WCW Home Take Action Videos & Reports on Educational Events & Films 6-3-09 Town Hall Meeting on Torture in NYC
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By a NYC World Can't Wait Activist 

 Hundreds of people turned out at the New York Society for Ethical Culture Wednesday night, for an urgent town hall meeting—“Torture and the Need For Justice” —organized by Revolution Books.   


What these hundreds got was a hard-hitting and deeply-moving program that pulled no punches: the line-up of speakers and performers powerfully underscored the staggering scope and severity of crimes committed by our government; the Obama administration’s cover-up and continuation of these crimes; and the screaming necessity for every person in the room to act immediately to resist these crimes, lest they be complicit in them.

As the crowd filed in the auditorium, a large film projector displayed images of prisoners tortured by the U.S., as well as scenes from The World Can’t Wait’s May 28 action in Grand Central Station, in which more than 20 people clad in orange jumpsuits and black hoods gathered on the terminal steps to demand prosecutions of Bush Regime war criminals and the release of 2000  torture photos. A few minutes before Wednesday’s town hall meeting began, four “detainees” dressed in the jumpsuits and hoods walked on stage and stood silently.   Some audience members took note (“This is crazy. I’m gonna call my husband; he should come,” one woman said), while others continued to talk amongst themselves without looking at the front of the room.


Before long, the night officially got underway. Fajer Al Kaisi, an Iraqi-born actor, stepped to the microphone and recited “Death Poem,” written by Guantanamo detainee Jumah al-Dossari. This was the first of several readings throughout the night from “Poems from Guantanamo,” a collection of writings by current or former Guantanamo detainees; in addition to Al Kaisi, actors Aladdin and Geeta Citygirl also performed poems from the book. 


The opening lines of Dossari’s poem set a very fitting tone for a program that heavily emphasized the moral burden of everyone in attendance, and the need for a full reckoning with the crimes against humanity committed in our names: “Take my blood/Take my death shroud and/The remnants of my body./Take photographs of my corpse at the grave, lonely/Send them to the world,/To the judges and /To the people of conscience/”


Citygirl explained that, since many prisoners at Guantanamo were denied pen and paper, they had composed the poems on a Styrofoam cup, using toothpaste or pebbles.


The poetry readings were interspersed throughout the night between the program’s seven speakers, the first of whom was Gitanjali Gutierrez, a lawyer with the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR). Gutierrez said that the blood of those tortured by our government is on the hands of people living in this country, since they have not collectively acted to stop torture. “This is not just a problem of the Bush administration,” Gutierrez said. “It is a problem that we are responsible for as well.”  


Gutierrez told those in attendance that she wanted to inform them about the horrific treatment endured by one of her clients, Mohammad al-Qahtani, but that she could not do so unless they pledged right then and there to take action.   She invited any audience members who would not commit to resisting torture to momentarily leave the room. No one did. Gutierrez then listed five steps the crowd could take: Write an elected official; compose a letter-to-the editor; talk to family members about torture; visit an elected official; or donate money to organizations working for prosecutions.


The vast majority of the audience then rose to their feet, pledging their intent to act.


Gutierrez resumed, explaining that Qahtani had been brought to Guantanamo in February 2002, where he was held in isolation in a bare cell, threatened with dogs, deprived of sleep, and interrogated constantly for three months. At this point, an FBI official wrote to his superior saying that Qahtani was suffering extreme psychological trauma. And yet, Gutierrez said, Qahtani was subsequently subjected to even more brutal torture, including: 20-hour long interrogations for 50 straight days (which means he only slept four hours per day during that period); deliberate over-hydration by IV;   a forced enema; sexual humiliation; and being blasted with loud music for long periods of time. At one point, Qahtani’s heart rate dropped so dramatically that he was almost died; his U.S. captors interrogated again on the way back to the hospital.


Gutierrez concluded by referencing the photo display and orange jumpsuit tableau on stage at the beginning of the program. “I caught my breath when I walked into this room,” she said. “I am grateful that I am not numb to that.”   Gutierrez said that the images represented real people, and had everything to do with what kind of world we wanted in the future.


“The time has long passed,” she said, “for us to take action.”


The next speaker was independent journalist Jeremy Scahill, who verbally eviscerated the notion that Obama has stopped U.S. torture, or fundamentally departed from the Bush Regime’s program. Scahill pointed out that Obama has refused to hold Bush Regime torturers accountable for their crimes; continued the U.S. occupation of Iraq; escalated the war in Afghanistan; appointed Stanley McChrystal, who previously oversaw a Pentagon unit that ran secret torture prisons and committed extrajudicial assassinations, as the new General in Afghanistan; and kept 250,000 contractors in Afghanistan and Iraq. 


