by Genny Bove
After my tour of Bristol, Cardiff and west Wales in the run-up to the start of the trial (links to reports from those adventures here), I wanted to return to Haverfordwest to show my personal support for Bradley Manning and do more to spread awareness in the town where he has local connections.
As the CQC scandal rumbles on and the eyes of the world turn to whistleblower Edward Snowden and US efforts to label him a spy even though what he has actually done is blow the whistle on the state spying on all of us, it seems to me that public sympathy with all those who speak out about state secrets, lies, cover-ups, corruption and crimes is growing. Hanging around in the streets is a good way to gauge public opinion, and that’s what I did in a lone effort for three days in Haverfordwest, rounding off with a morning in Wrexham – this time with others.
I arrived in Haverfordwest at the end of the third week of Bradley’s trial in which the US Government has so far been struggling to present more than circumstantial and hearsay evidence to support some of the charges it is trying to prove against him including the most serious one of ‘aiding the enemy’. Bradley has however already pleaded guilty to a number of lesser charges that could lead to up to 20 years in military jail. Irrespective of the eventual outcome of the trial, I believe Bradley Manning will go down in history as the courageous, public spirited whistleblower he is, for revealing to the public the crimes of the powerful, including war crimes. It’s reassuring that the overwhelming majority of people I met over the past four days feel the same.
On yer bike
Haverfordwest is 150+ miles from Wrexham and I’m ashamed to say I didn’t bike it all the way. One day perhaps. Anyway, having transformed myself and the bike into a mobile display of solidarity: Bradley Manning t-shirt, a hi-vis vest with ‘Free Bradley Manning’ on the back, John’s placard revamped to cope with rain, and the panniers stuffed full of banners, posters, flyers, a peace flag (and string, scissors, tape, a camera, water, snacks, bicycle repair kit), I headed out from the campsite into town and onto the streets. This high visibility strategy not only alerted every passing driver to Bradley Manning but had the welcome added advantage of causing drivers keen to read the message to slow down while overtaking me.
I hit Castle Square in Haverfordwest fairly late afternoon Saturday as a gale was developing. I was only able to use the more attachable of props – a banner tied between two bollards, the placard sticking up out of the bike along with a fist full of flyers, tightly gripped. I did try to put up the new BMSN Free Bradley banner but had to abandon that plan. Not before it had been spotted by someone working in a shop on the square though; she rushed out to tell me about her support for Brad, her connections and to offer to get involved.
Mothers told me how concerned they were about Bradley’s situation; time and again I heard “…if he were my son…”; kids stopped to ask who he was as well as older folk perhaps less likely to follow news on the web and deprived of information via their mainstream newspapers; lots of people wanted to discuss Bradley’s situation in context – the wars, government secrecy and surveillance, the persecution of whistleblowers, Edward Snowden’s predicament, Julian Assange, WikiLeaks; several people came over simply to thank me for being there and doing something.
Sunday dawned just as windy as Saturday; it was dry and not cold though, so I located a good spot where the road crossed the river on a busy but not too fast road close to the centre of town and put up my banners and newly repaired peace flag on wire fencing.
I went over the road to take a few photos from the other side and settled myself down comfortably on the wide pavement, but people sitting on pavements are more of a curiosity in Haverfordwest than banners and flags and when I realised that the passing drivers were staring at me on one side rather than my message on the other I had to cross back again to sit on the pavement next to the banners. Now I was more suitably located, drivers waved at me, gave me thumbs up, peace signs or just beeped as they passed.
I answered lots of questions from some kids fishing in the river under the bridge, and one of the few pedestrians who use this bit of roadway stopped to discuss Bradley’s case. Her son was in school with Bradley; he’s now working in Moscow, which led on to discussion of Ed Snowden and where he might end up. Turned out she’s from Wrexham. Small world.
For most of Sunday afternoon I cycled round town, stopping when asked “Who is Bradley Manning?” as per the placard on the bike, or “What’s happening with him at the moment, then?” A young Bristolian with a good grasp of the essentials – “They call it a f***ing democracy but it’s not” – and his mates took flyers and a few stickers and posed for photos.
When my legs got tired, I parked up and sat close to the bike handing out flyers when approached and having more conversations. Up by the castle I chatted with a guy who didn’t know about Bradley Manning but knew all about imprisonment without due process, having been locked up under the Mental Health Act for years until the authorities finally acknowledged he shouldn’t have been. He told me he keeps his head down now – understandable in the circumstances.
