On Saturday, August 20, 2011, I was arrested.
As I sit here, fingers poised over keys, hesitating as I have for the past two weeks, I wonder what has kept me from putting my experience in writing. The first few days, it was that I was wrapped up in details of just getting out of jail: I had to make the trip back up to DC, collect my personal property, get the hell out of DC after an earthquake, make my way back to Charlottesville… and midweek I was still too tired, and coming down with a cold that I caught while I was incarcerated. The rest of the week was spent foggy, fighting illness. The weekend, more of the same. The following week, I was “too busy”. At some point, I realized that I could do all the blaming in the world, all the procrastinating, make all the excuses, and wear out all the lines.
Truth was, I was scared.
I can tell you how busy I was (busy… I hate that word, and I’ve been trying to wipe it from my vocabulary of late), or how I didn’t feel like I had processed enough, or that my brain was still too foggy from the lack of sleep. I didn’t feel that I could do justice to what was both one of the best and worst experiences of my life. But what it all boils down to is fear.
And, as some famous dude once said, “the only thing to fear is fear itself.” Having calmly faced the member of the SWAT team who arrested me (he probably outweighs me by double), I think that I should probably stop making excuses, at least ones based on fear.
So here it goes. This story has 64 other forms, and most of them tell it far better than I ever could. But, each one of us has a different internal monologue, a different set of filters through which to view the experience, and a different voice with which to tell the tale.
On Saturday, August 20, 2011, I was arrested.
Having been the good citizen type my entire life, this sentence rings with a strange timbre, even now. I had never been pulled over for speeding (I’ve never been caught, if I’m being honest), never even had a parking ticket. My only experience with police and the law enforcement system was that I have a cousin who graduated from police academy and served in Ohio for a time. I pay my bills on time, don’t litter, and generally don’t cause a ruckus. (Can you describe the ruckus, sir?)
I have called myself an environmental activist for some time now, and have even done some community level organizing for the group 350.org. I co-founded an organization called GulfClean.org with a group of friends when the BP spill happened last summer in the Gulf of Mexico. I sign online petitions and have even worked for an environmental nonprofit. However, most of my activism has been decidedly tame, and lacking in those first three letters: act.
When Bill McKibben (founder of 350.org) came out against the Keystone XL pipeline (which would carry dirty oil from the Canadian Tar Sands out of Alberta, through the US to refineries in Texas – wreaking havoc all along its route), and one of the nation’s brightest scientists, NASA’s James Hanson basically called it “game over” for the climate if we as a nation go ahead with this plan, I listened. At first, I did what I usually do. I signed a petition, read the invitation to sit in at the White House (http://www.tarsandsaction.org/invitation), thought “man, that would be cool”, and then went back to everyday life. But something about this particular action, this moment in time, lingered.
Where the usual story was that Congress or the House have something to do with the passage of a given piece of legislation, this time was different. This time, the President has the sole signature; if he says no, the pipeline doesn’t get built.
“Game over” echoed in my head. I looked deep inside myself, to my core beliefs, to my passions and my roots. What I found there was undeniable. I had to do this. If I was to call myself an environmentalist, I had to prove it. How could I stand by and do nothing, while my planet was raped and beaten? How could I live with myself if I stood by and did nothing? Long story short, I couldn’t.
If this opportunity to show support for the President who said that under his power the earth would begin to heal wasn’t the one, then I don’t know what would be. I tried for weeks to find someone to go with me, and truth be told, I probably wouldn’t have gone if I had to go it alone. Luckily, a colleague on the board of directors for Charlottesville Earth Week agreed to go with me, and we set plans.
On Friday, August 19 we drove up to DC and attended a training session for the next day’s action. It seemed like pretty standard stuff: be polite (“civil” disobedience and all), dress professionally, bring $100 for post and forfeit in case we got arrested, and don’t bring anything we didn’t want to lose. Easy enough. Training went smoothly; we had a simple vegan dinner in the middle and put together “arrest support groups” just in case. A storm raged overhead as we got fired up for the next day. By the time training was over, the storm had passed and we were ready to go.
