For many of the 374 people who offered themselves for arrest at the White House on Monday, September 26, getting out of the Park Police headquarters meant warm greetings, a ride to the Metro or a close-by staging area in a waiting car, a little food and water, a chance to make phone calls, and maybe a trip to Union Station to call for a cab. What they might not have realized was that all these services were improvised on the spot by a ragtag group of supporters who saw the need as it arose and quickly acted to fill it.
UFPJ organizers had apparently assumed that every arrestee would be released in time to catch the Metro, which starts shutting down by 11:30. Nobody anticipated that the Park Police would wait so long until beginning arrests; that arresting and pre-processing demonstrators would take hours; or that paperwork at the station would keep demonstrators there past three in the morning.
In addition, though the distance between the station and the Anacostia Metro was short, the police were not about to point out the only quick route there — past the rear of the station and through a gate in the back fence. Those released faced a circuitous walk along rough and badly-lit roads. Older and less healthy demonstrators found the trip exhausting.
Shortly after the first two buses of demonstrators had driven off to the police station, therefore, supporters with cars began shuttling people to the Metro. At first their efforts were spontaneous and uncoordinated. As some drove, other support people began to gather at the Metro station itself.
At dusk, though, the police insisted on clearing out the group that had been waiting along the road and threatened to arrest the driver of any car who parked in the area. Metro police at the station began to chase shuttle cars away and warned the waiting protesters in lurid terms about the dangers of white, middle-class people hanging around in a dangerous neighborhood — one presumably populated by the same bloodthirsty barbarians of New Orleans whose unspeakable crimes, so widely recounted in the press after Hurricane Katrina, turned out to have been almost entirely imaginary.
The danger from the local population may not have been real. The danger of arrest was something else, and after a firm “suggestion” by Park Police a number of drivers met behind the Metro station garage. They set up a regular rotation of shuttle drivers and a coordinator at the Metro stop. As eleven o’clock came closer, another meeting organized a two-stage system: some drivers would pick up protesters and take them to the garage area, and others with larger vehicles would take groups to Union Station.
Everything moved quickly from then on. A collection was taken up, and water, bananas, and granola bars brought in. Another group worked out an arrangement with the police to keep a few greeters at the station itself, to welcome demonstrators as they came out and direct them to the shuttles.
Our biggest problem was that we had no way of telling the hundreds still in detention that help was waiting at the end of the road. Somehow, though, most everything managed to work. People came in and caught rides back out. More food was brought in. Anyone with a cell phone was happy to lend it to demonstrators eager to call friends or family. The Anacostia shuttle stop became a warm and social place.
Of course it would have been nice if organizers had anticipated every possible contingency. But they, like the rest of us, are only human. The spontaneous and adaptable self-organization of the dozens of people who threw the shuttle together, most of them perfect strangers before that night, was one of the happiest stories to come out of a day of courage, solidarity, and — perhaps surprisingly — deep and genuine joyfulness. Some of us worked for ten hours that night. I think I can speak for the others when I say that we felt privileged to have that opportunity.
This one is for my wife Loret and the veterans of the first veterans’ affinity group, among the 373 demonstrators arrested whom the mainstream press chose not to notice. . . . Michael Steinberg
Michael Steinberg is the author of The Fiction of a Thinkable World: Body, Meaning, and the Culture of Capitalism published this year by Monthly Review Press and essays in professional journals in history, music, and law. He and his wife Loret, a photographer and professor of documentary photography, live in Rochester, New York, under the supervision of two domestic medium-hair cats. He will give a reading from his book on Thursday, October 6, 2005, at Robin’s Book Store (108 South 13th Street, Philadelphia, PA 19107 — Tel: 215-735-9600).