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McReynolds on Guantanamo Protest

EdgeLeft: A Day In the Life of the Resistance

by David McReynolds

In front of the court houseLast Wednesday about this time I was on the train to Washington DC to take part in the International Day to Shut Down Guantanamo. This project came, primarily, out of the Catholic Workercommunity. I had expected to be arrested, and after getting several emails or phone calls to ask me what happened, it occurred to me that it is just as important to report on a demonstration when it is over as it is just before it happens. How did it go?

After getting to Washington, I took a taxi to St. Stephens, a church which I’d known very well from mass mobilizations over the years, a place to meet, and to house those with sleeping bags. (Sleeping bagless, I stayed the night at the Dorothy Day Catholic Worker House). There were about 200 people in the church – a number of others joined us the next day, the 11th.

The meeting went through the scenario we were to carry out. At 10:30 a.m. the Center for Constitutional Rights (which has done wonderful work on this project and on the Guantanamo issue) and Amnesty International would hold a joint press conference at the US Supreme Court. Following the press conference, the demonstrators would don orange jump suits, put on black hoods, and be marched, two by two, to the Federal Court House . When we got there the group would divide into three parts.

Some would stand at a distance from the doors of the Court House, protecting them from arrest. Some would enter the court “in civilian clothes” and then, once inside, take part in various acts of guerrilla theater (unfurling banners, etc.). And some of us, in our orange jump suits and black hoods, would stand at the doors of the Court House, blocking the doors, and, led by a Catholic Worker dressed in military fatigues, request to be admitted to present petitions of Habeas Corpus on behalf of the prisoners in Guantanamo. Each of us had the name of a prisoner on whose behalf we demanded the right to be admitted. The name I was given was Fnu Nasraullah, 27 years old, from Oruzgan, Afghanistan. He was just 22 when picked up in Afghanistan. He has been held, along with hundreds of other prisoners, with no hearing, no charges. Despite denials from Bush, those held at Guantanamo have, without question, been subjected to torture.

Those of us in the blocking the entrance had agreed that when arrested we would not identify ourselves but would say we were present on behalf of the prisoner at Guantanamo whose name we had been given. (We had turned over our personal ID to one of those working with us, so we could get them later). This would guarantee us, we assumed, an overnight stay in a Washington DC jail. When we appeared before the courts the next day we would be willing to give our personal ID but again say that we had come to represent one of the prisoners at Guantanamo. (Keep in mind that these men have been held for five years).

As it turned out, and I feel this is almost the story of my life, the group of us who had come prepared for a night in jail were never arrested at all, while 80 of those who had entered by a side door were arrested. That group was released the same day (though they may have to return for a court hearing later this month). Our group sat at the doors for over an hour waiting for an arrest. At one point one of our monitors told us that the police, who had been in the background, had all been given a handful of plastic handcuffs, so at that point I took a Valium that I’d brought with me. (I come close to a panic attack when my hands are cuffed behind me – for the past several years I’ve taken a Valium just before an arrest and the damn plastic cuffs). But no arrests came and we finally had a mini-conference of our own as to what to do.

Frances Crowe, the redoubtable 87 year old Quaker from Massachusetts, felt we ought to march through downtown Washington in our jump suits and black hoods. While at 77 I’m a mere youngster, I wasn’t up for any more marching – for one thing, my jump suit was coming apart. (It was no problem to walk with the hood – you could see out through it – but it was hard to walk in a suit which was gradually “unseaming itself”). In the event, Frances and a group of about a dozen others did march down to the White House. Ruth Benn, of War Resisters League, and I, agreed we had done what we came to do – stand at the door, block the entrance, risk arrest. The police having refused to arrest us, we had done all we could. I headed back for the Dorothy Day house, got my bag, went back to the train station and got home about 8:30 Thursday night. (My new kitten, Shaman, who had never been left alone for a night, was overjoyed to see me).

There is the general assumption the Pope will eventually make Dorothy Day a saint – the way establishments deal with genuine radicals

The Dorothy Day house where I had stayed was a good example of the Catholic Worker phenomena. There were photos and paintings of Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King Jr., Cesar Chavez, Phil Berrigan, and – the one non-Christian – Mohandas Gandhi. It was a tidy three story building, which had an active social program. Housing transient demonstrators was not its primary job.

