Saturday, January 23, 2010

Day 12: Fast and Vigil for Justice

Day 12: Fast and Vigil for Justice
compiled by Matt Daloisio & Frida Berrigan

Hello Friends-

All of our friends who spent last night and the better part of today in jail, have now been released.  After 30 hours locked up, the system slowly grinded on, and people have a first court date of March 18.  We’ll keep you in the loop as details around a possible trial come together.

From those who were arrested, there were stories of joy as well as frustration…fear as well as affirmation.  The cuffs that were painfully tightened.  The prison guard in DC who was once a guard in Guantanamo (and supports our protest).  The prisoner in central cell block sitting down after getting a four year sentence to share some of his own journey.  The US Marshall quietly slipping a few dollars to a defendant clearly down on his luck.  (we’ll share some more reflections from those who spent time in lock up as they are written)  Exposure to the criminal justice system, behind bars and in the courtroom, often reveals human beings at their best and at their worst. 

After leaving the courthouse and shuttling folks back to the Capitol police headquarters to receive property, we returned to St. Stephen’s for a 9:30pm meal to break our fast together.  There were around 75 gathered in community to end the 12 day fast. 

For many, the end of the fast is bittersweet.  There was something beautiful about the gathering this evening, and at the same time, quite sad.  The focus which we have maintained for two weeks, on the lives of the men in Guantanamo, will dissipate as many begin to enter the routine of three meals a day and our “regular” lives. 

The news here in Washington for the men in Guantanamo is not good.  Not only has the deadline for Guantanamo’s closure been missed, but the Obama administration has announced an indefinite detention scheme, currently focused on 50 men being held in Guantanamo

So tomorrow we get up, go back to the White House to join with the Voices in the Wilderness “Peaceable Assemblies” campaign (, and then gather for a final reflection at St. Stephen’s.  Our time together in DC is drawing to a close.  It has truly been a gift to be able to share it with each other and with you.  And we look forward to building on what we have learned, and continuing to plan, experiment, and conspire with this growing community.

Thank you for all that you do!

Peace with Justice,

Witness Against Torture

Table of Contents:

Reflection: On Watching the Capitol Funeral Service for Mani, Yasser and Salah - Sue Frankel -Streit

Hunger is a Fearful Thing - Jake Olzen

Reflection from Vermont -  Jenny Thomas

CCR Condemns Unconstitutional Indefinite Detention Scheme


Reflection: On Watching the Capitol Funeral Service for Mani, Yasser and Salah
Sue Frankel-Streit

Fourteen activists left the tour group and moved to the center of the Capitol Rotunda, laid down a sheet bearing the names of three deceased Guantanamo detainees, and began to pray.

Leslie, our Capitol tour guide, stood dumbstruck for a moment, as Carmen Trotta of the New York Catholic Worker strode around the small knot of mourners and explained the spectacle. Carmen, Bill and 148 others were on their last day of a 12-day liquids fast to protest the ongoing human rights violations of the US-run detention center in Guantanamo, Cuba. Those in the Rotunda were protesting the probable murders of three inmates-- Salah Ahmed Al-Salami, Mani Shaman Al-Utaybi and Yasser Talal Al-Zahran-- whose deaths were reported as suicides in 2006. There is now evidence that they were tortured to death at the CIA secret prison in Guantanamo.

For a week and a half, 25 of the fasters had been gathered in DC, spending their days in prayer, education and protest at the White House, Pentagon and CIA. They shared stories via teleconference with a young Afghani peace group, protested at a talk by John Yoo, a Bush administration torture apologist, and walked the halls of Congress in orange jumpsuits to remind Congress members of the ongoing unjust detention of Guantanamo inmates. All the while, hunger joined their circle. They shed pounds, lost energy, felt colder, edgier, calmer, more or less angry depending on the hour.

In the Capitol, Leslie soon recovered enough to shepherd those not participating in the action out of the Rotunda (described in the tour’s introductory film as “our nation’s stage”). The fasters dropped rose petals onto the names, shared stories of these men’s lives, mourned their deaths publicly in “the temple of liberty” (another quote from the film). “If this is truly the "Temple of Liberty" then we must pray. And that in mourning, for the spirit of Liberty is itself imperiled,” said Trotta.

While these folks brought the memories of detainees inside, 28 other fasters wearing orange jumpsuits and black hoods were arrested on the outside steps of the Capital, most carrying no IDs and identifying themselves to police using names of detainees. All told 42 fasters were arrested and spent the night in DC Central Cell Block, a small act of solidarity with the men whose names they’ve taken on over the five years since Witness Against Torture began. In 2005, 24 of these folks, including Bill and Carmen, traveled to Cuba to fast and pray outside of Guantanamo. Since then, the stories of these men, locked up for years without trial, without visits, without rights, are never far from their hearts.

