March 5, 2018 at 6:30pm


By Ross Altman, PhD

Hugs for ChelseaHarvard rescinded her invitation, but not UCLA. Harvard’s in the pocket of the CIA, but not UCLA~ three cheers for my alma mater who took the road not taken.

With a press pass for FolkWorks from George Foulsham of UCLA’s Luskin School of Public Policy, I attended my first press briefing and got to ask my first question as a member of the media this afternoon~ inside Royce Hall in advance of Chelsea Manning’s lecture that evening. It was mind-blowing. How did it happen that a folk singer who writes for a folk music magazine secured a press pass to cover one of the most notorious figures in American culture and journalism in the past ten years? Because as Woody Guthrie said, “When the times get hot, the songs get hotter.” And songwriters have been paying attention, best known among whom is Graham Nash of Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young. But he’s by no means the only one; the benefit album called Hugs for Chelsea towards some of her vast legal expenses include 32 tracks from songwriters all over the country, including Michael Stipe who wrote the title track and Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine.

Chelsea Manning did much more than rage against the machine—she blew the whistle on American war crimes back in 2010 when she was deployed as an intelligence analyst for the US Army to Iraq—as Bradley Manning before her transgender reassignment surgery—and witnessed the bombing of civilians by U.S. aircraft that included the barbaric banter of the bombers who were cavalierly treating them like a military target. That was the epiphany that convinced her she had to do something to expose what she regarded as akin to the My Lai Massacre.

Like Daniel Ellsberg she had a security clearance that gave her access to the attack and began to search for a suitable media outlet that could become its messenger.

Unfortunately, in stark contrast to Ellsberg, who exposed the Pentagon Papers’ secret history of the Vietnam War, she was turned down by both the New York Times and the Washington Post, who no longer had a publisher like Katharine Graham or an executive editor like Ben Bradlee or reporters like Woodward and Bernstein. She was about to reach out to Politico when she realized she was being pursued by the authorities and time was of the essence if the story was ever to see the light of day. Only then did she settle for Julian Assange of WikiLeaks—it was that or nothing and the story was too important to let die. None of this did I know or understand before this evening’s press conference and lecture—which was really a question-and-answer between Manning and former LA Times Editor Jim Newton—who gave all indications that had it been he in the position to have made the call as to the newsworthiness of her trove of then unreleased files that incriminated the US government and Army during the Iraq War he would have become the Ben Bradlee of the 21st Century and Chelsea Manning might have been spared some of the horrors of her lengthy solitary confinement, 35 year prison sentence and torture in her captivity—while at the same time trying to obtain medical treatment for what she came to realize was finding herself a woman in a man’s body—and struggling with her new transgender identity—until on the last day of his administration President Barack Obama humanely commuted her sentence to time served.

That is the briefest summary of her story and background since growing up in rural Oklahoma and being urged by her father to join the army in order to find—at the time—himself. Now for some personal observations of one of the more remarkable people and revelatory stories I have encountered—David and Goliath for our times.

The first thing one is struck by in seeing Chelsea Manning up close (which I was privileged to do in the small press conference) before that sold-out Royce Hall event afterwards~ is how small and slight she is—and to realize the extraordinary impact her personal bravery has had in single-handedly confronting the mightiest army in the world. Who can you compare her to? Unlike Edward Snowden, she did not seek refuge in the asylum of a foreign country—Russia—and unlike the president she did not ostensibly collude with the Russians. She did not avoid the consequences of her actions—and displayed throughout the courage of her convictions. Having grown up during the era of “Don’t Ask~ Don’t Tell” she now tells her story with no holds barred. She is thus a hero both to the transgender community and the antiwar movement~ which is how I heard about this event from Veteran for Peace Frank Dorrel.

image for Chelsea Manning
Laura Jane Grace (Jeff Kravitz/Getty Images for Governors Ball), Tom Morello (Sean tSabhasaigh/WireImage), Thurston Moore (Matthew Simmons/Getty Images).
Chelsea Manning is a hero to both Frank and me—and the smallest aspect of her determination to survive with her dignity intact—even as her sexual identity was transformed—is revealed in the almost off-handed way she describes what prison life was like in the brig—where conditions were so abysmal and inhumane she made two attempts on her life. If you must know, it all came down to toilet paper. Chelsea revealed that it was a constant battle to simply secure the most basic necessities of life. She realized that she couldn’t do it alone. So she organized her fellow inmates to be sure they all made the proper requests together so none would be denied—since the Army was not above simply ignoring one or two requests and claiming ignorance—they were “never received.” The same went for food. Chelsea Manning had to become an effective community organizer just to survive in prison.

