Protesting Guantanamo at the Supreme Court

By Ed Kinane

On January 11, 2007, the fifth anniversary of the opening of the U.S. concentration camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, dozens of us solemnly assembled inside Federal District Court in Washington, DC. Organized by Witness Against Torture, we were exercising our First Amendment right of free assembly and we were petitioning our government for redress of grievances.

While we were allowed to begin a liturgical program in the court building, that program was interrupted and we were arrested for refusing to remove our bright orange Close Guantanamo T-shirts. (Shouldn’t T-shirt slogans be protected speech?) Just outside the court building that day many other peaceful demonstrators, some in orange jump suits, were also arrested.

Most of us arrested didn’t give our real names or provide photo ID. Instead we declared, “I am representing Guantanamo prisoner [name].” The Gitmo prisoner I represented was Maasoum Abdah Mouhammad. According to the Wikipedia, Mouhammad is an ethnic Kurd born in 1972 in Qameshle, Syria. He allegedly was a Taliban member. His detainee number is 330.

We were booked, charged with disorderly conduct, and released hours later. My citation had me as “John Doe #33.” Our cases were eventually dismissed; Mouhammad remains in judicial detention.

U.S. Supreme Court – One Year Later

This year on January 11, a Friday, Witness Against Torture again held a mass protest against Guantanamo – this time inside and outside of the U.S. Supreme Court. Long-time DC activists couldn’t recall when there had ever been a mass protest inside the august Supreme Court building. 

12:15 pm – As I approached the building alone there were a dozen or so cops out front. When I sought to enter, the security guard asked if underneath my jacket I was wearing the T-shirt of “one of the groups who were coming here later.” When I said yes, he said I couldn’t enter with it on. He suggested I leave and return without it. Since it was raining out, he gave me a poncho.

12:40 pm – Returning without the banned T-shirt, I was readily admitted. I spent the next 45 minutes playing tourist in the lower floor gallery. Having got into town too late, I missed the action orientation at St. Stephen’s Church the day before. I didn’t know who our person designated to hold our ID was, so I tucked my driver’s license into my sock.

1:25 pm – Seeing security guards dashing around, I immediately took an elevator up to the main floor where, hitherto incognito, we protesters were to converge at 1:30. Like last year the plan was for us to do a solemn liturgy commemorating the Guantanamo prisoners.

Emerging from the elevator into the main hall I saw security guards already taking our people away. There was a line of us kneeling on the floor of the main hall. I was one of the few not wearing a Close Guantanamo T-shirt. Linking arms, I joined in chanting “CLOSE IT DOWN.” Our peaceful liturgy had been thwarted.

Although I didn’t witness it from the very beginning, to my knowledge our presence was totally nonviolent. I didn’t hear Security give any order or tell us we were under arrest. Nor did I hear them telling us our rights or giving us an opportunity to leave the premises. Nor did I see any of the police rough stuff – either during the arrest or during our subsequent detention. From my vantage point, except for enforcing certain inhumane conditions, the guards and police were professional throughout our detention.

1:35 pm – With our hands cuffed behind our backs, Security took about 40 of us downstairs into the bowels of the Supreme Court building. I learned later that about 40 others were arrested outside in orange Guantanamo-style jumpsuits on the steps leading up to the SC and were booked elsewhere. They were among the hundreds who that day had rallied on the DC Mall and who had marched up past the Capitol building to the Supreme Court.

When Security asked for our names and ID, we gave our Guantanamo name instead of our real name. As in last year’s Superior Court action, the idea was to get those Guantanamo names into the court record. (I don’t know if that has practical, legal implications…but I know that these prisoners have for years endured torture and have been deprived of habeas corpus and other judicial due process.)

We were all searched. My personal effects, including cash, belt and shoe laces, were inventoried and put in a transparent bag labeled Maasoum Mouhammad. A woman guard patting me down from behind said, “I have to check your groin.” She then ran her hand front to back across my crotch.

