Top Menu

We Are Just Getting Warmed Up:Notes on Civil Disobedience (Monday, 26 September 2005)

 

We gather provisions. In my pockets are only a key to
the house, $50, and an energy bar — somehow in my careful adherence to the
recommendations I have neglected to bring my driver’s license — and in my
shoe are a pen and a makeshift notebook. I am ready for this. We drink our tea
and ride down to the church where people are gathering. Outside and in the
foyer, preparations are somehow both anxious and meditative: tying and
taping simple, direct signs (“U.S. OUT OF IRAQ,” “REMEMBER THE DEAD,” “RESIST THE WAR,” “STOP THE WAR NOW”) to our chests and backs, locating
affinity groups and support people, hanging the names of the dead from
around our necks. Inside the sanctuary both the energy and the calm are
even more tangible. The space is beautiful. The immediate impression is of
what an ordinary and yet extraordinary group of people in whose midst to be.
Reverend Osagyefo Uhuru Sekou out of nowhere lifts his round tenor above the din and
leads “This Little Light of Mine.” Later he leads choruses of “Amen” while
simultaneously making important arrangements with someone on
his cell phone. Two poets, whose words are striking and clever, manage to successfully navigate
the very difficult terrain of political directness that so often produces
forgettable verse.
Cornel West is there, looking like a visitor from another universe; he
delivers a brief, wide-eyed validation of what is about to happen.

 

Outside, a large and quite diverse group of clergy assembles in front,
followed by veterans and military families. It is eleven o’clock. Three Buddhist monks with simple skin drums begin a slow but
insistent rhythm of dum dum dum dum dumdumdum dum that will continue,
uninterrupted as far as I know, until I am being driven away in handcuffs
on a bus around five in the afternoon. There are two people with a large
improvised bell hanging from a pole one end of which they each carry. Its
sound is deep and metallic — they tell me it is a “liberated” missile
component — and their rhythm is loose and slow, a sort of playful
dirge. I have my small bell that I learn to play during the course of the
walk. At the back is the by-now-ubiquitous marching band from North
Carolina in their black and baby blue. They are impressively tight, so people
have no choice but to move.

Energy is up, I hear several times that the
weekend has just been a warm-up, that today is the thing. The march is not
quite a thousand people . . . is my guess — big enough to make noise and attract
attention, small enough to feel very intimate and human-scale, especially
after Saturday. (Then, the thing was just too big to grasp apart from your
immediate situation, too big to really understand what sort of thing
exactly your immediate situation was a piece of — you just took it on
faith that, wow, this is really something.) So it has the feeling of a
group of friends setting out together. There is time and space to consider
things, and at this point I am not sure I could tell you why I am here,
exactly. Later, too, I will be asked by a couple of fellow arrestees —
you’ve never done this before? why now? — and what I will say (which is
what I feel, all day and night, the feeling of having immersed myself in a
flow that is right and necessary) is that I just figured it was time.

Down at the ellipse, there are people waiting. By now we are without a
doubt more than a thousand strong. Instructions can’t be heard through the
megaphone. People are grouping up and eventually lining up on two sides,
as we will next walk in a procession around the White House on both sides and meet up
again at Lafayette Park. There is a little tension. Someone tells the
drummers not to play, because we are supposed to be remembering the dead,
and they are making it too much like a party. They move elsewhere and pick
up where they left off. Someone tells the guy with the huge “ELECT NADER” sign that that’s not what this is about. He responds that this is not
about telling someone what not to have on his sign. No one is quite sure
what is about to happen.

