Editor’s note: John Bogna attended Day for Night as a member of the media to write this original piece.
Former U.S. Army PFC Chelsea Manning and lead singer for Russian punk band Pussy Riot, Nadya Tolokonnikova, spoke on a heavy topic they both have experience with at Houston’s Day of Night Summit Dec. 17: prison.
Manning was locked up after she made headlines for leaking sensitive military documents to the press on U.S. troop movements and actions during the war in Iraq and Afghanistan to Wikileaks.
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She was originally sentenced to 35 years in prison, but was released after just seven years in May when her sentence was commuted by President Barak Obama. While serving her time, Manning came out as a trans woman, and has since become a leading activist in the LGBTQ+ and whistleblower communities.
Tolokonnikova was arrested for political protest in her home country of Russia after the feminist punk-rock collective she helped form, known as Pussy Riot, gave an anti-Putin performance in Moscow’s Christ the Savior Cathedral.
She and two others spent two years in Siberia, convicted of “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred.” Pussy Riot was condemned by Russian President Vladamir Putin, who said their work “undermined the moral foundations of the Russian nation.”
Manning and Tolokonnikova gave separate talks with a joint conversation between about their prison time, how they coped with it and why prison reform is so important today.
Manning, who spoke first, called her talk, “We Got This,” explaining the translation as “we have more power than they do.” “They” could be the government, the police or anyone who wants to stop people from speaking out.
She detailed how we’re influenced by “feedback loops” online; how data collected through our social media posts and Google searches is just as much a form of government surveillance as tapping your phone.
“Every kind of data collection is a form of surveillance,” said Manning, adding that the ramifications of what we post online are lost because we don’t consider a Facebook post to be as serious as a wiretap.
Manning’s time as a military analyst showed her just how and why data collected from the population can be utilized. “We know more about you than you know about yourself, and we can use that,” she stated. “And it’s dangerous, especially if we’re nefarious.”
Manning developed her mantra to get through her time in prison, and she’s attached it to the concept of unity as a form of resistance. Individual people and communities, she says, already know what they should do, it’s just a matter of organization. As she put it, “Resistance is about logistics.”
Manning said prisoners especially need the support of their communities, whether that be friends, family or concerned citizens outside the walls. She encouraged people to write a letter to a prisoner, even if they didn’t know them, and to question the need for prisons in our society in the first place.
“We’ve been expecting a miracle to happen and it’s not going to happen. We have to make it happen.” she said.
As Tolokonnikova joined her onstage, they talked about the similarity of prisons the world over, and what they both learned during their time spent in confinement.
They spoke about censorship; how Tolokonnikova snuck in political magazines with differing views on Putin so her fellow inmates could see him in a more realistic way, or how the autobiography of Malcolm X might be banned in a U.S. prison library.
Both women supported the idea of establishing a dialogue as a way to change people’s views over time. Tolokonnikova related several stories of times where she changed the minds of Putin supporters in prison by talking to them, over and over again.
Because they were all confined together for years, she was forced to regularly interact with people who didn’t share her views. Nadya told the story of a package she got in prison with stickers that said ‘censorship kills.’ She had to open it in front of the prison censor, but instead of being punished, the censor asked if she could keep one of Tolokonnikova’s stickers.
Manning had a similar view on her relationships with others in prison. She, too, adopted a philosophy of “I don’t care what you did before, I care how you’re treating me right now.”
Both women said that the experience, though horrible, helped them grow as people.
“You learn things about humanity and about each other that we might not, sometimes,” said Manning.
In a weird way, both felt like the other prisoners became family. They were around each other all the time, and would sometimes pool resources to get each other through the tough times if there wasn’t enough to go around.
“It’s our job to tell people how bad prison is,” said Tolokonnikova. Manning agreed prison shouldn’t be used as a “one-stop shop” for society’s problems.
“Every cop and every judge and every prosecutor should have to go to jail for at least two months as part of their practice,” said Tolokonnikova. Two months is how long she says it took to fully wrap her head around the fact that she was incarcerated.
During her talk, Tolokonnikova presented what she called “alternative institutions” as a way to bridge the gap in prisoner’s rights, and to speak out against an oppressive government. Or, as she said at the start of the summit, “crazy ways to make your government sh** their pants.”
She and Maria Alyokhina, another member of Pussy Riot, formed Media Zona and Zona Prava, two non-governmental organizations dedicated to free speech and prisoner’s rights largely funded through money from Pussy Riot’s speaking engagements and concerts.
Zona Prava, which translates to “zone of justice,” according to Tolokonnikova, advocates for prisoner’s rights. Media Zona is a sort of DIY media company that now employs 20 full-time journalists, according to Tolokonnikova, who worries “autocratic trends are spreading like sexually transmitted diseases” to the U.S. with the election of President Donald Trump.
She also continued to advocate for the power of art as resistance.
“Art is something that doesn’t have to be translated,” she said. “You don’t have to speak Russian to know what Pussy Riot is fighting for.”
Tolokonnikova closed her talk and the last half of the summit with a clip from Pussy Riot’s music video for “Make America Great Again,” a scathing indictment of all things Trump.