Leading with Love: Chelsea Manning’s fight for survival

The past four years as Chelsea Manning’s attorney and friend taught me key lessons in advocacy, resistance, and resilience.

On the morning of July 6, 2016, I was walking into work from the train when I received an e-mail from a reporter who regularly covered developments in Chelsea Manning’s case. Chelsea, the now 29 year-old former prisoner, was at that time serving her thirty-five year sentence at the United States Disciplinary Barracks in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas for convictions related to leaking classified documents to the news media.

Chelsea Manning. Photo by Tim Hawkins.

“I’m sorry to be bugging you again,” the reporter wrote. “[B]ut I am reading reports that Chelsea is in the hospital.

“I’ve been asked to cover the story, so if you are able to share any information, I’d really appreciate it.”

I could not share any information as I had no idea what she was referring to. I had spoken to Chelsea a few days prior and had thought she was fine. The type of fine that one can be when they are held in confinement against their will, denied health care, and facing decades more of the relentless of dehumanization. But nonetheless, while I was spending time with my family, I assumed everything was okay with Chelsea over that holiday weekend.

After that e-mail, I looked on Twitter and saw reports that Chelsea had attempted suicide over the long July 4th weekend. None of these reports had been verified and neither I nor her other attorneys or family members were notified of any suicide attempt.

By that July day, I had been working with Chelsea for almost three years. I started to work with her after she came out as a transgender woman the day following the entry of her sentence. For the next few years we would work together to fight for her basic health care and humanity. Following the ACLU’s lawsuit against the Department of Defense, Chelsea was treated with hormone therapy and some other medically necessary treatment for her gender dysphoria but the military continued to forcibly cut her hair to conform to male standards even though she is a woman and her doctors recommended that she be permitted to grow her hair consistent with the standards applied to all other female prisoners.

Every day during those years of working with her, Chelsea was trapped inside the walls of a prison where she was not only cut off from the world but also cut off from living fully as her authentic self. It became unmanageable.

After a few hours of trying to contact the government after learning of the alleged suicide attempt in July, I finally confirmed that Chelsea had been hospitalized following an attempt to end her life.

When I finally spoke to her on the phone a few days later, the first thing Chelsea said to me was, “I’m sorry.”

“Sorry, for what?” I replied. “I just couldn’t do it anymore,” she explained through tears.

I understood. No one should be forced to navigate the layers of cruelty that we subject prisoners to. No one should be denied the health care that they need to live. No one should be told every day in myriad ways that society rejects the central truth of who they are.

Chelsea was tired. She was losing hope. I got it. After all, like so many trans people, I had been there myself. I knew what it felt like to reach a point where I could not see a future for myself in the world and that was under far less violent and constraining circumstances than those Chelsea was forced to navigate.

But out of that pain and despair, Chelsea found hope and light again. She began to see a future — fighting for trans justice, for government transparency, for the principles she holds dear.

Just as she was beginning to find new peace and energy, the military decided to bring administrative charges against her for the suicide attempt. Punishing her for trying to die, after they invested so much in punishing her for trying to survive.

It was clear that there was no future for her inside the prison walls. That even as she built loving communities of friends and comrades, the fights for survival would be never-ending. Even as she found her hope, it would be stripped from her again.

By the fall of 2016, a commutation appeared to be her best — and perhaps only — shot for survival. She sat down to write a letter to President Obama seeking a commutation of her sentence. Represented by her appeals team of Vince Ward and Nancy Hollander, in November of 2016, Chelsea submitted an application for clemency to the President.

It was a long shot.

When asked by friends and colleagues about the chances of a commutation for Chelsea, in my darker moments, I would reply, “less than zero.” I didn’t want anyone to get their hopes up.

Even without a commutation, though, Chelsea needed to continue telling her story. Resistance to the violence of incarceration often looks like the day-to-day work of making the mechanisms of prison violence visible, of reinforcing the humanity of the human beings we lock away in cages, of giving voice to the hopes for survival of the people whose hope we try to destroy.

Led by Chelsea herself, a grassroots campaign of love and support was launched. There was momentum — we needed to Free Chelsea.

When I visited Chelsea just before Thanksgiving of last year, she had started to feel buoyed by the love and support behind her commutation campaign. But with the holidays coming up and the relentlessly lonely isolation of her incarceration, she worried about whether the despair would again sink in. I was worried too.

She and supporters around the world spent the next two months building and expanding the campaign in support of her commutation. It was a reminder that advocacy movements that build love and power are successful even without short-term outcome-based achievements. The process matters too.

And that is what I thought the clemency campaign would be — an organizing and power building process to expand support for Chelsea and her cases. But it proved more powerful than that when, three days before leaving office, President Obama commuted Chelsea’s sentence to time served plus 120 days.

Instead of facing 28 more years in prison, Chelsea would be freed by May. It was a win. It was a win for Chelsea. It saved her life. And it was a win for all of us because now Chelsea is free. She is building community on the outside, giving us all hope, and sharing her story with the world.

A few weeks ago, I sat on a white couch while Selena Gomez’s “It Ain’t Me” played in the background of the studio of renowned fashion photographers Inez & Vinoodh. They were photographing Chelsea for the cover of the New York Times Magazine. Chelsea had on a beautiful Gabriela Hearst suit and an unforgettable smile on her face. It was unimaginable that less than a year after receiving that e-mail following Chelsea’s hospitalization in July, there she was right in front of me.

Here was this person who had survived so much, who risked everything to inform us about what our government was doing in our names, who fought publicly and boldly to finally be seen as the person that she spent her life repressing, taking in the joy of an unforgettable moment.

Everyone should have those moments of joy. If only we could give all of our friends and family members and clients who leave prison that opportunity to tell their stories and claim their narratives. To be pampered and cared for. To be shown in all their beauty.

Chelsea is unique and we almost lost her because we prioritize punishment and anger over healing and love. But through the pain and violence of the systems that tried to break her spirit, Chelsea found her way to another side, to another future.

Perhaps that is an important map for all of us — in the face of what seems impossible, may we continue to dream of and fight for the other side. And while we are navigating through the present, may we find the collaboration, love and joy that will make the process itself powerful.

Thank you, Chelsea, for showing us a way toward hope and with joy. You are an inspiration and we are so thankful that you are free.

If you want to donate to help support Chelsea in the coming months, please contribute here.

Lawyer, dad, queer, pats fan

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store