We arrive in Lafayette Park to find some black-clad anarchist-types
playing croquet on the lawn. There is a large number of supporters waiting
here as well, I would guess enough to put our total number close to two
thousand. I eat my sandwich and drink my litre of water and immediately
wonder when the next chance I will have to pee might be. I find my
“affinity group,” whom I just met on Sunday afternoon; they are glad to see
me, and I them, as things are fairly uncertain for a few minutes while the
crowd seems to swirl and more inaudible instructions (instructions? inspiration?) are given. And then the crowd parts and Cindy
Sheehan (who has just materialized) passes through, followed by Dr. West
and the clergy — they are headed towards the guard gate where they know
they will be turned away. As quickly as Sheehan appears, so too a horde of
media cameras and microphones, and suddenly the group cannot move forward
for all of the press in the way. They are swarming about Sheehan, as if someone
had pushed a button on the remote and made a sudden, surreal shift from direct
action to Diane Keaton arriving at the Oscars or some such scene. Sheehan
will be the first one arrested 15 or 20 minutes later, and the media
spectacle will have ended just as suddenly. Questions about media-related
tactics arise — the questions (for instance, how to draw attention to the
inhumanity of the war, and how best to engage people with its realities, in the absence of an individual who happens to be at the center of the media’s fickle attention) that for me remain unanswered.

When we reach the White House sidewalk, people begin to hang flowers and
the cards bearing the names of the dead on the wrought-iron fence. This is
illegal but largely not disrupted by the police. However, as I go to drape
my card and two flowers on the fence, an officer shoves me hard enough to
make me fall back on someone sitting behind me. I argue with him, he
threatens me, basically saying that if I “hit” him with “that thing” (= the
flower) he is going to kick my ass. Probably I should test him further, a
brutal cop right at the outset would be a galvanizing moment, but I am
persuaded to move along by others around me. He must not have gotten the
memo that all the rest got; they are generally friendly and even playful
with us all afternoon.

On the sidewalk, the waiting begins. Arrests are made one at a time. The
press is made to join the supporters behind the barricades. We are
sequestered inside, with a thirty-foot-wide strip of asphalt between us
and them. This becomes the police zone, as they cease attempts to keep
people from standing on the short ledge at the base of the fence and
abandon the sidewalk. We are singing, chanting, chatting. Code Pink
orchestrates a makeshift toilet, a sort of pee ring with one brave woman
inside apparently holding a plastic bag for both sexes. There is togetherness, and there is also the feeling that we were doing something more powerful than simply waiting to be arrested. We are here, and we are supported by an enduring crowd
around us — there isn’t a need for an overly earnest symbolic
display. One brave and athletic soul throws his bag over the fence, climbs
over the fence behind it, and of course is immediately set upon by about eight White
House police. He is led away to loud cheers. This is a shot of energy. Some kids start chanting, “Tear down the barricades,” inviting those
outside to join us inside and thereby to incite mass chaos. A priest grabs
one girl and demands: “Are you serious?” None of the crowd of supporters
is itching to be arrested, that’s why they’re out there and not in here,
and so it is a moot point, but the priest and the girl debate it
with some fervor anyhow. He is right that that is not what today is about;
she is right in riding the energy of the moment, in her sense that things
will have to get out of hand before this is all over.

Around 4:30, I am cuffed and put on the last bus. I am in a window seat on
the side facing away from the White House, so I have my closest view
of the crowd of people still there to support us. It is smaller now but
still strong. They walk back and forth, the length of the two remaining
buses, blowing kisses, mouthing thank-yous, snapping photos. They cheer
and cry. One man scribbles a sign on a blank sheet in his notebook, “YOU
PEOPLE INSPIRE.” The monks are still there beating their dum dum dum dum
dumdumdum dum. The real waiting, it turns out, has not yet even begun.

We pull away under police escort, which leads us all the way to Park
Police headquarters in Anacostia. Several on the bus remark that they feel
like celebrities as rush-hour traffic pulls to the side of the highway for
us. There is this feeling of importance, tinged with visual memory of something more
sinister and comic at the same time, say, the infamy of OJ in his white Bronco being
pursued down an empty L.A. freeway. In any event, the speed with which they
get us to the processing facility produces a reassuring illusion that
we’re going to be set loose on the streets of Anacostia before we know it.
It is, however, the first and only display of alacrity we will witness
this fine evening.

Those of us without ID (we are six, seating is rearranged so we are
together, a sense of doom) are told we will be taken to the cellblock and
have to go before a judge in the morning. One of our six has spent a good
chunk of time in the “imperial dungeon,” as he calls the DC jail, and his
good humor about it is reassuring. I begin to anticipate a night in jail
and a chance to reflect on some things, but neither will really
materialize. The experience is a profoundly social one. The contrast
between this bus and your typical bus full of strangers is profound. We
are strangers when we take our seats, almost all of us, but the shared
experience and conviction provide ample common ground and room for open
conversation.

