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Chelsea Manning - spring 2019
Chelsea wears cotton taffeta dress FendiPhotography Mark Peckmezian, Styling Emma Wyman

Chelsea Manning: digital witness

‘Everything feels like it’s chaos, and it’s designed to be this way’ – the whistleblower on digital anxiety, American policing, and her love of club music

At a time when trans rights are more under threat than ever, the spring 2019 issue of Dazed takes a stand for the global creativity of the LGBTQIA+ communities and infinite forms of identity. You can pre-order a copy of our latest issue here, and see the whole Infinite Identities campaign here.

Chelsea Manning is wearing big black leather boots. She has been wearing Dr. Martens ever since her release from military prison in 2017. Fixed forever in a legacy of countercultural action, the shoes are a fitting uniform for the whistleblower responsible for the largest transmission of classified military documents in American history.

Manning is slender and small, standing just 5ft 2in with a crop of light blonde hair tucked easily behind her ears. On this December day, she is at a New York branch of The Wing, the bustling millennial women’s club. Dim-pink and polished, with conference rooms dedicated to women of history, the building is full of professional, feminist-minded women of a certain disposition, eyes forward, fixed on private computer screens. Chelsea Manning stands out as a member, sheathed in black pants and a long-sleeved shirt, with dark eyeliner.

Two years ago, Manning was in a cell in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, her hair cut by force, serving a 35-year prison sentence after being convicted on 19 charges, including six counts of espionage. She had been in custody for nearly seven years, since 2010, and throughout that time endured treatment deemed “cruel, inhuman and degrading” by the United Nations.

As an intelligence analyst for the US military working outside of Baghdad, Iraq, Manning exposed American subterfuge against its own citizens, and the killing of Iraqi civilians; an infamous video shows an Apache helicopter shooting them down. In court, Manning described a kind of “delightful bloodlust” in the soldiers’ voices. With then-President-Elect Trump poised to take power, Manning was released, her sentence reduced to time-served by President Obama as he readied to depart the office forever. It was a shock to all sides: represented by the American Civil Liberties Union, Manning had fought for her freedom but, given the extreme controversy of her actions, it was hard to believe President Obama would actually have her released.

By that time, Manning’s identity had long been absorbed into her political image. The world had come to know a kind of Chelsea Manning – the icon, the hero, the villain, the symbol – but, whichever version you saw, it was never the real one. Never Manning free from prison. Never Manning outside of a cage. That history surrounds her; sitting in a corner of this quiet but packed room in New York today, she is The Chelsea Manning. And yet, no one is watching, no one whispering into a sister’s ear. She seems almost encrypted, able to hide herself if necessary.

And then she is rising from her seat, greeting me, doing another interview. “Why did you do the things?” says Manning, mimicking the redundant questions she is most often subjected to by the media, questions which have become painful through endless repetition. “These parts of my life are over. This is definitely something I share with a lot of former prisoners; we don’t like to bring up our time in prison and the things that got us in there. It’s really hard.”

Also, around the time of her arrest, Manning was moving on from her life as a man. It’s difficult to move forward in your life when the rest of the world is still attached to the part you’ve left behind.

“There are some people who call me a hero. But things are worse now. Even worse than they were in 2010” – Chelsea Manning

So, what else?

“I’m a clubber,” Manning says, with a heartwarming smile. We’re squeezed into a phone booth, because none of the conference rooms are available. Her manager, also a trans woman, is sitting cross-legged on the floor. Chelsea’s now-manager wrote to her when she was in prison; when she was released, the pen-pals became close friends and established a professional relationship. Aside from overthrowing industrial complexes, they both like electronic music, a lot. Manning describes it as a “core aspect” of her life since childhood.

It’s what made Hackers, the 1995 cult classic with Angelina Jolie, a good film for her, despite lacking any sort of technical accuracy. (The mechanics were “terrible,” says Manning, as elitist and critical of depictions of coding culture as a fashion editor might be of, say, low-rise jeans.) “I was a genderqueer kid out in the middle of nowhere, so it was a different world,” says Manning, explaining how electronic music in the 1990s worked as a vital pathway to digital space, where she found solace. At the time, she says, the online realm was an unexplored “frontier” populated only by nerds, but it was an alternate universe that she needed desperately. “I understood this world intuitively.”

Today, Manning is known for being particularly adept at using Twitter. Her tweets tend to take aim at whatever topic has caught her attention, and are inscribed with a signature, glorious combination of emojis that somehow perfectly articulate complex political issues. “People think about my use of emojis and I’m just like, ‘I’ve been doing this since the mid-90s,’” Manning deadpans, flexing her decades of experience in chatrooms and web forums. “Like, I’ve been doing text-based emojis and emoticons since AOL messenger. This isn’t new; I didn’t just discover the emoji keyboard.”

