"No Torture" Banner at West Hollywood City Hall

City of West Hollywood and World Can't Wait Hold Joint Press Conference

May 21—The large orange banner hung down from near the ceiling in the lobby of West Hollywood, California, City Hall read: "No Torture." The City of West Hollywood, a community between Los Angeles and Beverly Hills, had taken a stand. And in that lobby, an important press conference was held: "A Call to President Barack Obama urging him to release torture-related photos and prosecute war criminals, ex-top officials of the Bush Administration." The press conference was called by the City of West Hollywood and The World Can't Wait.
 
City Council Member and long-time defender of human rights, John J. Duran said, "President Obama must do what is right for our country's future and shed light on the last eight years of the Bush administration's half-truths, abuse of power and human rights both abroad and here at home. We will never be able to put this behind us if the truth is not fully revealed and if we don't atone for the way our country behaved." He was joined by: Debra Sweet, National Director of The World Can't Wait, the MC for the event; Mark Rapkin, a Los Angeles attorney who represented a prisoner unjustly locked up at Guantánamo and has continued to speak out against the continuing torture and imprisonment at that prison; actor John Heard; director and writer Paul Haggis, whose films include Crash and In the Valley of Elah; and actor and director Mark Ruffalo.
 
The press conference could not have been more timely. Hours before, President Obama and ex-Vice President Dick Cheney had spoken on Guantánamo and torture. Cheney shamelessly embraced the crimes committed by him and others in the Bush regime and lied about the extent of the U.S. torture network. Obama refused to pursue those torturers and war criminals, including some presently holding government positions. And Obama is trying to block release of 2,000 photos showing torture by U.S. personnel, which were due to be released on May 28. The press conference was part of actions organized by The World Can't Wait and others around the U.S. in May to demand that the war criminals be prosecuted.
 
Despite the timeliness of the topic and the significant and well-known people involved, the press conference was largely boycotted by the mainstream press.
 
The following are from the remarks by the participants of the press conference:
 
John Duran, West Hollywood City Council Member:
 
The City of West Hollywood was the first city in Southern California to oppose the War in Iraq, the first city in Southern California to call for the impeachment of George Bush and Dick Cheney for war crimes, and now the first city in Southern California to highlight this issue of torture and to demand that President Obama do what's right and just and release the photographs. I have a quote that I just wanted to start this press conference off with.
 
"If any American soldier be so base and infamous as to injure any prisoner, I do most earnestly enjoin you to bring such exemplary and severe punishment as the enormity of the crime may require. Should it extend to death itself, it would not be disproportionate to his guilt at such a time and in such a cause, for by such conduct they bring upon us shame, disgrace, and ruin to themselves and to our country." That's President George Washington, first president of the United States, who really set the tone for our country and our nation's traditions and history, that even in times of war, we would not sacrifice our values and our principles that make us the greatest nation upon the earth.
 
He believed, as I think I believe and many of the people you're going to hear from today, that it's not just enough to claim victory in war, but to make sure you adhere to the principles and justice that you fought for in the first place. John Adams wrote this shortly thereafter. "I know of no policy, God is my witness, but this: Piety, humanity, and honesty are the best policy. Blasphemy, cruelty and villainy have prevailed and they will prevail again. But they won't prevail in America because I find that the more they are employed, the less that they succeed."
 
That's what we're calling on President Obama to do: Honesty. Honesty is the first step for an international healing. Produce the photographs. Let's take inventory of what the truth is, and then admit to ourselves and to our fellows across the globe the exact nature of the wrongdoing that occurred and make amends to the international community.
 
Debra Sweet, director of The World Can't Wait:
 
Do you know how important it is when a banner against torture is hanging in a public city hall in this country, at a time when torture has de facto become a policy ultimately justified and carried out by our government? Until the people repudiate it across the country, starting from West Hollywood, we're going to have to deal with living in a torture state. That's why I'm very happy to be introducing several people here today to speak out strongly against torture and to join Councilman Duran's call that we have the photographs released and that we prosecute the people responsible for war crimes…
 
