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Conversation starters

News & Commentary  |  By Mary Zerkel, Jun 20, 2016

Artists Aaron Hughes and Amber Ginsburg (to the left of the teapot, front of the rug), and the audience at a "Tea Project" performance at Links Hall in Chicago.

Links Hall

From prisoners at Guantanamo Bay to survivors of Chicago police torture, sharing our stories can create new narratives around war and violence.

“Where were you on March 20, 2003?,” Aaron Hughes, an Iraq War vet and artist, asks our group. We’re sitting on the floor around a Persian rug while Aaron brews a large pot of fragrant Alwazah tea with cardamom.

Slowly people start to share their memories of that night. Someone remembers watching the events unfold on television in disbelief—images of the first missiles and bombs launched by U.S. and coalition forces on Baghdad. Several of us in the room find out that we had all participated in the same demonstration that took over Lake Shore Drive in Chicago. One woman shares that she was pregnant with her first child and could never have imagined that the U.S. would have remained in Iraq and Afghanistan for her child’s entire life thus far.

Aaron and his artistic collaborator, Amber Ginsburg, share their own memories as they continue serving the tea in beautiful ceramic cups. The cups were handcrafted to look like the Styrofoam ones that detainees at Guantanamo Bay drink their tea from, except each of our cups has the name of a detainee on its bottom and is etched with the national flower of their country of origin.

Over the simple act of sharing tea, the artists invite the audience to contribute to a beautifully woven collective narrative about war, detention, and their steep costs to us as human beings.

This event was part of an ongoing project by Aaron and Amber called The Tea Project. After 14 years of U.S. military intervention in Afghanistan and Iraq, many of us have become numb to the realities of these dehumanizing wars. Tea performances are an antidote—a unique experience each time for engagement, community, and co- creation of new narratives. 

Some of the 779 porcelain Styrofoam cups cast by Amber Ginsburg, one for each person detained at Guantanamo Bay Detention Camp since 2001. Photo credit: Links Hall
Aaron is a Chicago native and Amber is a professor at the University of Chicago. In April, they had a three-week residency at Chicago’s Links Hall, and AFSC was a community partner of the residency, along with the Center for Constitutional Rights, Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), and others.

The residency gave Aaron and Amber the opportunity to bring in scholars, activists, and human rights lawyers from around the country to contribute to the weeks of conversation, performances, and public events.

I worked with Amber and human rights lawyer Mark Templeton to develop and facilitate a private event, “A Day of Imagining Justice and Reparations,” at the CAIR offices in downtown Chicago. The idea behind it was to creatively think about what reparations for Guantanamo might look like, learning from the experiences of the participants, most of whom had profound experiences with violence and injustice.

We were joined by a former Muslim chaplain at Guantanamo, who was falsely accused of espionage; a former guard at Abu Ghraib now working on a documentary on U.S. detention in Iraq; activists who had successfully worked for reparations for survivors of Chicago police torture; and others with powerful stories to share.

We structured the day around three questions that we wanted to explore through creative means, using drawing, collage, or metaphor:

  1. What is state violence? 
  2. Who is responsible? 
  3. What are forms of apology?

 Image created by participants in the Day of Imagining Justice and Reparations in response to the question: What are forms of apology? Photo: AFSC/Mary Zerkel)

Very quickly, the experiences of participants made very clear the connection between state violence and militarism at both the domestic and foreign policy levels. And there were strong parallels in their individual experiences with injustice. 

James Yee, the former chaplain at Guantanamo, had interacted with hundreds of prisoners. He said that many prisoners used humor, poetry, or other small forms of resistance to find some peace in conditions designed to strip people of their dignity.

Ben Thompson spoke of his experiences as a guard at Abu Ghraib after the scandal broke. He drew a comparison between racism in U.S. prisons and GTMO. “In both cases, society assumes and accepts rape, inter-prisoner violence as a part of the prison industrial complex, completely dehumanizing the prisoners,” he said. The system damages and dehumanizes everyone involved, including the guards, he told us. While he was working at Abu Ghraib, 22 prisoners died in one day, and that was very difficult for him to deal with, something that he is still trying to process.

Baher Azmy from the Center for Constitutional Rights had worked on cases about long-term solitary confinement in U.S. prisons. “The narrative around GTMO is that it is an exception, that ‘America has lost its way’ and we need to get back to American values,” Baher says, “but we must ask ourselves … might it be the fabric of American punitive practice?"

Artist Matthew Nicholas and Aliya Hana Hussain of the Center for Constitutional Rights at the Day of Imagining. Photo: AFSC/Mary Zerkel
The group also struggled with aspects of responsibility for state violence, such as capitalism and racism, and what forms of apology would be transformational. What would be the smallest form of apology, and what would be the largest?

Baher pointed out: “If we were to focus on restorative justice for GTMO detainees or victims of CIA torture, we’d have to ask ourselves, 'What are the costs of drawing the circle around that subset of people and leaving out other victims that face these conditions in U.S. prisons?’”

Sarah Ross, an artist who has worked with the Chicago Torture Justice Memorials project, said that issue arose in pushing for reparations for those who survived torture by former Police Chief Jon Burge, since they didn’t benefit people tortured by other officers. It was painful to articulate who was eligible for reparations and who was not.

Participants at the Day of Imagining: (L-R back row): Gerald Hankerson, Larry Siems, Matthew Nicholas, Michael Thomas, Mary Zerkel, Aaron Hughes, Aliya Hana Hussain, Amber Ginsburg, Mark Tampleton, Baher Azmy, James Yee. (L-R front row): Rachel Wallis, Sarah Ross, Kathy Kelly, Angela Zhang. Photo: AFSC/Mary Zerkel
Even though the Chicago reparations agreement was historic—including an official apology, a curriculum on police torture for public schools, and a counseling center for survivors and their families—no structure was put into place to prevent police torture from happening again. Perhaps that would be the greatest form of apology.

Or perhaps it can be found in the solidarity of standing with survivors who have been dehumanized by state violence. Baher brought up the historic hunger strike by tens of thousands of prisoners in California in protest of solitary confinement. That solidarity and shared dignity among prisoners was a victory in itself, and it contributed to California overhauling its use of solitary confinement. Perhaps that was an even greater apology than a traditional one?

That day, we didn’t arrive at any definitive answers to our three questions, but we started a conversation that each of us wants to continue as we move forward in our work.

Amber and Aaron plan to use the images and discussion generated during the event to create a book. Participants have pledged to keep in touch and support each other’s efforts where we can.

So often, the way that people process the ongoing trauma in our militarized culture is through online media/activism or showing up at rallies and demonstrations—but there is also something so powerful about taking the time to share our stories, experiences and analysis with others. Whether it’s talking with strangers over tea in a gallery or working through complex issues with others dedicated to the movement against militarism—conversations like these help us create the new narratives that we need if we are ever to replace the tired ones that have justified war and violence for far too long.

About the Author

Mary Zerkel is coordinator of AFSC's Communities Against Islamophobia Project and has worked at AFSC for over 20 years. In addition, Mary is co-founder of the art collective Lucky Pierre, which works on political and social issues in a variety of forms. 

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