Adventure at the White House
Arrested at Obama's White House by Steve Clemens. January 28, 2010
We sat in a holding pen in our 4th jail since arrest at the White House the day before. As we awaited to go to court, I wondered aloud to Joe Palen, a Pax Christi Twin Cities Area board member and one of my fellow arrestees, whether we would need time to decompress from the psychic trauma we incurred by seeing the dehumanization of the fellow humans being processed and prodded alongside us in these warrens of Washington, DC, places that are usually excluded from the routine tourist sites of the nation’s capital. Did what we witnessed contribute to a kind of PTSD? Can the cumulative effect traumatize you even if the oppressive actions occur to others in your presence rather than directly to yourself? It seems especially cruel that most of the dehumanizing and over-zealous oppression we witnessed victimized people of color by their fellow African-American police officers and guards.
Admittedly, it was hard for me to distinguish between Secret Service, Park Police, DC Metro Police, US Marshalls, and Corrections Officers as we proceeded through the gauntlet precipitated by our arrest. So maybe it is best to start at the beginning.
My friend Kathy Kelly and her fellow co-coordinators at Voices for Creative Nonviolence (VCNV) shared their vision for a Peaceable Assembly Campaign with some of us in Minnesota last fall. They hoped to see groups of concerned citizens traveling to the nation's capital to call for an end to the wars and military occupations in Afghanistan and Iraq to coincide with the first anniversary of Obama's presidency, his State of the Union speech, and the unveiling of his proposed budget for fiscal year 2011 during the end of January.
A group of close to 25 Minnesotans decided to answer the call and scheduled a morning of vigil and demonstration in front of the White House on Tuesday, January 26th followed by visits to our Members of Congress and Senators. Although a lot of planning occurred back in Minnesota, the group hoped to fine-tune what the presence at the White House would include and how it would unfold with members of VCNV and others from around the nation who would be joining us that Tuesday. Unfortunately the logistics of getting everyone together for this last minute planning was made more difficult by the late arrival in Washington of some of the group.
We planned to symbolically "throw shoes at the occupation" in honor of the courageous Iraqi journalist who hurled his shoes at President Bush in Baghdad several years ago. Close to a dozen pairs of shoes had messages inscribed on the sides, bottoms, and insides of the shoes with bright-colored paint. A few of the shoes had been mailed to President Obama and although many of us are angry at the President for his continuation of these wars and occupation, we wanted this action in front of the White House to avoid threatening already nervous Secret Service agents by not "accidentally" hurling some of the shoes over the fence into the President's yard. Instead, we folded the large "End the Occupation Now!" banner so just the word "Occupation" was visible as the target for our messages on the shoes. Although the banner was in the middle of the street, the direction toward which our shoes were thrown was also toward the residence and office of the Commander-in-Chief.
The group also decided to remember the lives of Minnesotan soldiers killed in these wars by reading the names, age and hometown of soldiers and National Guard members who have fallen in Afghanistan and Iraq since the wars began in 2001. A Veterans for Peace member, Bill Habedank, brought the symbolic tombstones with those names inscribed which had previously been carried to the Republican National Convention in St. Paul a year and one-half ago. Opposition to war is not a partisan political affair but an overriding moral and practical necessity. We decided to ring a bell after the reading of each name as we together intoned, "We remember".
The more difficult task was deciding the timing of the civil disobedience action component for the morning. At least eight people had expressed the willingness to risk arrest by staging a "die-in" on the sidewalk immediately in front of the northern side of the White House. Ever since 2001, Secret Service and the Park Police have designated a 20 yard area there as a "no protest zone" where folks who remained stationary in that area were subject to arrest. Should we wait until the end of our vigil to do this or incorporate it as part of the reading the names of the dead? We decided to let a couple of the group organizers decide when it would occur so we could get down to the White House for our planned 10:30 AM start time for the vigil.
Soon after some of us arrived at the north side of the White House fence, we were approached by law enforcement personnel who asked who was "in charge". Because we had no official spokesperson, I volunteered to talk with the cops. It turned out they were Secret Service officers and I described what we intended to do, including the shoe throwing and the civil disobedience. They called in their commanding officer who wanted clarity on the shoe throwing plans. He was satisfied that we were not intending on throwing anything over the White House fence when I described the how and where of our scenario. We were told that the US Park Police would be involved in the arrest for any civil disobedience taking place on the sidewalk area. I was treated with respect and we shook hands and told them we would keep them informed as we proceeded. Our commitment to nonviolence also included an openness for what we planned to do so the officers would not be surprised.