No wonder she has been an inspiration to songwriters who see music as an instrument of social justice and not just mass entertainment. Hugs for Chelsea, the amazing collection of songs for peace, for equality, and for justice, was put together on a shoestring and is only available for digital downloads and streaming services. But don’t let that stop you~ it has thirty-two musically varied tracks that range from hip-hop to rock to pure folk—including an update of Which Side Are You On for Chelsea, Almost Gone by Graham Nash, and the title song—just twenty-eight seconds long—by Michael Stipe originally as a public service announcement.

These are songs that carry a joyous, angry, and profound message of hope and resistance to oppression in a time of utter cynicism and the betrayal of our deepest national values—what Abraham Lincoln called “The better angels of our nature.” Here is the complete track-list ~ HUGS FOR CHELSEA ~

  1. Michael Stipe - Hugs for Chelsea PSA 0:28
  2. Against Me! - ProVision L-3 ( #Resist Version) 1:44
  3. Evan Greer - Never Surrender 4:38
  4. Tom Morello (The Nightwatchman) - Until the End 4:23
  5. Thurston Moore - Chelsea's Kiss 7:52
  6. Priests - Nothing Feels Natural 3:59
  7. Graham Nash + James Raymond - Almost Gone 3:57
  8. Ted Leo - Runes of Abandonment 4:24
  9. Amanda Palmer - Bigger on the Inside 7:52
  10. Talib Kweli - Every Ghetto pt. 2 4:27 Aloe Blacc & Cassidy
  11. Anti-Flag - The Ink and the Quill 3:22
  12. Mirah - Radiomind 4:31
  13. Taina Asili y La Banda Rebelde - Freedom 2:56 Michael Reyes
  14. Downtown Boys - Adam and Eve 1:52
  15. Screaming Females - I'll Make You Sorry 4:06
  16. Kimya Dawson - At the Seams 7:17
  17. The Kominas - Not Today 1:20
  18. Sammus - 1080p 4:42 Jean Grae
  19. Chris Farren - Bamboo Bones 3:29
  20. Dolan - Which Side Are You On? 3:59
  21. Bonfire Madigan - [untitled] 12:20
  22. The Chapin Sisters - Sweet Light 2:47
  23. Louise Distras - Aileen 2:46
  24. bell's roar - One Shot 3:39
  25. Kevin Devine & The Goddamn Band - Private First Class 2:38
  26. The Shondes - On Your Side 3:22
  27. Drones Club - Chelsea Girl 3:42
  28. Ryan Harvey - To Keep You Silent 5:06 Kareem Samara (oud,electric guitar,bass,organ) & Shireen Lilith (vocals)
  29. The Max Levine Ensemble - My Valerian 2:53
  30. Anne Feeney - Whatever You Say, Say Nothing 4:47
  31. Ike Reilly - Bolt Cutter 5:04
  32. Tommie Sunshine - Barbarians 4:59 Disco Fries & Kassiano

Total length: 135:21

Hugs for Chelsea was produced by Evan Greer, who wrote Never Surrender, for her. You will also notice the name of labor singer Anne Feeney, who wrote the song Whatever You Say, Say Nothing, a great title in this brave new world where discretion is no longer the better part of valor~ inspired by the Mouse That Roared. The question I asked her was, “Does this album of songs mean something to you?” Her answer reaffirmed my faith in folk music as a weapon in the struggle for dignity and equality: “Oh my God, yes! It’s one of the most powerful groups of songs! I have them on my phone and listen to it all the time. They give me courage to go on!”

Ross Altman has a PhD in Modern Literature from SUNY-Binghamton; he belongs to Local 47 (AFM); Ross may be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.