The next morning, cash, ID and a metro ticket in pocket, we walked into Lafayette Square. The group of folks who showed up was considerably smaller than the night before, but we couldn’t blame anyone who realized that the risk was just too high. There was a buzz in the air as photographs were taken, interviews were captured on video and tape recorder, and the minutes ticked silently by, counting down to 11:00 am. At ten ‘til, we gathered around a statue, men in their suits and women dressed in business attire, to listen to some final words from Bill McKibben. He rallied his troops with words of hope, echoing the President’s words of environmental healing and a push for sustainability. We lined up, charged with positive energy, ready to stand up and show the world what we believe in.
Our line marched out of Lafayette Park, across the street to the sidewalk in front of the White House. We had a permit to be there, but the terms were that we were to keep moving. In defiance of this permit, we sat. We sat to send a message. We sat to tell the President that we support him, that we intend to keep him to his campaign promises of clean air and water for future generations. We sat to show that quiet dissent can be powerful, that the power still rests with the people.
We sat in civil disobedience, exercising our rights, while at the same time breaking the law.
Park Police were already assembled, along with the DC Metropolitan Police force, some highly armed SWAT force members and several mounted police. The District was obviously prepared for our presence. Our organizers had been in constant contact with the Park Police for weeks prior to the action, working out details and attempting to make the action as smooth as possible for all sides.
Turns out, getting arrested is pretty easy. An officer came by with a bullhorn, telling us that we were in violation of our permit, and that if we did not move, our permit would be revoked.
Our permit was revoked, and we were given our first warning that we were in violation of a federal law, and that we would be arrested if we did not leave.
Second warning. We sat. A few of our number got up after this second warning, mostly those who were underage and a few Canadian citizens – those who would have faced harsher legal circumstances had they continued with the arrest.
Third warning. We sat.
And then it happened. We were all placed under arrest, and informed not to leave the area. My once squeaky clean record now contained an arrest. I was a law abiding citizen no longer. A couple of tears escaped at this point, but with a few deep breaths I was able to maintain composure.
The first woman (a young lady from Wasilla, Alaska) was asked to stand by one of the SWAT officers, and the arrests began in earnest. They took the women first, asking us each to stand, putting our hands behind our backs and securing our wrists with thick plastic zip ties.
I was the 6th woman to be arrested, the 6th in a line of sixty five brave individuals who were arrested on the first day, the 6th in a line of 1252 other courageous souls to be arrested over the course of the action. We were put into handcuffs, bodily walked across the square to a processing tent where they took our IDs and some of our belongings, and then transferred to other officers who walked us to the paddy wagon. We sat in the sweltering van, locked four to a cell, until there were sixteen of us – we asked the officers if they would allow us to squish in and wait for the last of the women, but to no avail. During the time that we sat, we started talking. Introductions were made, personal stories of who we were and why we were there were shared.
After what felt like an eternity, an officer came and shut the doors to the van, and we made our way through DC. One of the first of many surreal experiences was to watch out the small barred window as we were whisked through the city, sirens and lights blaring and flashing, traffic parting before us as we sliced through heavy afternoon traffic. People on the sidewalk stopped and stared as we rushed past, no doubt wondering what type of criminals were on their way to lockup – were we murderers, terrorists, arsonists? No – we were just common citizens putting our bodies on the line, standing up for our planet and our future.
It was not until we had arrived at the Anacostia station that we had our first inkling that we might be making more than just a brief stop. We were all discussing meeting up for drinks after our release, and passing the name of a restaurant around quietly when one of the female guards announced, “you all realize that you’re in here until Monday, right?”
