Note: In 2021, I’m writing a new blog post every weekend or so. This is entry 49 of 52. I skipped Week 48 due to day job time commitments.
When I was a teenager, one of my best friends and I would often go driving around in my car, wherein we’d discuss philosophy. We wondered aloud what our goals in life should be. This led to our silly word golzar from “goals are.” In the middle of the night, we’d point at the red lights of faraway radio towers—Golzarian outposts, you see, from the strange species of Golzarians who perhaps knew the answers to life’s mysteries—and try to drive to them in those days before GPS on smartphones. Once, we even saw strange glowing white lights in the distance, and drove, drove, drove till at three in the morning we found ourselves, laughing, on the doorstep of a Midlothian, Texas toxic cement plant.
Nowadays, as an adult in Seattle, my many goals are more clear, and maybe yours are too. On this blog I’ve previously covered both the pro-democracy movement in Belarus and the story of Putingate whistleblower Reality Winner. Those two situations provide two goals for anyone interested: freeing Belarus from the clutches of Europe’s last dictator Alexander Lukashenko and pushing the White House to pardon the Texas veteran and vegan who at a critical point in contemporary history provided hard evidence of Russian military hackers’ cyberattacks against US voting systems just days prior to the 2016 elections. In short, #PardonRealityWinner and #FreeBelarus.
Outcomes for the eastern European country, the young Texan idealist, and the United States as a whole are more intertwined than they might initially seem. Not to make too much of a Manichean, Cold War-esque binary, but today most BRICS states are headed up by autocrat strongmen, Brazil: Jair Bolsonaro; Russia: Vladimir Putin; India: Narenda Modi; China: Xi Jinping. The NATO countries including the United States have a lot to answer for, and if they cleaned house of their own war criminals, spies, and others acting with impunity, their credibility would correctly increase, but at least in many of these countries human rights are something you can openly fight for, usually (certainly not always) without suffering arrest, torture, etc. Reality Winner’s sacrifice as a convicted whistleblower provided key evidence about the autocracy of one of the BRICS countries, Russia’s Putin regime, working to bring Donald Trump and thus overt fascism to the White House.
Just as Putin pushes Trump in the United States, so Putin protects dictator Lukashenko in Belarus. Caught in the middle of the (oversimplified) binary in a possibly fragmenting Europe, Belarus now sees pro-democracy opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya seeking free and open elections for the country, elections in which, among other things, Belarusians would decide democratically on strengthening or weakening the ties between their country and the Russian government. But like the United States confronting Donald Trump and his quite likely return in November 2024, Belarus must throw off dictator Lukashenko first in order to achieve open democracy. Akin to internet packets and immunizable pandemics, superpredators and publics alike are presently all connected globally, and we must collaborate across the imposed borders—or else, worldwide overt fascism.
Supporting political prisoners who fight to achieve goals such as freeing Belarus from Lukashenko or exposing the Putin regime’s sabotage of the United States is crucial. They deserve it as individuals, and it shows others that if they similarly take heroic actions, there will still be support for them afterward if they’re arrested and punished. Belarusian or USian, these are all individuals who are being persecuted unjustly for their prosocial political deeds.
This post demonstrates the progress another person and I have made toward the two goals, partly in the hopes that our completed tasks may serve as a sort of model for anyone who also might like to work toward the same aims. Feel free to share your progress in the comment section or by email (email@example.com), and I’ll include your efforts in my next progress entry on these topics.
#PardonRealityWinner: Rep. Filemon Vela, Rep. Pramila Jayapal, Office of the Pardon Attorney, White House
Last Sunday, December 5, 60 Minutes interviewed Reality Winner, bringing a surge of interest to her case. You can find the aired portion and the extra portions here. I highly recommend watching all of the 60 Minutes footage: the part that aired is under 14 minutes, and the bonus clips are around four to eight minutes each. With one awful Trump administration behind us and another possibly on its way, the whistleblower who most proved that emperor has no clothes and who received the worst prison sentence ever for a domestic leak to the news press in return, should get more support.
Rep. Filemon Vela. The first thing I did this past workweek toward the goal of this whistleblower receiving a pardon was phone the DC office of Filemon Vela Jr., a Democratic Congressional representative in the federal House. Despite military and veterans groups contacting his office repeatedly, he’s refused to meet with Billie J. Winner-Davis, the whistleblower’s mother, who’s part of his constituency. So he must need additional calls, more carrots, and more sticks. Links to transparency/reporting about whom he depends upon (his dependencies, to use a Linux-y word) would aid the effort as well.
