On the import of Debra Van Poolen’s artistic witness

A heartfelt thank you to Debra Van Poolen for bearing witness to the secret trial of Chelsea Manning, for those who could not be there, filling a gap the military wanted to widen

Those of us who covered Chelsea Manning’s court martial at Ft. Meade relied on the drawings of artists in attendance to illustrate our coverage of witnesses testifying, dramatic proceedings, and vital courtroom moments. Debra van Poolen, one such artist, wrote about her experience here. I’ve thanked Debra in a piece explaining the value of her and others’ images, first published here at WARP Place. Relatedly, see artist Clark Stoeckley’s book-length graphic account of the trial here.

We are, increasingly, a visual people, overloaded with imagery at every turn. Thus the army’s (and administration’s) strategy to turn what should have been a trial available to the public for witness, conversation, and debate into a covert one made sense. No cameras, no cell phones, no computers in the courtroom. Metal detectors scanned our every inch for a hidden lens or wire. Uniformed muscles with weapons lined the walls, escorting us out to stretch our limbs and rest our eyes, watching, retrieving us. In the media room, a relaxed appearance betrayed an even more sinister crackdown on any attempt to publicize the show trial of U.S. Army Private Chelsea Manning.

By and large, the mainstream media ignored the trial. We few reporters followed proceedings on a delayed video feed, that—just next door to the NSA, capable of spying on Americans’ every communication—was conveniently, annoyingly liable to cut out at any minute, for several at a time. So adverse was the Army to the public witnessing the immense, inexorable courage of a 5’2” soldier who stood head and shoulders above her fear-stricken fellow servicemen that when a few seconds of video did seep onto the world wide web, Ft. Meade soldiers with handguns were assigned to patrol the media room, their hot breath on our necks as we tried to transcribe extensive motions in real time.

We reporters relayed the legal updates and major happenings, but words cannot adequately convey the rigidity of the proceedings, Manning’s isolation and power as she testified, or the military’s tangible unease about whom she might inspire next. When deprived of images, we hunger for them. We needed visual confirmation that this unprecedented trial, these obscene charges, that looming prison hell, were real and not just another police-state nightmare.

Debra Van Poolen’s courtroom drawings shed some light on the dark site, bringing us closer to the tension and texture of that damning room. We can prop up her portrayal of Manning at the microphone as we read the statement itself, wherein Manning explained to the judge who would soon condemn her to decades in a cage just why she was so disturbed by that video in Iraq, and why she felt such profound empathy for the unarmed civilians seemingly murdered for sport while trying to protect their own.

Debra Van Poolen put her life on hold to visually convey this trial to us, spending each day sketching out new witnesses, legal teams, family members, and the Truth brigade that quietly supported Manning from the gallery—a little echo of and tribute to Pfc. Manning for putting her freedom at risk to convey to us the Army’s darkest secrets. Thank you, Debra, for helping us bear witness. We are in your debt.

One thought on “On the import of Debra Van Poolen’s artistic witness”

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