I finally read all of Martin Luther King Jr.'s “Letter From Birmingham Jail” this spring while I was on tour for my album “Radio Music Society.” At about the same time, the hunger strike at Guantanamo Bay detention center hit the headlines. Soon, scores of men were being force-fed. The more I learned about what was going on at Guantanamo, the more I realized that the truths King expressed in his famous letter were back in our faces: “Justice too long delayed is justice denied.”
I vowed to do something. When I got home, I called my representative and senators and expressed my support for a just closure of Guantanamo. Then I called my friends and asked them to do the same. But that wasn’t enough: 84 men cleared for release by our national security agencies years ago were still sitting at Guantanamo. I left to go back on tour, but the burning question remained: What else can I do?
At a “Radio Music Society” band dinner, we talked about Guantanamo and realized we shared a deep concern about the issues it raises. Those talks inspired a song, and then a music video -- “We Are America,” which we’re releasing Monday -- that we hope will mobilize support for closing the facility. As the project crystallized, I reached out to more friends -- some who happen to be quite well known -- and they agreed to support our effort by making cameo appearances in the video.
Throughout the process, and after consulting with the American Civil Liberties Union, Amnesty International, Human Rights First and Human Rights Watch, our resolve kept growing. We believe that the blatant injustice of detention without charge at Guantanamo violates not just U.S. human rights obligations but also our basic values and principles.
Of the 779 men who have been held at the facility since it was opened in 2002, only seven have ever been convicted of any charges in military tribunals. Two of those convictions have been overturned on appeal. Another six men are on trial now, and the government says it will only prosecute seven more. That means that of the 164 men being held (many of whom have been there for almost 12 years), about 150 are being held without charges, and they will never be charged.
King’s Birmingham letter emphasizes that concern for justice and equality is not enough to remedy the systematic violation of human rights: "[I am] compelled to carry the gospel of freedom far beyond my own home town…,” he wrote. “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
With the release of “We Are America,” we hope to shine a light for our fellow Americans on these nitty-gritty facts:
The Obama administration has the ability to transfer the 84 detainees who have already been cleared for release out of Guantanamo, and other detainees could soon be cleared by newly established review boards. However, current law needlessly places obstacles in the way of accomplishing that.
Now, the Senate has begun to change that. Provisions in the 2014 National Defense Authorization Act passed out of the Senate Arms Services Committee will break down some of these obstacles and give the president more flexibility to make transfers out of the detention facility. The full Senate will begin debate on the act, and those provisions, in the coming days.
Specifically, Sections 1031 to 1034 of the Senate’s version of the National Defense Authorization Act would permit the transfer of “detainees who have been ordered released by a competent U.S. court” and “would permit transfers for the purpose of detention and trial.” Since 9/11, federal courts have prosecuted hundreds of terrorism cases, and those convicted are currently serving long sentences in high-security federal prisons.
If the Senate and the House of Representatives agree to the Guantanamo provisions in the defense act, the few prisoners in the detention center who face charges could be prosecuted where it makes the most sense, in federal courts.
Radio Music Society (and friends) made “We Are America” because we believe that, while not all of us are called to the front lines like Martin Luther King Jr., we can all support our elected officials in doing the right thing.
[For the record, 12:25 p.m., Nov. 18: An earlier version of this post did not include the names of Amnesty International and Human Rights First; it said 151 men are being held without charge at Guantanamo. Because some men who have been convicted are still held there, that number is incorrect.]
Bassist and vocalist Esperanza Spalding inn 2011 became the first jazz musician to receive the Grammy for best new artist.