As we left the Rotunda, Leslie apologized for the disturbance. My 12-year-old daughter, who’d taken pictures of the expensive chandeliers and impressive statues, as well as of her Dad kneeling in front of the petal-strewn make-shift shrine, asked to say and look around. Later, she called from the gift shop where, she said, one could buy necklaces of the American eagle, or replicas of the Declaration of Independence to remind you of your visit to the temple of liberty. 

There will probably never be a picture in the gift shop of the 14 tired, hungry US citizens kneeling in prayer over the names of untried Afghani prisoners murdered by US prison guards. The film extolling the beauty and history of “the stage of the nation” will not be edited to show fasters mourning these victims of decisions made in the halls of Congress. But my daughter’s history lesson includes those pictures, and so does mine. And now, so does yours. And that may be how we really make change. So don’t worry, Leslie. We got the whole tour.


Hunger is a Fearful Thing
Jake Olzen

Hunger is a fearful thing.  It strips away the many layers of the individual ego and the communal reality.  Hunger swells with unknowing and a sense of one's finite frailty.  As I write this, I am mindful of many types of hunger - some more insidious and egregious than others.  The hunger of the world's 3 billion people who live on less than two dollars a day is an affront to God; their hunger is one that we bear some responsibility for.  I recall the hunger of millions of men, women, and children in America: the land of plenty.  The faces of the poor that fill soup lines and food pantries grow each day.

How is it more and more go hungry as we waste more and more food? Close to 50%, according to a University of Arizona report, of food produced in the U.S. goes to waste.  The waste brings me shame and the humble attempt to practice the simple work of feeding the hungry does little to comfort my despair - as if I, the fed, had the right to despair.   I am mindful of my hunger, having gone 12 days without solid food.  With a weakness that rests down deep in the bones, my core, I teeter on the edge of an other-worldly consciousness.  It is hard to convince myself even to drink water.  In my hunger, a loneliness emerges, even in the midst of a like-minded, committed community of fellow fasters.     

Perhaps it is only in hunger we truly learn to appreciate the magnificence of creation's sustenance for us.  Food is truly a gift - the earth's fertility produces what we cannot.  Another act of the incarnation.  For God so loved the world - creation, redemption, and sustentation.  Is our fast, then, a shunning of the holy gift of life?  By denying ourselves food do we deny ourselves God?  The overwhelming abundance of the incarnation - the whole paschal mystery of a single life, a seed, the entire universe - is captured in a grain of wheat.  To fast is to hope, that some new grace may come from the dying we are trying to live.  And so I turn to another type of hunger - one that stirs the imagination, breaks the heart, compels one to action: the self-imposed hunger.

Of the 198 men remaining at Guantánamo, there are up to fifty people on a hunger strike protesting their indefinite incarceration.  At any given time, we are told, about 20 of those men are on a critical list to be forced-fed through the nose.  Imagine, for a moment, what it must be like to be force-fed. The man being force fed is strapped to a chair. Twice a day, a tube the size of a pinky is shoved up the nose, through the esophagus, into the stomach and Ensure is pumped.  According to court documents reviewed by the Associated Press in October 2008, Guantánamo guards use pepper spray, shackles and brute force to drag Ahmed Zaid Zuhair to a restraint chair for my twice-daily dose of a liquid nutrition mix force-fed through his nose.

Without anaesthetic or sedative, Zuhair was restrained by two soldiers, one holding his chin while the other pulled him back by his hair, and a medical staff member violently forced the tube in his nose and down his dry throat. Liquid food and nutrients were then forced into his body, against his will and without his consent.  Yousef al-Shehri said this of his force-feeding during his the first hunger strike in 2005: "When I vomited up blood, the soldiers mocked and cursed me, and taunted me with statements like “look what your religion has brought you.”  Even their protest is taken away from them.  Some of the hunger strikers have been refusing to eat for five years.  Their bodies are decimated, kept alive only by a government prerogative and a nutritional drink.  "Medical ethics" says lawyer Clive Stafford Smith, "tell us that you cannot force-feed a mentally competent hunger striker, as he has the right to complain about his mistreatment, even unto death.” 

Scott Horton notes on the illegality and continuation of the force-feeding: "The techniques do not comply with the international standards for actual force-feeding, established in the World Medical Association’s Malta Declaration of 1991. Instead they have a darker and more distressing progeny. From the use of restraint chairs down to the specific brand of commercial diet supplement used by the doctors, the force-feeding techniques now in use at Guantánamo replicate the methods used by the CIA at black sites under Bush. At the black sites, those methods were not part of any medical regime. Instead, they were a part of a carefully designed torture regime, the very same regime that Obama claims to have abolished in his first executive order."

