For most Americans, the phrase “political prisoner” conjures up images of shady foreign governments plucking dissidents from their beds at night, never to be heard from again. As recent months have driven home, though, political imprisonment doesn’t just happen overseas – there are political prisoners here in the U.S., often convicted on the pretext of seemingly apolitical charges. The arrest, unconscionable treatment, and imprisonment of Private Chelsea (formerly Bradley) Manning represents the most public recent example of this type of political suppression.
Manning, who recently let the public know that she is a transgender woman, faces up to a decade or more in a military prison. She published documentary evidence of U.S. soldiers committing war crimes, revealing the footage through the website WikiLeaks, but to date none of the perpetrators of those crimes have been tried, or charged, or even detained. Neither the military nor the government has investigated the content of the leaked footage. Indeed, no national politician, military leader, or even major media outlet is on the record calling for such an investigation. According to President Obama, it was Manning who “broke the law.”
Given the government’s extraordinarily selective prosecution, the political motivations for targeting Manning seem undeniable. Chelsea Manning stands as the latest and most publicized in a long line of Americans imprisoned for supposedly threatening state interests. Other famous examples have included American Indian Movement activist Leonard Peltier, and, of course, Communist Party and Black Panther supporter Angela Davis, whose arrest sparked an international movement to “Free Angela and All Political Prisoners.” Manning herself has perhaps put it best in her letter to President Obama:
“If you deny my request for a pardon, I will serve my time knowing that sometimes you have to pay a heavy price to live in a free society. I will gladly pay that price if it means we could have a country that is truly conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all women and men are created equal.”
Of course, there is one key difference between Manning and most political prisoners: she is a trans woman seeking hormone therapy. “The Army does not provide hormone therapy or sex-reassignment surgery for gender identity disorder,” though, states an Army representative. What are her prospects in military prison, then, not just as prisoner of conscience, but also as a trans woman? According to the documentary “Cruel and Unusual,” 20% of American trans women are incarcerated at some point in their lives. Most of these women, including Manning, are held in men’s prisons. As Manning attempts to begin transition, she is locked up in a men’s military prison, under the authority of a military and political administration that appears to consider her a traitor. Given that the Army has issued a blanket refusal to deny her the trans-specific medical care that she needs, this author doubts that she will face very good treatment while in military custody.
Political imprisonment, of course, is nothing new. However, each time the state commits it, we must organize and resist – we might recall, for instance, the Free Angela movement and how it galvanized countless people across the world against Angela Davis’s racist, anti-Communist detention. Many, of course, are working on behalf of Chelsea Manning, including supporting her appeal to the White House for clemency, but as the capitalist state keeps suppressing those who threaten the status quo, we must create nothing short of a mass movement to free her, free all political prisoners, and finally free all of humanity from oppression and exploitation.