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Photos by JOANNE MARINER
Because the corporate media is not doing its job explaining why we in New York and elsewhere oppose this sick war in Iraq, I want to describe some of what happened at the action on March 27th and explain my choice to participate.
I have just been released by the New York Police Department after 18 hours in custody on charges of disorderly conduct, as a result of my participation in peaceful protests in Mid-Town Manhattan on March 27th. Because the corporate media is not doing its job explaining why we in New York and elsewhere oppose this truly sick war in Iraq, I want to describe what happened and explain my choice to participate.
The Initial Action
At 8:00 a.m. a gathering of anti-war protesters assembled in front of the Rockefeller Center, near the studios of CNN, NBC, and Fox. At around 8:25, a mock air-raid siren sounded and a couple of hundred people either walked to the street or pushed down or scaled barricades in order to lie down in front of traffic on 5th Avenue. There was no violence on the part of the protesters, but there was some chaos when police pushed "die-in" non-participants back onto sidewalks and secured barricades as supportive onlookers shouted, "the whole world is watching!" Helicopters circled overhead as hundreds of police formed lines around the "dead," many of whom had adorned their bodies with fake blood and wounds, pictures of now-dead Iraqis, and tombstones representing US soldiers and Iraqis alike.
Then a wave of arrests began. Most people appeared to allow themselves to be arrested without resistance, while a small handful "went limp," in an effort to complicate and delay the disbandment of the action. At this point and throughout the day, people were also arrested from sidewalks for apparently no reason, though the bulk of the arrests were from the die-in. From my vantage point, there seemed to be little confrontation, though there were several people who later appeared at the police-processing center with wounds to the head, and to wrists damaged by plastic handcuffs that had been fastened too tightly.
It was at some point during this first wave of arrests that I was taken into custody. My arresting officer was rather surly at first, due to the fact that he would be staying with us all day until we were released, likely after a 20-hour shift. But he said he understood that we had a right to express ourselves politically (even though he disagreed), and turned out to be a truly sympathetic ally for me and his three other charges during the ordeal that was to follow.
Transport to the Processing Center
The police van carried me and 12 others to an initial processing site on the corner of 11th Avenue and 36th Street, across from the Jacob Javits Center. I remembered with irony that this is where I came just after 9/11, dazed and shaken, to volunteer for digging at the World Trade Center disaster site. This is where I had seen the refrigerated trucks that would bring body parts to morgues for identification, to try and give closure to the thousands of families devastated by this horrific attack.
And into my silent ruminations crept two thoughts: first, that the dead in Iraq, blown to bits by US "smart" bombs, would have no such honor for their families or their remains; and second, that attacks like 9/11 are made more likely by the arrogance and disdain with which this government destroys lives of people we feel to be "others." (I put this in quotes because the "others" are not as different as the Administration would have us believe. Its shockingly immature arrogance regarding the treatment of "outsiders" is an attempt to hide our own vulnerability, while dehumanizing those we kill and insinuating or even stating outright that their lives are not as important as "ours." Why do "they" hate us? Because we are lovers of "freedom"? Please.)
My co-arrestees and I spent over an hour sitting in a stuffy van, watching through headache-inducing metal window grids as more and more buses of detainees arrived. Several of the men had been denouncing the fact that their cuffs were cutting into their flesh and stopping blood circulation, but it was close to an hour before these complaints were addressed. Finally, a "white shirt" (an officer of higher rank than the arresting "blue shirts") came to cut off the cuffs. I could hear him from inside the van swearing loudly at the cruelty with which the cuffs had been attached: "This is f***ing ridiculous! This is not necessary! Look at his wrists. Damn it! This was not necessary!"
Because I had been allowed to keep my cellular phone, and because my cuffs were loose, I was able to extricate myself from them and call our legal support team. We were able to report the arrests of everyone in the van without being discovered by the cops. This was especially important because we were denied legal council throughout the day. A small victory…
After some photographs and information gathering (the first of several rounds of information gathering), we boarded buses and headed to the main processing center at 1 Police Plaza. At this time it was around 3:00, six hours after my initial arrest. We had not been given food or water, and seemed no closer to being released than hours earlier. (Thanks to the kindness of our arresting officer, I and two other women had peanuts, but nothing more.) There seemed a willful disregard for our requests for phone calls and lawyers, which only worsened as the night wore on.