When I called Representative Vela’s DC office as a freelance journalist mentioning the 60 Minutes interview and requesting a statement explaining why he won’t meet with Reality Winner’s mother Billie J. Winner-Davis, staff assistant Addison Sheppard, who answered, said “I will definitely let him know” about my question. I gave Sheppard my phone and email contact information and the deadline of end of business Friday December 17. “Awesome,” Sheppard said. “Thank you so much. I will definitely let the Congressman know.” While some may feel cynical, I am not easily defeated, so I’m looking forward to hearing Representative Vela’s statement.
Pretty much anyone can call Representative Vela in any capacity and push for him to explain himself and/or meet with Billie J. Winner-Davis. In fact, it only takes about five minutes to call Vela’s DC office! It might help you, as it helps me, to type out what to say in a text editor beforehand, and stare at it on a screen while holding the phone.
Rep. Pramila Jayapal. I also called US House Representative Pramila Jayapal, whose constituency I am in. Although I dialed her Seattle office during workday business hours, a recorded voice answered, saying “You have reached our voicemail. We are currently short staffed so please understand we may not get to all calls.” I’ve written before on my blog about the lights apparently turning off at the US federal government, such as at the State Department; Pramila Jayapal short of staff might be another piece of evidence indicating our politicians and their underlings are abandoning ship, though of course there are other possible explanations. I’ll call Jayapal’s office again this next workweek. Take a break from doomscrolling and maybe try it yourself, too. It’s fun, a politer and prosocial version of the prank calls many of us did as kids.
Office of the Pardon Attorney.
This past workweek I contacted the Office of the Pardon Attorney at the federal Department of, uh, Justice. First, I emailed them at USPardon.Attorney@usdoj.gov. I kept the subject line vague—”Regarding pardon application”—in hopes they’d read it instead of ignore something like “Pardon Reality Winner Now Now Now Now Now!” as an irrelevant comment from an irrelevant commoner. But your mileage may vary, and in fact, I think it’s best if these bureaucrats are hit on all sides with all manner/variety of content styles. Having fun is important! The body of my HTML email said:
Dear Office of the Pardon Attorney,
I’m a Seattle-based freelance journalist who reported in-person from Putingate whistleblower Ms Reality Leigh Winner’s sentencing. 60 Minutes interviewed Ms Winner (Register Number: 22056-021; released 23 Nov 2021) last Sunday, as I hope your Office had a chance to see and discuss internally. I’m writing to recommend you facilitate President Biden’s needfully forthcoming signature on her pardon application! After all, a pardon for Ms Winner would send an enormous domestic and international signal that the United States does not endorse TrumPutin-style autocracy. In the interests of justice and open democracy, the United States Government can and should pardon Ms Winner not just for her, as she so greatly deserves, but also for itself and for the domestic and global publics.
I’m not sure “needfully forthcoming” means what I wanted it to mean, but I suppose we’ll find out! Below my name I added my phone number since that helps demonstrate I’m a real person and not a bot or, in this instance anyway, a ghostwriter.
The Office of the Pardon Attorney’s website says “The President always retains the plenary power granted to him by the Constitution to pardon or commute sentences at his sole discretion, with or without the advice of the Pardon Attorney and Department of Justice.” That means this office does give the US president advice on whom to pardon. I wonder what that advice generally consists of; a good question to ask their public affairs people or submit open records requests about, along with any and all files they have related to Reality Leigh Winner, even if at present they might deny such requests due to ongoing blah blah blah. Filing requests still proves public interest in her case, right?
I called the Office of the Pardon Attorney too, and since no human answered, I left a voicemail to the same effect as my email. If you’re in a hurry, press 4 to get connected to that leave a message at the tone prompt, or explore their phone tree yourself and tell everyone if you find anything interesting. Another option I’ve yet to do myself is snailmailing them: US Department of Justice / Office of the Pardon Attorney / 950 Pennsylvania Avenue – RFK Main Justice Building / Washington, DC 20530.
