Statements in this interview do not represent the views of the Feministing team as a whole (we’re not a monolith people!) and have been edited for brevity and clarity.
From writing as an activist in military prison to her current campaign for U.S. Senate in Maryland, Chelsea Manning has consistently articulated a set of radically compassionate politics — regularly challenging the capitalist, pro-cop, pro-military policies of Democrats and Republicans alike.
Feministing talked to Manning last week about the issues on our minds as young feminists. Manning has been no stranger to criticism from the left, most recently for her attendance at an alt-right party (a controversy she frankly discussed and apologized for in a recent interview). Since her Senate bid has similarly raised eyebrows from those skeptical of electoral politics, we talk to Manning about why she’s chosen to run, and how her experiences as a formerly incarcerated and homeless trans woman and military whistleblower impact her politics.
FEMINISTING: Chelsea, it’s such a pleasure to have you on the website talking to us. A number of us at Feministing have long followed you and your writing, your activism, your courage and thoughtful approach to politics.
Let’s start with the obvious: many of us grapple with our roles in institutions as activists. You’re currently running to become U.S. Senator. What’s your thought process behind getting involved in electoral politics and an institution you’ve obviously been very critical of: the U.S. government? How do you deal with working from the inside versus organizing on the outside?
Chelsea: I am not suggesting that we work from the inside. This political process right now is rightly seen as a very corrupting process, where people’s voices aren’t heard and there is a lot of money involved. There is years of corporate gloss that’s really made it unworkable. That said, there is also a second part to electoral politics: the platform that you get, and the ideas you get out there. The media really pays attention to electoral politics. It’s a difficult thing to square. I am driven by the values that I have and what I want to bring to the discussion: whether its abolishing prisons, abolishing Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) or really pushing back against the military and intelligence community, we might be able to win some small battles in the bigger war against these institutions. I think we can disrupt them on their own turf; we can slow them down.
It’s one tactic among many tactics as we can take. I don’t see this as an answer.
FEMINISTING: Do you then see your role as bringing unheard voices to a privileged space?
Chelsea: Absolutely. If I do make it to the Senate floor, I’ll be the only convicted felon, the only formerly homeless person – as far as I’m aware — and the only person who has had the experience I bring as a trans person. All these experiences do not exist [in the Senate] and that’s why the things that I say diverge so much from their positions. I fought this system before and I understand that you can’t just ask it to change.
FEMINISTING: As someone who is formerly incarcerated then and a prison and police abolitionist, what are you going to push for as Senator to address the criminal system?
Chelsea: Right now in the Senate in particular you have all of these reauthorization bills. We are constantly bolstering the system that already exists. They are constantly bringing in all these bills that never make it to the floor for debate; they just get voted on. I want to stop that. Sitting in the Senate, I can stop that.
At the very least, we can slow down the system by any means necessary. Nobody is saying these things; nobody is doing anything; nobody is addressing these issues right now. Instead, it’s always, ‘more, more, more.’
We have the largest prisons system in the world. We have the largest military in the world. We have the largest intelligence apparatus in the world. And they’re constantly asking for ‘more, more, more’ all the time. We’re already spending $600 billion a year for defense. We’re already spending $50-100 billion every year on Federal Bureau of Prisons. It’s because politicians are connected to these industries and lobbies, and support them.
FEMINISTING: Speaking of criminalization and feminism, tell us about your opposition to FOSTA, the Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act, and SESTA, the Stop Enabling Sex-Trafficking Act, and the impact of these bills have on women, especially sex workers, women of color and trans women.
Chelsea: SESTA is supposedly about sex trafficking, and we’ve seen a lot of this rhetoric attacking “sex trafficking.” But this bill isn’t being used to target sex traffickers; it is used to target people who are trying to survive and people on the edge of existence: people who need the support of our institutions, people who need healthcare, people who need housing. We’re continuing to criminalize an entire class of people and this is going to affect hundreds of thousands of people – and that is not being talked about.
We need to take a step back and look at the broader situation. You have the Backpage seizure, which is an unprecedented incident where you have a classified website that’s used by people to make a living. The seizure is going to have devastating consequences for people living on the edge, and especially the trans community. Most of us already live on the edge of existence – I lived homeless for several months. When you’re on your own, what is available to you is not a lot, and you have few options. Instead of criminalizing a whole class of people, and recriminalizing trans people we need to be providing resources and support for our communities, so that people aren’t living on the edge of existence anymore.
FEMINISTING: One of the most disturbing aspects of SESTA and FOSTA was the bipartisan support, with Democrats like Diane Feinstein throwing their weight behind them.
Chelsea: Democrats view the marginalized as a problem to be solved […and] believe that people who are marginalized and on the edge need to go away — this [bill] is a way to accelerate that.
FEMINISTING: This is a good segue into broader criticisms of the Democrats. Can you outline the points of political pressure you’ll place on the party?
Chelsea: Every point. All of them. We hear them talk about affordable healthcare, when what we need is free health care. We hear them talk about safer streets, but they funnel arms to the local police departments with weapons of war. We hear them talk about social justice: but they end up charging more people with crimes, and imprisoning more people. We hear them talking about security and our standing in the world, and yet we go around the world threatening war all the time. We’re already engaged in Yemen; we’re talking about doing things in Syria.
