is Djrae, a diminutive teenager who can’t be much older than 16, and, as I’ve learned from their frequent conversations at the front seat of the bus, is from the same area of New Jersey as Elaine. As she nervously chain-smokes outside the bus, I recall how she lined up like a proud mother to take a group photo of us after yesterday’s demonstration. Elaine is part of the 99%. The minutes tick by as I try to come up with a plan B and the group of men at the back of the bus shouts about consensus and brotherhood, demanding that we hold the bus indefinitely for their friends. I ask if any of them would be willing to stay behind if necessary with supplies and directions to make sure everyone gets home okay. No dice.

Finally, at five minutes before 4:00, the seven remaining passengers show up.

As soon as we reach the highway Alice Cooper starts blasting through an ipod amplified over the bus’ PA system, leading to yet another rowdy, pseudo-facilitated General Assembly that elicits more sexist comments than I care to recount. When things finally quiet down I try to resume an earlier conversation with a long-time occupier and ally concerned about gender inequality at OWS. As I hover by his seat waiting for a chance to offer my opinion, I realize his words are being blocked out by a very loud and frustrated inner monologue. I know he has good intentions, but I am tired. I am tired of standing in the aisle while men talk at me. I am tired of trying not to look like an angry feminist. I am tired of wondering when it will be my turn to speak. Most of all, I am tired of listening to men. I interrupt him mid-sentence to tell him, with love, “I think I’ve spent enough time listening to you.” He is caught off guard but nods respectfully as, for the first time on the trip, I occupy my seat.

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