On Wednesday, whistleblower and political prisoner Chelsea Manning attempted suicide in a Virginia jail. Had Manning, who is currently recovering in a hospital, died, it would have been the state that killed her. Her current imprisonment, as I have previously written, is a brutal violation of Manning’s human rights and American law; it has now proven near-deadly in its violence.
Manning’s suicide attempt is grim fulfillment of the vow she made on entering prison last year: “I would rather starve to death,” she said, than testify.
Since May, Manning has been imprisoned for refusing to testify before a federal grand jury investigating WikiLeaks. Every day of her incarceration, she is charged $1,000; she now owes the government upwards of $250,000. The sole purpose of Manning’s detention has been to coerce her to testify. Under the arcane laws dictating federal grand jury procedure, she can only legally be held in jail on the grounds that imprisonment could be successful in its coercion. Manning’s suicide attempt is grim fulfillment of the vow she made on entering prison last year: “I would rather starve to death,” she said, than testify.
According to her lawyers, Manning is still scheduled to attend a court hearing on Friday, when the judge overseeing the grand jury, Anthony Trenga, will rule on a motion to end her imprisonment and fines. The motion, filed by Manning’s legal team earlier this month, asserts that Manning has proven herself incoercible and so must, according to legal statute, be released from her incarceration. The judge has unassailable evidence that she will never speak and now the stakes of his Friday decision are in sharp relief: He does not have the choice to coerce her to testify — she will not. He can choose to free her immediately or continue to coerce her to possible death.
In a letter to Trenga last year, Manning wrote, “I have had these values since I was a child, and I’ve had years of confinement to reflect on them. For much of that time, I depended for survival on my values, my decisions, and my conscience. I will not abandon them now.” On New Year’s Eve last year, a tweet from Manning’s account noted that she had spent 77.76 percent of her time since 2009 in jail. Every day she has spent in a cage has been a consequence of principled political action. And for this, the U.S. government and military has shown a consistent willingness to reduce her to bare life: stripped of legal rights but held under law.
When Manning was held in a military brig for seven years before her sentence was commuted, she went on hunger strike to obtain gender-affirming surgery. At another point in 2016, she was driven to attempt suicide — an act for which she was sentenced to solitary confinement for threatening the “good order and discipline” of the prison.
Again and again, the state has been willing to push Manning, along with so many other prisoners nationwide, to the edge of death. At every point, Manning has reasserted her commitment to resisting state violence. There can be no doubt that Manning lives for her principles and is willing to die for them too. It is at the very center of the inability to coerce her. The question before the judge, therefore, is whether he is willing to follow legal statute and free her, or to see her driven to death.