Lately, however, Manning has been tweeting less. For her, spending too much time online, or tangled up in Twitter, can incite a sense of isolation and impending, inescapable destruction. The media, inextricable from the wider Twitter discourse, is just as unhealthy. “It creates these discrete stories which we’re bombarded with constantly,” says Manning, leaning back on her stool. “Everything feels like it’s chaos, and it’s designed to be this way... That’s one reason why I’ve taken a step back from social media, because it really engages with this, and it’s a continuum. It’s bombarding our senses with this (idea) that we are alone and overwhelmed.” 

Manning pauses, and though the light in the booth is dim, I can see the tears well in her eyes. Her voice heightens, breaking briefly as she continues her thread on social media and its discontents. “It feels like your world is ending,” she says, maintaining that, while we all might feel “alone and overwhelmed” with the current age of digital anxiety, things don’t have to be this way. “If we just take a step away from our screens and realise we have communities, then we might be able to build up, and fight back.”

Speaking at colleges, and organising with chapters of various activist circles in cities across the country, Manning is lending her voice to a number of social movements. Last summer, she ran for Senate in the Democratic primary in Maryland, where she lost. “Even when groups are suppressed, there’s still the chance of survival,” she reflects, perhaps drawing on her years of hopeless incarceration: her two survived suicide attempts at Fort Leavenworth military prison; the two months after she was taken into custody, when she was held in an eight-foot wire cage in Kuwait; and all that time spent advocating for herself and a future that was anything but certain. She’s here now, walking the streets of New York City, eating pizza with her friends, travelling to meet new ones.

“There’s the chance of support,” Manning says, insisting on community resistance as a vital resource. She sometimes attends court hearings; recently, she sat in court for people who had been arrested in Washington protesting a college appearance of white-supremacist leader Richard Spencer. “It feels overwhelming when you’re in that and you’re alone, but knowing that you have a community behind you, a community that loves you and will show up for you – even travel to visit your court hearings – means the world. It meant the world to me.” 

The US is often referred to as being split in two politically, particularly since the rise of Donald Trump to the presidency. Manning emerged from prison into that polarised reality, and she has been part of a movement against hatred, and supremacy of all kinds, ever since. Her friends who protested Richard Spencer may have been speaking out against his nationalist beliefs, but, on the other side of the aisle, conservatives have suggested that such protest is an affront to the first amendment itself. 

To Manning, the difference is obvious; while people are entitled to believe and say whatever they want in the US, they are not entitled to a platform. “Free speech isn’t, ‘I hand you a microphone and you get to say whatever you want to say,’” she explains. “That’s not how it works.” This connects more broadly to the idea, increasingly prevalent in public life, that all discourse is valuable, or that we can entertain a diversity of beliefs even when those beliefs impact the lives of marginalised peoples.

“There are a lot of people who I strongly disagree with, and I don’t show up and shut them down... Where I draw the line is when the implications of what you’re saying, even though you might not explicitly be saying it, are the elimination of entire groups of people from society.” For example, “I can’t debate with a trans-exclusionary radical feminist, because they want me to not exist... You don’t hand them a microphone or give them a stage. If they do get one, then guess what? People are gonna show up and shut them down, because we are threatened, and if they get to debate and they win, we don’t get to be around any more.” 

It’s this kind of real-world engagement that drives Manning today. The internet has a purpose, but it has changed over time. Twitter used to be a portal that connected people separated by labyrinthian politics and social disarray. No longer. “They’ve altered their algorithms,” says Manning. “A tweet for Occupy had a lot more mileage than a (similar) tweet would in 2019... As institutions’ tweets become more (favoured by the algorithms), it’s drowning people out.” Those people tend to be the most vulnerable, the marginalised.

“Activism is not tweeting. We’re no longer at the point where we need to talk about what the issues are, we already know what they are,” says Manning. She is a serious woman, with a palpable sense of urgency and purpose about her. Her words are assured, her voice limber and clear – which may be necessary, as she is often using her platform to distil complex political conundrums into comprehensible terms. There is a programme operating, some line of code running, perfectly in her mind.

“You know, there are some people who call me a hero,” says Manning quietly, critically. “They say the leaks changed this, and they accomplished these things. But things are worse now. Even worse than they were in 2010.” She was driven to act when she felt the US government was operating without transparency, acting on the international stage without the nation’s consent or knowledge. The conditions that drove Manning to transmit hundreds of thousands of military documents to WikiLeaks in 2010 haven’t been rectified: in fact, she says, they have now “intensified, accelerated and metastasised on a grand scale”.

“I spent my first few weeks out of prison here in New York, and it was then that I really realised,” says Manning, recalling an epiphany about the simmering unrest being felt around the country at the time of her release. “I’ve been in an occupied military situation, you know, I’ve been an occupying power in a combat zone, and when I see the police force I see the same things, the same mentality, the same sort of wartime footing among the police in certain communities. It’s the same thing.”