Scahill also emphasized that torture at Guantanamo has continued under Obama, referencing his recent article on Counterpunch about the “Immediate Reaction Force” (IRF) teams of guards who terrorize and brutalize prisoners. Scahill told the crowd that IRF teams—whom CCR attorney Michael Ratner has termed the “black shirts of Guantanamo” —douse detainees with chemicals; smear feces on them; leave them hogtied; force-feed tubes into their noses, without anesthesia, in order to break their hunger strikes; and blast water up their noses, among other forms of brutality.


Scahill challenged his audience to oppose the crimes of their government as steadfastly under Obama as they had under Bush, and he ridiculed the pervasive idea that progressives should “give Obama a chance.”


“You don’t give a guy who’s allowing torture to continue a chance! ” Scahill said, receiving huge applause.


Fellow independent journalist Laura Flanders took the stage after Scahill. Flanders, of the Web site Grittv.com, assailed the mainstream media for convincing Americans that Obama represented significant change from Bush, and for giving Dick Cheney a forum to argue that torture keeps Americans safe.


“Who’s the ‘us,’ Dick?” Flanders asked, pointedly. “It’s not ‘us,’ people in Afghanistan. Not ‘us’ people in Palestine. Not ‘us’ people in Iraq.’”


As for Obama’s half of the “dueling national security speeches,” Flanders said the president’s rhetoric often contradicted the actions he was proposing: For instance, she said, Obama speaks of upholding the Constitution, and yet also says that some detainees will be denied a basic right to trial.


Like Gutierrez, Flanders ended her speech by alluding to the detainees on stage at the beginning of the program. She noted that, while not a member of the Revolutionary Communist Party, whose line and literature is promoted by Revolution Books, or The World Can’t Wait, which organizes the jumpsuit contingents, she nonetheless appreciates the political work that each group does.


“I want to thank you for being everywhere you’ve been,” Flanders said. “And I want us to think about those hooded men and women. We can’t allow ourselves to be hooded.” Flanders said it was up to those in the room to struggle with those outside the auditorium not to be complicit with torture. “Don’t be hooded,” Flanders repeated. “Speak up.”


The next speaker, Sister Diana Ortiz, was in many ways the most riveting of the evening. Ortiz was herself kidnapped and brutally tortured in Guatemala, in 1989. Her presentation focused on the utter devastation that torture victims endure long after their actual physical torment has ended. As Ortiz spoke, it was impossible not to think about the thousands of people—and likely more than that—whose lives have been irreversibly destroyed because our government tortured them. “Trust is gone,” Ortiz said. “Hope is gone. Faith is gone. And security is gone.”


To illustrate the lasting, life-long human impact produced by torture, Ortiz told a story that left most of the auditorium in stunned silence, with a few people audibly crying: In 1997, as part of her work advocating for torture survivors, Ortiz met a woman who had been waterboarded, and raped daily by her captors. In spite of experiencing such horrific torture, the woman was eventually able to get married and start a new life. But one day, she exposed her breasts to her husband, who saw that her torturer had bitten off one of her nipples, and branded his initials on the other. Upon seeing this, her husband fled, and never returned.


“For many survivors,” Ortiz said, “surviving torture is worse than the actual physical torture itself.” To applause, Ortiz urged those in attendance to raise the demand that U.S. government officials who ordered torture, including George W. Bush himself, be held accountable for their crimes. She finished by quoting Holocaust historian Yehuda Bauer: “Thou shalt not be a victim. Thou shalt not be a perpetrator. Above all, thou shalt not be a bystander.”


Ortiz received a standing ovation.


Andy Zee of Revolution Books followed Ortiz, and addressed essential underlying questions, such as: Why is that, both historically and currently, Republicans and Democrats alike have carried out torture and other crimes against humanity? In whose service is torture really carried out, and what is its real motive? What will it take to get to a world free of torture?


Zee began by noting that Obama had sent tens of thousands more troops to Afghanistan, escalated the war in Pakistan, continued the Iraq War, and approved a $60 million expansion of the Bagram prison in Afghanistan. He then asked the crowd to consider why Obama had put McChrystal in charge of Afghanistan, blocked the release of 2000 torture photos, and retained Bush Defense Secretary Robert Gates.  


Zee answered his own question: “It’s not just a Bush thing. It’s not just an Obama thing. It’s a system thing.”


Zee laid out a provocative and convincing case that U.S. torture during the past several years is not a historical aberration, but rather an expression of the essence of U.S. imperialism; he gave examples including the U.S. military’s use of waterboarding during the Phillipine-American war (1899-1902)and the practice of throwing bound prisoners out of helicopters during the Vietnam War.

