Tuesday, May 8, 2007

My First Arrest (that I’m proud of)

On April 16, I took part in a demonstration led by Code Pink with members of IVAW, Veterans For Peace, and Voters For Peace at Nancy Pelosi’s office. The objective of the demonstration, as it was for numerous demonstrations before, was to get Pelosi to speak to Tina Richards, the mother of Iraq war veteran Cloy Richards, who currently rates an 80% disability. We occupied her office in the Cannon House Office Building and Medea Benjamin of Code Pink began reading the names of servicemen recently killed in Iraq. The list was being passed around and everyone would read the name, the hometown, and the unit of one of the dead, and how and when they were killed. When the list came to me, I passed it on.

We had some press in the office with us, and we eventually got the attention of some of Pelosi’s staff other than the receptionist. Her press secretary came out and with the support of the US Capitol Police, ejected the credentialed press from the office into the hallway, claiming that it was against “the rules” for press to be in Congressional offices. To show support for the reporters, most of us followed them into the hallway, demanding that the press be allowed into the office. Their best claim was that, “This is a public hallway, but this is a private office.” The second “this” being the lobby to Pelosi’s office. It just so happens we had the Constitution on our side. As people began chanting, “Stop funding the war,” Tina’s voice was among the loudest and she was arrested without warning.

The video can be seen here.

I spoke to her the next day and she explained how easy the whole thing had been, despite having to leave her daughter with someone else. She got her citation, paid a fine, and went home a few hours later. My first thought was, “Well shit, I can do that. It’s about time I get arrested for the cause anyway.”

When Tina asked me to take part in the action at the Senate Hart Office Building on April 26th, she said I would be taking on a role that would put me at a high risk for arrest, but I didn’t believe her. The plan was for a four-phase action. The first phase was for Code Pink to create a diversion by spreading out in teams of two to distract the Police. Phase two was the reading of letters from Iraq in the middle of the atrium. This was intended to draw police to the ground floor to set up phase three.

In phase three, a group from Artists Against the War conducted two banner drops. The first, which went from the sixth floor down to the third, had the text of Article II, Section 4 of the Constitution, which covers impeachment. Then on the other side of the atrium, another banner was dropped saying simply, “YOUR SILENCE YOUR LEGACY.”

Then it was phase four, which began with the playing of taps. Our trumpeter had posted himself well out of the way, but the Police knew where he was and he only got off a line and a half before getting arrested. This was the cue for Reverend Lennox Yearwood (head of the Hip-Hop Caucus and former Air Force Chaplain) and me to enter the atrium. The plan was for him to walk out, post, and do an about-face. I was to post ten meters in front of him and our supporters would form a gauntlet between us.

We had been hanging out by the bank of elevators when taps started, but by the time we got into the atrium, the trumpeter had been silenced, and people were mouthing the melody in their various keys. The Reverend found his spot just fine, but when I came around the sculpture in the atrium, I was confronted with a phalanx of lenses. There were three TV cameras and at least six photographers. I was fifteen feet away from the Reverend and couldn’t see him! But I hadn’t even done anything yet! I was just standing there in my boonie cover and IVAW t-shirt with a folded flag. After about ten very long seconds, I slowly started walking into the cameras. Most of them got out of the way, but one guy who was crouched down just went straight backwards and was pushed out of the way just before bumping into the Reverend. I got the sense that a circle was forming around us, but that there were an unusual number of police there. When one of them yelled, “If you come inside the perimeter, you will be subject to arrest,” my suspicions were confirmed.

The Reverend said his prayer, and all the while the police were warning us that, “what you are doing constitutes a political protest and you are subject to arrest.” I had been under the impression that political protest was constitutionally protected, but then we are talking about a Senate building here. Kevin Zeese of Voters for Peace yelled, “Respect the funeral!” and was arrested immediately. I stood up. The Reverend did an about-face, took three steps, and did another about-face. At that point, I had done what I had come to do, and would have done an about-face and walked away, but we were still inside this perimeter of cops. Then we both stood at the Position of Attention facing each other, and he was arrested. Then one of the cops asked me if there was someone there that I wanted to give the flag to, because I was being arrested. I ignored him and just stood still. Then someone (I kept my eyes locked forward) pulled the flag out of my hands and I dropped them to my sides in the standard Position of Attention. Then I was flex-cuffed and led out the front door to a waiting paddy wagon van.

I was patted down and they emptied my pockets into a large brown paper bag. I climbed into the van next to the Reverend, Kevin Zeese, and David Kane, our trumpeter. This was the boys side. Then they filled up the girls side with five old ladies, mostly from Artists Against the War. Apparently, they needed another van to hold the rest of them. We were told it would be a five minute ride to the station and then they would cut our cuffs and we would get processed. It took at least ten minutes before we left, then fifteen on the road, then we sat in the driveway for about half an hour before they were ready for us. This was when the cuffs really started to hurt, but I kept telling myself, “Marines don’t complain.” It wasn’t that they were all that tight, but rather that it was hard to keep my forearms parallel and the edges of the cuffs were digging into the sides of my wrists so hard that I still had marks the next day. So the Reverend and I leaned into each other at the elbows to ease the strain.

The mood was pretty jovial the whole time and we cracked jokes, and after the women were pulled out to get processed, we started singing and I led a few dirty rugby songs and Marine running cadences to keep the boys in spirits. Then it was our turn and we each in turn got our cuffs clipped, then our possessions inventoried, then the thorough pat down when we had to remove our shoes and socks. The guy patting me down happened to be an Army reservist and Iraq vet and I tried to recruit him for IVAW.

We filled out some paperwork, joked with the cops, paid a fifty dollar fine, and were released. We were all charged with “Unlawful Assembly – Loud and Boisterous.” This is particularly absurd in my case, as I was assembled with only one other person the entire time, and didn’t even open my mouth once. I might fight it, but there are more important things to worry about. The only reason would be to have it off my record because after so many arrests, you can be banned from the Capitol grounds. After everyone was released, we met up at Bus Boys & Poets for dinner. They really need to have an activist discount.

They managed to get my flag into my paper bag with the rest of my belongings, but before they did, the one older female cop who was there pulled me aside and whispered to me, “We got you your flag back. But don’t say anything, because they wanted to keep it as evidence.” It didn’t occur to me to laugh hysterically, because I was just wondering who “they” were. While walking around the capitol the next week, two of the cops who were there recognized me, shook my hand, and asked me if I had gotten my flag back. One of them had even seen the video on YouTube.

You can see a video of the action here.