Clark Stoeckley is a graphic designer, artist and lecturer using his artistic background to report the controversial trial of Bradley Manning. Back in 2010, he transformed a former U-Haul truck into a symbol of political activism with the ‘WikiLeaks Top Secret Information Collection Unit’, a move which he describes as “part art, part activism and part prank”. With news breaking that Manning’s maximum jail sentence has just been cut from 136 to 90 years, we spoke to Clark about turning his court drawings into a graphic novel – a Watchmen for the WikiLeaks generation.
Dazed Digital: How did you become a WikiLeaks activist?
CS: I was working on my MFA thesis project, which consisted of a two hour long video filled with war porn. On April 5 2010, I saw the 'Collateral Murder' video which I quickly edited into the movie as the most climatic point. I showed it a month later in a gallery on Broadway in lower Manhattan. Shortly thereafter I bought a WikiLeaks T-shirt and a box truck. The rest is history.
DD: How did the opportunity to draw the case come about?
CS: Actually, I just showed up with a pad of paper and art supplies. I did have to get a media organisation to vouch for me so I could gain access to the media center though. So I asked Vaughn Smith from The Frontline Club in London and emailed the Military District of Washington Media Desk and got approved for credentials.
DD: Do you know if Manning is aware of your graphic novel project or what he thinks of it?
CS: Yeah, Bradley Manning's lawyers are aware of the book, but I’m not sure if they’ve told him about it.
Not only was Bradley's life on the line, but so was the future of war reporting
DD: He’s been convicted of espionage but not aiding the enemy – one of the most controversial charges against him. What was the reaction like in court when that was announced?
CS: It was a huge relief because a week or so prior I was crying my eyes out when the judge did not dismiss it. The charge was absurd in the first place. Those in government who made that happen should be ashamed of themselves for ever going forward with it. It was far overreaching and disgusting to our democracy. Not only was Bradley's life on the line, but so was the future of war reporting.
The pressroom now has armed MPs looking over every journalists shoulder to see if they are tweeting.— Art Superheroes (@WikileaksTruck) July 25, 2013
DD: What’s an average day like on the trial?
CS: Most days we arrive at 7 in the morning and line up in the press line to get checked by a bomb-sniffing dog. Usually the first day of the week there is a vigil on the corner outside the main gate. Around 8 am, we are escorted by police to the media center - it’s always funny to watch people's faces as I drive by in the press motorcade. Court is supposed to start at 9:30 but usually doesn't until 10. About 12 we get an hour lunch recess. We order food from the bowling alley on base. Quite often the court is held in closed session, this means that the public and press is not allowed to hear or see what is going on. Closed session is where all of the really interesting discussions take place. Then we wait for nine months to a year for a few of the court filings to be released on the Army's Freedom of Information Act Reading Room.
DD: What was the most interesting moment to draw from the trial so far?
CS: The most interesting moment was actually my last. On Friday July 26, Bradley's civilian defense lawyer David Coombs gave his closing arguments. I was allowed to sit in the jury box, which had been off limits for over a year. I was wearing a "Free Bradley Manning" T-shirt. Just before lunch I was kicked out of the courtroom and escorted off base. I thought it was the t-shirt, but it was because the night before I tweeted a link to the hotel where I believed the prosecution was lodging.
I'm banned from the court martial.— Art Superheroes (@WikileaksTruck) July 26, 2013
The largest military in the world is threatened by my tweets. I don't even own a pocket knife.— Art Superheroes (@WikileaksTruck) July 30, 2013
Was the prosecutors hotel location confidential? secret? Top Secret? What level of classification of info did Fein release to the public?— Art Superheroes (@WikileaksTruck) July 30, 2013
My bar letter made it onto the FOIA reading room in a record two days. I’m currently still waiting to hear back from the base commander as to whether or not they will ever let me back on the installation.
(you can read Clark’s letter of apology here)
DD: How much trouble have you got into for driving your infamous WikiLeaks truck around?
