Of the 166 detainees still at the Guantanamo Bay prison, 104 are on a hunger strike that has lasted over four months as they protest indefinite detentions without trial or even charges. They have now been joined by several U.S. war veterans, including former Army medic Diane Wilson who spoke with Dennis J Bernstein.
By Dennis J Bernstein
Several U.S. war veterans are on a hunger strike seeking to close down the Guantanamo Bay prison and demanding the freedom of detainees who face no charges and are not considered security threats.
One of these veterans is Diane Wilson, a fourth generation shrimper and an environmental activist on the Texas Gulf Coast who has been on a water-only hunger strike for 50 days. She talked with Dennis J Bernstein on Pacifica’s “Flashpoints” program about the protest, which mirrors one underway by most of the Guantanamo prisoners.
DB: First of all, after 49 days … how are you doing?
DW: Well, a couple of days ago, I probably would have told you a different story but I got some electrolytes. Any time you’re on a fast this long, and you’re on water only, you tend to screw up your electrolytes, and I probably wasn’t drinking’ enough water. And I had, actually one of the vets, mailed me some electrolytes because he didn’t think I was going to take ‘em. And it cleared up, my, my thinking because my thinking, it was like a fog went over my brain. And it would have been real difficult to interview me at that point. But I feel much better now.
DB: Well, I am glad you are feeling better now. Now, you were in fact, a medic in the Vietnam War…
DB: …and then you became a Vietnam War protester, right?
DW: Oh, absolutely. It was what I saw as a medic that absolutely determined how I’ve felt about war ever since. Because, you know, I was just like those young guys that went in, that volunteered and you saw those Life magazine pictures of the medics. That’s the one that I saw. … I saw those black and white photos of those medics wounded and reaching for the helicopter and trying to help a soldier and I just felt the urge. I was going to be Florence Nightingale and I was going to go. … I wanted to go to Vietnam. And that’s what I wanted to do and, I found out different. And I am … I am totally committed to no war.
DB: In a sentence, or two, what did you learn?
DW: Ah, mainly, it’s when the Army, because I was in the Army, when they take these young people and, if it’s a war, like the Vietnam War, they have to turn you to thinking as the other … and usually it was a dark-skinned person, because there was a lot of movies they were showing and … they were the enemy, and it was this kill, kill, kill mentality.
And I remember the things that they would do to get the guys in that type of mentality, and then when I started seeing the guys being air lifted back, when you would get them in the wards, I mean, they were totally lost. If you’d walk down the wards, there would be such a fog of marijuana. I mean it was like a fog, and I remember, the guys, the only way they could show their gratitude for me … for me helping them, for taking care of them … it was they would load down my nurse uniform with dope … with you name it, you know, Black Mollies, whether it was, crack, whether it was cocaine. I don’t know what all it was, but it was … and they were totally, totally lost.
And to see in a very short period of time that transfiguration of people. And what it was turning into … I remember actually, I went to my colonel and I told her “I’m not playing your game anymore. I said, “I’m quitting.” And I did. She pretty much freaked out and told me to salute and go back and do what I was doing, but I actually, I got a ticket to Canada. And I was probably one of the, I don’t know how many other WACS went to Toronto, Canada. And I absolutely refused to do it anymore.
And I wasn’t a part of a group, and didn’t have solidarity with people, it was just something I saw and experienced and I said, “This is not right.” And I eventually came back and they, they said I was a very un-American, and they gave me an undesirable [discharge], so I use that with pride.
DB: So, you have one of your major, graduate school diplomas. … And now I’m sure you’ve got it on your wall next to all the other great awards.
DW: Yes, yes.
DB: And I just want to remind people that, Diane Wilson, you were a hero at many levels. For me, your battle to communicate with the people of Bhopal, coming from that part of Texas where you saw the water that you loved [the Gulf of Mexico], that you worked on as a fishing boat captain, destroyed [in the BP oil spill], and then you made unity with the people of Bhopal, you traveled around the world in the name of peace. And so this hunger strike that you are on now is really just a continuation of extraordinary work, really, for the people, for peace.
So, let me focus you now. Why is this important enough? Why is the closing down of Guantanamo important enough for you to put your very life on the line? I believe … please forgive me … may I expose that you are not a youngster?
DW: No, I’m not. I’m sixty-five, not a youngster. Yes.
DB: Okay. Tell us why you are risking your life.
DW: Well, I tell you what, I’ve had a lot of environmental politics because I’ve been a fisherman, a shrimper all my life. And I was, several months back, I was at the Dallas dedication of the Bush library except I was on the protest end, and there was a lot of Vietnam vets out there, there was a lot of Code Pink, and we were protesting the dedication of the Bush library. And Medea Benjamin had just came back from London. And she had been talking with the activist group that had been trying to get the British citizen from Guantanamo.