Many of us had assumed that, with the death of Dorothy Day in 1980, the Catholic Worker movement would gradually fold. I had met Dorothy, but was hardly someone who saw her often (though Mary House, where she lived and died, is just around the corner from me, and somewhat ironically, just across the street from where my old friend, the late Quentin Crisp, rented his room). I went to her wake at Mary House the night she died. Word had gone out and people came, gradually, to view her body, laid out in a plain wooden coffin (she looked tired), and to talk about what she had meant in their lives. (There was, of course, a much grander funeral held later at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, which I didn’t attend. There is the general assumption the Pope will eventually make her a saint – the way establishments deal with genuine radicals).

But without Dorothy, who could have a whim of iron, (and who once expelled from the Worker two young men – Ed Sanders and Jim Forest – because they had put out a publication with the title “Fuck You: Magazine of the Arts” run off on the mimeograph at the Worker). most of us thought the Worker would gradually wither.

We were wrong. There are Catholic Worker houses across the nation. I’ve stayed in several of them, and they are all tidy, poor, and living from day to day. The Worker issues no fund appeals, its monthly paper, The Catholic Worker, is available for the most modest of contributions. I am the nominal “Marxist Atheist” who feels at ease with the folks at the Worker, partly because they are not so doctrinaire. On many Friday evenings some of the folks from the CW come over to my apartment, which is just a block away. I admit that, aside from the small matter of my being an atheist, the thought of joining the Catholic Worker has never crossed my mind. I would be terrible at living in a community, and while I’m certainly not rich, I don’t like the idea of voluntary poverty (or, more precisely, I approve of the idea, but don’t want to share in it).

…I don’t like the idea of voluntary poverty (or, more precisely, I approve of the idea, but don’t want to share in it).

What the Worker folks brought to the Guantanamo issue were several things. One was absolute dedication – they had gone down to Cuba last year, without permission from the Cuban government, and walked as close as they could to the Guantanamo base. (To the credit of the Cuban authorities, once confronted with the reality of a group of radical Catholics marching to Guantanamo, they were sympathetic and helpful). Second, a degree of political shrewdness. While they were willing to work with anyone on this project, they made very certain the demonstration never went “off message”. I found out that “The World Can’t Wait” (which seems to be a kind of front group for the Revolutionary Communist Party) had been very helpful in building the demonstration and at one point offered a whole set of orange jump suits. When the CW organizers went to inspect them, they found that on the back of each orange jump suit were the words “The World Can’t Wait”, so they weren’t used. Third, they have been able to take radical actions without being hateful. There were no chants. No nasty quotes for the press. It is very very hard to oppose Bush’s policies, which violate both moral and international laws, without losing one’s temper – but the CW folks are able to do it.

If there is to be a serious, sustained resistance to Bush, it needs to come in such a way, with absolute seriousness without a sense of the very hatred which animates the Administration. And it needs to be laid out very much as this demonstration was – so that it was possible to take part without risking arrest, and yet also contain a clear role for civil disobedience.

There are, to close, three things each of us can do.

  • First, write your members of Congress to urge that Guantanamo be closed, that the hundreds of men held there either have charges brought or be released, and that all of the other CIA operated torture bases around the world be closed down.
  • Second, for full information on the ongoing campaign, go to the website:www.witnesstorture. org
  • Third, remember that on January 27th there will be a major and peaceful demonstration in Washington DC, being organized by United for Peace and Justice – for information on that, go to the UFPJ website, www.unitedforpeace.org or phone 212 / 868.5545. I know I’ll see many of you there.

David McReynoldswas on the staff of War Resisters League for 39 years. He also served as co-chair of the Socialist Party, and as the Socialist Party’s candidate for President in 1980 and 2000. His column, EdgeLeft, can be used by anyone.

[Editor’s note: David McReynolds was the Gren party of new York State 2004 candidate for US Senate.  He is now a registered Green.    Thanks to the Socialist Party of New York Cityfor the photo, links, and pullquotes.]

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