This is the humanity that exists among the people who are being tortured and this is the humanity we lose if we are only going along with the debate this morning in Washington in terms of Dick Cheney saying there's nothing, really, that should not be done if it keeps America safe, because to him, American lives are more important than anyone else's. The necessity of us representing a message from the people of this country, that American lives are not more important than anyone else's. That in fact we care about humanity, and we have to settle this in a political debate among people living in this country that is very hot right now. That is why, again, people speaking out is absolutely essential. I was able to look at both of the speeches this morning and I can say that we couldn't have picked a better day to be speaking out. Because on the one hand, Vice President Dick Cheney, speaking at the American Enterprise Institute, said, "We hear from some quarters nothing but feigned outrage based on a false narrative. In my long experience in Washington few matters have inspired so much contrived indignation and phony moralizing as the interrogation methods applied to a few captured terrorists." This is what you get from the Bush regime: Cheney, who does not even think he's out of power, and maybe he isn't out of power, providing a powerful narrative of his own, rewriting history and defending the illegitimate occupation and this alleged "war on terror," that has done nothing but institutionalize torture in our name.
 
And then President Obama, actually speaking before Cheney, because Cheney had to have the last word, saying among other things, that the photographs would have revealed, if they ever are released, and we're demanding that they be released, would have revealed some acts that have already been disposed of by disciplining the people who carried them out, a few individuals. No! This abuse of detainees is systematic and widespread. Hundreds of detainees that we can document have died in detention, not to mention the abuse heaped on their humanity. This is not a situation that we as people living in this country can accept if we're going to maintain our own humanity. A government that does this is not legitimate.
 
This is a big question, and this is why The World Can't Wait is holding protests next Thursday, May 28, on the date the Obama administration has been mandated to release these photos. This battle is not over. We're going to be in the streets and airwaves challenging the people in this country to take a stand to demand prosecution of the war criminals and to further bring out all the evidence so we can see it because we know Cheney is arguing for torture based on everything else he and the Bush administration stood for. It is our responsibility to end it.
 
Michael Rapkin, Attorney:
 
Mohammed Kahn is in Guantánamo. He was sent to that lethal [place] when he was 17 years old. His father's in Gitmo, Guantánamo, but they have not seen each other. Mohammed has lived in isolation for over two years. Six months ago he inflicted several slashes across his inner arm and a vein in his hand. He bangs his head against cell walls and smears his cell wall with his own excrement. He exhibits signs of serious mental trauma.
 
More recently he began smearing excrement again on his walls. He didn't clean it up. And instead of mental health professionals coming to assist him, he was met by ten large guards in riot uniforms who came and beat him up severely. These are called the IRF troops. They sprayed him with tear gas. He later began smashing his head again. He began bleeding at his head. He screams and mumbles incoherently.
 
The military authorities at Guantánamo, and I am talking about what happened just a few months ago, that is going on today in Guantánamo. In Bagram, Afghanistan at the Air Force base, conditions are worse there than they are at Guantánamo. The authorities do not help Mohammed.
 
He has no fresh air. He has no sunlight. He has no social interaction. He has no contact with his father. They strip him and remove his thin sleeping mat and make him sleep in his cell three days with his excrement. Gitmo has had over 800 prisoners pass through. And every prisoner there, everyone has a face, and everyone has a story to tell. Rod Stewart said, "Every picture tells a story." These photos that are in jeopardy of not being released tell us a story. They need to be released so that the story can be told.
 
How did this happen, to Mohammed and others? It began with a group of the highest government officials conspiring, from 2002 to 2003, instituting torture as a policy, to mislead the nation into a war they wanted to fight, and tortured people in an attempt to extract confessions that would justify that war. Torture and cruel and degrading treatment became the norm. there are similar stories of detainees being routinely beaten, doused with cold water and slammed head first into cells, stripped of clothing, bombarded with loud music, exposed to cold temperatures, deprived of sleep and solid food for days on end. They would stand for days, their arms shackled above them, wearing only diapers.
 
When torture took place, President Bush called it "enhanced interrogation" or "an alternative set of procedures." But the law calls it torture under any other name. Ted Koppel recently said, "calling torture enhanced interrogation is like calling rape enhanced seduction." Today in Guantánamo, prisoners live in solitary confinement. That is the norm for the majority of detainees. This is the norm even for those that have never been deemed to be an enemy combatant, who have been released to go back to their home country and get the hell out of Guantánamo. They still rot there, many of them in solitary confinement. Confinement in a small cell, a concrete cell, for at least twenty hours a day. They have virtually no human contact, or mental stimulation. The men eat alone. No windows that face the outside. Lights kept on 24-7, which causes sleep deprivation.
Prisoners live in constant fear of physical attacks. At Guantánamo, there are many, many hunger strikes and forced feedings by tubes. People are fed against their will, in violation of the rule of law and standards of humane treatment. Men are restrained in chairs, thick tubes forced down their stomachs, their noses and their throats and food pumped into their stomachs.
 
