By Ella Fassler
The year 2019 has been a nightmare for whistleblower Chelsea Manning and her supporters. While Donald Trump cleared three members of the United States Army who reportedly murdered Afghani civilians, Manning is, once again, confined for acting in accord with her own principles. In 2010, she was imprisoned for leaking classified military and diplomatic documents that exposed U.S. war crimes, including the murder of Iraqi and Afghani civilians.
This time, Manning is not charged with or convicted of a crime. On March 6, 2019, she invoked her First, Fourth and Sixth Amendment protections as she refused to testify in federal grand jury proceedings in an investigation against WikiLeaks. District Court Judge Claude M. Hilton of the Eastern District of Virginia sanctioned Manning with contempt and ordered her detention at the Truesdale Adult Detention Facility in Alexandria, Virginia, for the 18-month life of the grand jury, or until she folds.
After the judge’s order, Manning’s support committee, Chelsea Resists, wrote in a support statement,
It is no secret that members of the current administration have openly expressed their hatred for Chelsea. Donald Trump himself has tweeted about his desire to undo Barack Obama’s commutation and put Chelsea back in jail. We reject the logic that Chelsea should comply and answer questions regarding events for which she has already provided ample testimony, and we condemn the government’s punitive efforts to back her into a corner.
On the books, grand juries exist to decide whether a suspect should be indicted with felony-level crimes. The reality is messier. The process — which has been abandoned by England and every other former member of the British Empire — is easily manipulated by the prosecution. The court proceedings operate in complete secrecy, without a judge or defense attorney present, and the jury is not screened for biases. As the saying goes, a grand jury “can indict a ham sandwich” (with the exception of police officers). With expansive subpoena power, the government can attempt to force any witness to testify and obtain any documents prosecutors and police want. Historically, the government has used the process to gather information, surveil and disrupt movements by creating paranoia and fear.
By resisting this grand jury, Manning follows in the footsteps of activists for Black liberation, Puerto Rican independence, a free Palestine, environmental liberation, animal liberation, and more. In Manning’s own words:
This experience so far only proves my long-held belief that grand juries are simply outdated tools used by the federal government to harass and disrupt political opponents and activists in fishing expeditions.… The idea I hold the keys to my own cell is an absurd one, as I face the prospect of suffering either way due to this unnecessary and punitive subpoena: I can either go to jail or betray my principles. The latter exists as a much worse prison than the government can construct.
Legally, the government can hold people in contempt to coerce grand jury testimony, but not as punishment for refusing to testify. Anarchists, adamantly refusing to assist the state on ideological grounds, have helped set a precedent for the release of incoercible prisoners. Anarchist grand jury resister Jerry Koch was released through a “grumbles motion,” which argues for the court to review incarceration as punitive. The judge in Koch’s case wrote that “Because he continues to oppose the government in general and the grand jury process in particular, he urges that continued confinement will not induce him to testify … the refusal to testify is somehow transmogrified from a lock to a key.”
Manning is represented by Koch’s former attorney, Moira Meltzer-Cohen. But, despite Manning’s similar opposition against the grand jury process in principle, Judge Hilton refused to grant Manning’s grumbles motion. Instead, in an unprecedented move in a grand jury context, another judge, District Court Judge Anthony Trenga, imposed a $500 per day fine after 30 days and $1,000 per day after 60 days of his order. As of December 23, Manning had been fined $176,000.
Public support for grand jury resisters is crucial for increasing the odds that a person held in civil contempt will be released, according to several legal support groups. Here are five actions you can take to support Chelsea Manning.
1. Educate People About Manning’s Case and the Unjust Grand Jury Process
In November 2019, Manning wrote a statement to be read at the Seventh Annual Aaron Swartz Day event at the Internet Archive in San Francisco. She did not write about her prison conditions or her personal legal case. She wrote instead about the history of the grand jury process and why it should be abolished.
There are plenty of resources online that explain why people resist grand juries. Manning wrote a letter to Judge Trenga with a detailed explanation. Grand jury resister Katy Yow’s support website provides many useful explainers.
Supporters can educate themselves and bring these ideas out into the world by setting up tables with literature or organizing panels with local experts. People can post about grand juries on social media and send emails to friends and family.
- Donate to and Share Manning’s Legal Fund
Manning’s legal fundraiser is raising money for legal fees, court transcripts and attorney travel fees. If you don’t personally have the funds to donate, consider sending the link to friends or family who might.
Supporters can send letters on white paper with pen, pencil or colored pencil to Manning at:
Chelsea Elizabeth Manning
William G. Truesdale Adult Detention Center
2001 Mill Road
Alexandria, VA 22314
If words aren’t flowing, drawing pictures is allowed.
Legally, the government can hold people in contempt to coerce grand jury testimony, but not as punishment for refusing to testify.
Sending a letter to an incarcerated person is like writing anyone else. Supporters can share a bit of information about themselves and their life, and ask a couple of questions in return. Offer solidarity, not pity. Keep writing even if you don’t receive a response. Incarcerated people find ways to stay surprisingly busy, and Manning receives more letters than an average prisoner. Here’s a video curated by Burning Books about how to write to U.S. political prisoners.
Writing letters with friends and other locals is a good way to build solidarity and community in the face of state repression. To organize a letter-writing event, find a venue with several long tables, advertise with flyers, local newspapers and/or Facebook events, and gather pens and paper. Here is an example of a letter-writing dinner that was organized for Manning in Brooklyn, New York.
The Truesdale Adult Detention Center does not allow books, cards, packages, postcards or photocopies. However, incarcerated people may receive newspapers and can keep up to 10 4×6 non-polaroid photographs at a time. All mail is monitored and read by staff.
4. Sign a New Petition Demanding Manning’s Release
The “Free Chelsea Manning Now” petition, launched in December 2019, is gathering signatures and letters for delivery to Judge Trenga. Signing this petition is a quick and easy way to support Manning.
5. Attend the New Year’s Eve Noise Demonstration at Truesdale Detention Center in Alexandria, Virginia!
In October 2019, Judge Trenga also sanctioned hacktivist Jeremy Hammond with contempt, presumably for the same grand jury as Manning. Hammond is currently being held in Alexandria Detention Center. On New Year’s Eve, Hammond’s support group is calling for a “noise demonstration” in solidarity with Hammond and Manning at the Truesdale Detention Center.
Noise demonstrations are gatherings held by supporters outside of jails and prisons to remind incarcerated people that they are not alone. People bring whistles, drums, bullhorns and sparklers, and bang on pots and pans to make as much noise as possible. Incarcerated people return the appreciation by flashing their cell lights on and off and waving.
Around this time last year, Manning was revamping her look for a new year. While she probably did not expect to be confined for her next New Year’s Eve, she may have anticipated some level of ongoing harassment. Harassment left unanswered will embolden authorities against Manning, and for all those who stand up against the current power structure. Flooding Manning’s mailbox, gathering outside of the jail, and other forms of support force the government to either push forward under a spotlight of harsh scrutiny, or to drop the increasingly burdensome case.
To paraphrase Manning, as supporters push for her release, “We got this.”
Featured image: Whistleblower and activist Chelsea Manning speaks at the annual re:publica conference on May 2, 2018, in Berlin, Germany.
SEAN GALLUP / GETTY IMAGES