Chelsea Manning On Nazis, the Surveillance State, and Running For Senate

The whistleblower and transgender activist Chelsea Manning discusses Senator Ben Cardin, fighting Nazis without resorting to police, and making mistakes like going to an alt-right party

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Story Transcript

BAYNARD WOODS: For the Real News, I’m Baynard Woods. In April 2010, WikiLeaks released a video that showed the U.S. military killing over a dozen people, including two Reuters journalists. The news agency had been thwarted in its attempt to gain the footage, but a young whistleblower shared the video with WikiLeaks after approaching the New York Times and The Washington Post with thousands of documents. The next month the whistleblower was arrested in Iraq and revealed as Bradley Manning. Manning spent 11 months in solitary confinement before standing trial, which Manning described as a humiliating and degrading experience. Manning, who is trans, began transitioning while in prison. I’m not Bradley Manning, she wrote. I never really was. I’m Chelsea Manning, a proud woman who is transgender and who through this application is respectfully requesting a first chance at life.

That was a request for a commutation of the 35-year sentence handed down for sharing classified information. Manning has strongly rejected the idea that she gave up sources or other intelligence that could have endangered people on the ground and describes the documents as historical. In the final days of his presidency, Barack Obama granted the commutation and Manning was set free.

Now she’s running for the U.S. Senate in Maryland against Ben Cardin. Manning may be the only candidate for the Senate who’s been homeless, served in a war, spent significant time in solitary confinement, and come out as transgender. And all of that makes her a powerful, if unlikely, challenger to Cardin, one of the most establishment of the mainstream Democrats. Manning is here with us in our Baltimore studio today. Welcome, Chelsea.

CHELSEA MANNING: Thanks. Thanks for having me.

BAYNARD WOODS: So I mean, after all of that, I have to start with why would you even want to be in the U.S. Senate?

CHELSEA MANNING: Well, the Senate is where we have our debates about national issues. And national issues, especially the issues that we’re facing right now, whether it be ICE detention or the criminal justice system or the militarization of police or the, our broad and expansive surveillance apparatus, and the, the support of the of our foreign policy across the entire world. All of these things are debated and authorized by the funding that comes from the Senate. And so the Senate is the perfect place to challenge this power and this authority.

BAYNARD WOODS: I mean, I want to come back to a lot of those issues. But why, why Maryland, and why Ben Cardin?

CHELSEA MANNING: Well, I’m from Maryland, first off. After I was homeless, I was 18 years old, I was homeless living in Chicago, and my aunt came and saved me and saved my life. And I’ve lived as my, she lives in Maryland. She lives here in Maryland. And I lived with her for about you know, I live with her since that happened. It’s been my place of residence since, as I was in the military, as I was, when I went through trial, as I went through everything, as I was in prison, that was still my home of record. And it was the place that I always intended coming back to if I ever got out. And so here I am.

BAYNARD WOODS: And what is it about Cardin that made him seem like someone that, I mean, there’s this moment where mainstream Democrats like Cardin, because they may be a little bit better than Trump, are able to cast themselves as the #Resistance. And so what what makes in this moment Cardin be the right, be the person to challenge in a primary?

CHELSEA MANNING: Ben Cardin is the perfect example of the rest of the Democratic establishment, the entrenched Democratic establishment that, when they’re in office, they tread water. They make promises. Expect donations. They’re cozy with, you know, interest groups. Why wouldn’t, you know, the question is why wouldn’t it be Ben Cardin, and why wouldn’t I be challenging somebody who is really coopting this whole movement that we have? You know, there’s this notion that they’re the #Resistance. You know, this is not what, they’re not doing what a resistance does, like cozying up to lobbyists and, and focusing on one issue here and there is not how we’re going to change things.

BAYNARD WOODS: Yeah. I mean, one of the, he’s one of the highest, receives some of the most money from AIPAC. And I mean, how does that affect, do you think, this kind of lobbying money, the foreign policy and domestic policy that people are putting forward, and how would you try to break that if you were in his seat?

CHELSEA MANNING: Right. So, Ben Cardin will never talk about, you know, he might talk about borders here in America but he’ll never talk about border walls between Israel and Palestine, he’ll never talk about health, health care, like being single payer. He’ll never talk about single payer health care, because his primary funders are from the health insurance industry. He is bought and sold, and most of the Democratic Party are bought and sold, which is one of the reasons why I don’t accept money from lobbyists. I don’t talk to lobbyists, I don’t talk, I don’t talk to interest groups except for people on the ground, activists and organizers in the community.

BAYNARD WOODS: And I mean, you were just talking about your experience being homeless when you were young, and you’ve dealt with transitioning in a military facility and being trans, and here in Baltimore and in Maryland we have a lot of, a large homeless population and a lot of the people who end up homeless are queer kids or trans kids.