After World War II, the United States prosecuted Japanese people for waterboarding and otherwise torturing both American and British soldiers. We convicted those people. Why did we do it? Why did we prosecute? Because we knew then as we should know today that prosecuting illegal torture is necessary to assert the rule of law, to show that government officials are not above the law, to secure justice for the victims and survivors of torture and war crimes, as well as to prevent future government officials from repeating the same despicable, immoral and ill-advised decisions to violate our laws.
 
We know that there are photographs that reveal detainees being abused. The Pentagon has already agreed just one month ago, to release those photos, but recently President Obama has reversed that decision and is attempting to prevent the public and potential prosecutors from viewing these graphic images that show abuse was widespread and systemic. Just today on television, for those who saw President Obama give a great speech, he said, and I quote, "Individuals who violated standards of behavior in these photos have been investigated and held accountable." And I say to all of you today, that is not the truth, that the people who are to be held accountable have not been brought to justice and we need to seek a way to prosecute those people and bring them to justice. That is our law. That is our way of living here. It is only right that people like Dick Cheney, and Donald Rumsfeld and John Ashcroft and even governmental lawyers who condoned the use of torture be brought to justice. Obama's refusal is inconsistent with his own pledge to hold himself as president to a new standard of openness. Because President Obama wants to further suppress the photographs because he says they will inflame anti-American opinion and put our troops in greater danger. This argument has been repeatedly rejected by the courts. He says he wants to balance security with civil rights. I agree. We all agree on that. But I submit to you that the balance has tilted too much to the wrong side.
 
I read a quote yesterday that says, "To give the government the power to suppress information because it might anger an unidentified set of people in an unspecified part of the world and ultimately to endanger an ill-defined group of U.S. personnel would be to invest the government with a virtually unlimited censorial power. And by investing it with such power, we would effectively be affording the greatest protection from disclosure of records that protect the worst kind of government misconduct."
 
Some say that President Obama will end torture, so why deal with the past? I say, don't believe that torture will end. Because already our president has said, through his lawyers' court filings, through his choice of a CIA director, who has at the Senate confirmation hearings, supported the use of the "ticking bomb" scenario. These are concerns that the public should have over whether torture will come to an end under Obama. Finally, we are a nation that lives under the rule of law. Laws are to be enforced not just when it is convenient to do so. Prosecutions require evidence, and the photos are the best evidence of what happened.
 
John Heard, actor:
 
These are poems from Guantánamo. Since 2002, at least 775 men have been held in the U.S. detention center at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. According to Department of Defense data as few as half of these men are even accused of committing any hostile act against the United States or any of its allies. In hundreds of cases even the circumstances of their original detainment is questionable. This collection gives voice to the men at Guantánamo, only because of the tireless efforts of attorneys like Michael who submitted each line to Pentagon scrutiny. Poems from Guantánamo brings together 22 poems by 17 detainees, most still in Guantánamo, in legal limbo. In the words of Audre Lorde, poetry "forms the quality of light within which we predicate our hopes and dreams toward survival and change." These verses, some originally written in toothpaste, others scratched onto foam drinking cups using pebbles and furtively handed to attorneys. These are the most basic form of art.
 
"Death Poem" by Jumah Al Dossari:
 
Take my blood
Take my death shroud and the remnants of my body
Take the photographs of my corpse at the grave, lonely
Send them to the world, to the judges and to the people of conscience
send them to the principled men and the fair-minded
let them bear the guilty burden before the world of this innocent soul
let them bear the burden before their children and before history
of this wasted sinless soul, of this soul that has suffered at the hands of the "protector of peace."
 
Jumah Al Dossari is a 33-year-old Bahraini who has been held at Guantánamo Bay for five years.
 
He's been in solitary confinement since the end of 2003, if you can imagine. And according to the United States, he's tried to kill himself 12 times.
 
I wanted to read the names of these guys that they're trying now to disbar. They're the ones that were trying to legalize torture and now they're giving it this fancy name, I forget what it is—"enhanced interrogation," right. Which would be the equivalent of my mother asking me where I'd been. There are twelve names. They're starting to call them the "dirty dozen." John Yoo, Jay Bybee, Douglas Feith, my favorite. John Ashcroft, Steven Bradbury, Alberto Gonzales, Michael Chertoff, Alice Fisher, William Haynes II, Michael Mukasey, Timothy Flanigan, David Addington. These are the guys who don't seem to know when they're torturing people.
 