“Torture,” Zee said, “will always be part of wars of occupation and will always be part of imperialist aggression.”


 Zee then pointed out that such military aggression is, in turn, an inevitable product of the imperialist system itself; whether dropping horribly devastating atomic bombs on Japan, murdering millions in Vietnam, or attacking Somalia (all of which occurred under Democratic administrations), or waging wars for empire in the Middle East, the U.S. has, throughout its history, used violent and horrific means to enforce its position at the top of an exploitative global system. “Bloody dominating of the planet,” Zee said, “is integral, and not incidental, to what America is all about.”


Putting an end to torture, he argued, would require making revolution, in order to put an end to imperialism.


The crowd applauded when Zee said that people in this country have to “Stop Thinking Like Americans and Start Thinking About Humanity.”   


Both Zee and the next speaker, CCR President Michael Ratner,  spoke to the ways in which Obama is rebranding Bush’s torture and detention program, shrouding its essence in more palatable rhetoric. Ratner, like others who spoke Wednesday night, challenged the crowd not to accept under Obama what they never would have tolerated under Bush. Many of those whom CCR had previously considered allies, Ratner said, were now wavering. He recalled that CCR’s demands during the Bush years included not only the closing of Guantanamo, but also an end to the torture and detention policies underlying Gitmo; that all detainees either be tried or repatriated to their home countries; that those who were tried had to be tried in federal court; that torture had to be ended completely; and that a special prosecutor be appointed to investigate the torture of the Bush Regime. If those were the demands under Bush, Ratner said, they should not change simply because there is a Democrat in the White House.


“This is no longer Bush’s Guantanamo,” Ratner said. “This is Barack Obama’s Guantanamo.” Offering a sharp example of how Obama is employing rhetoric in an effort to gain public acceptance for what is essentially Bush’s torture policy, Ratner alluded to the following passage from the president’s May 21 speech: “On the one side of the spectrum, there are those who make little allowance for the unique challenges posed by terrorism, and would almost never put national security over transparency. And on the other end of the spectrum, there are those who embrace a view that can be summarized in two words: ‘Anything goes.’”


Ratner then commented, “It was one of the most offensive equations I could have heard. What he’s saying is those who torture are akin to those who say we can never torture.” Ratner also took Obama to task for his refusal to prosecute Bush officials on the grounds that the nation must “look forward, not backward.”


“It’s a really disingenuous statement,” Ratner said. “Because if you’re thinking about a future without torture, you get that by holding accountable the torturers.”


Ratner said the movement to demand prosecutions of Bush officials had been making progress: When CCR first raised this demand, he said, they were laughed at. But developments including the release of the torture memos and various Congressional reports, and the ongoing investigation of Bush officials by a Spanish court, had generated momentum in favor of prosecutions.


Ratner ended by articulating five demands: No “repackaged Guantanamo” — closing Guantanamo and sending detainees to a similar facility somewhere else; no preventive detention; no military commissions; no torture; and accountability for those who tortured.


Chris Hedges, the former Middle East Bureau Chief for the NY Times, was the final speaker of the evening. Like many of the other speeches Wednesday night, Hedges’ comments drove home that U.S. torture is not at all motivated by a desire to “get information,” but rather to humiliate, dehumanize, and terrorize entire populations. Hedges said that he had covered Chile under Pinochet, as well as wars in the Middle East and the former Yugoslavia.


“In every conflict that I covered,” Hedges said, “torture was an integral part of the weapon of war. Because torture is a natural outcome of the culture of war.”


Another reason that the U.S. tortures, Hedges said, is as a means of “social control.”   He predicted that, should a crisis grip the nation— if the current economic crisis becomes significantly more severe, or if there is another terrorist attack on the U.S.—the government would not hesitate to use torture more broadly on American citizens.


In making that point, Hedges drew a parallel between the current practices of U.S. empire and the ancient empire of Athens: “The tyranny that Athens imposed on others,” Hedges said, “it… [ultimately] imposed on itself.”


With the end of Hedges’ speech, the program came to a close. For nearly three hours, the crowd had been issued a clear challenge: Our government is committing horrendous crimes against humanity on a monumental scale, and if we allow it to continue, we are a party to these crimes. Do not simply listen, clap, shake your heads in disgust as you hear and see what your government is doing... and then walk out of the auditorium to resume the normalcy of your lives. Take action now to stop your government’s crimes.


“All of the speakers ended on a similar tone,” Gregory Fitzgerald, an 18-year-old high school student from Queens, said after the program. “That just being here isn’t in and of itself important. That we actually have to take an active role. That’s something essential that they all highlighted.”


Or, as Zee put it in his final remarks: “Now, it’s up to you. What are you gonna do with all of this?”

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