CHELSEA MANNING: Yeah.

BAYNARD WOODS: What can you do to try to help change the lives of those people here in Maryland from the U.S. Senate?

CHELSEA MANNING: They have no, we have no advocate. And you know, I’m, we, we’re struggling so much as a community, and we have no advocate. The only people that they, the only people that the Democratic establishment are comfortable with are people that fit within their criteria of what a trans person, an ideal trans person, should be. And you know, if you’re, if you don’t fit within this criteria then you’re you’re somehow unworthy or ignored. And this is, you know, we saw this with marriage equality in particular, where they, the establishment coopted the queer rights movement for a single issue. And then as soon as that issue was, you know, through lobby, you know, through awareness and lobbying and through, you know, the court system we finally made ground, we finally gained ground on one issue. But it left so many people in the queer community behind. Marriage equality doesn’t address how a homeless queer kid from the Midwest, you know, is going to survive on the East Coast, or from that community getting kicked out of their home, or things that, you know, we have an enormous amount of very vulnerable people in the queer and trans community. And we have no advocate there, we have no voice.

BAYNARD WOODS: One of the ways in which the trans community and so many others are vulnerable are to various forms of the surveillance state or the security state. Here the Baltimore Police Department has had, just got finished with a big corruption trial. But then we have ICE, and you’ve talked a lot about abolishing both BPD and ICE. And I wonder how you connect that to your experiences with the sort of larger apparatus says it as it operates outside of the U.S.

CHELSEA MANNING: Right. So you know, these are all the same system. They’re different components of the same system. And vulnerable groups like queer and trans people, people of color, immigrants, uou know, we’re all dealing with the same institutions and the same power structures in different ways, whether it’s, you know, the, the massive amount of surveillance that we see at both the local, state, and federal level, or policing gone, I mean, policing’s gone crazy. It’s in many, and I’ve been all over the country now, and in many places like here in Baltimore you’ve got a militarized police force that’s basically a domestic occupation. And I’ve been an occupier before. We have a military occupation force. You know, we don’t have a serve and protect force or anything like that. We have just a, this is, this is counterinsurgency work happening in our own communities.

BAYNARD WOODS: I mean, unlike so many Democrats you’re not for reforming the police or having a better police department. What do you propose instead?

CHELSEA MANNING: We don’t need more or better police. We need to push back against the police state. It’s always, they always want more. You know, we have the largest, you know, we have the largest prison population in the world. We have the largest military in the world. We have the largest surveillance apparatus in the world. We have the largest, you know, we have the largest number of police officers in the world, and yet we still always are asking for more. And the Democratic approach is not to to push back and say no, enough is enough. It’s the, the approach that the party has repeatedly taken is to make it somehow more inclusive, to add a sort of administrative gloss to the process. And this focus on law and process whenever it’s these systemic problems and this abuse of power that is is permeating our society. That needs to be addressed.

BAYNARD WOODS: Right. The body cams were the answer to police killing unarmed black men, when that just creates a constant surveillance that the only people who have control over are police being able to turn off the microphones or turn them off. Seems Like a strange solution. I mean, as someone who dealt with that kind of material on a different level, do you support body cams? Or is that something that’s just an insane thing for citizens to be calling for?

CHELSEA MANNING: I mean we know we should be to, I call for people to be taking their own camera footage of cops. Any, any encounter with the police should be recorded, but it should be recorded by you. Not necessarily them. Because those those body cams are not there to protect you, they’re there to protect them. And you know, so I am skeptical of that. Especially because I look at, you know, Axon, which is a, you know, now the body cam industry it has a very significant, went from Tasers to, to body cams. So you know, this, this industry obviously has an enormous amount of power, and I’m wondering what their intention actually is with this, you know, with this equipment and with this technology.

BAYNARD WOODS: If someone who’s looking through that, given your other lessons you’ve learned from your experience, what, is there something that whistleblowers who are dealing with Axon material could be doing with that right now?

CHELSEA MANNING: I mean, it depends. You know, I’m not in a position to say. It’s only the people who are in the position to be able to do this can say. What I can do now as a public figure is address these issues publicly, and let people know that you know these problems exist, and also be a voice and an advocate for people who are aware of the problems within the system. One of the advantages that I would have in the Senate is that I would be able to, is that people in government would be able to come to me and, you know, I’ve been, you know, through the system. They will have an advocate. I will do everything to protect somebody who comes to me.

BAYNARD WOODS: And I mean, you, you brought the material that you had to WikiLeaks because the Post and the Times didn’t have a safe way to deal with it, in part. And a tremendous amount has changed in that regard since then. But also the press has become much more mistrusted on lot of different levels. And WikiLeaks has really changed from sort of a public perception from something of a sort of left-wing, hero to the left, to seeming to be in contact or purportedly in contact with people like Roger Stone. What are your feelings about WikiLeaks today? Is this something that, you would you still go to Wikileaks? Or if you were doing something now, would you do something different?

