The wind chill on Dec. 17 was well below zero when more than a dozen people gathered on the corner of Roscoe and Halsted streets in Chicago's Lake View neighborhood.
They all agreed that the biting cold was inconsequential in comparison to the suffering experienced by Chelsea Manning, the 29-year-old U.S. Army whistleblower who faces 32 more years of incarceration at Fort Leavenworth prison after she provided WikiLeaks with classified information that included the torture of detainees in U.S.-run jails in Iraq, the indiscriminate murder of civilians in Iraq and Afghanistan, questionable arrests and detention of suspects at Guantanamo Bay and U.S. operations against United Nations leadership.
The vigil was just one of a series held across the United States and internationally, including the cities of Boston, London and outside the maximum-security prison at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas.
They were timed to coincide with Manning's birthday and included a final appeal to President Barack Obama to commute Manning's sentence to time served before he leaves office in January 2017. It is perceived that the incoming Trump administration will not likely display any show of mercy.
"Chelsea Manning is the longest serving whistleblower in U.S. custody today," Chicago vigil organizer and co-founder of the Gay Liberation Network ( GLN ) Andy Thayer said. "She has suffered as a transgender woman. She has been abused by the military while often in solitary confinement. She has unfortunately tried to take her life and has been punished by the military for doing this."
Thayer added that Manning's contributions through the leaked documents and video footage and during her incarceration are "immeasurable."
"She is probably the most impactful LGBTQ activist today," he said. "She has [exposed] U.S. war crimes [committed] by both the George W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations and she exposed that the Obama administration knew about the impending 2009 coup in Honduras that resulted in the murders of thousands of activists."
"We're requesting that Barack Obama do the right thing on behalf of this whistleblower," GLN member Roger Fraser asserted. "[Manning] is a person who, according to the Human Rights Watch, is a victim of torture. This is a person who, instead of being chastised and punished, should be honored because there was a promise [made to] the American people by Barack Obama in 2008 that his administration would be one of transparency and that he would be respectful of those people who stepped forward to be whistleblowers against the corruption and cover ups that our military has tried to accomplish in the Middle East."
Among those who joined Thayer and Fraser were two former U.S. service members.
"In 1996, I was a whistleblower about widespread misconduct in Navy Recruiting Command, but was covered up," said Carl Nyberg, who served in the U.S. Navy from 1985 through 1996. "One of the things that gets said about Chelsea Manning is that she should have followed procedure and the chain of command. I did that and it doesn't work. When you are a whistleblower, it's not like they send you a legal defense team saying 'you can do this or that.' Chelsea Manning did the right thing."
Fellow veteran Charles Clarke described Manning as a personal hero.
"I think she is a hero to everyone out here," he added. "She is being punished because she is right. As a military veteran who enlisted in the United States Air Force after 9/11, I lost two years of my life on a failed project. Chelsea is a hero because she prevents others from falling into the same trap that I and so many others fall into when they're asked to put their conscience on the line by killing for a project that they don't understand and that they don't even have access to the underlying motivations for. Her sacrifice is not for nothing."