Every stance that they take is a waffling stance to hide the fact that they actually support this system. While the right wing openly says their position, Democrats have a way of not taking any positions at all: […] I look at my opponent who doesn’t have any position at all on any issues publicly, and instead just speaks in a lot of platitudes while also supporting these horrible things.
FEMINISTING: Tell us about what you think about incumbent Maryland Senator Ben Cardin in particular, who seems to be the quintessential type of Democrat that we are critiquing here.
Chelsea: One of the most remarkable things about Ben Cardin is how unremarkable he is. He’s been in Maryland politics for 40 years and he doesn’t do a whole lot. He doesn’t hold strong positions; he just “office-holds.” He takes the support in Maryland for granted. One of the criticisms that I’ve heard is that this is a strongly Democratic state, and that most people aren’t going to vote for anyone other than an establishment person. But nobody has run against these people with anything substantive.
I don’t believe that’s the case. I believe that the Democratic establishment, and Ben Cardin in particular, has taken us for granted. Whenever they do get into power, they just tread water for eight years. Nothing ever gets done and we end up feeling marginalized and dejected once again.
FEMINISTING: One issue in particular really illustrates what you’ve been talking about: ICE. Republicans hold a clear and extreme position, and Democrats waffle. Kamala Harris recently came out defending ICE, and no mainstream Democrats have taken on a position to abolish the deportation force, even when it’s a stance candidates could take on and win.
Chelsea: They absolutely can. ICE is a deportation police force. It has more law enforcement power than any institution. It is the second largest police investigative agency behind the FBI. With the recent uptick in hires with this administration, it is on the fast track to become the largest federal police agency. The sole purpose and sole objective of ICE is ethnic cleansing. Call it whatever you want but a deportation task force in any historical context is a force for ethnic cleansing and we have one here right now. We need to oppose it at all costs, by any means necessary, not just politically. I take a very strong stance on this, and it should give people pause that the Democratic establishment is unwilling to take a moral stance on an institution that is evil.
FEMINISTING: What’s striking is that ICE only came into existence in 2003 and Republicans continually attack other federal agencies — and yet Democrats are still unwilling to attack ICE in any meaningful way.
Chelsea: Yeah, the Democratic establishment has taken a position that the force can be “fairer” and more “inclusive.” I don’t think this is the answer to the problem of ICE, which, again, is an ethnic cleansing task force. We’ve seen throughout history what these institutions became and the Democrats’ answer is that “we need more Dreamer ICE agents.” That isn’t the solution to the problem.
FEMINISTING: Something we talk about a lot on the website, as writers who are Muslim, immigrant and/or formerly undocumented, and anti-war activists, is how Democrats consistently fail to address American imperialism, support unjust wars and the occupation of Palestine, as well as the general disposability of lives in the Global South within American politics.
This is something that you have sacrificed your liberty to fight. Your work as whistle-blower was solely for the protection of foreign bodies, and that’s something that has been used against you in the public sphere. It is very courageous still unheard, and has no place in Democratic politics.
Chelsea: [starts tearing up] I’ve been all over the world. I’ve seen what we’ve done. I’ve contributed to this process. I know that the damage that we’ve caused and the pain and destruction that we’ve wrought. [Choking up] I’ve seen it first hand. [Pauses] This is a values thing. It’s not a political position that I take because of some think tank or some numbers. It’s in my heart. I’ve put my soul in this, and I want to do this work. Every time I see the establishment ramping up to do another thing, I’m always pulled back into doing activism again. It’s no coincidence that in 2013 and 2014, when we became more involved in the Middle East again, that I started writing again. That’s how I felt this week. I’ve been mad and upset, because it’s rough to see that we keep making the same mistakes, when we haven’t even finished previous ones.
This has to stop. I don’t care what position I am in. I don’t care if I’m a politician or an activist. I don’t care where I am or what I am doing. I’m going to keep doing this work.
FEMINISTING: Thank you Chelsea, one last question. Many of us feel political hopelessness. And yet we often think about how just months before the world saw a free Chelsea Manning, so many people who loved you were lamenting how the world would never see free 27-year old Chelsea Manning. What do you say about hope in our current political world: do you have hope? And where does that hope come from?
Chelsea: Yes, I do have hope. I don’t see the light at the end of the tunnel yet: we have a lot of work to do. We can’t win if we stop fighting. And I’ve been in the position where I’ve had no possibility: where there’s no possibility of there being a good outcome. But I took it from day to day, and found solace in working in solidarity with other people. Even if our battles are tough, we can work in solidarity with other people. If we work together, and build a movement that’s centered around meaningful values and desire for change for everyone, that’s just a start. But if we give up, we go nowhere.
Nobody can give us hope. That’s a mistake that people can get into: expecting hope to come from above, or a miracle to come from above. We have to do the work, and we have to continue doing the work and that’s very hard. If there’s anything I learned about hope, it is that it doesn’t come from other people or institutions or some higher power. It comes from within each and every one of us.
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