The White House. Finally, I contacted the White House! I called 202-456-1111, but the recording said they take comments only between 11 a.m. and 3 p.m. Eastern time, Tuesday through Thursday. More evidence of increasingly, nobody home at the US federal government? Anyway, I sent snailmail as well. Surely Joe Biden himself will be hurrying down to the mailbag in a week or two to pick up my envelope and have a read. Either that or an intern might learn something new and exciting that prompts action. From my letter, or, say, your letter to the White House!
Here’s my full letter:RWPardon_LetterToWH_Signed_11Dec2021
In the letter, I mention showing related video in my social studies classes (as a substitute teacher currently in a weeks-long assignment at a youth jail):
A pardon for this whistleblower who before the judge took responsibility for her action would send a very strong signal domestically and internationally that the United States does not support Trump/Putin-style autocracy. You of course met with Vladimir Putin last Tuesday, so you understand the gravity of the global situation. I showed my social studies classes the Reuters footage of that meeting. Students said Putin looked fearless and you looked scared. I hope you will pardon Reality Leigh Winner so I can tell them otherwise.
#FreeBelarus: Mailing Maryja Uspenskaya, Akihiro Gaevsky-Khanada, and Sergei Tikhanovsky
On November 27, I blogged about my plans to write Belarusian political prisoners Sergei Tikhanovsky and Maryja Uspenskaya. I pointed out how for a month and a half, there had been no updates in English that I could find about the whereabouts and well-being of Maryja Uspenskaya, Andrei Zeltser’s widow who was the sole witness to his murder by the Belarusian KGB—the subject of Lukashenko regime propaganda footage that, as I researched, certain corporate media outlets republished in the United States uncritically while raising doubts about Andrei Zeltser’s (apparently US) citizenship, something that should have taken a corporate media reporter five minutes to confirm with a simple phone call. Maryja Uspenskaya (and presumably Andrei Zeltser) had been helping collect signatures for pro-democracy opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya’s challenge to Lukashenko’s faked 2020 presidential win. That activism seems to have been the cause of the attack on them by the Belarusian KGB, though there could be more to the story for sure. After the death of her husband, whose telegenic/demographic appearance should have ensured a huge news story in the United States especially given his employment with a (pro-opposition) Pennsylvania-based IT company, Maryja Uspenskaya was sent to a psychiatric hospital. The last English update on her had apparently been October 22. The day after I promoted my blog post on social media with the #StandWithBelarus and #FreeBelarus hashtags—I’d also noted Maryja Uspenskaya’s absence from lists of Belarusian political prisoners—the opposition leader herself tweeted that the psychiatric patient is (now) recognized as a political prisoner:
Maryja Uspenskaya. So I wrote her! With another person providing some edits, a random friendly redditor translated my English letter, about 150 words, into Russian on my behalf, free of charge. I took the translated letter to the benevolent Alki Mail shop here in West Seattle. They sent it via the United States Postal Service. Alki Mail’s computer required me to give the return and destination addresses in English (not Russian); hopefully the snailmail still goes through. While US prisons do not allow snailmailers to include free stamps and other letter-writing supplies for their pen pals to write back with, apparently Belarusian prisons (and psychiatric hospitals?) do, but where exactly am I going to obtain Belarusian postage? The internet, of course. But I haven’t yet. Given time constraints, I decided to send my snailmail to Maryja Uspenskaya and Sergei Tikhanovsky anyway, despite the two concerns, since I can do more research in the future as to how to address the envelopes in Russian and how to best include Belarusian letter-writing supplies. Now, some outside Belarus write political prisoners via activist-run online services, but I wanted to send international snailmail physically myself as an interesting and tangible experiment. It was, however, expensive: $71.68 for a single envelope. Well, life is short, and this is fun!
