'We locked arms, sat down and blocked traffic in an act of civil disobedience in solidarity with Standing Rock.' (photo: Jason Connolly/Getty)
I Was Arrested for Protesting. My Idealism Did Not Prepare Me for That Experience
By Julian Brave NoiseCat, Guardian UK
04 May 17
I grew up believing that getting arrested for protesting was a rite of passage. Then I learned the hard facts of what it would mean
The social contract is broken. The election of Donald Trump and the rise of rightwing populism have obliterated the facade of tolerance and equality, revealing the hateful face of the far right. In response, progressive political life has taken on an existential urgency, giving rise to new coalitions and tactics collectively called “the resistance”.
For the first time since the 1960s, millions of Americans are taking to the streets, scrawling clever slogans across cloth and cardboard, donning pink knit hats and marching for causes as varied as taxes and women’s rights. Ahead lie political possibilities both promising and ominous.
Among the marchers there is a small but growing community of refuseniks who consider civil disobedience and arrest as potential and even essential actions to further these diverse causes. I am among them.
On a chilly Tuesday night two weeks after the election, I hustled up the street from my fellowship at the New York City housing department to join 1,500 demonstrators gathered in Foley Square as part of a national day of action to protest the Dakota Access pipeline.
Cheered on by thunderous chants of “water is life”, a few dozen of us marched into the street abutting the army corps of engineers’ Manhattan office, locked arms, sat down and blocked traffic in an act of civil disobedience in solidarity with Standing Rock.
The police surrounded us. An automated announcement warned us that we faced imminent arrest if we refused to move. “You are ordered to leave the roadway and utilize the available sidewalk,” the machine blared in computerized monotone. “If you do so voluntarily, no charge will be placed against you.”
Our voices grew louder to drown out the machine. “It’s bigger than a pipeline, it’s bigger than a job,” we sang as the officers closed ranks and arrested us one by one. “If you don’t respect our mama, we won’t respect your laws.”
I was one of the last peeled from the pavement, handcuffed and escorted into the back of a paddy wagon.
I grew up believing that getting arrested for protesting was a rite of passage. As a child, I valorized indigenous leaders such as Crazy Horse, Chief Joseph, Geronimo and others who fought to the bitter end for the just treatment and very survival of their people. As a young man in Oakland, I listened to older generations recount memories of the occupation of Alcatraz, the United Farmworkers grape boycott and the black freedom struggle. Hundreds of students more woke than I walked out of my high school after the extrajudicial execution of Oscar Grant.
I came of age as millions of Americans lost their homes to gamblers on Wall Street. I shared the anger of thousands of black, brown and indigenous men – many younger than I – condemned to cages or gunned down because society thought them less than their white peers. I felt the pain of loved ones lost to the despair of addiction.
Professors, peers and books gave me the framework and vocabulary to speak to these deeply rooted injustices. As I entered the workforce and electorate in the wealthiest and most powerful nation in the history of the world, these realities felt increasingly outrageous and unacceptable to me. Marching up the street from my day job, I imagined generations of indigenous ancestors at my back. On that day, we had had enough.
My upbringing, idealism and outrage did not prepare me for the experience of arrest. In the paddy wagon with my arms zip-tied tight behind my back, I felt guilt, regret and fear. My body was no longer my own. My time belonged to someone else. My mother was worried half to death. My future job prospects were diminished. I, an Ivy League graduate, now had assumed the guise of yet another young man of color with a criminal record.
Very real consequences descended from abstraction into the land of hard facts. Down here they felt heavy.
Inside One Police Plaza, the police shuffled us through the glacial bureaucracy of arrest intake: hand over your valuables. Give us your address. Take off your belt. Untie your shoelaces. Stand for your mug shot. Remove your necktie. Wait. No talking. Wait.
With a dozen caged in each cell, we watched our arresting officers laugh about the latest viral videos on Facebook and Snapchat their love interests. Hours passed. The officers milled about, intermittently completing the forms that detailed our intransigence. More hours passed. Around midnight, a dozen boxes of pizza arrived to feed the night watchers – no food for us. One o’clock came and went. Then two.
Around 3am, an officer pulled open our cell door and announced two names for release. Every 10 minutes he returned to spring a new pair of bondsmen. The cell felt increasingly austere as it emptied. On his fourth trip, he called my name and chuckled: “Noise … Noise, Cat?” Bleary-eyed, I filed out, collected my valuables, signed my papers and returned to the land of the free.
My girlfriend, who faithfully waited up all night on the street outside the jail for my release, was exhausted and annoyed. “Why did you do that?” she asked. I mustered a zealous response full of youthful conviction. But deep down, I was asking myself the same thing. New York City criminal court stands diagonally across the park from the site of my arrest.
Every morning, defendants and their families line up outside its doors 30 minutes before court opens session. At 9am, security fires up the x-ray machines and metal detectors and the line slowly processes into the building. On the other side of the metal detectors, throngs of defendants, paper summons in hand, rush to and fro in search of their assigned lawyers and allotted courtrooms.