Our group standing in the street in front of the White House grew to about 45 people as others from the VCNV Peaceable Assembly Campaign joined us. Most of the Minnesotans wore tee shirts with "Minnesotans for Peace" on the back and red handprints on the front as a reminder of the bloody results of war. There was a "Bring Them Home" banner to go along with the "End the Occupation Now" one. After vigiling for a time with signs reading "Healthcare Not Warfare", "End the US War in Pakistan", "End War Spending", and similar messages, the group lined up and began reading the names of the Minnesotans killed in the wars. We followed by the shoe throwing providing a good visual for the media who had arrived. It was suggested that we do the die-in action while the media was still engaged so around noon those risking arrest would begin to lay down on the sidewalk within the "no demonstration permitted" zone.
Marie Braun, one of our group's primary organizers, and I informed the Secret Service that we would be commencing the "die-in" action shortly. They asked us to talk directly to the Park Police and one of them asked me "How many want to get arrested?" I explained that we were not "wanting" to get arrested but we did plan on "risking arrest" by carrying our symbolic action as close to the White House as we could get without climbing the fence, knowing that arrest was very likely. (It is always best to remember that law enforcement also has a "choice" in what laws and how they are enforced.)
The Park Police commander joined the conversation and tried to discourage us from getting arrested. He told us the DC jail was a "bad place" - filled with murderers, rapists, and the like. "You can lay down on the sidewalk and we'll give you three warnings before you are arrested. You can leave at any time before that third warning and make your point. But if you do stay, you will be arrested." He told us that after the arrest you would be taken to the Anacostia Station to be processed and you probably will be released if you paid a $100 forfeitable bond. But there is no guarantee you'll get that. You might just get a citation with a future court date or they might lock you up overnight and see a judge the next morning. He told us he thought it was a 50/50 chance either way. He told us many groups make a pre-arrest "deal" with authorities before such an arrest to "negotiate" the terms of release. That is not the style of Voices or other, smaller grass-roots organizations.
The weather was in the 40s with a steady wind so when I laid on the sidewalk it was rather cold. Fortunately I had on my winter coat! As fellow protesters walked around us singing and reading, twelve others quickly joined me, including Father Bill Pickard from Scranton, PA who first "anointed the 'dead' with oil in the sign of the cross" on our foreheads before lying down himself. As the police read out the first and second warnings, all the others got behind the yellow tape "police line" barriers that were quickly unfurled. It was about 20-30 minutes before the arrests began and many of us were glad to be getting on our feet and handcuffed. We were cold and stiff.
Only one of us was younger than fifty with the majority of arrestees in their 60s and 70s with at least John Braun over 80. After our photo IDs were taken and we were photographed, we were stuffed 6 to a side in the police van with the 13th arrestee driven separately to the Anacostia Station. We were packed in like sardines into the narrow confines but most of us were still on an emotional high from the power of the witness and the encouragement of our friends.
After arriving at what was to become only our first stop, the police asked who in the group planned to "pay their way out" and did anyone else "want to be locked up?" Nine of the 13 stated they definitely wished to pay the $100 and be released. Three others of us said we were choosing not to pay. One was undecided at that point. Those who were going to "forfeit" were going to be processed first so they could be released. After the first of many, many "delays", we were all brought in to the same holding area and told by another officer of higher rank, "I have some 'good news' for you." He meant it to be ironic as his news was that the "pre-trial office downtown" would not allow anyone to pay and go. "All of you will spend the night in jail and see a judge in the morning." That was certainly a shock to some but everyone seemed to take the news in stride even if they weren't happy about it.
Soon after as we entered our first booking area we lost all sense of time since our watches and phones were placed in our "property bags" along with our shoelaces, belts, jewelry, pens, paper, books, ... - everything we carried with us. The one exception was the nitroglycerin pills carried by one of us for heart problems in the past. All our cash was placed in a separate bag. We had all pockets searched and were "patted down" and separated male and female into different holding pens. We were told we would be allowed to keep our jackets because we would likely be at a different facility after we were released and "it is cold out there and you won't have your property with you. You will have to come back here to pick it up."