CS: I've been arrested a few times and pulled over too. Once I was pulled over at Fort Meade for supposedly disseminating WikiLeaks info. I briefly parked in the visitor parking lot at the end of the day to drop off a fellow journalist. This parking lot is outside of the guard check but technically inside the base. I was there for about 10 to 15 minutes. As I was backing up to leave the base two civilian cop cars blocked me in. They jumped out and started asking questions about my satellite dish and dummy cameras. They asked to see in the back of the truck, but I refused and explained that dogs had already been in the truck when I arrived. I asked them why I was being detained and they replied that they had received a report that I was disseminating Top Secret information on base. They told me that there was no way I could bring my truck on base. At the time, I had mutton chops and I was wearing a camouflage hunting ball cap and aviator sunglasses. Knowing that they had no reason to stop me I decided to have a little fun with them and I pretended to be a total redneck by adjusting voice to sound like Larry the Cable Guy. I showed them my drawings and press pass to prove that I was in fact a journalist covering the trial. Still they had to write up a report for their records. They asked for my Social Security Number, phone number, marital status, height, weight, eye color, and whether I had any tattoos or birthmarks. They let me go after a phone call to the Public Affairs office to confirm that I had been working and driving the truck on base for the past two months.
The cops were freaking out about my dummy cameras. They asked to look in the back and I said they would need a warrant for that.— Art Superheroes (@WikileaksTruck) July 9, 2013
in the end we all had a good laugh. They felt stupid and a little pissed that they were called to check up on me.— Art Superheroes (@WikileaksTruck) July 9, 2013
I played my redneck character the whole time. That really confused them more than they already were.— Art Superheroes (@WikileaksTruck) July 9, 2013
I unscrewed the dummy camera to prove that it was a dummy camera. He felt like a really dummy after that.— Art Superheroes (@WikileaksTruck) July 9, 2013
DD: It's just been announced that Manning now faces a maximum sentence of 90 years, as opposed to the original 136. You obviously feel, like so many, that Manning was a whistle blower, is it hard to keep your cool while you’re drawing when you feel so strongly about Manning’s innocence.
CS: Actually, I spend most of my time drawing in the press room where I'm allowed to openly show my emotions. I usually vent on Twitter, but now that venting has been broadly interpreted as a threat by the most heavily armed and deadliest military in the world.
DD: Why did you choose the comic book/graphic novel form?
CS: It just seemed like a natural fit to couple my courtroom sketches with nuggets of the most dramatic testimony from the open sessions. In fact, If I was to accurately depict the hearings, it would mostly be blacked out because much of this trial has been closed to the public and official transcripts from 20 months ago are still unavailable. Luckily Alexa O'brien and the Freedom of the Press Foundation have provided unofficial transcripts.
DD: Julian Assange said Manning’s case represented ‘dangerous national security extremism’ – what do you think the future of government opposition will be like (if any?) if this is the censorship that people will face?
CS: When it comes to protecting whistle blowers the US is luging down a slippery slope at a world record pace. Some US senators and congressmen are calling for a boycott of the 2014 Winter Olympics because Russia granted Edward Snowden asylum. I'd really like to see those politicians participating in luge, ski jumping, or ice hockey.
I will be working on this until the day I can shake Bradley's hand
DD: There’s a rumour that Assange has actually been in touch with you. Would you ever do a similar drawing project for him?
CS: I've never had the chance to meet Julian. Hopefully he will never end up stepping foot inside a US courtroom. If he does, I will be there either drawing his portrait or driving my truck around the block. According to David House, the grand jury used to chuckle as I drove by, and they could see my truck through the windows of the federal courthouse in Alexandria.
DD: The case is rumoured to go on for several more years – are you going to continue drawing the trial as it unfolds?
CS: I will be working on this until the day I can shake Bradley's hand and give him a big hug, however long that takes.
You can pre-order 'The United States Vs. Pfc. Bradley Manning' here on OR Books.
Follow Sian Dolding on Twitter here @SianDolding