Artists, activists unite to support Bradley Manning at Fort Meade
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Artists, activists unite to support Bradley Manning at Fort Meade

A loose-knit group of 10 to 20 supporters, mostly retirees or self-employed workers, sits through hours of testimony of Bradley Manning's court martial hearing at Fort Meade, a military installation near Baltimore.

world Updated: Jun 27, 2013 11:38 IST

Clark Stoeckley is Bradley Manning's most visible supporter at the US soldier's court-martial. He arrives each day in a white box truck with bold words painted on the sides: "WikiLeaks TOP SECRET Mobile Information Collection Unit." The provocative gag even has a nonworking satellite dish and two fake security cameras on it.

Stoeckley, a 30-year-old art instructor at a New Jersey college, is among the more colorful of the 10 to 20 supporters who regularly attend Manning's trial, which resumed this week.

The loose-knit group of mostly retirees or self-employed workers sits through hours of sometimes bland testimony at Fort Meade, a military installation near Baltimore.

They take notes, make courtroom sketches or write blogs, posting their drawings and articles on websites designed to inform people about the court-martial and raise money for Manning's defence.

They do so because they are united in skepticism of the US government and the belief that Manning exposed wrongdoing by leaking hundreds of thousands of battlefield reports and state department cables, as well as Iraq and Afghanistan war videos.

Stoeckley, who teaches at Bloomfield College, is spending his summer sketching the courtroom drama, making colorful drawings of the Army private in his dress blue uniform; witnesses in their Army fatigues and Manning supporters in their black T-shirts with the word "truth" across the chest.

Stoeckley got involved after seeing a video Manning gave to the anti-secrecy website WikiLeaks. The video showed a 2007 US helicopter attack in Baghdad that killed at least eight people, including a Reuters news photographer and his driver.

The Pentagon concluded the troops reasonably mistook the camera gear for weapons and that the journalists were in the company of armed insurgents. Stoeckley calls it a war crime.

"My immediate reaction was, 'This is the deal-breaker. This is what's going to end the Iraq war,'" he said.

But it didn't end the war and the video became evidence that led the military to charge Manning with 22 counts, including espionage, computer fraud and aiding the enemy, which carries a potential life sentence. There's no question Manning leaked the information, but he says none of it put troops or the government in harm's way.

On Wednesday, about 50 sympathisers attended and heard from a former state department official who testified about access to diplomatic cables. About 30 supporters were allowed in the courtroom and the others watched a closed-circuit video feed from a trailer outside the courthouse.

The government has been moving quickly through its case, presenting evidence from more than 60 witnesses in just 10 trial days since it started on June 3.

Manning's supporters are mostly anti-war and have a history of civil disobedience. They identify with groups such as Courage to Resist; Veterans for Peace and the Center on Conscience and War.

They try each day to fill the 20 seats reserved for the public and media in the small courtroom, and have done so most days. They protest just outside the Fort Meade gates with "Free Bradley Manning" signs before the testimony begins at 9:30am, then they enter the base, leaving behind their signs, buttons and anything with Manning's name on it. Those things are banned inside the courtroom.

At lunchtime, they eat pizza, sub sandwiches and other fast-food, talking about everything from the trial to their personal lives. Some say they have grown close.

"We talk about news items, what's happening this weekend, where somebody's appearing at a church or some kind of gathering," said Bill Wagner, 75, a retired NASA research manager who takes notes during the trial.

He estimated he had been to about one-third of the court-martial over the last 18 months and now has a new group of friends and email correspondents, including a couple from Michigan and attorney Michael Ratner of the Center for Constitutional Rights.

"I retired and had a lot of friends at work. To some extent, that's supplanted it or replaced it," Wagner said.

Leah Brown, a Washington bookkeeper and peace activist, said the Manning supporters haven't caused much of a stir at the fort, even wearing their "truth" shirts at the PX. She says she already knew some of the activists from other events, but has also met new friends.

"Everybody I meet there is there for a good reason. They go there because they really care about what happens to Bradley Manning personally and about what it means to all of us in the future if the government succeeds in what they're trying to do to him," she said.

Bradley Manning Support Network campaign organiser Emma Cape said the group has several thousand supporters on the East Coast and she's trying to persuade more of them to show up. So far, nearly 20,000 people worldwide have donated more than $1.1 million to Manning's defence fund.

Pentagon papers leaker Daniel Ellsberg and Princeton professor Cornel West have attended some of the court-martial. Other big-name supporters, including film directors Michael Moore and Oliver Stone, and actors Russell Brand and Roseanne Barr, have left the daily court-watching to supporters who live nearby.

First Published: Jun 27, 2013 11:36 IST