After getting our thumbprints recorded on little cards and a small blue wristband which was numbered, we were eventually transferred to what we were told (after we asked) to the First District in SW Washington. We were also transferred from the Park Police custody to that of the DC Metropolitan Police. We are re-handcuffed for each trip, sometimes in front, sometimes behind but each time packed into a narrow van that is hard to maneuver into when you are my size or taller. At each stop we wait in the van (and in the cold) for a long period (once about 30 minutes, another longer than 45 minutes) before being allowed out and marched into the next jail or detention center. The handcuffs dig into your wrists and Joe Palen's carpal tunnel caused him quite a lot of pain and discomfort. Especially when we are handcuffed from behind and then have to get into and out of the van is very difficult, especially at our ages. It is getting dark outside as we arrive at our second jail so we guess that it is about 5:30 or 6 PM. Our arrests were completed about 12:30 - before we began this journey into several layers of Dante's inferno.
I don't remember much about stop #2 except that we get nothing to eat or drink other than the "faucet" on the back of our holding cell's stainless steel toilet/sink combo. We are "patted down" once again and placed in a holding area with not enough concrete seats or benches so some must sit on the concrete floor, maybe with a cinder block wall to lean on if the room is not too full. Men are called in and out, occasionally reporting to us what time it is if an officer tells them or they see a clock. What does stick in my mind is the stories you hear from the others as they are caged with us. The Latino man born in El Salvador who is locked up for driving with an expired license - even though in court last week he was told it had been reinstated after paying his speeding violation. I guess the paperwork hadn't filtered down to the cop who stopped him for a tail light violation. Normally you can just pay a fine - but not for him, even though his residency papers are in order. He was born two years after Romero's assassination but doesn't know much about him. We suggest he rent the movie about his life.
Two other African-American men tell us they got arrested by "bicycle cops" for drinking in public. They were sitting on the lawn in front of a friend's apartment when the officers rode by. They spotted a plastic cup of beer and asked whose it was. One man said it was his. The other had an empty cup in his pocket but both were arrested! They tell us such an offense is usually a $30. fine and they have the money to pay it but are hauled to jail instead. A rare white man comes in and tells us he got busted for selling prescription drugs through the mail. People come and go and we just guess at the time. Still no food. The clock on the wall reads 11:30 PM as we are cuffed again for our next destination.
We are told we are going to "C block" to be properly booked. Into the van again and this time the wait seems forever after we arrive at jail #3. We are jammed into this van; some are about to panic from claustrophobia, others need to pee, all of us need to stretch. The officer transporting us keeps the cage inside the open back door locked so we are cold and uncomfortable. But he "can't do nothin'" when we ask if we can get out. "Not until they are ready for you inside, you can't". It is the typical Nuremberg defense: "I'm only following orders". The seeming level of incompetence appears stunning. In an age of telephones and computers one would think these transfers could be coordinated better so there is not so much waiting in our sardine-can transport. But maybe it is not an accident but rather part of the pre-conviction punishment. There is nothing remotely humane about the way most of the guards treat us. But at least up to this point they haven't appeared to be verbally or physically abusive (at least in our presence). That will change at stop #4.
I am fortunate to be one of the first of two from our van to get out and begin processing. I don't know how long the others remain in the van, as I don't see them for a while. Two of us are photographed and fingerprinted and receive a second blue wristband, this time with our name, birth date, and color mug-shot photograph. On the way to my cell, an officer asks if I want a drink and a sandwich. The clock where I was fingerprinted read 1:30 AM so it had been 18 hours since I'd eaten and the two "sandwiches" and the Styrofoam cup of red "fruit drink" were gratefully received. I couldn't take the cup to my cell but could carry the sandwiches after I removed them from the zip-locked baggie.
As I walk down the cell-block, I hear someone say, "Hey, Steve. Good to see you!" The guard keeps me walking, pointing to the door to cell #17 which he unlocks. Low and behold, the cell door opens and Ward Brennan is lying on the bunk! Even though he is 77, he graciously offers me the lower bunk and tries to get into the upper one. He manages with some effort. (Later a guard helpfully tells him to stand on the stainless toilet then the sink part to complete this maneuver.) Joe Palen and Father Bill are in the cell next to ours. We don't know where Ceylon is because he is able to fall asleep in any of the places we visited and doesn't hear us calling his name. No one knows the whereabouts of John Braun, as he was not transported with us. We are all concerned about him and I say a quiet prayer for him and his well-being. I'm not sure I want to be caged up like this when I'm 81!
