Protesters flooded the courtroom and its available satellite spaces at Fort Meade military base Monday morning for the first day of the full court-martial proceedings against Pfc. Bradley Manning, who is accused of releasing hundreds of thousands of classified documents to WikiLeaks and has been held awaiting trial since July 2010—the longest pretrial detention of a U.S. soldier since at least the Vietnam War.
More than 30 Manning supporters filled the available public space offered by the courtroom, a surrounding movie theater, and available trailers on base to watch the court’s proceedings live or through TV screens.
Outside the main gates of the suburban military base 27 miles north of D.C., four protesters were left to represent the rally as the trial commenced.
“We came out here for the vigil at 7 a.m., and we wanted to get out here early to show support before people started going in” to the trial, said Michael Thurman, who flew in from Oakland. “I wanted to be out here [outside the gates] to watch all of the stuff, and it’s already pretty full in there.”
Thurman is affiliated with three groups: Iraq Veterans Against the War, Courage to Resist, and the Bradley Manning Support Network. He was protesting outside the base to show support for Manning, whom he considers a hero.
“I think what Bradley Manning did was pretty heroic and selfless, and I want to do everything I can to support someone who is willing to sacrifice everything so we can all know the truth about U.S. foreign policy and what this government is doing,” Thurman said.
As a former member of the Air Force, Thurman says he saw firsthand the level of power the military has and that he believes it doesn’t always act in the best interest of U.S. citizens.
“When I was in the military, I was able to see it for what it was. I came to the conclusion during my enlistment that it wasn’t an organization benefiting anyone, it was a business venture that benefited a few very elite people,” he said. “I saw the corporate collusion and found out about the civilian causalities, the racism, the seizure of resources, and basically the nature of U.S. policies. I thought it was wrong, and I became opposed to it, and that’s why I’m supporting Bradley Manning, who exposed all those things.”
Another protester who wore a T-shirt reading “Whistleblowers Set Us Free” and carried around a sign asking drivers to support Manning came to Fort Meade for the weekend from Brooklyn to protest the trial.
“I was raised to think whistleblowers keep us free, and it’s that value system that I’m here for,” said Todd Eaton of the Language Project, a group that distributes shirts like the one Eaton was wearing.
Eaton said he was doubtful that his or anyone else’s protests would affect the outcome of Manning’s trial, but said he feared that the military’s harsh response to Manning was a sign of harsh government treatment to whistleblowers to come.
“It’s out of our hands and almost everyone’s hands, what happens to Bradley Manning,” he said. “I’m sort of at this point where I’m wondering what’s going to happen to the next whistleblower.”
Over the weekend as many as 2,000 protesters gathered outside Fort Meade to protest Manning’s court-martial. Led by the Bradley Manning Support Network along with about a dozen other groups, the supporters marched Saturday along a one-mile stretch of U.S. Highway 175 by the Army base. Many protesters carried signs that read “Free Bradley.” Daniel Ellsberg, known for leaking the Pentagon Papers in 1971, was on hand to show support.
“It’s crazy, because three years ago we thought this would be over back then,” said Tighe Barry, who protested Monday with Codepink, the radical self-described grassroots peace and social-justice movement. “I remember going to the Quantico base then and doing protests inside there, and we thought it would be over in a heartbeat. It’s gone on and on, and this guy has been in prison for long enough. It’s time to let him go.”
At a prehearing in February, the 25-year-old Oklahoma native pleaded guilty to 10 criminal counts related to his case that could carry a cumulative sentence of as long as 20 years in a military prison. Military prosecutors, though, have continued to press their top charge of aiding the enemy, which could carry a life sentence.
“We’ll be out here all summer supporting Bradley throughout his whole court-martial,” Thurman said of the many groups he works with. “I think whistleblowers are important, because they give us the information we need to be able to make informed decisions about the public. Without transparency and knowing the realities of what’s going on in the world, we’re lost, we’re inept, and we’re not free.”