One Police Plaza
Many things happened in the holding cells about which I am not directly able to report, as I was locked in a one-bed cell at the back of a smelly, depressing cellblock with three other people for the next 12 hours. Any untoward bodily functions had to be performed within two feet of a co-detainee. I realized at that point why I could never be a criminal. The conditions are truly dehumanizing, even for a group of loving, peaceful, passionate demonstrators. I cannot imagine how someone is treated when they are charged with a truly serious crime. One officer laughed at my assessment: "hell, you think this is bad, you should see where we put the REAL criminals!" In crept another thought regarding why our jails do not "reform" prisoners, and our society is so harsh, so violent: dehumanization nurtures meanness. How have we forgotten this? Where have our spirituality and our wisdom gone?
Our cell block was all women, similarly cramped, with the men being placed in large, open holding cells that were probably even more nerve-wracking with their chaos and fluorescent lighting. The women outnumbered the men almost two-to-one, and we made sure our voices were heard… quite literally! Our singing carried out to where the men were being held, I heard later, and inspired most everyone to keep up their spirits. We were not exactly versed in the lyrics of protest songs, but we belted out our Janice ("Oh, Lord, won’t ya buy me a Mercedes Benz"), our Bob Marley ("Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery! None but ourselves can free our mind"), and our Edwin Starr/Bruce Springstein ("War! What is it good for? Absolutely nothing!") But we finally threw the desk officer–a commanding, daunting African-America woman–over the edge with Gloria Gaynor ("I will survive!") She came back shouting, "Ladies! Ladies! Ladies! Now I like a good song as much as the next person, but PLEASE!" We honored her request until the shift change.
One of the most disturbing aspects of this experience, to me, was our treatment as dangerous criminals. Here we were being charged with an infraction, yet we were subjected to almost 24 hours of confinement, photographing for a national database, and fingerprinting. That is the equivalent of being treated like a terrorist for a parking ticket. The effect is truly chilling, especially considering the climate of repression of alternative views that seems to be so acceptable these days in this country. Do we realize how seriously in jeopardy our civil liberties are? Let me ask again, do you realize it? The same rights and ideals, embodied in the United States Constitution (with a lot of borrowing from Europe), that make us proud, and that other nations have since used to design their constitutions, are being eroded at an alarming pace. If we sit by and let it happen, we are seriously in trouble.
What is security? What is patriotism?
Some people would–and do–argue that we must erode civil liberties, including the right to protest, for national security reasons. This will make us safer, they say, and protestors should expect to be seen as terrorists for not supporting the government. I have a few things to say about that. First of all, how likely do you think it is that Mohamed Atta or any of the other 9/11 attackers would lay down in the middle of the street in Midtown Manhattan and peacefully be arrested? It is never gonna happen, people. None of the measures that were taken against the peaceful protestors on March 27th made us one whit safer.
Second, if we really want to be safer, instead of putting resources into oppressing legitimate protest, maybe we should think about paying our dues at the United Nations and support the International Criminal Court so that we can truly address the problem of terrorism in a way that does not make us appear to be imperialist opportunists (like the language or not, that is what we appear to be to the majority of the world’s people). Of course, we do not want to support the exact court that would make us safer because then we would have to recognize that the United States itself has been found guilty by that court for the crime of mining Nicaragua’s civilian harbors. Washington’s refusal to recognize its jurisdiction is another spectacular example of, "Do as your Uncle Sam says, not as he does." This double standard is totally transparent and obnoxious to the rest of the world. Why do we refuse to see it? This certainly breeds contempt for the US.
Third, and most importantly when discussing democracy: PROTEST IS PATRIOTIC. Our country has a long tradition of non-violent civil disobedience designed to force rulers to address injustices. Generally the blind, greedy, and self-important will never address those problems without such pressure. The 25% of people that outwardly oppose this war have not been given 25% of the airtime in the corporate media in order to make their case. Instead, commentators shake their heads and lament that we are not supporting our troops. I am sorry, but BULLSHIT. If you want to "support" someone, do you thrown her or him to the lions? Do you force them to enter into unjust combat? Cut veterans benefits?