I ask Ward if he got any sandwiches or drink. He had not so I offered him one of mine. He told me he can't eat cheese so I offered the one that had two thin slices of bologna between two pieces of white "sponge" bread. We laugh about the claims that it is "enriched"! My remaining cheese sandwich is one slice of processed cheese food. I tell Ward that he probably could eat it- I doubt if there is any "real" cheese in it. After a short while, the officer comes to take Ward to the processing area and he tells me it is 2:20 AM when he returns. He got his drink of the "red fruit juice" and tells me it was "good" to have even though "the closest that drink got to fruit was if someone drove it past some on the way to the market."
Ward has a great sense of humor which if often on display when he is part of our AlliantACTION Circle vigil on Wednesday mornings back in the Twin Cities. We are both exhausted trying to sleep on a stainless bunk with no mattress -but with a 1 1/2 inch raised edge on the 3 sides away from the wall that adds to the discomfort whether one is sitting or trying to lay down. There are no pillows but at least we can try to use our jackets as a modified cushion. Ward has to use the sleeve of his jacket to block the light that is constantly on at the end of his upper bunk. He was wise enough to grab a couple paper towel/napkins when he got his sandwiches. I wasn't offered any but he shares his with me because none of the toilets we've seen so far have any toilet paper. He gives me his "cheese" sandwich and eats the bologna one so we've each had two. The white sponge "bread" feels like a lump in my stomach - but it is at least a semblance of food.
The tiny 5' x 7' stainless-walled cell is hot. The water coming from the inadequate faucet first spits out a short stream about 2 feet to get your face or the toilet wet and then quickly turns to a lukewarm trickle. At least it is wet and I'm able to stay hydrated. I take off my shirt to alleviate the heat and try to lay on my side with my jacket as a "pillow". Every time I turn over because my back is aching, the stainless slab makes a loud buckling noise that is heard up and down the cell-block. It startles me the first few times before I get used to it. I'm sure it keeps Ward awake - that, and the fact that every 15-20 minutes another inmate is yelling for the "CO", a corrections officer or guard that patrols the two cell blocks in our section.
Other inmates told us this jail is underground so there is no chance of seeing any daylight to give us an idea of the time. We both sleep fitfully for maybe 10-20 minute stretches and then sit up and chat. Ward jokes that this "hotel" doesn't have good accommodations but is "well-lit" and has "firm beds". I remarked that the sign outside probably read “Vagrancy”, not “Vacancy”! Then I remind him that he had already paid for his bed and breakfast for this night so "they better hold the breakfast for him after he is released." Little do we know that it won't be for another 8-12 hours.
At sometime in the morning an officer comes down the hall yelling for us to get ready to grab our breakfast. He comes by with a Styrofoam cup that is later filled with a white slush from a gallon jug labeled "Lemonade Flavored Drink". It is cold which helps us feel better about the fact that that drink wouldn't know what a lemon was if it passed it on the street - or so Ward imagined. We also got our requisite two sandwiches, same as our midnight snack hours before. We trade with each other but forgo the "generous offer" from Joe and Fr. Bill if either of us wants one of theirs. Ward only eats one of his. I combine the two pieces of "cheese" into one sandwich, not wanting another lump of sponge bread in my gut. I have no way of knowing that is the last food I'll get before being released after my court appearance at 4 PM.
Meanwhile we wait, hoping they'll come and get us to take us to court in the morning. Ward tells me this is his first overnight jail experience which he doesn't hope to repeat. But he adds that so far it has been a good, if difficult, learning experience. I tell him my strong conviction that every judge, prosecutor, police officer, and guard should have to undergo (incognito) a trip like we are experiencing before sending others into this zoo. Ward continues to joke about the dreadful food asking me who "recommended this restaurant?" Then he adds, "And to think they gave me three times to leave and I didn't get up and walk on the other side of that police tape!" We both laugh at what many people would surmise is our "stupidity". I told him earlier how a previous inmate I met in Federal Prison in 2006 told me I was "stuck on stupid" after I told him I had been in jail before for "protesting" and I had done it again.