We are on the bus until after midnight. They are calling us up one at a
time to be booked, a process that includes having a Polaroid taken with
the arresting officer and turning over all personal property, including
belts, earrings, and shoelaces (lest we hang ourselves from the
stop-signalling wire, or somehow manage to escape before being handed our
$75 ticket). They start cutting shoelaces. One man who for some reason
has his hands cuffed in front of him starts taking people’s laces out for
them so we don’t have to lose them for good. At one point, a man a few
rows back starts into a song in a beautiful piercing tenor, his a capella
tones pure and unwavering. It is a song about not giving your children up
to the war machine, we are stamping our feet in time. By the time he is
finished, we are singing along with his chorus. After a few hours, someone
comes on the bus and begins taking people to the bathroom, a trip that
also includes getting your handcuffs clipped and replaced with your hands
in front of you, which is a welcome change. They bring us water and
sandwiches to share. One of the cops looks very young and seems to be a
genuinely friendly guy, joking around and poking fun at people. The
other is not so nice but wants to be. Occasionally someone walks past
outside, waving, newly free. This happens far too infrequently, and we know we
are in it for the long haul.

Several times, conversations turn to how we will get home. When will we be released? When does Metro stop running? How do you get there? We are still on the bus after
Metro has stopped. One man jokes, We might as well all march off into
the night together, we’ve been marching all weekend, let’s march to
Rumsfeld’s house. Seriously, there is energy to continue the work, there
is the knowledge confirmed and re-confirmed that this has to happen again,
and again, and again. I have a conversation with my seat-mate, a man in a
shirt and tie (until they put the tie into the Ziploc bag with his number
on it: 01-169; I am 168). He is a fascinating
character, quiet until he gets going and then unstoppable. His knowledge
about a wide range of subjects political and historical is impressive,
nearly overwhelming. We discuss the sacrifice that is required of people,
the current difficulties involved in convincing people to choose
sacrifice. There is the large group of people who are so comfortable in
their daily existences — so convinced its comfort
is necessary, and so convinced they are entitled to it — that it is hard to
conceive of too many of them (even those who would tell you they are
opposed to the war) opting to step outside of its grip. And then there are
so many for whom daily life is consumed with getting by, and for whom
carving out room to resist is truly a remarkable feat. This is not to make
excuses for anyone — it is just to acknowledge the scope of the tactical
challenges that lie ahead, and the impossible patience that is required.

Before we leave the bus for the next holding area, citations are issued
for each of us; we are handed back our paperwork and photographs; our
paperwork and photographs are re-collected when a conflicting order is
given half an hour later. In the pen, a kid from Baltimore and I spend the
better part of an hour trying everything we can think of to get our
handcuffs off. (Some others have slipped out of theirs, but ours are too
tight.) Despite much resourcefulness that we muster, it is impossible to get our cuffs off, but our attempt is more of a
way to pass the time than anything else, as waiting becomes the norm. The staggering inefficiency of the whole operation never ceases to amaze. Can we do a calculation? Personnel costs alone are
certainly in the tens of thousands. (I’m estimating there are 50 people on
duty to process us, the vast majority on overtime [as this is a special assignment], many on duty since 10 or before Monday
morning.) All else aside, this is a significant wrench in the works. If it
happened once a week, something would have to give.

Sometime around 4:30 in the morning, after being fingerprinted, sitting and standing around on concrete floors for four hours, and getting my
first-ever mug shot taken, I am presented with my belt, my hat, and my house key
and released, with only five more left inside behind me. I am surprised
and relieved to find a few people gathered at the gate waiting to take us
to the Metro station, where there will be other rides into town. It is
wonderful and amazing that the organizational support has lasted this long
into the night. It is as if the training wheels are still on the bike. We
are just getting warmed up.

 


Layne Garrett was one of those arrested on monday during the White House action, the first time Garrett has been arrested for civil disobediance. Garrett makes music and keeps a blog Question the Truth.


Comments are closed.