In Defense of Whistleblowers: Cindy Sheehan Speaks Out on National Bicycling Tour

Peace activist Cindy Sheehan stopped in Chicago on June 3 to promote her Tour de Peace campaign and speak out in support of Bradley Manning, whose court martial trial began the same day in Ft. Meade, Md.

Sheehan started her cross-country bicycling tour in California on April 4, nine years to the day her son Casey was killed in Iraq. Along with other antiwar activists, Sheehan spoke in front of Buckingham Fountain in Chicago’s Grant Park. She said it is imperative that people continue to put pressure on those in power in order to hold them accountable, just as Manning did by sending classified documents containing evidence of war crimes to WikiLeaks. He fulfilled his legal obligation, as outlined in the Army Field Manual and detailed in the Geneva Conventions.

Sheehan told ralliers that we must all say “no to militarism, no to racism and no to poverty.” Invoking the late Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., she described the current paradigm as fundamentally unjust, asserting that it sustains systems of violence, military aggression and state terror.

“We need to get out in the streets and stop it now,” Sheehan stated emphatically. Those rallying in Grant Park agreed.

Jeff Johnson, who resides in the heart of the financial district in Chicago, worked for 40 years doing construction and as a mechanic. He laments the fact that corporate media have turned the bulk of society into “entertainment addicts,” and he suspects the permanent war economy will continue apace until more people comprehend the process by which a select few are “siphoning off wealth,” and reinvesting surplus value in militarist projects.

He admits these discussions sound odd to those who don’t go beyond popular commercial news sources to get information, but research and empirical analysis support his claims. One percent of the US population owns about 42 percent of the nation’s non-housing wealth, and the world’s richest one percent control 39 percent of private global wealth, according to a recent CNBC report.

And the files Manning supplied to WikiLeaks, like the “collateral murder,” video, evince violations of law.

Johnson, who was out more than an hour before the rally officially started, protesting for peace and for an end to violence in all its insidious forms, concedes it might be a “feeble attempt to bring about change,” but he also knows “there won’t be a change until people make the effort.” He explained how that effort starts with little acts of defiance, consciousness-raising and public solidarity rallies.

Social justice organizations that fund critical reporting — like Firedoglake, who recently hired community activist Jeff Creamer to cover Manning’s court martial proceedings — go beyond decontextualized sensationalist infotainment common throughout most major media, fostering an informed citizenry instead, explained Johnson.

Mary O’Sullivan, who has lived in Chicago for 16 years, concurs with Johnson’s framework for change. She says keeping the pressure on those in power is “the only thing that works,” when it comes to making an impact on government policies. She added that: “People have to take to the streets. The more the better.”

She and her husband took to the streets to participate in the rally, and show — with their bodies and handmade signs — solidarity with Manning, whom she said made an ethical, informed decision to release select cables to WikiLeaks.

As Amy Goodman reported, in the pretrial proceedings, Manning said: “I believed that if the general public, especially the American public, had access to the information … it could spark a domestic debate on the role of the military and our foreign policy in general.”

O’Sullivan believes he was “trying to save America by exposing these crimes because he knew sooner or later they’ll come back to bite us.”

In the documentary, Power and Terror, linguist and dissident academic Noam Chomsky remarked that if you want to end terrorism, there is a fairly straightforward way — namely, “Stop participating in it.”  Chomsky’s axiom affirms O’Sullivan’s ideas about the logical rationale behind the legal and moral obligation to disclose information on questionable US military operations — an obligation Manning made good on.

In O’Sullivan’s view, Manning aimed to curtail the destructive US foreign agenda by revealing the secret, sordid affairs of war.

O’Sullivan says Manning should be commended, and she supports other whistleblowers, activists and journalists who have dared to defy state and corporate power. She arrived at the rally with a handmade sign that read, “U.S. Heroes: Aaron Swartz, Julian Assange, Brad Manning.”

The names of those three men have permeated the media throughout the last few years. Swartz was a long-time cyber-activist who helped develop RSS. He had a hand in creating the Creative Commons copyright alternative. He also co-founded Reddit and spearheaded an Internet campaign to defeat the Stop Online Privacy Act (SOPA). When he tried to make privatized scientific journals available to the public, he was prosecuted by the Justice Department, and subsequently took his own life.

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange remains in Ecuador’s embassy in London where he has stayed since President Rafeal Correa of Ecuador granted him asylum last June, following Assange’s legal fight against extradition related to the Swedish government’s wanting him for questioning about allegations over sexual misconduct.

O’Sullivan said she only wished she had left room on the sign to include Jeremy Hammond, who has been described as a highly intelligent, tech-savvy activist, like Swartz, Assange and Manning. Also like Manning, he faces years in prison after being charged with hacking into the database of intelligence firm Stratfor to release documents to WikiLeaks. The files revealed Statfor’s spying on activists on behalf of corporations like Coca-Cola and Dow Chemical.