Paul Haggis, writer, director:
 
I'm stunned to be speaking out against torture in America. I just don't understand that. I became an American so proudly in 2000. I was never so proud as the day when I became an American. I had lived here for many years with a green card, and that day was very, very emotional for me. And if you had told me then that I would be standing in front of you wearing a button that says, "No Torture," I would tell you, that's not going to be the case. And if it was the case, we'd be talking about China, we'd be talking about someplace else. We'd be moralizing. We'd be standing here wagging our finger, saying, "How dare you?" And of course you should have to show evidence, and what do you mean, you're hiding the evidence of torture.
 
Now, go forward a few years, and we're protesting against the Bush administration doing this. And I'm ashamed still, because it's my government whether I elected him or not. Go forward a little further. We just enthusiastically elected Barack Obama. Now, I'm standing here with the same button. These promises need to be kept. We need to stop torturing people. We need to stop with these euphemisms that we're starting to accept. Torture is torture. This is something that debases us, to hell with everybody else. It debases us as Americans. It shames us. And they're going to hide these pictures? Because they might upset someone? We need to see these pictures, Mr. President, and we need to see them now!
 
Mark Ruffalo, actor and director:
 
This is not the time to walk away This is not the time to turn the page on this dark chapter of American history. This is the time to shed some very bright light into the dark corners of Abu Ghraib, the CIA secret rendition sites, Guantánamo Bay and, lord know, how many other hideous and dark-filled places where bold-faced torture was carried out in the name of decent American people. War crimes, crimes against peace, religious persecution, torture, that is what America is most known for in the world at this moment. Each day that we and you, President Obama, refuse to face what has been done, and bring those responsible to justice, the more those images of torture become our identity; each day that we try to move away from these crimes the more burdened by them we become. Torture is a crime. The people who carried out that crime are called criminals.
 
What does this mean to us? The people who carried out that crime, the people who that crime was carried out in the name of? What does it mean to our humanness, our humanity? What does it mean to you, America? What is it doing to your pride, your Christian values? Are we so low in decency that we should pretend that none of this has happened? Is that what you're asking from us? That is what the brave leader of the free world would have us think and believe at this moment? Let's just walk away and maybe it will just go away? The blood has been spilt. The only decent thing left for us to do is to face what we have done, own up to it and punish those responsible for it. That is how you make it right. That is what is promising about democracy.
 
Today we all find clearly it's up to us. Here we are, no longer guessing that these things have happened. We see and hear about them every single day. There's Dick Cheney running around to anyone who will listen to him about how right he was to torture people. There are these pundits parsing words and apologizing for these heinous acts, trying to justify or minimize or hide the fact that what has been done is classic torture handed down to us from Pol Pot and the Spanish Inquisition. Forget moving on, my friends, forget turning the page. Listen up. There are war criminals in our midst and it is time to pay the price for the crimes regardless of their political party or their race. Torture is a crime. They did it then and now we know it.
 
Come on, America, what do we stand for? Are we a nation of barbarians? Do we truly have no soul? Do we have no sense of right or wrong? Are we really torturers? Is that who we are? Is that how this great nation is going to go down? As a two-bit dictatorship? Does it mean so little to us that we should walk away and ignore these crimes? Do we have so little faith in ourselves that we leave it to a handful of leaders to decide if we can handle the truth at this oh-so-dark moment in our history? Are we not men and women capable of thought and rationale? Do we not work our hearts out every day to support this great experiment? Have we not suffered enough the outrage of these past eight years of misery and shame? Are we so shocked and awed that we have lost our humanity? Do our leaders think so little of us that we cannot handle a full accounting of the shameful things that have been done in our name? What do they take us for, sheep? Slaves? Imbeciles?
 
Get in line, America. We have been torturing hundreds if not thousands of people for nearly a decade. Demand the truth and full disclosure. You mean something to the world. You stand for something, to those people who lived under torturous regimes. They looked to you for hope. They want to believe that you are decent. Prosecute our wrongs today and let them see we are a democracy, not an empire. Show them that we are better than those who have gone down in history connected with such ugliness and willful compliance. Don't allow that orange uniform and black hood to be our new flag. Investigate and prosecute those who have brought us so low. And redeem yourself, America.