On Saturday, nearly 2,000 supporters of Army Private Bradley Manning drove or took the bus from all across the country to march in defense of the soldier on the eve of the first day of his trial for leaking military documents to Wikileaks—including charges of aiding al Qaeda—and could bring Manning a life sentence in jail.
Antiwar activists, veterans, LGBT rights advocates, and journalists were heavily represented within the gathered Manning supporters over the weekend. The march was one of hundreds of rallies in support of the 25-year-old former intelligence analyst from Crescent, Oklahoma, since he was first put in pretrial confinement over three years ago. Some have been coming to Fort Meade near Baltimore off and on since preliminary hearings began there in late 2011; other events were happening this weekend in cities from Seoul to Santa Cruz.
During the course of the military trial that starts today, army prosecutors will argue that Manning aided al Qaeda by taking sensitive military information and sending it to the antisecrecy website WikiLeaks. Manning started uploading intelligence about the Iraq and Afghan wars to WikiLeaks in 2009, and just a few months later he found himself picked up by authorities at his base outside of Baghdad. Manning has already pled guilty to ten of the 22 charges against him, spending one-fourth of his time since arrest in isolation, but not to the most serious charges, including aiding the enemy, which could land him a life sentence in prison.
Manning says the leaked intel and the other material he’s been accused of releasing helped bring attention to the horrific atrocities committed by the country he swore to serve. The word whistleblower couldn’t be any more appropriate, activists said at the weekend’s rally, adding that prosecuting Manning potentially means that no journalist will get away with publishing embarrassing info about the government ever again. That threat is just one part of what brings people together to talk about the case.
Hundreds of additional supporters arrived every few minutes at Fort Meade at the start of the rally on Saturday. It was hot. To make matters worse, roads heading to the site were rerouted, and many people had to schlep to the march after abandoning their vehicles illegally in not-so-nearby parking lots. At least two news organizations hauled media gear more than a mile in either direction.
It was just a minor setback, though. Lieutenant Dan Choi, a soldier who faced federal charges for an act of civil disobedience against the military’s Don’t Ask Don’t Tell policy, said during the event that the heat shouldn’t stop people from celebrating a person who's brought so many strangers together in the name of telling the truth.
“We marched from one place on one street for one thing, for one reason,” he said after the mile-long march along Fort Meade’s perimeter fence. Choi and a few others took turns taking the stage that had been set up, sweating through their shirts while speaking passionately about the soldier to the thousands who had shown up, despite the sweltering hike.
“We came here because we want to be treated by our government in the way that our government was supposed to treat the people,” Choi said.
Daniel Ellsberg, the Defense Department worker who leaked the Pentagon Papers in 1971, walked on stage moments later. Ellsberg, 82, explained the power of a community that comes together for someone who, just like himself, has been charged with espionage for trying to help others.
“I’m very happy to be here at what I regard as a family gathering,” Ellsberg said.
Ellsberg explained what it meant to be labeled a traitor for essentially doing the same thing Manning has been charged with; he insisted that his contemporary’s contribution to the cause of whistleblowing is something that should be hailed, not hated.
“There would be tens of thousands of American troops in Iraq right now and many others would have died if Bradley Manning had not revealed atrocities,” he said.
Oddly enough, Ellsberg added, the media in the US has not been not making an effort to discuss this side to the story. “Our country, sad to say, is the country that perpetrated the crimes Bradley Manning exposed. I think other countries have noticed something that not too many Americans have noticed: that Bradley was an extraordinary American who went on record and acted on his awareness.”
Then addressing the supporters, Ellsberg mentioned just a few of the groups who might have good reason to respect Manning, given what he gave to WikiLeaks. “I would say that any group that Bradley Manning can be said to be a part of should be honored to recognize him as their hero,” he said. “Of course gays, of course transgender people. It goes for the people of Oklahoma—there won’t be many there who appreciate him. It goes even for short people. Anybody who can identify with Bradley Manning should be honored,” said Ellsberg.
Colleagues and I were in the middle of the unanticipated five-mile trek through the blistering heat with fellow marchers between the parking lots and the protest, when a beige sedan slowed beside us. Its driver gestured to get in and offered a ride back to our cars. Our volunteer chauffeur during this four minutes of hard-earned air-conditioned bliss, our chauffeur, was a freelancer contracted by Iranian media. Just as we were, he was baffled by how the military seemed to take every step imaginable to make access to Fort Meade on the day of the protest nearly impossible. Our conversation erupted into a debate about a contested diplomatic dispute between our respective countries, but then things subsided. Everyone was hot and tired, but we were also here for the same reason: to report a story no one else wants to about a guy who can blow a hell of a whistle and attract a diverse combination of supporters to back him up.
As of today, the first day of Manning's trial following over a year of motion hearings, which had been rarely attended by the mainstream press, around 350 news organizations submitted requests for credentials; the court-martial is expected to last through the summer.