Later a grim-looking functionary arrived and read aloud a prepared statement. The gist of it, if I recall right, was that those prisoners providing photo ID and agreeing to “go stet” – i.e. agreeing not to be arrested in the next six months – could be released today with a citation. However those refusing to go stet would be held for arraignment on Saturday…or Monday. None of us then took the offer. Eventually 26 of those arrested agreed to go stet. They were given a July 11 court date which would be canceled with charges dropped if they weren’t arrested again in the meantime.

District 5 Police Station

By and by all of us had our rear handcuffs replaced with front cuffs – a great relief since, after several hours, my upper arms had gotten quite sore. Soon, however, our hands were again cuffed behind our backs. A van took six or seven of us males to a police station somewhere in the Northeast area of DC. (Other prisoners were taken to other DC jails.) Our bagged property was left behind at the Supreme Court; we were issued no receipt.

As we entered the District 5 station, a plainclothes policeman snipped off our plastic cuffs and told us to face the wall. He then patted us down, turning our pockets inside out.  The officer delved into the (hitherto ignored) coin pocket of my jeans, finding the $5 bill I had tucked away.

— What is your name?
— I’m representing Guantanamo prisoner Maasoum Mouhammed.
— Is that the name on your ID card?
— No.
— If you don’t give us your real name, this money will be considered found and you’ll not get it back.
— I don’t think you are a thief….

The $5 bill was confiscated.

As part of the search we had to take off our laceless shoes and turn our socks inside out. My driver’s license fell on the floor and was also confiscated. I had lost my anonymity. We were then taken to a brightly lit cellblock and locked in a holding cell. It had a metal bench running along the short wall, a metal table with two attached benches, and a metal toilet partly obscured by a narrow partition. There was no sink or drinking fountain.

At times we were joined by two or three other (non-political) prisoners. We could hear – but not see – that some of the women from the Supreme Court were also being held in another cellblock. Despite our requests, at no time during our detention were we permitted to make a phone call.

In the wee hours I was taken just outside the cellblock to be photographed and fingerprinted – a high-tech process. With this computerized fingerprinter, linked to a database, there’s no messy ink. Later I was issued a plastic Metropolitan Police Dept ID bracelet with a small mug shot, my real name, date of birth, an “M,” a “W,” and a number: 311000583161.

On my way back to the holding cell I asked for water and was permitted to drink from a spigot in the cellblock corridor. Dehydrated, I drank deeply. During the night we were each offered two slices of white bread with a small piece of cheese and a slice of baloney. It was the only food provided during the over 30 hours of my detention. What with the bright lights and the noise from the non-political inmates, I got less than an hour’s sleep all night. It didn’t help that every time a cellblock toilet flushed, there was a mighty WHOOOSH.

DC Superior Court

We were held at District 5 until later Saturday morning. Then four of us were cuffed together and transported in a black maria across town to the DC Superior Court. Upon arrival U.S. marshals cut off our plastic cuffs and put us all in leg irons. The number 120 – my new ID – was written on my bracelet. We were then marched single file, hands behind our back, to the holding cell area. I was put in a small cell with a different mix of six or seven other males of our group. There wasn’t room to stretch out. The only furniture was a bench along the wall seating four, a broken sink and a toilet with no privacy and no toilet paper.

During the day we were occasionally visited by our pro bono lawyers Mark Goldstone and Ann Wilcox of the DC Lawyers Guild. They occasionally briefed us through the barred cell door. We were also visited by folks gathering info from each prisoner to expedite our release.

My cellmates included one or two young men who had never been arrested before. But most of us, I’d venture to say, have been arrested numerous times. These included author and nonviolence trainer, Ken Butigan from Chicago, and one of the Guantanamo actions’ key support people, Paul Magno from DC – who hadn’t planned to be arrested here. As at our previous two detention sites, despite the very close quarters all of us were at least compatible if not convivial.

The hours passed in good humor and with Catholic Worker activists telling stories of past direct actions. A highlight was Brian Terrell and Art Laffin telling about an elaborate direct action in Honduras in 1988. Another highlight was Brian telling about the Voices for Creative Nonviolence Occupation Project in Iowa earlier in the current presidential campaign season.   Brian and a vanload of young people had driven all the way from Iowa for this Supreme Court action.

