In commuting the 35-year sentence of a transgender former US soldier, President Obama may well have committed the bravest act of his 8-year presidency. Bradley Manning now Chelsea Elizabeth Manning, will be freed from prison, May 2017.
In 2013 the US army soldier was given a 35-year sentence for violations of the Espionage Act after disclosing three quarters of a million confidential documents to WikiLeaks in 2010. In September 2016 Manning ended a hunger strike after receiving assurances that the government would provide gender re-alignment surgery costing $50,000. The former soldier has polarised opinion on the sentencing of governmental whistle-blowers. Campaigners have long been demanding the release of someone they feel had been made a scapegoat by a US military seemingly shamed by its actions in the Middle East and elsewhere. In commuting Manning’s sentence, Obama will face staunch criticism from US military, US populace and world politicians alike as many consider Manning a traitor.
“The sentence she received was very disproportionate, relative to what other leakers had received.” Obama answering questions at his last press conference, The White House January 18.
Chelsea Manning will join 1,714 other inmates who would have seen their sentences greatly reduced under the Obama administration. With a further 212 prisoners receiving full pardons. According to White House briefings, the President who by the time of leaving office would have granted more commutations than any other president in US history. But scroll down the list of those prisoners given the government seal of approval and you might question the notable absences.
No belated acts of clemency for any of the 16 members of the Black Panther Party (BPP) currently serving highly dubious sentences in US jails. These political prisoners, with their younger years long gone and as in the cases of Mumia Abu Jamal, 62 and Kamau Sadiki, 64, some are now extremely ill. Often being held in inhumane conditions. Often held in solitary confinement, these captives of the state have collectively served over 600 years in prison for crimes many human rights campaigners believe they did not commit. No pardons granted by the out-going president on the grounds of ill-health and no pardons granted by America’s first African American President on the grounds of flawed evidence collated by a COINTELPRO purge on Black Civil Rights groups of the 60s and 70s.
These collective years do not include the life sentences given to Assata Shakur a political refugee, resident in Cuba since her escape from jail in 1979 and who, under Obama was curiously added to the FBI’s most wanted list in 2013. These collective years also do not include Pete O’Neal the former chairman of the Kansas chapter of the BPP. He was arrested for gun possession in 1969 but whilst out on bail he and his wife Charlotte (aka Mama C, then just 17 years old), fled to Tanzania in 1971 where they still reside to this day.
October 2016, the 50th anniversary of the birth of the Black Panther Party could not have passed the former President by. He would have watched, along with millions across the globe, Beyoncé dressed in black beret, hot pants and black leather jacket, raising her gloved, black fist whilst performing at the Superbowl, in February 2016. Following the numerous shootings by police on unarmed civilians, Obama would have seen fists raised across his country. People holding placards in the face of military might as echoes of 70s America peppered his tenure, as black bodies lay strewn across his country like contagion.
He would have surely received a request to pardon these political prisoners from Albert Woodfox, former Panther and member of the Angolan 3. Freed February 19th, 2016 after serving 43 years in solitary confinement – the longest time in solitary confinement than any other man in US history. Woodfox would no doubt have mentioned to Obama, the plight of his comrade Ruchell Cinque Magee now 78, who has been in prison for over 53 years for his involvement in what has been called the ‘courtroom slave rebellion’. He remains the longest serving prisoner in US history.
When Obama leaves office he will leave behind him the hopes of those who may have considered that the first Black president might just have shone a light on their plight, and who might have just had the desire, inclination and power to see them as freed men. In 2015 Obama became the first sitting President to go into a federal prison cell. Gaining him plaudits and respect from certain quarters. But the inmates were cleared out and the cells were conveniently, emptied as he sat with a film crew and a small circle of carefully selected prisoners espousing contrition for their past misdemeanours. When asked about Obama’s legacy and the hopes for an early release, writer, journalist activist and ‘lifer’, Mumia Abu Jamal spoke candidly to Amy Goodman of Democracy Now:
“It is a tragedy that (sic) that when Obama leaves, you will still have the greatest incarcerator on earth at work, and growing and continuing to divest and destroy and diminish the lives of millions of people. The fact that you could have a black presidency and not put a dent in that hellhole is startling, is tragedy, you know, on a grand stage. The biggest—” Democracy Now, October 2016.
We will of course dissect Obama’s time in office, discussing the things he may have wanted done but was unable to do due to political immovability, federal laws vs state rulings and the vitriol of a tetchy public. But great leaders do great things. Obama did not speak truth to power. He leaves a country that has incarcerated more people per capita than anywhere else in the developed world; with prisons across America looking more and more like slave plantations. Some will point to his My Brother’s Keeper Program, a mentoring program helping young Black boys gain access to colleges and employment. A good thing of course, but detractors like Frederick Harris, a professor of political science at Columbia University, stated that “MBK did not place enough focus on the ‘deep structural issues’” and that its goals “will fall short unless the major policy changes that disrupt the barriers placed before poor and working class minority youth are made…” – Jamiles Lartey Guardian, 2016
Some may even point to the Taskforce 21 Manual. A policing manual that the now, former President has given his name to. With community leaders, councilors and police commissioners sitting down to draft out bullet points for progressive ‘community policing’. But the document which is not law and may well be ignored by the incoming President and others, falls well short in outlining any reprimand or sanctions for wayward police officers and does little in terms of stemming the systemic racism which has underpinned the US police force since the inception of the slave patrols (patrollers) of the early 1700s.
It will be interesting to know whether Obama really thinks of the Black Panthers as a terrorist organisation filled with cop killers and thugs, or as brave Black and proud militants who developed mentoring initiatives, community policing programmes and breakfast clubs not too dissimilar to the ones he now takes the praise for implementing. Obama may well become the man out office he was not able to be whilst in office. But by not finding it feasible to free those who fought on the frontline so he, in some way, could push through just a little bit easier, may well be his gravest act of treachery to those brave souls who spoke truth to power.
Free the Black Panthers – website