Akihiro Gaevsky-Khanada aka Akihiro Hayeuski-Hanada
Another person aiming to #FreeBelarus, who prefers to remain anonymous, found Akihiro Gaevsky-Khanada to write by searching through Viasna’s database, looking for non-white Belarusian political prisoners. A son of a Belarusian karate coach father (Svyatoslav Gaevsky) and a Japanese mother (Tomoko Hanada) who’s a secretary of culture for Japan’s embassy in the eastern European country, Akihiro Gaevsky-Khanada is an anarchist of about twenty-one years in age. He was beaten by the KGB and arrested for his participation in the August 2020 protests against Lukashenko’s faked election victory (the dictator has been illegitimately holding onto power in Belarus since 1994). Despite peaceful protest, Akihiro Gaevsky-Khanada was charged under Part 2 of Article 293 of the Belarusian Criminal Code for alleged “participation in riots” and later in a separate criminal case under Part 2 of Article 285 of the Belarusian Criminal Code for alleged “participation in a criminal organization in any other form.” He’s also the recipient of a special scholarship fund for gifted students. You can write him by snailmail at: Akihiro Hayeuski-Hanada / Zhodino st. Sovetskaya 22a / 222163 ST-8 / Belarus. Or, as the person who prefers to remain anonymous did, you can type a message to him via vkletochku, whose activists will forward your letter on your behalf, and optionally send back to you any replies. Below, a screenshot the anonymous person took of their vkletochku virtual letter to Akihiro Gaevsky-Khanada.
Sergei Tikhanovsky. The husband of pro-democracy opposition leader Sviatlana Tikhanovsky and the father of her two children, Sergei Tikhanovsky is a popular vlogger in his forties who in 2019 started the youtube channel “A Country for Life” to advocate for a better Belarus. He was arrested right after announcing his presidential candidacy against Lukashenko in May 2020, at which point his wife Sviatlana stepped in to run for president against Lukashenko herself (she’s now exiled in Lithuania).
My process of snailmailing Sergei Tikhanovsky was very similar to my process of snailmailing Maryja Uspenskaya. The same random friendly redditor translated my English letter of about 150 words into Russian, with another person providing some edits. Then I went down to Alki Mail who put the letter into a USPS priority mail envelope. Same steep price: $71.68 USD. Same two issues: the Alki Mail computer (the software or the keyboard, tho?) required addressing the envelope in English and I had no Belarusian stamps or other supplies to insert into the envelope. Well, we’ll see what happens. Hopefully I get a letter back from him and Uspenskaya both!
Success is for those who seek it
Defeatism isn’t the flex the cynical think it is. If all the relevant legislative and executive federal bureaucrats are surrounded at work and at home every single day with crowds demanding a pardon for Reality Winner, things will change. If USians deface Belarusian regime websites, discuss books about Belarus (can anyone recommend good ones in English?), figure out ways to protect Belarusian political prisoners, uncover and object powerfully to connections between the Belarusian dictator and local companies, and openly determine what options will have the most impact in dethroning Lukashenko, maybe we won’t have to deal with TrumPutin in 2024 after all. And our sense of self will expand far beyond the usual walls.
There’s a cornucopia of wild daring tactics anyone can experiment with to pursue the two goals, #PardonRealityWinner and #FreeBelarus. Although it can be helpful and enjoyable to compare notes with others, to ask for and receive suggestions, to join letter-writing parties, or even to read and provide lists of ideas and steps, for huge goals like these, no individual needs to wait around for hierarchical orders, or to beg agreement for consensus votes, to make progress. To oversimplify, the indirect collaboration of stigmergy means picking goals and pursuing them as you youself see fit. That’s it. Just do it!
I’ll give the next-to-last words to Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, what she said in a 47-second video she uploaded in a December 11 tweet:
Recently, I heard from one foreign minister I’ve met “We did everything we could and nothing worked.” There was frustration and fatigue in his voice, unfortunately. But Belarusians can’t say We did everything we could and nothing worked. We cannot go home. Our home is taken from us. And until we get it back, we will not stop. Ladies and gentlemen, supporting democracy, supporting Belarusians is a process, not a one-time action. The international community is much more powerful than it pretends to be.
The same goes for #PardonRealityWinner: the international community can support her (including by sending emails and snailmails) from outside the United States, just as those outside Belarus can support the pro-democracy movement there.
This blog post, Progress on #PardonRealityWinner and #FreeBelarus, by Douglas Lucas, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License (human-readable summary of license). The license is based on the work at this URL: https://douglaslucas.com/blog/2021/12/12/pardonrealitywinner-freebelarus-progress/. You can view the full license (the legal code aka the legalese) here. For learning more about Creative Commons, I suggest reading this article and the Creative Commons Frequently Asked Questions. Seeking permissions beyond the scope of this license, or want to correspond with me about this post one on one? Email me: firstname.lastname@example.org.