After we are once again herded into our sardine can for a short trip to jail #4 under the Courthouse, we discover that it is after 11:00 AM. Some of us still hope we can see the judge before the lunch break but after we are patted down once again as well as going through a seated and standing metal detector, we are shuffled in another holding pen for "traffic" offenses. There is a black T written on our wristbands. One of the first persons I see (a white man stands out in this jail!) is John Braun and we all inquire how he is doing. He is clear that he doesn't suspect he'll "do this again" but does seem in good spirits. Our caged area has about 30 others in it with only enough seats for 5 or 6. Fortunately one opens up and Joe, John, Ward, and I take turns sharing it.
If you walk to a corner of this cage, you can read a clock on the wall. It doesn't help to make the time go faster. At some point we are told that "traffic cases" will be held at 3 PM. Then we are told that we will be divided into two groups: those with traffic offenses and those with the "failure to obey a lawful order" charge, namely the 6 of us. Later we are told the traffic cases will go first and will start at 2 PM, then 2:30. When they come to get us, the officer mistakenly takes the six of us first but doesn't want to send us back after he is told of his mistake.
Meanwhile, it is during this 4 hour period that we witness the increasing verbal and hints of physical abuse heaped on "us" by the guards. Some have US Marshall outfits. Others read Metropolitan Police. Some say PSA, others have signs or symbols I know not of. A few "suits" walk by and they seem to be lawyers, probably Public Defenders. Two officers in particular are increasing abusive and brutal - obviously playing for a bigger audience. After one inmate mouths off about not getting anything to eat, he is loudly cursed out by one of these officers. When he continues to complain, he is grabbed out of our cage by this officer and two or three others and slammed up against the wall. After being cuffed, he is hustled down the hallway, out of our sight and hearing, most likely to be "tuned up" by macho cops who want to release their extra testosterone. We never see him again before we are called out for our court time.
Joe notices one guard who is clearly different and respectful in his treatment of all the inmates. He calls him over to ask his name and thanks him for treating all of us decently. He asks me to memorize the guard's name, "Samuel Newman", so he can write a letter of commendation to the Court when we are released.
When we are called out, we face the wall and are patted down again before being placed in leg irons, waist or belly chains, which are then attached to metal handcuffs. Up to this time we've only had hard plastic "flexicuffs". I don't have a strong preference for either and I always try to tell the officer I have carpal tunnel before they ratchet them down on my wrists. For the most part I fare better than Joe has as far as tightness of the cuffs cutting off circulation. Does anyone seriously think we'll try to escape after refusing to leave after three warnings before arrest? It appears everyone gets this treatment – even those with minor traffic violations. How demeaning!
Because the 9 of us from Minnesota were locked up for 28 hours, we missed the appointments we had made with our Member of Congress and our Senators. I told Ward that since we signed up for "Breakfast with Al", I was hoping Al Franken would deliver us a real breakfast in our cells. I told him how proud I was that our Congressman, Keith Ellison, had been arrested in the past year for civil disobedience in front of the Sudanese Embassy. He and other members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus arrested with him had paid a $100 forfeiture bond and were released right away. I really would like to see him tour the facilities we had experienced.
As we are about to be marched upstairs, we see our women co-defendants for the first time in at least 15 hours. They seem in good spirits and Marie beams when she spots her husband John in the cage with us. We ride up to the court level on separate elevators and then again are locked in separate holding cells making it difficult to hear one another.
After 28 straight hours in four different jails, I was physically and emotionally exhausted. We had been arrested the day before as part of a civil disobedience action against the wars in front of Obama's White House the day before his first State of the Union speech. I think all 13 of us who had been arrested had been traumatized by witnessing the continual crushing of the human spirit by the cruelly named "justice system."
So when I was led into the courtroom with leg irons, and a waist chain attached to the metal handcuffs, I looked like a hardened criminal facing murder or kidnapping charges. Was the overkill on the part of the Washington, DC Metro Police strategically designed to demoralize and denigrate the "criminals" caught in it's web or merely a bureaucracy gone amuck with no idea how to discriminate and apply sufficient restraints where needed?