During the first Gulf War, my partner at the time, a Marine, was put on alert for transfer to Iraq. I remember how time stopped, how I wept in class, how a classmate wept with me, remembering her boyfriend who was called to Vietnam but never returned. As he, my longtime sweetheart, marched next to me in the anti-war protests in San Francisco, I knew I was doing the best thing I could to support and protect him: try to stop him from going. Once the troops are already in battle, trying to end the war before they are killed is the MOST patriotic, loving, and supportive act possible. It is pure propaganda and/or willful ignorance to accuse protestors of not supporting our troops.
It is also complete nonsense to say that if you do not agree with the President, you should move to France or somewhere else, "love it or leave it." Excuse me, but this is my country too, like it or not, and I am disgusted at the direction my country has taken. We have all sat and watched while the Supreme Court put a member of the oil elite in the White House against the popular will. This man now tries to pass laws and implement policies that annihilate years and even decades of work by dedicated, passionate people: policies that destroy our environment, wreck the tax base of our economy, eradicate social protections for our most vulnerable citizens, smash our unions, poison our international alliances, undermine the United Nations, and ignore the wishes of millions of people here and around the world. To support such a rogue is profoundly unpatriotic. As a bumper sticker reads: "If you are not outraged, you are not paying attention."
Back to Jail
So I found myself in jail waiting for hours on end to be fingerprinted like a violent repeat-offender or child molester. When they finally called me for scanning (fingerprinting has become computerized and very high-tech) I was trying to keep up my spirits and those of people around me, several of whom had clearly reached the end of their patience. Suddenly, I heard a raised voice say, "Get out then! Go stand in the hallway!" Out came a Muslim woman, clearly distraught, clutching her hijab (the garment worn by Muslim women to cover their hair). She had resisted removing her hijab for the mug shot, and the officer in charge had told her, unsympathetically, that she would be there all night for "refusing to be photographed." She kept saying with a quivering voice, "I am not refusing, it is just my religion not to remove it. Can’t you take a picture with it on?"
Minutes later I saw her talking to an imposing man in a gray suit with a cold, fascist air about him. I thought at first he was a lawyer, as she had asked repeatedly to talk to a lawyer, but when she re-entered the photography area trembling and weeping, I knew he was no lawyer. She was told to stand in front of the camera, and as she started fumbling to unpin her hijab, tears streaming down her face, I was reminded of a scene from a movie where a young girl is tricked into disrobing in front of a pervert and his camera, against her will. The only difference is that there were at least 30 people in the room. The tension in the air was like poison gas.
One of the other detainees, who was swift of mind and spirit, said firmly to her, "If they are coercing you into doing this, do not do it! It is your right!" Nazi-man retorted with, "Oh, so you went to law school?" By then I had awakened from the sickening trance in which I had fallen and said, "Excuse me, but since when do you need to go to law school to know your rights?" He glared at all of us, then turned to the Muslim woman and barked, "are you going to take it off or not?" Shaking visibly but then straightening, she said quietly, "no." She was escorted out of the room, and I do not know, as of yet, what became of her.
Despite the strong presence of disagreeable and probably ugly, brutal police officers, there were many officers who were responsive, gentle, and kind. Most of them, however, were bound to follow orders by higher ups, who themselves may or may not be kind. With so many hundreds of police milling around all day, it was interesting to note the power plays, the posturing, the attempts by some to treat us with respect, and the sinister undercurrent that treated us as terrorists. I was finally released at 2:30 a.m., and met outside by a wonderful support group that was there for us through it all.
As I watched the World Trade Center collapse on September 11, 2001, swallowing lives and reality as I knew it, I remember fearing the jets screaming overhead. I remember the relief when I realized they were US military planes, not planes meant to kill me. The Iraqis will never feel such relief because those US military planes screaming overhead ARE meant to kill them, even though Saddam Hussein was NOT responsible for 9/11. The lesson? We frighten, maim, and murder Iraqis; they are not happy to see us. They do not want to live under US occupation any more than they want to live under Hussein. This type of public relations will never make us safe.
Pointing out this reality does not make us terrorists. We are humanists, students, unionists, teachers, peaceniks, parents, realists, idealists, lovers of democracy, and passionate citizens. We believe that terror begets terror. Dehumanizing and criminalizing us is not going to make us go away. As the t-shirt that I wore to the protest read: "You can jail the resistors, but you can’t jail the resistance."
LADAWN HAGLUND can be reached at: email@example.com
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