CHELSEA MANNING: Right. So I mean, obviously I had to act in the time that I had with the resources that I had, which were very limited. We have a broader set of tools that are available to us. And there’s a broader number of people that we can go to. If you’re in, if you’re in a situation like where I was today you’re in a better position now than you were in 2010 to be able to do something. I can’t change what happened because I was given the circumstances that I was given. I literally was the, tick tock, the clock is going. Like, I’m running out of time, and like, I need, you know, I need to get this out there, and make sure that it actually does get out there. We have SecureDrop now. We have Signal. We have, you know, reporters are regularly using encryption. The tools have gotten better, and the resources are much more robust and powerful. It’s much easier than it was in 2010.

BAYNARD WOODS: I mean, do you have any feelings about how, what Wikileaks is doing now, or about Assange? What’s your stance on where that organization is at this point?

CHELSEA MANNING: I mean, I read a lot of press reports and I am aware of, you know, the chaos that surrounds these things. But I’m more focused on the issues. I’m more focused on the on policing and on immigration and on issues that are really in front of us. I feel like it’s become this highly politically charged debate, and I can’t tell what’s what anymore. You know, so I’m focused more on what’s happening here in the communities right now in 2018. I’m not focused on what happened in 2010. I’m not focused on what happened in 2013. I’m not focused on what happened in 2016. I’m focused on what’s right here in front of us right now. And we’re facing a crisis right in front of us.

BAYNARD WOODS: And I mean, one of the things, and I want to come back to some of the other crisis points that we’re facing. But one of the things that you’ve been targeted a little bit from the left was going to this Mike Cernovich, alt-right, Gorilla Mindset, sort of internet troll guy’s party. And you know, with Cassandra Fairbanks, another person who had gone from the left to the right. What’s up with that? What would you say to the people in the left to who are really questioning that, the decision to go there?

CHELSEA MANNING: Yeah. Well, I mean, it was a questionable decision. I was doing, I was doing work with a number of activists. You know, I’m not going to specify a lot of details about it. But we we identified Cassandra as, you know, somebody who was receptive to some form of communication. We did, this was around the time of the Milo, I protested against Milo and Cernovich in September 2017, and we identified her, and I just started to approach and start talking. And I just learned an enormous amount of information. We shared that with, with active, with other activists. And it just became this sort of effort that built up over several months.

And, and you know, and in January after the book Fire and Fury came out, a lot of what we were learning, because we need to learn and understand how to fight the alt-right, in particular this virulent form of the alt-right. But we kind of, like, lost, you know, our way. And we, and I in particular have, have a responsibility in messing, you know, not understanding and not fully understanding the optics of what we were, of what I was doing in particular. And so, yeah. We started, we lost our vision, we lost our intent, we lost our objective. And I decided to crash a, to crash this party and protest, and they flipped it upside down.

And I know, it was poorly, it was poorly considered. It was a poorly considered decision and I regret it a lot. And I think about that a lot. And I’m not perfect. I’m going to, I’m going to screw up. And that was a major screw up. And I, I let a lot of people, people that were close to me down. You know, a lot of people, you know, some people knew, but some people also didn’t know. And you know, it was just a bad decision.

BAYNARD WOODS: I mean, on the other side of that you’ve been a supporter of the antifascist movement, and of the J20, the people who were arrested on Trump’s inauguration day. And that seems particularly interesting because it’s one of the most recorded events possible. I mean, they’ve had a police detective who spent a year just going over all of this footage trying to identify the faces of anyone who was there. And one of the charges against them is covering their faces, trying not only to protect themselves from tear gas and other types of weapons but also from the kind of surveillance state. From becoming part of this big database. What can you say about your interest and involvement in the antifascist movement, and in that case in particular?

CHELSEA MANNING: There’s nothing nefarious about showing up to a protest. There’s nothing nefarious about protecting your identity. There’s nothing nefarious about putting on a mask. There’s nothing nefarious about wearing black. You know, these, this notion that all of these things can now be criminalized is just both disruptive, destructive, and, I mean, for me it’s disturbing. You know, this is not, the fact that we have to go to these lengths now in order, in order to protect ourselves at a protest should, should be more worrying than the fact that, you know, that these protest tactics are being used. That’s what I find really disturbing, is the fact that, you know, it’s not just, you know, it’s not just police surveillance. The alt-right and, you know, neo-nazis and you know, some really, really bad people. The video us, they take pictures of us, and they dox us. And you know, it can be very disruptive to our lives. And you know, people are getting targeted. And they’re getting, you know, they’re going to jail.