Not having the time to strategize as a group nor having access to our volunteer attorney (who was on jury duty this week), we didn't know exactly what to expect when we faced the judge for our first appearance. We assumed we would have the charges read and then have an offer to "settle" the case by paying a forfeiture bond for $50 or $100 or say we want to be released on our own recognizance for a later court date/arraignment. It is possible that the charges could just be dismissed if I/we didn't pay the forfeiture with a "time served" sentence since we had already endured two days in the DC jails.
They called us into the courtroom in groups of five so the rest of us were kept in the dark as to what happened to those ahead or behind us. The 5 Minnesota women went in first and after about 20 minutes the guard then took four local women with traffic charges before calling my name along with two co-arrestee women from Massachusetts, Ceylon, a guy from Memphis, and Joe Palen.
Shuffling into the courtroom with our leg and hand shackles rattling about, we are able to see some of our friends in the back of the room. Our attorney is not in sight, just a man we've never met is introduced as "defense counsel". The Judge addresses all 5 of us stating that each of the previous five arrestees paid a forfeiture bond in exchange for having the charges dismissed. The city prosecutor was asking $150 in exchange for dropping the charges or we could go to trial on three charges: failure to obey a lawful order, unlawful assembly, and disorderly conduct! We certainly weren't disorderly at anytime during this whole ordeal so my tired, aching body and mind was swimming with this new information; it was hard to concentrate as the judge intoned from on high about the jail time and fines associated with each of those charges.
Then the prosecutor announced another bombshell: two of us would not qualify for release upon forfeiture but no reason was given. Immediately I assumed I was one of them - they probably had my prior arrest record even though I had not given my Social Security number during the booking procedure. But Joe had and it is likely that Lori Blanding had as well since they were the ones singled out as ineligible. When they asked "Why?” the prosecutor said it was due to their prior arrests in DC. I have two prior arrests here so this made no sense to me. They were told they had to return for trial since the appointed defense counsel had already entered "not guilty" pleas on our behalf without consulting with us first.
My initial plan was to enter a "Nolo Contendre" plea and ask for time served or community service - but that was before learning of the additional two charges. After that news, my first reaction was to ask Joe if he wanted me to come back and stand trial with him and Lori. He said he'd appreciate that. We tried to consult with the defense counsel but were told we'd have to consult with another lawyer for advice. The man who stepped forward was again someone unknown to us - and he was more interested in making sure I didn't get a conviction on my record by paying the fine than helping me figure out what was happening.
None of this was aided by Judge Richard Ringell who was bound and determined to rush this proceeding along. He made it very clear he was angry that these "out-of-towners" were taking up the court's time before he got to the traffic cases of local residents. So much for the notion of having one's "day in court". The judge was rushed and rude and insisted that I make the decision then and there or he'd send me back to the jail until the other 30+ local cases could be heard. Since it was after 4 PM already, that meant another night in that DC jail on a metal bunk with no mattress, pillow, or toothbrush and the requisite white bread "sandwiches" - if they were offered at all. Since that is all I had to eat for more than 30 hours, it was hard to clearly consider all the implications of which way to choose in response to the arrest and charges.
I was thinking: if I pled not guilty and returned for trial in May, it would cost at least $200 for a plane ticket and there was no guarantee the charges wouldn't be dropped the day of the trial after purchasing the ticket. Also, the environmental costs of another plane ride had to be considered. If I entered a nolo plea with the new charges and a clearly angry judge, there is no telling what I'd get. I wanted time to consult with my VCNV friends and others from our Minnesotans for Peace contingent but could not get the court's permission to do so. I asked if the government's offer of the fine in exchange of dropping the charges was available anytime prior to trial and was told it was "now or never".
The judge had also added another proviso at the prosecutor's request: until the case was resolved, we were banned from the entire area near the White House under threat of felony charges. If the fine was paid, the ban was lifted. If you go to trial, the ban remains in effect until a verdict. So, with a sense of regret, shame, and a sense of abandoning Joe, I chose the "easy way out" and agreed to the requested bribe. I was angry with both the prosecutor and the judge for their failure to see this case as one based on the principle of "peaceable assembly" guaranteed by the Bill of Rights. But then again, I have encountered very few judges or prosecutors in my illustrious criminal career who were so inclined.
Judge Ringell was the worst judge I've faced - and I've faced a few in my 43 years of peacemaking. He was not only rushed and rude but dismissive and contemptuous. Maybe he didn't mean to come off as such but that was the message I received. Remember the urban legend about your free phone call after you are arrested? We didn't see a phone or have an offered phone call during the entire time.