Late afternoon I took a tea break to catch up with online news and emails, keeping an eye on the bike through the window while watching a video clip from Saturday’s gathering outside the Ecuadorian Embassy where Julian Assange’s speech had been postponed for security reasons.
The Western Telegraph was after some news, so I found myself back in a pub for the evening writing a short report. I chose an out-of-town venue in the hope of avoiding a repeat of a vomiting incident that had spoiled Saturday night’s internet surfing experience. The pub was full of rugby fans but they were up the telly end and I was left to my own devices in the restaurant section (no food Sundays). The rugby finished, the bar emptied and I got into conversation with the landlord and a couple of regulars. They didn’t know much about Bradley’s case, but they ended up taking flyers and postcards and posters, in Welsh and English, and promised to spread the word.
By the time I returned to the campsite the sun was setting, the wind had dropped and I was optimistic about the prospects for Monday.
I started out early morning with a repeat of my 3 June banner drop over the A40 with the addition of a peace flag and BMSN Free Bradley banner, which viewed from behind put him behind bars.
Around 9.30, I packed it all back up and headed to Castle Square where, thanks to the calmer conditions, it was now possible to display the BMSN banner on a lamp post, and to lay out the ‘Truth on Trial’ banner on the pavement, secured at the top under the back wheel of the bike and weighed down at the corners only with my travel alarm clock and a bottle of water. The placard invited people to find out who Bradley Manning is and the posters gave more information. I clipped the flyers under the spring clip of the back carrier, took a few photos, fetched a pint of soda and lime from the pub and settled down on a bench to wait fairly passively for passing interest.
It was an exercise in patience – not my strong point – but one that paid off. People stopped to talk or ask for flyers; some sat on the bench for a while before opening a conversation about Bradley; some just read the info as they passed, commented, moved on. Some stayed for a good while, and from those two sessions in the square we now have four people who are interested in organising local solidarity actions and the possibility for a Pembrokeshire support group to develop.
I packed up just before 1pm and headed for home, pleased that I’d ignored the pessimistic weather forecasts that had nearly made me cancel my plans. The lack of fellow Bradley Manning supporters available to help, whose collaboration would have made it a less lonely experience, was unfortunate but I was glad this hadn’t stopped me getting on my bike and doing it. In any case, by the time I left I wasn’t feeling at all lonely.
Back in Wrexham, I’d arranged to do something for Bradley Manning Tuesday morning with Greg, so I re-loaded the bike at home and set off once again, this time an easy roll down the hill into town. The benches and railings at our chosen spot were being painted by the council and had been completely cordoned off so we decamped to Queens Square and set up there instead at the point where there’s most pedestrian traffic. Unexpectedly, we were joined by Gay and Tina, which made us a team. The banners and placards were attached to street furniture or the bike, so we were all free to circulate, offer flyers and engage in conversations where there was interest.
There was interest, lots of it. I can’t recall a more successful bit of outreach in Wrexham and I’ve been doing this sort of thing for a long time. Maybe it’s the spirit of the age, maybe our invitation to ‘find out here’ did the trick or maybe the professionally printed banner made us look more legit, but whatever the reason the four of us spent a productive hour and a half engaging with people who mainly approached us rather than us them and wanted to know more or to have a conversation about Bradley and on a variety of related topics.
“Who the hell is Bradley Manning, then?” shouted one elderly man. Others got him muddled up with Bradley Wiggins, Gary McKinnon and even Ian Brady, but they all wanted to know who he really is, many took flyers and promised to send cards and letters.
We had a very interesting discussion with an ex-squaddie early on about the merits or otherwise of turning a blind eye to war crimes, centring on the persecution of whistleblowers and a culture of not dobbing yer mates in; one woman had a relative in the US military and wanted to pass the information on to him; a grandmother from an army family took flyers to share with her teenage grandsons who, to her dismay, are also thinking of joining up: “They’re so gung-ho… I’ll get them to help me find out more about this online and write a letter.”
What can anyone do?
People ask “What can I do?” The answer is “Whatever you put your mind to”, but a simple and effective action is to send a message of solidarity to Bradley c/o Courage to Resist, 484 Lake Park Avenue #41, Oakland, CA 94610 USA. Letters to prisoners pass on love and hope, let them know they’re not forgotten and send the same message to their captors. If you want to get involved in local solidarity in Wales, Ireland, Scotland or England, then email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 0845 330 4505.
For more photos, see this flickr set