I found my comrades, who had taken to calling themselves the “NoDAPL 39”. We tracked down our defense attorney, Ronald Kuby, a former radio host with a silver ponytail, and headed for court room 130.
We took our seats on benches laid out in orderly rows like so many pews facing the judge. Above the judge’s bench, flanked by United States and New York flags, read a bold proclamation in silver lettering: IN GOD WE TRUST.
We were instructed to remove our winter hats and turn off our cellphones. We checked the spelling of our names on forms descended from those completed by our pizza-eating jailors, and waited in timid, contemplative silence.
The judge emerged from her chambers in regal black robes. With greetings to the bailiff, court officers and attorneys below her, she assumed her seat atop the bench and under “GOD”.
An officer fetched an inmate from a holding cell to her right. He faced charges of possessing crack cocaine. He was homeless. The public defender asked for time served. The assistant district attorney, a tall, slender white man in an ill-fitting gray suit described the defendant as a dangerous repeat offender. After glancing over the man’s rap sheet, the judge issued her verdict: 15 days.
More men of color were paraded before the bench for their charges to be recited and their punishment to be determined. Most took plea bargains for misdemeanors.
Behind me, one of the NoDAPL 39 sneezed loudly and a few of her comrades turned in unison for an obligatory “Bless you!” before returning to silence. I rubbed my fingers across the rubbery remnants of bubblegum stuck beneath my seat. Court, I mused, is like church.
Soon it was our turn. The judge called the protesters forward in groups of three to render our anticlimactic judgment: adjournment in contemplation of dismissal. The arrest would be wiped from our records if we stayed out of trouble for a year.
That is, except for my case, which required special handling. I needed a clean record sooner so that I could apply to jobs and graduate schools without having to check the box. In exchange for expedited adjournment, the judge ordered community service.
Court-ordered community service entails more paperwork, plus an appointment. But I didn’t know that before I left the courthouse. So, I had to return a week later, hustle up and down the stairs between clerk windows and courtrooms to track down the forms required to sign up for and complete my service hours. This was perhaps the biggest headache of my odyssey through the criminal justice system – exacerbated because it felt so pointlessly punitive.
I pleaded with scowling court officers and bureaucrats for nearly two hours. Finally, a friendly bailiff delivered me to a hidden back office where I gave my name and docket number to an administrator in return for the necessary but elusive forms which emerged from an obscure file on a sprawling shelf.
Proudly brandishing my form like a diploma, I marched down to the community service desk and signed up for the first available Saturday slot.
I woke up at 6.45am, threw on a few layers and took the 1 train downtown to Washington Square Park, where community service for rule breakers begins promptly at 7.30.
It was a cold and snowy January morning. From 7.30am to 3.30pm, our official task was to pick up trash. This turned out to be easy. Located smack in the middle of designer-dog-and-juice-cleanse land in the West Village, Washington Square Park is perhaps the cleanest public space in all of New York City.
Trash duty was not the real reason the court wanted us out here at 7.30 in the morning.
The point of our punishment – sweeping up cigarette butts in the biting cold – was to encourage us smalltime rule breakers to contemplate our wrongdoings.
The structure of adult detention had us contemplating – at least, for a little while. But before long, we transgressors became friends. One by one, each divulged the crime that had landed us in community service. We wondered aloud whether the park supervisor was watching from the heated lodge and whether he gave a damn about our service. (A veteran assured us that this guy did.) We took long breaks to run our ice-cold mittens under the hand dryer in the public restroom.
Coffee break rolled around. And then lunch.
By afternoon, our punishment felt more like the Breakfast Club than a chain gang.
As 3pm approached, we shifted to sweep closer and closer to the warden’s lodge. Around 3.30 he emerged to collect our equipment and sign our forms. With a quick scribble of pen on paper, my service was complete.
I thought my righteous arrest would affirm and even cement my moral and political zealotry. Martin Luther King Jr, Ho Chi Minh, Vaclav Havel, Fidel Castro, Mohandas Gandhi, Nelson Mandela and countless other radicals were arrested and imprisoned then came out the other side even more powerful intellectuals and revolutionary leaders.
But after my short time in handcuffs, behind bars, through the slow churn of courtroom bureaucracy and the disciplining labor of community service, I was telling myself to think and plan more deliberately before staring down the police and defying the law again. My experience was but a thin shadow of the harrowing struggles of the water protectors at Standing Rock. But any arrest comes with real consequences for your career, your wallet and your relationships.
I don’t know if I did the right thing when I sat down in the street with my comrades and refused to move. Maybe society’s punishment succeeded at reforming my psyche. Maybe it’s natural to wonder at one’s own drastic actions and their outcomes. In trying times like these though, it seems inexcusable to do nothing. Only time will tell if our small acts of resistance help to build this crumbling kingdom again – brilliant, beautiful and new.
C 2015 Reader Supported News
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"The master class has always declared the wars; the subject class has always fought the battles. The master class has had all to gain and nothing to lose, while the subject class has had nothing to gain and everything to lose--especially their lives." Eugene Victor Debs