I don’t know about the other 19 women standing in that room at that very moment, but my heart stopped just a little bit, thinking about the prospect of our worst case scenario coming to be. After taking a moment to absorb, we all went back to talking, reassuring ourselves that the police were just trying to intimidate us. Because, hey – all signs pointed to us being able to post and forfeit, right? We were relieved of any of the other belongings that posed a danger to ourselves or others – sweaters, shoestrings, belts, metal body jewelry, hair ties, bobby pins…
The next four hours progressed as such: thumbprints inked, charges written onto index cards (“failure to obey a lawful order”), and then shuffled off to a tiny holding cell to await processing. We shivered in the concrete cells, made a phone call, came to terms with the fact that they were not joking about us being held until Monday. We shared our individual stories and played word games to pass the time – Queen Anne, Contact, Who Am I – anything to pass the time. We received a tiny cup of water, and learned quickly that being comfortable peeing in front of other people was a necessary skill. After being processed – which took forever because the machines kept breaking midway through – we were shuffled around, and got a chance to see that the male protesters had arrived at the same station.
During this process, anyone who was “local” – a resident of DC or close suburbs of VA or MD – was released, with the instructions to return for court on Monday. The rest of us, with addresses ranging from North Carolina to Connecticut to Oregon, were considered a flight risk and detained for the weekend.
Sometime around 4 pm, we were transferred to the 1st District to another set of holding cells, and told that we would have to be processed again – broken machines and all. As we waited, we learned that one of the ladies among us was a yoga instructor, so we did the first yoga session of many. We also learned that Central Cell Block, where we were supposed to be transferred later that day, did not house women over the weekend. We learned this from another woman who was in the holding cell with us; she had been to Central already that day, and had been turned away and brought back to the 1st District.
After everyone was finally processed, we were taken to a larger cell on the men’s side of the facility, where all 14 female protesters were reunited. We joked with the guards, asking them if we could have cleaning supplies to clean up the cell before we had to inhabit it – we were met with a sticky, hair covered floor. This cell, a cold open concrete block with a metal toilet in one corner and a concrete bench large enough for 4 people to sit on in the other corner, would be our home for the next two days.
There were six other women in the cell with us; their charges ranged from domestic violence (one woman was thrown in jail when she fought back after her husband tried to rape her) to driving on a suspended license (this woman was barely 18) to a couple of women who we later guessed were in on various substance abuse charges. The age span of the women in the cell was from 18 to grandmother and the average education level of the protesters was a college degree (several of the girls are still in college, and several of our sisters are currently in PHD programs).
Time has a funny way of warping when you are in a colorless world – dark grey concrete walls and floors, dark tinted windows, and fluorescent lights shining down 24 hours a day – so our recollection of what time certain things happened was based on a constant pestering of the guards, asking for the time. We have no way of telling if what they told us was truth, or whether they knowingly decided to mess with our heads by telling us otherwise. So until the time of our release, we had a vague idea of the passage of time.
The rest of the two days is of little consequence, in terms of our treatment. We were offered “food” (white bread sandwiches with either processed cheese food or bologna) and a small amount of water every 12 hours; we shivered and shared warmth with each other, eventually resorting to using the Saran Wrap off our sandwiches to create sleeves and leg wraps to help keep in some of our body heat (we still joke about our Saran Wrap fashion projects); we dozed occasionally, using our yellow sheets of carbon paper (our property receipts) as pillows; our level of discomfort peeing in front of other people quickly became the subject of humor, and then became the norm; we learned that our legal support line had been cut and that our legal team had no idea where we were from Saturday until mid day Sunday; we finally managed to get a few pieces of warm clothing into the cell; we talked to our legal team through two of the women who were designated as our intermediaries…
During this period of time, which I would describe as one of the worst experiences in my life, I found that I was also having one of the most amazing experiences of my life.
The women I shared a holding cell with became my sisters. We bonded over shared experiences, we played games and did yoga, we laughed more than should be appropriate given the circumstances, we snuggled during naps, we watched over each other, we gained an enormous amount of admiration for each other and our individual passions. We all knew what we were getting into when we sat down in front of the White House – we had taken a risk, and we were paying the consequences of our actions. We realized that if we were being treated as such, we had really pissed off someone high up, and that meant that our movement was making a difference. We sat in silence each morning at 11, sending all our love to the protesters sitting that day.
