The announcement by White House spokesperson Robert Gibbs on December 26 that "it's gonna be a while" before the Guantanamo Bay Detention Facility closes did not deter nearly 200 activists in Washington, DC on a snowy January 11. Working as a group called Witness Against Torture (WAT), these activists rallied outside of both The White House and Justice Department to shut down the nine-year-old prison and end the use of torture against detainees there.
At around 11 a.m., the activists, dressed in orange jumpsuits and black hoods, stood in silence behind a press conference announcing WAT's ten day "Fast for Justice" as well as the day's action: a march from The White House to the Justice Department's Robert F. Kennedy Building.
Describing the reason for the group's 10-day "Fast for Justice," Kathy Kelly of the Chicago peace group Voices for Creative Nonviolence put it best: "Hunger and anger are like two live wires; if connected, they will flash. We will hunger with anger for [the next 10 days] for an end to Guantanamo Bay."
With the nation still buzzing about the use of violence and in light of the recent tragedy in Tucson, Arizona, Frida Berrigan of WAT reminded the crowd that "we are gathering in a spirit of nonviolence."
And she continued: "... And we are here to say, 'no.' We are here to express our outrage ... to assert and uphold the humanity of those detained by the [U.S.] government."
Following Berrigan, a diverse coalition of groups that included Amnesty International USA, Center for Constitutional Rights, September 11 Families for Peaceful Tomorrows, WAT, as well as British journalist Andy Worthington rallied the crowd and each presented their case for shutting down the prison and how indefinite detention is, as Valerie Luczikowaska of Peaceful Tomorrows said, "a travesty of American principles."
The groups held the press conference at The White House to hold President Obama accountable, said the group in a statement. And while seeking shut down of the prison, the groups presented specific demands as well: that he either fairly try or release the detained men and that he repatriate nearly 60 Yemenis who have been blocked from returning home despite being cleared of all wrongdoing.
For each group, it is a matter of justice.
Said Tom Parker, Amnesty International USA's advocacy and policy director of terrorism, counterterrorism, and human rights: "... Guantanamo has been a global symbol for injustice and abuse. The idea that you can't hold people indefinitely without trial has been around since the Middle Ages. It is a basic human right."
One observer who knows this for a fact is Worthington, an expert on Guantanamo Bay who has written extensively on the subject. "One year after President Obama promised to have closed Guantanamo, 173 men are still there, the majority of whom should have never been held in the first place," he said.
After detailing the cases of numerous detainees at the prison, nearly 90 of whom have been cleared of wrongdoing, he called for Americans to especially demand not only for closure of the prison and release of the prisoners but also that the 30 detainees whose lives are threatened in their home countries receive help to "find a home in the U.S."
But for the largely American group, it was also a question of their country's integrity.
"'Who are we?' is the important question. 'Who are we as Americans?'," if we let the prison continue to exist, said Luczikowaska.
Following the press conference, activists and their supporters marched for a mile and a half in silence to the Justice Department's Robert F. Kennedy Building, convening at Constitution Avenue where they were greeted by nearly a dozen police officers standing behind barriers and blocking the building's entrance.
The activists peacefully convened outside of the barriers however and were able to block that entrance for nearly an hour and a half. In that time, as the temperature began to plummet, they sang a hymn, "Courage Muslim Brothers," and read poetry written by detainees, while supporters faced the street with banners and signs.
After an hour, the group split up and headed for the other two entrances, ultimately blockading three of the building's four entrances for an hour and a half. (The fourth was under construction.)
Though threatened with arrest twice, they speculate that the threats ceased for political reasons.
"Warnings were issued at one point, but the police appeared to change their plans and called off bringing buses to take away the blockaders. U.S. authorities have deeply disgraced this country by refusing to end torture and provide its War-on-Terror prisoners with speedy trials. Rather than call more attention to this fact by detaining activists who put themselves at risk today to bring this message to the public, they backed off," said Matt Daloisio of WAT in a statement.
Before they shed the jumpsuits, the activists met in a nearby park to hold hands and celebrate the day. Somewhere in the circle of nearly 200, one of the activists began to hum the hymn sung on Constitution Avenue:
Courage, Muslim brothers;
You do not walk alone;
We will walk with you;
And sing your spirit home.