We wanted the focus of our action to be on the wars and occupation, not the quality of DC jails and "justice". But there is a connection. If our nation wasn't squandering billions, even trillions, on the so-called "war on terror", we wouldn't have to rob "the Commons" of the money and resources needed for our own quality of life. The courts, jails, and police wouldn't be strapped for time and funds; people desperate to survive would have a better shot at housing, food, and necessities if our nation's priorities weren't so skewed. Some turn to "crime" to survive and then are abused by the system determined to keep the poor "in their place."
As I walked out of the Courtroom, I was physically and emotionally exhausted. Most of the others were quickly trying to arrange rides in a taxi back to Anacostia to get their property and money before it closed at 5 PM. Joe was going to try to catch his scheduled 7 PM flight and others were leaving early the next morning. I called my son Micah (who is on Congressman Ellison's staff) and asked him if he could drive me down to get my stuff before he went to work the next day. When I asked him I had been told we couldn't get our cash returned after 2 PM so I didn't want to make two trips. He said he was almost finished at work so I told him I'd walk over to his office from the Courthouse. I had no keys to get into his apartment, no money to take the bus, and I needed the fresh air and the physical walk to begin to decompress. (Of course I had no shoelaces either so the walking was slower than usual.)
I felt a sense of regret and betrayal as I walked. I continued to process the options in my mind, regretting my hasty decision based on cost and expediency to not join Joe, Lori, and Father Bill in a May trial. (After I was finished with my appearance, I discovered that Fr. Bill was also prevented by the Prosecutor from being offered the cash release deal.) I had a really good sense of solidarity with both Joe and Bill. Once I got my bearings and realized the walk was more than twice the distance I thought it was, I arrived near the Capitol to discover the myriad of cops preparing for the State of the Union speech that would happen in the next 4 hours. A tan Hummer drives by with gun ports by its doors and windows. What a metaphor for a society drunk on "security" which, in turn, makes everyone else insecure.
It was much easier getting into the Longworth House Office Building to go to the congressman's office this time: I had no possessions to trigger the metal detector but I wondered if the building guards would notice the two flexicuffs still around my ankles where the guards had attached the metal leg irons because my ankles were swollen. When they removed the shackles in the courtroom, they left the flexicuffs on each ankle. Fortunately I passed without incident and Micah handed me a knife to cut them off. Most of the office staff was present, waiting to say farewell to a colleague who was leaving and Kari Moe, Ellison's Chief of Staff, greeted me warmly. Other staff members smiled and said they were glad to see me released and I apologized for the way I looked and smelled.
I just wanted to sit down and rest and decompress. Keith came by, shook my hand and told me to tell him about my experience. As I started to talk to him and Kari, my voice broke and tears started to well up in my eyes. It was so good to be out - but what about all those others I met these past hours who continue to be ground up by this system? Who will advocate for them? Who will greet them as a "hero" when they are released? Why am I so fortunate to have a family and friends who support (or at least tolerate) my "crazy" choices? It's embarrassing to cry in your Congressman's office, blubbering about your ordeal and hoping he can help make a difference - not only opposing these wars but also giving leadership to stopping the war against the poor. I know he has already led or supported others in these battles and for that I'm grateful.
I walked the 6 or so blocks with Micah back to his apartment. He gave me a glass of cold apple juice - heavenly! Then he cooked us supper as I enjoyed a shower and clean clothes! Afterwards I sat down to write. It becomes a sort of therapy to re-tell the stories, to remember. I want to share my experience with others to help de-mystify an arrest witness so others might be willing to join in next time. This time was harder than most. Maybe it's because I'm almost 60. Maybe it’s the cumulative impact of years of this work.
There is no guarantee that if we stop funding war and the illusions of "defense" that our government would also care for those left behind -but, if we continue to see the Pentagon's budget as sacrosanct, there will not be any money left. Dr. King reminded us during the Vietnam War buildup: "A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death." Spiritual and psychic death is what we encountered in our tour of the DC jails. We continue to sow death and reap the whirlwind.
Peacemaking is difficult at times and comes with a cost. Of course, the real easy way would be to remain silent in the face of war - but that is not an option I can live with. It is not an option our world can live with.