And now you have, you have 59 people facing felony charges for showing up to a protest. Or, or even just, you know, being around people that are going to a protest. We need to really, really support and be in solidarity with every single one of these protesters. And I’m, I’m there with them, especially as a former defendant myself. I know how, you know, I know how these prosecutors work. I know how this system works, and I’m there. I’m going to be there in solidarity and support because we need, we need to support, we need to support the J20 defendants. Need to support the defendants in the MSU trial from a few weeks ago. We need to be supporting each other and being solidaire with each other.

BAYNARD WOODS: What can you do from the Senate to support those people and also to deal with this sort of alt-right neo-nazi movement while still, you know, not relying on police? One of the criticisms at Charlottesville was why weren’t the police doing more. But, but that seems like a odd solution to that. How would you address the problem of, strange to have to ask the question, the problem of Nazis?

CHELSEA MANNING: Right. I mean, the saying is cops and Klan go hand in hand. That’s a chant. But yeah, it’s, we can’t expect the police state, which has been infiltrated by the alt-right and has been infiltrated by these groups, we can’t expect them to fix the, you know we can’t expect the, institutions can and do fail. And sometimes we can’t ask them to fix themselves anymore. And also, the Senate , Democratic senators aren’t paying attention to this. They’re so focused on other things they’re not worried, they’re not really paying attention to these issues. They don’t understand it, and they would rather just ignore these problems. I want, and you know, that was one of the, you know, that was one of the things that made me make the mistake that I made, you know, in January, was I want, I really want to understand and take down. I want to know how to take these people down, because they need to be taken off of Twitter. They need to be, they need to be deplatformed. They shouldn’t be debating, you know, we shouldn’t be debating the horrible things that they say in our public space. They need to be removed from that public space. And you know, the police are not going to do that. We’re going to have to do that ourselves.

BAYNARD WOODS: I mean, I guess one more question on how, if you were to be in the Senate, how would you expect to be treated by other senators? And I mean, part of it would be getting a security clearance. Do you, is that something that you would expect that, that your fellow senators would would stand , would try, I mean, people have called you a traitor and all sorts of horrible things. How would you respond when you, you know, you walked into that hall on the first day? How would you respond to all of those other people sitting there?

CHELSEA MANNING: I mean, the Senate, the Senate rules deal with security. You know, it depends on what committee you’re on. So that’s really an issue that’s addressed. That’s an issue that’s addressed with the Senate. It’s not a security clearance issue, it’s a Senate rules issue. That said, you know, we need somebody who’s, like, on the other side. We need somebody pushing back against the establishment because they’re constantly, you know, 70 to 80 percent of bills that go before Congress are not debated on. They’re reauthorization bills. They get passed without much discussion and they keep reauthorizing these programs and these massive, you know, these massive surveillance programs, these programs to expand ICE, these programs to expand prisons. And they just, you know, they just, it just keeps getting bigger. And it’s not debated at all. In the Senate you’re placed in a position where you can say, hey, I want to debate this. And you have the ability to argue, you have the ability to debate. You have the ability to filibuster.

And I’ve been paying attention for many years to the Senate rules, and they’re just not being used. They’re not using the rules to debate in the way that, you know, that I would be able to bring to the table. I would make sure that those, that those bills are debated upon and stopped.

BAYNARD WOODS: And as you’re stopping them how would you, to people in Maryland where there are so many, so many jobs come from this state apparatus here. And a lot of money flows from the federal government into Maryland and that way, is there a way you could divert that money so that it would still come into the state and actually be to the good of the majority of people rather than a small minority of people?

CHELSEA MANNING: Right. I support, I’m not in favor of the federal jobs guarantee. I support universal basic income. I mean, we shouldn’t be making up jobs to just have jobs. And you know, that leaves a lot of people, stable people, people that don’t have, you know, that don’t live in an area where jobs might, might be provided for them by the federal government. This notion that jobs should be, that we should always have jobs in an automated society is, I think, you know, going to be obsolete at some point, you know, in the near future. And I think that we, we’re in a transitional period. But I fully support universal basic income and not having that be a replacement for health benefits or any of the other things that should be provided for. It should be in support, it should be part of a bigger program to to help people live, you know, to help people live our lives. And live better lives. You know, lives that aren’t burdened by obsolete jobs.

BAYNARD WOODS: Well, we look really forward to following your campaign, following the, hopefully there will be some debates with Cardin and the other candidates, and seeing if, if you’re able to shake up the sort of entrenched system we have in the Senate. Chelsea Manning, thanks so much for joining us today.

CHELSEA MANNING: No, thank you.

BAYNARD WOODS: For the Real News, I’m Baynard Woods in Baltimore.