And quite frankly, you know, I had always been aware that there had been demonstrations with people in the orange jump suits. I had seen it in all of these, where these hearings were going on, and people standing back, but I had never really, really got in depth and so when she told me that she wanted to start a rolling hunger fast, an international hunger fast for the prisoners over there … I read what was going on and it killed me because … I get real …
DB: It’s okay…
DW: I, I, it’s, it’s …
DB: That’s all right, take a deep breath. It’s just fine. Now, this is love, and what you are doing. This is a commitment you’ve made. Please … just breathe and, you know, they say in the old days of Greece, that crying was a sign of wisdom. They actually had crying rooms, so …
DW: Oh, well, I feel that a little … but it was a number of stuff. It was…ah, because I’m a fisherman, and because you sometimes have so little voice, and because the corporations are so powerful and they’re destroying. … I understand what it is like to not have a voice. And so, I understand why people go on hunger strikes. Because that is not a whim, it is not your first option, that takes … it comes from a different part of your brain. It not even a rational thing, it’s totally from your heart, and I totally understand what it is … feels like to come from your heart because it’s so desperate, and, and..oh…
DB: Take a deep breathe. It’s okay.
DW: The other thing is, I have been in because of my fighting the corporations, everything you do is illegal. I have been arrested so many times for non-violent civil disobedience for just standing up and so I understand what … a tenth of what it must be like for those guys to be in that prison. I know how brutal, how brutal in every mental, physical, psychological way those prisons can be. And for them to be in that situation, feeling that desperate … and then, also, for it to be my country! It’s like, this is not who I believe this country is.
And I can’t tell you how many people who think I am unpatriotic because I stand up and protest. They’re like, “Well, why don’t you go back from where you come from?” And I’m like, “Well, I’ll have you know my grandfather was a native American Indian.” It’s like I don’t know how back home I can be, being in my own country. But it is like the American people, we have to make this country what we believe it to be, and what we were doing to those men, over there, what we have done to their families.
Code Pink was just over in Yemen where a lot of the prisoners are from, and even the families, the children of men who are in those prisons, they are being discriminated against. They are being ostracized because it is their father or their brother who is over there. And the thing of it is it’s, I believe, eighty-eight of them have been scheduled for release, for over three years. They have been in that prison for eleven years. The CIA finds no cause to prosecute … the FBI, the State Department, the Justice Department, and the Pentagon … and still they stay. For what reason?!
It’s politics. They are kicked from one end of that Hill in Washington to another. It’s all politics, and it is destroying people. And it is not what America is. And by God, it’s like, duh, the only way I know how to do it is I sincerely believe to make change you have to push it to the edge and you get right in their faces. You become the witness and you get as close as you can.
So that’s what I did. And the only thing I know that can take it as far as those guys are taking it is to do the very same thing. I know, the American people, the President, they can’t see those [detainees]. Has he went over to Guantanamo and saw those guys? Shoot, no! So I’ll do it right in front of him. And I will. And if I had a chance, to, to march right in there, and open his door, I’d dang sure do it.
DB: It’s amazing this parallel structure that you’re setting up. You’re there fasting in Texas. I know you’re going to be back on the East Coast soon, but I guess I want to ask you, the President really, would it be correct to say, totally lied to the American people when he said he was going to close down Guantanamo? Then he just had another press conference where your comrade, Medea, was taken out, trying to talk about what’s going on in Guantanamo, and he’s still talking about the bureaucracy. This is what I understand he’s talking about the bureaucratic possibilities of doing this, and this, and this … that maybe sometime in the future, somewhere in the world, there might be something done to start the release of these prisoners because I don’t hear anything about him releasing them.
So, what would your dialogue, or your message to the President, be?
DW: Well, he just has to have the moral courage. Because he can do it today. He should have done it yesterday, and the day before that. But he can do it today. And for him not to, it is the lack of the moral courage. And that is all it is, and there is a time, as President, as the most powerful man in the world, is that you have to stand up, or everything you represent to me, means nothing. It really does. … I have so lost my faith in my government. I have so lost my faith, and believe it is up to the people to be a witness and make them do it. So I am trying to make him do it, with every part of my being, I’m trying to make him do it.
DB: And are you going to head east soon?
DW: Well, I’m going to Washington, D.C. and I’m going to be as close to that White House gate as I can be. Who knows?
DB: Well, shall we say, as a senior member of the peace movement, what kind of advice, if a young woman or a young man, particularly a young woman came to you and said “Why are you doing this? Why are you fasting? I have my life ahead of me … and why would it be important for me to get involved in these kinds of issues?”
DW: Mainly I believe these issues have to do with who we are as people. What we have, our jobs, our accumulations, our job title … that is not who we are. Who we are is the good that we can do to make this country better. How we stand up … or how we sit down.
And, actually, it comes down to and, you know, a lot of times I try to be nice to people and I don’t say it as much, but it really is, there’s no excuse. There’s none. You know, people can tell me, “Well, when my kids grow up” or “When I get a better job.” Or, we talk to Democrats during the stop the war, it was a hunger fast there, and the Democrats were saying, “Well, when we get in a better position.” And it’s like it’s always an excuse, and there is none. And I believe it has to do with moral integrity. And to me that’s the only valuable thing that you really, really have.
DB: Okay, well I’m not going to bother you anymore, Diane Wilson. We want you to be careful. It is a very incredible inspiration to many people that you take the stand that you do. And, there are many people who love you for it.
DW: Why, thank you very much, Dennis. I love hearing that … I don’t hear it, very often down here in my neck of the woods.