When we heard how many people had been arrested on Sunday, our hopes and our collective spirit soared. The people who sat and were arrested that day, knowing full well that we had been arrested and detained for the weekend?
Those people are my heroes.
The rest of the weekend passed slowly, with us focusing on getting through four hours at a time. Once one block had passed, we would focus on the next. We knew that there was nothing we could do but pass the time, and we spent it as best we could, focusing both forward and inward. Monday morning around 8 am, we were once again handcuffed (zip-tied) together and transported to yet another holding cell, this time at the court house. When we were unloaded at 8:30 am, the officer in charge told us that we were going to have a long day – traffic court starts at 2 pm, and can run as late as 8 pm or until the last case is heard.
When we reached the holding cells, we were put into leg irons and then cut out of our zip tie handcuffs. This particular bit was probably the most surreal experience of my life – having heavy metal shackles (complete with dragging chain) locked around my ankles, sitting in a cell with stark white walls, blood red cell bars, US Marshals and other prisoners screaming, bars clanging, fluorescent lights blaring, hate and violent energy pervading every square inch of the place. We sisters had jokingly called our previous two days in the 1st District a “retreat” or “camp”, but in comparison, the court house was like nothing any of us had ever encountered. We did our best to keep our spirits from getting crushed, to stay calm and to focus only on our cause and what we hoped would be our release later that day.
In the late afternoon (around 3:30 pm), we were released with “no papers”. They took us out of our cell, unshackled us and marched us down a hall and out of the holding area. Our first sight, coming around the corner, was our fellow arrestees – the male protesters who had spent the weekend sweating in cockroach infested Central Cell block, split off 2 by 2 into metal cells – and they were cheering, clapping and making a general ruckus in our honor.
We were swept through the building, saw our legal team and checked in with them (and had the beautiful experience of washing our hands with soap and water for the first time since Saturday morning) before we went out to meet the press and crowd of folks waiting for our release.
Walking out of the courthouse into sunlight and blue sky and breeze (fresh air!) was one of the most beautiful experiences of the weekend. After days under fake light, breathing recirculated air, eating crap and drinking hardly anything, the food and drinks that waited for us (whole wheat bread and peanut butter – gatorade – real fruit!) were like nectar.
There were hugs, tears, interviews, pictures – a mad rush of emotion and action. Some of my fellow captives had to rush away to catch planes and trains, to make it back to their real lives in a hasty fashion. I wanted nothing more than to see my dog, my fuzzy best friend who was no doubt sitting at home, wondering why I hadn’t returned several days before as I had promised him when I left. My colleague and I made the metro trip and subsequent drive back to central VA late that night. Seeing my dog, taking a shower and brushing my teeth, and sleeping in a real bed were all amazing experiences after the weekend – it’s strange how experiences outside the norm make you appreciate the things that we usually take for granted.
We returned to DC the next day to support Tuesday’s arrestees and retrieve our property from the DC Property Office. In fact, the 5.9 east coast earthquake shook things up while we were waiting in line to get our belongings back! We also had the chance to meet up with some of the Tarsands 65 who were still in DC and to see the movement standing (sitting) strong. Knowing that we had been an active part in galvanizing a movement, that we were first in line of 1252 people who would be arrested over the next two weeks, that we had been a part of one of the largest acts of civil disobedience since the civil rights movement – it made the personal sacrifice of our weekend worth it and more.
Would I do it again? No question, no hesitation: yes. Wait… scratch that. Hell yes!
I can not stand by and watch the destruction of my planet. I could not live with myself if I had not made this gesture, had not stood up in the face of big oil and the corporate rape of mother earth, to join voices with those brave others who also believe in a sustainable future.
By sitting and being arrested, I sent a message to President Obama: that I believe in him, but that I will hold him to the words he spoke, to the promise that he made to not only me, but to our planet. I still believe in the president who said that this moment would be the moment “when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal”, that we would be “the generation that finally frees America from the tyranny of oil”.