Today, Saturday 17th December, is Chelsea Manning’s 29th birthday. How will she mark the day? At Fort Leavenworth, the austere military prison in Kansas where she is serving out her 35-year sentence, time passes according to a strict and tedious regime: unlock, work detail, prisoner counts, security checks. There’s little scope for celebrations, and rules against “trafficking” mean other inmates are unlikely to be allowed to shower her with gifts.
Post is probably as good as it gets, and one hopes the small desk in her cell is overflowing with cards and letters from friends and supporters. Letters might not seem like much but there’s one message, from one man, that could truly make her day. What, after all, would be a better birthday gift for an imprisoned whistle-blower than for Obama, presidential pen in hand, to sign off on her release?
That is what Manning and her supporters are hoping will come at some point over the next few weeks. A petition calling for Obama to use his powers of clemency to commute Manning’s sentence to “time served” recently passed 100,000 signatures, securing the possibility of a White House response.
After six years of punishment in conditions that have been at times unlawful and always outrageous, she has already served longer than anyone convicted of similar offences. Her release is long overdue. Indeed, for her bravery in exposing the brutal realities of American power, it’s the very least she deserves. A full pardon, apology, tickertape parade, and holiday home in Hawaii would be more fitting. As that’s sadly unlikely, a commutation will do. Given the tarnished history of presidential clemency, it’s a deal that could work both ways.
Clemency has, in the last few decades, been used for less benevolent purposes. Little wonder: enshrined in the Constitution in 1787, it gives American presidents all the clout of an arbitrary king. The President alone decides who will be granted a pardon or a reprieve and their actions are irrevocable. They’re not even obliged to explain their reasoning.
Obama has done much to mop up this legacy, giving commutations to hundreds of inmates harshly sentenced under out-dated laws. “America,” he said, “is a nation of second chances.” But what about first chances?
Chelsea Manning never really had one. The odds were against her even before she was born. Chelsea, then Bradley, was born small: fetal alcohol syndrome was suspected. Growing up, she was bullied at school. “Faggy” and “girly-boy”, the other kids called her. Secretly, she’d cross dress. Then she’d punish herself for doing so. Later, when she began to explore her identity more publicly – wearing eyeliner and dying her hair. After months of homelessness, she moved in with an aunt and, in what must surely have been an act of desperation, joined the Army. There, she faced further discrimination.
The tragedy is that, going from one oppressive environment to the next, she was never given the opportunity to be herself. It was only after being sentenced to 35 years that she came out to the world as Chelsea, a transgender woman.
Now, she’s twice trapped: a woman, born into the body of a man, shut away in an all male prison. Everything she has, she’s had to fight for: the right to use her name, access to hormone therapy, and the use of cosmetics and makeup. She is still required to conform to male standards of military dress. She can’t grow her hair.
The pressure has taken its toll. Her three years of imprisonment before her trial, which included almost a year in solitary confinement, certainly didn’t help. As she writes in her appeal: “These experiences have broken me and made me feel less than human.” She has, this year, made two attempts on her own life. The prison placed her in solitary confinement as punishment.
If Obama is interested in returning the power of clemency to its high-minded beginnings, it’s hard to think of a case more appropriate than Manning’s. As Alexander Hamilton, one of the original framers, wrote, it was to be deployed where justice wears “a countenance too sanguinary and cruel”.
It could be her last chance for some time. Manning, in a recent blog post, wrote of her wider fears: “We face something that could be more vicious and terrifying than almost anything we’ve had to fight together as a community.” While Trump hasn’t yet spoken out about her case, he has, in the past, implied that fellow whistle-blower Edward Snowden should face execution.
Despite everything, Manning’s birthday is a cause for celebration. She’s still alive and still fighting. “I am Chelsea Manning, a proud woman who is transgender and who… is respectfully requesting a first chance at life,” she writes in her appeal. She has given the world so much — and suffered appallingly in return. It’s time to give her life back.
Follow the link to write to Chelsea Manning: https://www.chelseamanning.org/learn-more/write-to-chelsea-manning