Despite President Barack Obama’s failed attempts to shutter Guantanamo Bay, students at Ball State University staged a demonstration voicing their support for the detention center’s closing, even going so far as waterboarding a student.
Students stood in silent protest for an hour in an effort to persuade Sen. Joe Donnelly (D-Ind.) to sign the 2014 National Defense Authorization Act. The students, members of Ball State’s Students for Creative Social Action and the university’s Amnesty International chapter, donned orange jumpsuits with black head pieces while other members dressed in military fatigues to simulate the roles of Guantanamo Bay detainees and the personnel who watch over them.
“The point of the silent protest was to represent the voicelessness of the people down there and give a voice to this cause ending indefinite detention,” Matthew Smith, director of Ball State’s Amnesty International chapter, told Red Alert Politics.
Both student groups hope to see Guantanamo detainees receive a fair trial in U.S. courts or release those who have been cleared, he said.
Since its opening in 2002, reports indicate several prisoners were waterboarded at the base — which houses several suspected members of al-Qaeda and Sept. 11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. Additionally, many of the detainees have protested their own detention through a hunger strike, which led to force feeding from military personnel.
The waterboarding of the prisoners sparked the idea for members of SCSA to conduct their own interrogation using the technique. “Detainees” and their “prison guards” marched from the school’s student center to Bracken Library, the nucleus of Ball State’s campus.
As onlookers gathered outside the library, Caleb Hoagland — vice president of SCSA and an Army veteran — laid on his back, and Smith placed a cloth over his face, pouring a jug of water over the material.
“I kept telling myself it’s not fatal,” Hoagland told Ball State’s The Daily. “I trust Matt Smith, but there was a point where some primal part of my brain said, ‘You’re going to die.’ I kept breathing and water was going in. It really tricks your brain into thinking you’re drowning.”
A petition urging Donnelly to take action on the 2014 NDAA circulated through a crowd of passersby who gathered to watch. Though the group received support prior to the waterboarding, many students lent their signatures after watching the staged interrogation.
“Seeing a body gasping for air and just knowing how much it means to be breathing, you really appreciate breathing,” Ariana Brown, SCSA’s president, told Red Alert Politics. “It just made it easier to emphasize. A lot of people conceptualize everyone in Guantanamo Bay as the worst person ever and that they’re bad people. So to see someone suffering, to see a physical person suffering in front of you, that makes it a lot easier to relate to that person. … This really put a face on the issue.”
But SCSA’s event didn’t sway everyone to join in efforts to close the facility.
“Guantanamo Bay uses interrogation techniques to gain information on future terrorist attacks to protect the American people,” Hillary Cherry, program officer of public relations at Young America’s Foundation, told Red Alert Politics in an email. “Smith and Hoagland should be thankful to our soldiers stationed at Guantanamo for protecting their First Amendment rights to stage this appalling protest in the first place.”
And SCSA and Amnesty International club members faced backlash from fellow students who felt they were disrespecting the military, Smith, 21, said.
“My response to that is, first of all, I think it’s disrespectful to order our military members, our service members to perform this sort of procedure and the psychological trauma that goes along with that and also, this is something that the existence of Guantanamo and the existence of these sort of policies actually undermine U.S. national security and put our service members at risk,” he said.
Since President George W. Bush opened the detention camp at Guantanamo Bay in 2002, 779 detainees have been housed, with 164 still held on the base. President Barack Obama campaigned in 2008 on the promise to shutter the detention center, though his efforts have failed.
Obama did, however, lift a moratorium allowing low-level detainees to transfer from the facility in Cuba to Yemen.
The 2014 National Defense Authorization Act — passed by the House but still in the Senate — maintains the prohibition of detainee transfers from Guantanamo to the United States or to countries with “confirmed cases of transferred detainees returning to the fight.”
The bill was approved by the Senate Armed Services Committee with transfer provisions altered to make them less strict. It remains on the Senate’s calendar.