"Courage, Muslim Brothers": How My Friends At Catholic Worker Stood Up To Guantánamo Cover-Up

Forty-two Catholic peace radicals were arrested at the U.S. Capitol Building, protesting torture and the cover-up surrounding three 2006 Guantánamo detainee deaths, on January 21, 2010.
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In my old 'hood, the Lower East Side, NYC, you can get a great free brunch on Sunday, if you know where to go. Catholic Worker's MaryHouse serves up the hot pancakes, plus a random menu of sausages and Chinese tofu, to the local homeless and a variety of lefty Catholic radicals.

My Catholic Worker friend Kate Cowley joined 41 other peace radicals who got arrested at the U.S. Capitol Building, protesting torture, on January 21, 2010. Over brunch, she told me the whole story.

Although the "Witness Against Torture" group organizes this action every year, this year was different. A recent Harper's exposé ripped the lid off the U.S. Military's cover-up surrounding three 2006 Guantánamo detainee "suicides." This fall, the White House announced that Guantánamo would not be shut down, despite Obama's promise after his inauguration. "Witness Against Torture" planned a 12-day series of protests in response.

The actions encompassed everything from professional lobbying to crashing a John Yoo book party. The activists dressed in orange and black, like detainees. In spooky YouTube footage, a single Gitmo "detainee" slowly paces past nervous Senate staffers. It would be funny if torture weren't so sick, so fruitless for intelligence efforts, so damaging to both tortured and torturer.

Kate Cowley was a part of the climactic "memorial service" for the three Guantánamo deaths, held on day 12 inside the Capitol Rotunda. Painted on the ceiling here in the "The Temple of Liberty" is a weird, little-known, Sistine-chapel-like mural of George Washington in heaven, purportedly "becoming a god." Underneath, a glowing circle marks the center of the Capitol city, where four corners of the quadrants of Washington, D.C. meet. Many have asserted that the city was laid out according to Masonic geometry. Suffice to say, the Rotunda is a heavy spot. It's where deceased Presidents lie in state, watched over by a gaudy Masonic "god" George Washington.

(For more on American history's long-standing frisson between Christians, Deists, and Masons, I found this wiki post pretty balanced.)

When Kate Cowley took a Capitol tour earlier that week, that spot in the Rotunda had seemed to call out as "the perfect place to have this memorial service for three men whose lives we should be mourning." She returned with her friends the next day. "Bill Frankel-Streit touched the tour guide on the shoulder and said, 'We're going to have a memorial service now.' And she was like, 'You can't do that!'

"They had these red velvet ropes. We just moved all of those out of the way. We all started to gather in the middle. We read statements, eulogies for the men. We threw rose petals. We had brought a white sheet with the names of the three dead men there.

"For a while the Capitol Police just stood around us, didn't know what to do. They let us go for at least ten minutes. And then they arrested us one by one. We kept singing."

All that week, inside and outside various government buildings, the group had adopted a theme song: "Courage, Muslim Brothers." The tune was adapted from an anti-apartheid anthem, but updated:

"Courage, Muslim brothers,
you do not walk alone,
we will walk with you,
and sing your spirit home."

The Muslims memorialized were Salah Ahmed Al-Salami, Mani Shaman Al-Utaybi, and a young Saudi Arabian, Yasser Talal Al-Zahrani, 22 at time of death. On June 9, 2006, all three were announced dead. The U.S. Navy claimed that all three had simultaneously hung themselves in their cells. Somehow, all three stuffed rags down their own throats, tied their own hands and feet, and then hung themselves in their cells.

The night the three died, a Guantánamo guard saw military personnel drive a windowless white van out of Guantánamo to a "black site" known as "Camp No," a CIA torture site. When the bodies were returned to mourning families in Yemen and Saudi Arabia, their throat organs were removed, their faces badly bruised. The Yemeni Government and mourning families claimed that a U.S. Military cover-up was underway.

Witness Against Torture's Frida Berrigan talked to me about the spontaneity of the group's response: "We didn't really have a plan -- we believed that out of daily meetings and daily fasting, our communal spirit would create a series of actions that would be meaningful. Frankly, I was pretty nervous about it. Anything could happen."

In solidarity with Guantánamo prisoners, some of whom have been force-fed through nasal tubes for five years, participants fasted from solid food for all 12 days. Frida told me that fasting changed things. "Fasting is a spiritual discipline," she said. "But also, just as a group of people, it really put us in touch with one another ... There was a focus, and a seriousness, and a patience that was at work there that I would name the Spirit of Holiness [or] the Holy Spirit, a trust that emerged amongst the group, that I don't think was ours alone."

After 12 days of fasting, the 42 arrested spent 30 hours in DC jail. There, Kate Cowley and others withheld their names. "I gave the name of Yasser Talal al-Zahrani," she said.

Witness Against Torture was started in the summer of 2005 by Frida Berrigan and others. The group grew out of a pilgrimage of solidarity that activists took to Guantánamo, Cuba itself. There, at the end of the Cuban Military zone, they held vigils, prayed, and had daily Catholic Mass. They ate bread and wine consecrated into a Communion with Jesus of Nazareth, a man also accused of being a terrorist, a man also tortured and killed by the state.

My friends go on trial June 14.

More info and action:

Witness Against Torture holds regular vigils at Union Square, NYC. The next one is
May 15, from 12 to 2 PM.

Ewen Academic Freedom Center at NYU is producing a Conference on Guantánamo on April 16, 2010 at NYU's Cantor Film Festival.
212 992 7050

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