Local activists and high school students gathered on the evening of Jan. 11 for a “Shut down Guantanamo vigil” in downtown Portland to demonstrate solidarity with current detainees and bring attention to Islamophobia in the United States.
Event attendees lit candles, read poems and stories by Guantanamo prisoners and marched around Pioneer Courthouse Square.
“The [U.S.] government has done an excellent job branding the men at Guantanamo Bay as evil, terrifying monsters,” said Jamila Osman, one of the event organizers and a local high school teacher. “They spent so many years convincing the world that we needed Guantanamo Bay to protect us from these people.”
Vigil organizers passed out candles and a zine, There’s a Man Under That Hood, named after a poem written in 2011 by activist poet Luke Nephew. The zine included letters, poems and artwork created by the prisoners in Guantanamo and made public by their attorneys.
Jan. 11 marked 16 years since the detention camp opened in Guantanamo Bay Naval Base in Cuba, reportedly to combat the war on terror. Since the opening of the facility, just under 800 prisoners have been detained.
Detainees have allegedly faced torture, force-feeding and lack of medical care. According to the American Civil Liberties Union, more than half of the remaining prisoners have not been charged with a crime, and five remain in prison even though they have been cleared for release.
When former President Barack Obama took office in 2008, he signed an executive order for the prison camp to be closed within the first year of his presidency. A decade later, 41 detainees remain. Obama blamed Republican-run Congress for the failure to close down the prison after he faced persistent pushback.
President Donald Trump vowed to keep the prison camp open. “We’re gonna load it up with some bad dudes,” Trump said at a campaign rally in 2016.
“We’re not making angels out of these detainees. We’re not speaking about the actual or non-existent affiliation of these groups with any sort of terrorist organizations,” said Sam, an attendee who did not want to give their last name. “It’s just about every human deserving human rights. And I think when you listen to the poems coming from actual detainees, it’s pretty obvious they’re just speaking out in pain, not necessarily in hatred for the United States or anything like that.”
Many prisoners’ stories are available online through the Witness Against Torture organization. The book Guantanamo Diaries by prisoner Mohamedou Slahi was published in 2015. However, the U.S. government alleges some prisoner statements are threats to national security, so some prisoners’ documents are censored.
Vigil attendees said part of the reason they organized and read the prisoners’ stories aloud was because they wanted to bring more attention to Islamophobia and mistreatment of other marginalized communities.
Osman said addressing these issues is an integral part of her teaching. “There’s a lot of talk that teaching or education should be separate from what’s happening politically, which isn’t the case at all,” Osman said. “I believe it actually does our students an incredible disservice.”
“What we need is power, action and political education,” agreed Mucia, an attendee and current local high school student.
Organizer Marwah Al-Jilani explained how many people ignore the issues at Guantanamo Bay because it is geographically far away from the U.S. For that reason, she said, most people do not feel it concerns them.
However, Al-Jilani added, though Guantanamo Bay does not directly affect most people, the underlying power of police and the U.S. government is something most people have experienced. “Everybody has a story, no matter who you are, about law enforcement or the American government,” Al-Jilani said. “It’s not distant, it’s related to us.”
In addition, Osman discussed how broader classroom discussions about injustice toward marginalized people are necessary because they hit a personal note with many of her students. “To tell my most marginalized students to ignore what’s happening politically is to tell them to ignore the things that are affecting them personally,” Osman said. “So I’ve definitely had a lot of open and frank conversations about human dignity and respect.”
While Al-Jilani read Nephew’s poem “There’s a Man Under That Hood!” a passer-by approached the group, listened for a few minutes, then yelled at the gathering as he staggered away.
“You’re going to get shot here,” the onlooker shouted. “Go back home.” Participants did not respond to the harassment and continued on with the vigil.
Some attendees said the rise of neo-Nazi and white supremacist activity in Portland and across the U.S. has sparked fear in their communities, but it has also driven more people to protest and stand against those rising tensions.
Osman said showing public support for marginalized groups, such as the event attendees who identify as Muslim, is an important response to these tensions. Osman added, “Being afraid is no longer a viable excuse.”