It’s a revealing insight into the way in which Manning views the world. Instead of discrete problems, she sees strains of the same disease flowering in different forms, in different places. “There was a green zone in Iraq where the privileged would live,” she says, offering an example. “But there were also the sort of red zones outside. It’s very similar here; if you go out into the non-gentrified communities in Brooklyn or in any other city – I spent time in Baltimore, for example – the police feels like it’s on a wartime footing. It’s not just increased presence, it’s the aggressiveness of the presence. We’ve moved away from walking beat-cops to cops on patrol in a vehicle, with body armour and weapons.” She describes a “pipeline” connecting the two, from weapons once used in war now used by the police domestically, to former Iraq and Afghanistan-deployed military working in law enforcement.

Despite these feelings of vulnerability, today Manning is living a life of independence for the first time. She had a difficult childhood, and a transition into adulthood that was confined within a military regime, loaded with the same principles that informed her experience before service: an empire of the west, of whiteness, of heterosexuality, of a gender construct that corrected individuality with violence. It is the continuum that links one thing to the next. She is still learning who she is as a free woman, and how to move beyond the symbolic Chelsea Manning who is worshipped and reviled in equal measure.

“I’ve been an occupying power in a combat zone, and when I see the police force I see the same things, the same mentality, the same wartime footing” – Chelsea Manning 

“I’m never gonna live up to everybody’s expectations in this regard,” says Manning. “It’s exhausting. I fuck up; I mess up a lot in my life in general, and that’s just like basic stuff. Basic life things I’ve had to learn. I never had my own place. In the last year I’ve lived on my own for the first time, learning how to build credit, how to have an apartment, how to pay rent on time, how to consistently clean.” Part of that process is coming to terms with the person she has been. Being part of the occupation in Iraq, for instance, stands in stark contrast to her politics today. “I had a very abstract perception of it,” Manning says now of the conflict. It is clearly something she has spent a long time processing. “Here in the US, working domestically before I deployed, I was able to separate everything, and it wasn’t even really a political issue to me. I almost felt like, ‘This is my job – like, this is what I’m good at. I’m good at math, I’m good at numbers, I’m just gonna math the shit out of these problems.”

“Once I was on the ground, experiencing that cognitive dissonance between what we were doing and what we said we were doing, and also what I thought I was trained for versus the clusterfuck that I was a part of... It was almost like whenever Obama got elected, it changed everything but it didn’t change anything at all, substantively. It doesn’t matter who’s president: either it’s a warmer and friendlier police state, or it’s outright fascism. Those are your options. Once you start to see the machine working, it can wake you up, but I hadn’t put the threads together yet. Maybe there was no way I could have known beforehand, but I certainly feel that sense of, ‘I should have known.’”

Manning feels keenly responsible for the decisions that she made, but she keeps her perspective forward-focused. “You can’t go back and change things,” she says, her eyes glinting again in the low light. It seems now, in this moment, like she might be somewhere else. Maybe she is back in basic training in Fort Leonard Wood in the Missouri Ozarks, or at Fort Drum in upstate New York, dating her old boyfriend, Tyler. Perhaps she is a child again, or maybe she’s already been deployed to a remote site in the Iraqi desert, and is downloading classified data to a disc labelled ‘Lady Gaga’. Wherever she went, she returns quickly.

“There’s not a lot of ruminating on these kind of things,” Manning explains. “I try not to re-litigate every single decision that I’ve made in my entire life, and that includes decisions such as, ‘Should I have stayed at Starbucks in 2007?’, ‘Should I have got that job in 2008?’ and ‘Should I have kept on dating Tyler?’ All these different decisions are important to me in how I view my life, but those aren’t the questions people ask me about.”

“I first considered transitioning at 18,” Manning continues, elaborating on one of those past choices. “It was daunting, and I did the opposite: I went into the military. These kinds of things are very emotionally weighted for me, so I just have to move on.”

Manning is free today or, as she might say, as free as anyone can be. Her transition is progressing outside of prison, where she has access to more resources and tools to live her life unconfined by a cage or the prison of a body that feels broken. We know who she has been, but who will Chelsea Manning become in the years ahead, through these times of social unrest and political turmoil? What does she want in her life, for her future?

“I want to be able to feel comfortable,” says Manning, looking away as she speaks. “I really wonder what next year’s gonna look like for me and my friends.” She is a figure in black, motionless, casting her gaze forward, trying to see beyond the dark horizon. “I want to be able to answer that question.” 

Hair Tomi Kono at Julian Watson Agency, make-up Asami Matsuda at Artlist NY using La Prairie, photography assistants Jon Ervin, Mike Feswick, Merimon Hart, styling assistants Rhiarn Schuck, Marcus Cuffie, hair assistant Beth Shanefelter, production Carly Hoff at Webber