How exactly do you react when your friend is subpoenaed to appear before (what you consider) a federal show trial? “I spent all Friday fuming,” answers M.C. McGrath, a Boston University Academy student. “I got word just before class and couldn’t believe it.” McGrath contacted other friends of David House, a Boston activist and friend of alleged WikiLeaks leaker Bradley Manning. News gradually spread that House was summoned before the Alexandria, VA Grand Jury investigating WikiLeaks.
A founder of the Bradley Manning Support Network, House is used to government attention. Like other WikiLeaks supporters, he has been the subject of surveillance, arbitrary search and seizure of his property. House is suing the Department of Homeland Security with ACLU support for seizing his laptop without warrant at Chicago O’Hare last November.
But his friends say the subpoena was the last straw. They quickly formed Civic Counsel, an amalgamation of activists, technology enthusiasts, reformers and idealists. “We realized,” explains Valerie Young, a BU senior, “that no one knows solid facts about WikiLeaks or the Grand Jury or Manning’s treatment. Our immediate strategy focused on informing the public.” They outlined bare facts as they saw them: the government is persecuting WikiLeaks for revealing misdeeds, making an example of Bradley Manning and bullying innocent supporters such as House through subpoenas and harassment.
From there “it rolled really quickly into planning a protest. There wasn’t much time for hesitation,” recalls Liam Wang. They set the date for Wednesday, June 15, the day of House’s Grand Jury appearance. “None of us had attended protests before, much less planned one,” laughs Wang. A five-day mobilizing crack course later—applying for permits, crafting press releases, and contacting musicians, speakers and other activists—Civic Counsel descended on City Hall.
The rally also coincided with the 94th anniversary of the Espionage Act, under which Manning is charged and prosecutors subpoenaed House. “Under this Act, not only can Julian Assange be accused of espionage,” emphasized Civic Counsel member Monica Gribouski in her opening remarks. “Everyone who has read, posted, or re-posted information from WikiLeaks could also be charged. We refuse to believe our government and Americans can stand for such blatant renouncement of rights. Where is our freedom of speech?” She echoes American University law professor Stephen Vladeck, who last December testified before the House that “the Act draws no distinction between the leaker, the recipient of the leak, or the 100th person to redistribute, retransmit, or even retain [i.e., read] national defense information that, by that point, is already in the public domain.”
About 150 supporters came out Wednesday. Those who heard about the rally through social media or word-of-mouth seemed most concerned at Manning’s condition and the vagueness of espionage statutes. Steve Diorio, an Air Force veteran, believes Manning’s treatment is excessive. “He’s been lumped with active terrorists. The charge of ‘aiding the enemy’ is troubling. What enemy? [Attorney General] Holder is trumping this up as big as they can.”
Others came from various activist organizations, all emphasizing their struggles’ interconnectedness. For Susie Husted, a Food Not Bombs volunteer, “the issues these students are highlighting cut across organizations working for social justice.” Musician Evan Greer, performing between speakers, echoed, “WikiLeaks ties so many struggles – from concerns about US foreign conduct to critics of domestic policy.” American Friends Service Committee speaker Joseph Gerson suggested that “atrocities committed outside the fortress walls eventually make it inside.”
Halfway through the protest Young announced that House had plead the Fifth and refused to testify. She continued over cheers, “Nixon’s case [in the Pentagon Papers] imploded because many refused to testify.” Civic Counsel members faced the news with determination and concern: if prosecutors offer immunity and he still refuses to testify, House can be held in contempt and jailed for the duration of the investigation.
Some who support House and Manning were afraid to protest, and many who came declined to give names. “Some of my friends thought they’d get blackballed or wouldn’t be able to hold a government job,” says Gribouski. “But that’s exactly why we should protest!” interjects Kit Haines. “I don’t want to live in 1984, or a country where simply accessing information is dangerous.”
As the rally ended, McGrath insisted that this was only the first step. “We’re still not sure what’s next for David, but Civic Counsel will continue in the larger fight for free information and open government. We’re not done.”