After six years in military prison for exposing the American government's secret actions overseas, Chelsea Manning has finally been set free. In an official press release, the White House said today that Manning is set to be freed on May 17, 2017.
This comes as a direct response to grassroots organizing by Manning, her lawyers at the ACLU, and her supporters—people like Evan Greer, the campaign director of Fight for the Future—who have spoken out against the abuses that Manning has endured while in state custody. While she was imprisoned pre-trial at Marine Corps Base Quantico in Virginia, Manning was subjected to treatment that was deemed illegal by a military judge and called "cruel and inhuman" in a UN torture report. According to VICE, while at Quantico, Manning was kept in solitary confinement for 23-and-a-half hours a day, often forced to take off all of her clothes, and even awoken from her sleep. "[She] was forced to sleep from 1 PM to 11 PM, naked, and was allowed to do so only when facing [her] lamp," VICE reported.
Manning was later transferred to a maximum-security facility in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, where she served the remainder of her sentence. At Fort Leavenworth, Manning's struggles became oriented around her medical needs. The military has consistently regarded Manning as a male prisoner and failed to provide her with gender confirming treatment, despite the fact that she came out as transgender after her sentencing in 2013 and was diagnosed with gender dysphoria in May of 2010. Manning's hair is forcibly cut to the military standard male length.
In order to receive cross-sex hormonal treatment—which is considered medically necessary by leading health organizations—Manning had to sue the government. Earlier this year, Manning was forced to undergo a hunger strike in order to get the military to provide, in writing, a promise that she will receive the gender reconstructive surgery that she needs. (Though the military did issue a letter promising this treatment, Manning has yet to receive it.)
In the process of fighting for her rights, Manning has struggled to survive. She attempted suicide twice last year, and her closest supporters believed that she might not make it out prison alive. In an interview with Broadly last December, Chase Strangio, one of Manning's lawyers with the ACLU, expressed his feeling that Manning's "chances of surviving in prison much longer are slim, and action now will prevent the government from overseeing her unnecessary and untimely death."
Obama's decision to release Manning is controversial. In an interview with Broadly last December, Dana Gold of the Government Accountability Project suggested that Manning's association with WikiLeaks, the organization to which she released the documents, could have worked against her, since WikiLeaks was involved in the 2016 presidential election hacking scandal. Gold said she doubted that Obama would release Manning, though she hoped to be wrong. Fortunately, she was. "More than ever we need to see leaking and whistleblowing as a symptom of institutional corruption," Gold said.
Manning's release is hugely significant. It provides essential hope for resistance against opaque operations by the state, and the overstep of government power, as our democracy creeps toward authoritarian rule. Manning chose to leak governments because she believed it was the right thing to do. Strangio summarized this in an interview given to Broadly last December: "Chelsea acted in the service of the public interest to disclose information she believed imperative to inform people of harms perpetrated in the government's name around the world," he said.
In his farewell address last week, President Obama outlined the threats to our democracy and spoke about how America's faith in reason—and a belief in what is right, rather than what is powerful—has helped us to resist the "lure of fascism."
Last week, President-elect Donald Trump gave a hostile press conference in which he publicly condemned journalists at BuzzFeed and CNN for publishing leaked documents making various unconfirmed allegations against him. Trump went on to threaten BuzzFeed, calling the media outlet "a failing pile of garbage" and saying they were "going to suffer the consequences" for publishing the documents.
There are so many reasons why Chelsea Manning deserved freedom—the fact that her leak of classified data exposed the true cost of American presence in the Middle East and the fact that she has been mistreated in prison, denied necessary healthcare, and cruelly held to standards of male prisoners among them. But the reason that resonates most with me today is the fact that Manning is a truly valuable member of society, and that her voice is necessary today as our world struggles to retain its freedoms and gain new freedoms for those who have lived deprived of them.