In the late afternoon, the federal marshals, calling out our new ID numbers, started taking us – three or four at a time, still in leg irons – down some corridors to court for arraignment. I was almost the last prisoner to be arraigned. When my turn came around 8 pm I was heartened to see some of our steadfast support people – including my friend Central New York activist Cynthia Banas – in the gallery.

Before Judge Robert Richter, flanked by our attorney Mark Goldstone, I answered to my real name but declared I was there on behalf of Maasoum Mouhammad. Like most (48) of us I pled not guilty. This means there’ll be a bench trial in late May and an opportunity for each defendant to make a sentencing statement about Guantanamo. With luck we can put Guantanamo itself on trial.

Later, in an email from Witness Against Torture organizer Matt Daloisio, I learned we were charged with “unlawful free speech on Supreme Court grounds” and that those of us arrested inside the building were also charged with “causing a harangue within the Supreme Court.” Quaint language.

It was now around 8:30 pm and, the marshals having removed my leg irons in court, I was free to leave. Support people out in the corridor provided snacks and fluids and hugs. Minutes later the Superior Court building closed. Outside, Mark Goldstone addressed those of us still remaining. He told us he had had to badger the marshals to get them to give us the meager amount of drinking water that we eventually got.

It was mighty cold out. Not only were we released without our winter clothes, but we had no money for even a phone call. I was wearing only a T-shirt and a winter undershirt. My other layers of winter clothes were with my personal property still at the Supreme Court building a kilometer away.

Instead of going back there, I jumped in a supporter’s warm vehicle heading back to the Dorothy Day Catholic Worker house in Northwest DC for dinner. Hooray for support people, the unsung heroes of these actions! They keep track of us as we are shunted through the penal system and they are the ones who try to be there for us when we are released – sometimes outside remote precinct houses and sometimes in the chill wee hours.

The assault on a prisoner’s dignity begins well before any guilt is established. My 30 hours detention was both tedious and, thanks to the camaraderie, stimulating. I was struck by how calmly, with one minor exception, all my cellmates handled our detention. Curiously, upon release I didn’t feel exhausted, famished or depleted. This surely has to do with acting in an essential struggle and amid much solidarity deeply informed by an ethic of nonviolence.

Early Sunday morning I returned to the bowels of the Supreme Court and redeemed my property – including, I’m pleased to report, my confiscated $5 bill. I then met up with fellow inmates and Ithaca Catholic Workers Danny Burns, Clare Grady, and youngsters Kate and Leah for a lift north as far as Binghamton, NY – where I caught a bus back home. My partner Ann and housemate Aggie were waiting at the bus station and treated me to dinner out. On Friday they had taken part in the anti-Guantanamo action outside Syracuse’s WSYR AM radio station (a Clear Channel broadcaster of talk shows promoting Guantanamo and torture).

Besides ours, on January 11 there were scores of other anti-Guantanamo actions around the U.S. and the world. Thanks to these the extremely isolated Guantanamo prisoners may now just have a bit more visibility. The Sunday Washington Post Metro section, page C3, carried Michelle Boorstein’s short (16 column inches) article about our action and detention. But that day the Post obviously deemed another story more significant: on page C1 it featured a much longer article (plus two photos) about Saturday’s “No Pants Day” in the New York and Washington subways….   

Hundreds of Guantanamo prisoners are now mired in a gruesome fate. They have been denied habeas corpus and any semblance of human rights. Few if any after all these years have been tried and found guilty. Guantanamo embodies a grotesque violation of the Geneva accords and the U.S. Constitution.

Guantanamo is the camel’s nose under the tent. It contributes to the erosion of law and to the rise of penal vindictiveness here in the United States. Bush Inc.’s contempt for human rights in Guantanamo further paves the way for official criminality in U.S. prisons.

-Ed Kinane, active with the Syracuse Peace Council, spent five months with Voices in the Wilderness in Baghdad in 2003. He has served two federal prison terms for protesting torture instruction at the U.S. Army’s School of the Americas at Ft. Benning, GA. Contact him at edkinane@verizon.net.

(This article was originally published in The Madison Institute for Peace and Progressivism Newsletter, and is republished by PalestineChronicle.com with permission.)

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