Nick Egnatz, an author and activist committed to ending imperialism, showed up early for the rally as well, waving a large Veterans for Peace flag as passing motorists looked on while they made their way up and down Columbus Drive.

Egnatz points to state-corporate collusion and monitoring of social movements like Occupy Wall Street as further evidence that there are concerted efforts by concentrated power to neutralize dissent. In addition to peaceful demonstrations and direct action, Egnatz writes often about social justice causes. His latest work, Justice American Style: Obama’s War on Dissent, details the current administration’s crackdown on activism, including its prosecution of more whistleblowers under the Espionage Act than all other presidents combined.

O’Sullivan and Egnatz both expressed the same sentiments articulated in a recent column by Democracy Now! host Amy Goodman, Hammond, Manning, Assange and Obama’s Sledgehammer Against Dissent.

Sheehan lambasted the on-going prosecution of whistleblowers, and when addressing demonstrators at the rally she recounted that while the attack on journalists and people like Manning is unprecedented, inversion of justice is nothing new for those in Washington, D.C. — or as she referred to it, “WashedUp, DeCeit”.  She pointed out that from Carter to Obama, US presidential administrations have committed war crimes.

The point reiterates an oft-quoted statement from Noam Chomsky. That is, to paraphrase, if the Nuremburg principles were applied universally, all presidents since World War II would be convicted of war crimes.

“Manning, in a just world, would be a witness for the prosecution of those who committed war crimes,” former New York Times foreign correspondent Chris Hedges wrote, capturing the same message conveyed in front of Buckingham Fountain. “Assange would be traveling around the United States collecting First Amendment awards.”

In a sardonic twist of fate, it is Manning who is on trial, while President Obama has overseen the seizure of Associated Press journalists’ phone records, and has passed legislation such as the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) that allows for indefinite detention of American citizens. Chomsky and Hedges filed a lawsuit against Obama when the NDAA was signed into law.

At the Chicago event Sheehan further assailed the current administration not just for recent illegalities, but also for “protecting the Bush administration,” and for “protecting companies like Monsanto,” who people at the multinational biotech corporation’s headquarters in Creve Coeur, Mo., and in some 436 cities all over the world, marched against on May 25.

“It’s a scandalous corporatocracy that we have with this capitalism,” Sheehan said.

Egnatz, who views the contemporary state of affairs as interdependent parts comprising a totality, said that “we can never end our wars, our system of militarization [and] empire until we change our economic system.”

“It’s necessary for us to change from US capitalism to a more democratic economic system,” he told everyone at the rally. “We have to put it all together.”

O’Sullivan called Manning a patriot for his willingness to put himself in danger to help US citizens put it all together, thereby protecting the American people from the effects of what Korean War veteran and former CIA consultant Chalmers Johnson termed “Blowback, in reference to inevitable consequences of US hegemony.

“Bradley Manning is an American hero,” Egnatz also told the people in Grant Park. “He needs our support. It’s necessary for us to show solidarity.”

When Manning was in the military in Iraq he had a dog tag with “humanist” imprinted on it, explained Michael Ratner, president emeritus of the Center for Constitutional Rights and attorney for Julian Assange, when talking to Democracy Now!. “This is the Bradley Manning that this world and this country ought to care about.”

When Sheehan spoke at the rally in support of Manning, she expressed an equally humanistic zeitgeist.

“We have to be a community,” Sheehan stressed, adding that it is important to keep rallying while also creating alternative institutions to parallel and replace those that are failing the people and planet.

The Tour de Peace is stopping in cities across the country almost every day as Sheehan and her caravan make their way to “WashedUp, DeCeit.” She said one of the primary reasons for cycling from California to the east coast was so that they could talk to people all over, to spread the message “that this partisan hypocrisy has to end,” and that “if it was wrong when Bush did it … then it’s wrong when Obama is doing it.”

When the Tour de Peace reaches its final destination in early July, Sheehan will be protesting outside the White House, where she has previously been arrested.

“We need millions of people in the streets demanding an end to war,” Sheehan said, calling for prosecution of war crimes, an end to persecution of whistleblowers and systemic transformation to a more just economic system. She concluded that only through grassroots activism and participatory democracy can change happen.

James Anderson is a Ph.D. student in Mass Communications and Media Arts at Southern Illinois University Carbondale. His interests include social movements, political economy, alternative media, alternative economic paradigms, world systems analysis, critical pedagogy, prefigurative praxis, direct action and satire. His words are his weapon, and, like so many others, he believes another world is possible.