The best party I’ve been to all summer happened Tuesday night in DC’s Dupont Circle neighborhood, and the whole thing occurred after only 24 hours’ worth of planning. Attendees totaled around 200, someone brought along a sick PA system, and then somehow we ended up outside of the White House asking the president to pardon Army Private First Class Bradley Manning.
So it wasn’t actually billed as a party, per se, but rather a rally—a last-minute politically charged rendezvous—assembled the evening before in anticipation of a long-awaited verdict in the court-martial of Manning. And though things didn’t go as well before the judge as they could have, the news wasn't all bad—as you probably know by now, Manning was acquitted of "aiding the enemy" but convicted of violating the Espionage Act and could now face 136 years in prison. His sentencing hearing begins today.
Twenty-five years old and thrice nominated for the Nobel Prize, Pfc. Manning has managed to attract a lot of attention in the three years since he was arrested and charged for leaking classified files to the website WikiLeaks. Supporters and the soldier himself say those documents exposed atrocities and prompted discussions across the world about US actions in the Middle East. Some even credit those revelations with expediting the end of the Iraq War. And although he never quite became a household name, what was perhaps Manning’s biggest day yet occurred Tuesday when all eyes were on a military court in Fort Meade, Maryland, where a judge would decide if the soldier should be convicted of “aiding the enemy” and 21 other counts including computer crimes and espionage for leaking documents to WikiLeaks.
If anyone celebrated anything Tuesday night with regards to the case, it was likely because Colonel Denise Lind, the presiding judge in Manning’s military trial, acquitted the soldier of aiding the enemy and in turn refuted the government’s accusation that he indirectly helped al-Qaeda when he sent thousands upon thousands of files to WikiLeaks after his first deployment abroad in 2009. Had Lind ruled otherwise, a conviction on that count alone could have yielded Manning a life sentence. Now spared from being found guilty of the most serious of charges, after Tuesday’s court session, the soldier faces only a maximum term of 136 years behind bars.
Should it matter at that point, Lind has already said she’d take 112 days off an eventual sentence in order to compensate Manning for the several months he was held in isolation after his initial capture (and she's since upped that figure to 1274 days an eventual sentence). By default the sentencing will go to the Army Court of Criminal Appeals, but a pal of Lind told the Washington Post last month that Manning’s decider has been appointed to soon sit on that panel too—a promotion that must be ordered by the President himself and approved by the Senate.
President Obama, who campaigned on a platform of transparency and whistleblower protection, was caught on camera saying Manning “broke the law” years before Lind’s verdict. He has since prosecuted more whistleblowers under the World War One-era Espionage Act than all other presidents combined, and earlier this week his administration had to actually send Russia a letter promising not to torture or kill NSA leaker Edward Snowden if he is ever extradited to the US to be tried for espionage.
Manning has already been tortured while kept in isolation, and after Tuesday’s verdict, he is officially—in the eyes of the American justice system—a bona fide spy several times over. For sharing sensitive files with the antisecrecy site, Manning ultimately scored six convictions under the Espionage Act, a Computer Fraud and Abuse Act violation, and multiple counts of stealing from the government.
By sharing those files, Manning told the court earlier this year, he hoped to spark public debate. I’m not certain 200 angry supporters in front of the White House was what he had in mind, but without a doubt it made people start talking. Even if it was the three-dozen tourists snapping iPad photos at ten o’clock on a Tuesday, that was still a discussion far beyond the scope of what the soldier will enjoy anytime soon as he sits in jail for letting the state’s dirty laundry be aired on the Web.
Standing around Dupont an hour earlier, the collectively shared emotion didn’t exactly resemble joy. And as celebration over the acquittal combined with impassionate anger directed at the Obama administration for equating Manning’s deed as an act of espionage, a catalyst in the form of an army snuff film leaked by the soldier spawned the most beautiful event I’ve experienced all summer in the city.
Before we all marched to the White House, someone showed the crowd a film that WikiLeaks called “Collateral Murder” when it published it in 2010. The now infamous helicopter footage from a US Apache chopper shows American troops fatally shooting civilians and journalists over New Baghdad in 2007, and Manning will get a maximum of two years for sharing it with the world. It’s since been viewed on YouTube millions of times and, apparently, is now screened to strangers in city parks. And in case you haven't experienced it yet for yourself, there's nothing quite like standing in the heart of a major city alongside hundreds of passersby as a film is screened showing soldiers from your very own country opening fire on innocent people. If that sounds sadistic, I'd recommend you watch it under similar circumstances and try to say it isn't a worthwhile experience.
David Coombs, Manning’s defense attorney, showed excerpts from that film no fewer than three times during his client’s court-martial. And although a handful of those in the circle knew the Apache crew’s dialog word for word, something about seeing war crimes being committed—and projected in a park down the road from the president’s house—creates a kind of indescribable emotion that could only be close to being called celebratory because it evokes an anger that seemingly can’t be calmed.
By the time the crowd descended on 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue Tuesday night, a ten-foot-tall cardboard marionette of Manning had made its way into the congregation and was mugging next to a mock Lady Liberty, while nearly a dozen demonstrators in dead silence stood before the president’s house with black-backed signs made of blue lights reading “Free Bradley.” Somewhere around mile two of the march I had lost Bill, a septuagenarian supporter who has been to Fort Meade more than 20 times to attend the hearings. For every 75-year-old with a sign there was also a brace-faced boy in a Guy Fawkes mask, chanting, “Free Bradley Manning,” a cheer for what Manning has done—and not as an enemy of America.
Manning will likely be decades closer to death if he’s ever released from prison, but supporters put that behind them Tuesday night and, even though the verdict is said and done, soldiered on. Next comes the sentencing phase, then, likely, a series of appeals. As long as Pfc. Manning is on the other side of jail bars, though, activists will call him a political prisoner—another accidental icon representative of an oppressive state.
And, at least in absentia, Manning is the life of the party. He's brought people together around the world by making those disclosures, and his prosecution has put modern democracy and journalism on the defensive end of a rather depressing battle. As long as misery likes company, though, a legion of supporters around the world intend on staying focused on their fight. Others might soon do the same, too—great news since the freedom of the press depends on it.
“The 'aiding the enemy’ charge has fallen away,” WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange wrote after the verdict. “It was only included, it seems, to make calling journalism ’espionage’ seem reasonable. It is not.”
Assange went on to call Lind’s ruling “the first ever espionage conviction against a whistleblower,” and, in turn, “a dangerous precedent and an example of national-security extremism.”
And if that doesn’t sound like a reason to grab 200 strangers and make some noise, I certainly don’t know how to party.