I cannot imagine such a magnitude of injustice perpetrated against me to refuse food to the point of death.  When life becomes so miserable, that the conditions around me are so degrading, torturous and inhumane, that I choose to protest with the only freedom I have left - the freedom to choose to eat - humanity has ceased to be human.  And so, as my own fast from food draws to an end, my heart grows in empathy for the men, using the only resistance they have left to protest - a literal giving of their lives.  And it is with a mindful humility of the ineptitude of my own modest actions and the humiliation I bear that such men seek to starve themselves in the name of war for freedom that I recall the words of Isaiah: "Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to lose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter— when you see the naked, to clothe him, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?"

The hunger of the men in Guantánamo reveals to me the true brokenness of our human community - and the urgent need to feed the hungry, the imagination, the witness, the resistance, and our common humanity. 


Reflection from Vermont

Jenny Thomas

As I watched from afar, many of my thoughts were about community, and much of what I read during the time of the fast was about community building.  Fasting always takes discipline and faith; I found it much more difficult to fast outside of immediate participation with a group of like minded and spirited companions. In fact, it even engendered a different kind of solitariness and even moments of deep loneliness to be fasting "with you" from such a distance.

We are told in scripture not to put on long faces when we fast, that is, I believe, not to make a spectacle of our fasting to the world. The same as when we give our gifts.  It requires a certain amount of aloneness to fast outside a group--if you are with a group of your co-workers or neighbors you need to be careful to strike a balance (say if you're asked to go to lunch!) between being a witness and sharing what you are doing, or seeming to boast of what you are doing.

During this past week I reread a book by Jean Vanier Becoming Human.  Vanier is the founder of the L'Arche community in France that was established to work with the mentally handicapped, a community of care givers living with them and learning from one another.  Of course the disabled are marginalized in our and most societies--and excruciatingly lonely; Vanier's spirituality brings them in, and in so doing all learn love from each other and participate in each other's lives. It is the life of the community that teaches love and acceptance.  We too each have our handicaps and deep loneliness which is only eased by sharing with each other.

Your testimony these past days has done the same thing metaphorically for those in Guantanamo and by extension, those to whom justice is denied around the world.  And among yourselves, and by some extension, to those of us who have participated from afar, created that healing community among all of us.

How wonderful and valuable this testimony.  I am touched by all of your dedication.  I wish to learn how to be a part of such a community day to day. God bless each one.  I pray that I will meet and work with some of you in the future.


CCR Condemns Unconstitutional Indefinite Detention Scheme
On Eve of Missed Guantánamo Deadline President Announces He Will Hold 50 Without Trial

NEW YORK - January 22 - In response to the announcement that President Obama has decided he will detain 50 of the approximately 200 remaining men at Guantánamo without trial indefinitely, the Center for Constitutional Rights issued the following statement: 

"Today was supposed to be the deadline by which President Obama would close Guantánamo. Now it will be the anniversary of the president's decision to abandon our most fundamental constitutional principles. Our nation was built on the idea that no president or king should have the power to imprison people solely at will, that a system of checks and balances on executive authority is the bedrock of a free democracy, and that it is up to the courts to determine whether individuals have engaged in acts that justify depriving them of their liberty.  

"Guantánamo remains open, and remains a symbol of lawlessness and abuse. Now the President has committed to holding approximately 50 men without any trial not as a result of anything the men have done in the past but because of a fear of what the men may due in the future and because they have been deemed too difficult to prosecute but too dangerous to release. This is too much power to put into the hands of one person. It is an assault on the rule of law, our principles and our system of justice.  

"The true danger is from the damage this will do to our reputation in the world and the way we are viewed by those who are undecided about our country, those we must most urgently convince that we are not their enemy and that we truly value the ideals we claim to represent."

CCR has led the legal battle over Guantanamo for the last eight years - sending the first ever habeas attorney to the base and sending the first attorney to meet with a former CIA "ghost detainee" there. CCR has been responsible for organizing and coordinating more than 500 pro bono lawyers across the country in order to represent the men at Guantanamo, ensuring that nearly all have the option of legal representation. In addition, CCR has been working to resettle the approximately 50 men who remain at Guantánamo because they cannot return to their country of origin for fear of persecution and torture.  


The Center for Constitutional Rights is dedicated to advancing and protecting the rights guaranteed by the United States Constitution and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Founded in 1966 by attorneys who represented civil rights movements in the South, CCR is a non-profit legal and educational organization committed to the creative use of law as a positive force for social change.

    Matthew W. Daloisio
    New York Catholic Worker - Maryhouse
    55 East 3rd Street, NY, NY 10003
    Witness Against Torture -
    War Resisters League -
    Friends of 339 -

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