Notes for Testimony

©2005 L.Timmel Duchamp

The notes I wrote up on May 11, 1990, to prepare myself to testify at trial give the clearest picture of how my decision to commit civil disobedience came about.

I— Who I am.
II— The emergency situation in El Salvador: the breakdown in the Rapid Response Network in the face of the massive repression & bloodbath in El Salvador in November & December 1989.
III— Appeals made to me: how I, an authority-obedient citizen, came to the decision to commit civil disobedience.
IV— My non-violence training.
V— What happened the morning of my arrest.

I. Age; am writer with training in history; my training as a historian caused me to investigate the truth about El Salvador because the peculiarity of media reporting struck my historian's eye. I began collecting materials & studying the history of El Salvador. I soon came to think they were the bravest, strongest people in the world, especially the women. I've lost many nights' sleep over the years from the knowledge that the US has spent 4 billion dollars to kill 75,000 Salvadorans & displace more than a million of a population of five million. I wrote letters, of course, & in 1987 helped organize a four day arts event at the O.K. Hotel, focusing on El Salvador. It drew about 1000 people, mostly non-activists. One of the most important things I did was to have telexes sent in my name to intervene in cases in which the Salvadoran military were torturing civilians they'd abducted. It gave me some comfort to know that sending a telex to the U.S. Embassy could save the life of a human rights worker.

II. In November of 1989 everything changed. In the last 45 days of the year the Salvadoran government killed 2,048 civilians & deported from the country every foreign witness who would be likely to testify to the slaughter. The Rapid Response Network broke down—not only were there too many disappearances & abductions, but the women notifying the Network had to go underground to preserve their own lives.

III. On November 19, I attended a memorial service at St. Joseph's for six Jesuits, their cook, & her daughter, all slain in the middle of the night by Salvadoran military elites. The priest giving the sermon cried out that it was time for people of conscience to perform acts of civil disobedience to stop the massacre. After the service I talked for about half an hour with a Salvadoran couple who had known the Jesuits well. She had worked for them for eleven years. He was a relative of one of the murdered men. At funerals & wakes people generally talk about the dead, telling stories about them, to remember them. That's what these people did, with tears streaming down their faces. These were real people, known to people I knew. In December I spoke with them again. The U.S. has got to stop, they said over & over again. I felt helpless. For the first time I began seriously to consider doing civil disobedience.

I attended prayer vigils during this time, & rallies, & marches. I wrote more letters, I sent Rep. McDermott a report that had recently been published in the New England Journal of Medicine, documenting the Salvadoran government's persecution of anyone who provided healthcare to the poor. At a dinner party just after Christmas I learned that a feminist academic who had been an acquaintance of my hostess had been killed by a military death squad, her body left in the street riddled with bullet holes.

What could the inconvenience to comfortable Seattle citizens weigh against the carnage my tax dollars was daily buying? I, a person who never disobeys DON'T WALK signs even when everyone else does, decided that I could not live with myself if I didn't do more than I'd been doing. I decided to block traffic on January 23, the day Congress was due to come back into session after the holiday recess.

IV. A person always fearful of violence, I decided I would first have to attend a non-violence training session. I did so two nights before the action. We were instructed in the techniques of nonviolence and then focused on three possible problem-situations that might arise: (1) angry reactions from the people we would be inconveniencing—playing both roles, which I thought was helpful for the way it made me empathize with such people; (2) provocateurs—teaching us to exercise caution in assessing statements by people one doesn't know as well as providing us with a few tactics for containing provocateurs; & (3) because of the roughness of the motorcycle patrol in the I-5 demonstration, the possible use of undue force or other intimidating tactics against us by the police.

V. I arrived at the Federal Building the morning of Jan 23 at about ten after seven. Everywhere I looked I saw police officers. In fact, though I've been to many demonstrations in the last ten years, never have I seen such a show of force before. It was about half an hour before speakers began addressing the crowd. The Rev. Donovan Cook was one of the speakers. His words went straight into my heart when he said that risking one's body, committing one's spirit for the Salvadoran people was an act of patriotism. & in fact all that morning I kept thinking of the Salvadoran couple, kept thinking of the Co- Madres. I was in fact bursting with love. I felt absolutely certain in my heart & mind that I had made the right decision.

After the speeches I lined up with others in front of the Federal Building doors. We chanted STOP THE BOMBING STOP THE WAR, U.S. OUT OF EL SALVADOR. & Donovon Cook came & shook my hand & thanked me & the other women standing beside me. After a while we were led—our hands linking us in a long chain—out into the crosswalk of Second Avenue. There we sat down & chanted loudly, without ceasing. After a while I saw several police officers approach & begin leading off people who were sitting. I heard nothing but the chanting, my own voice & others. After perhaps twenty minutes, the woman sitting to my left was led off. A few minutes later a young officer squatted down beside me. "You'll have to leave now," he said. "Are you going to leave?" When I said I wasn't leaving, he asked me to please go with him. I was struck by his politeness.

I stood up without resistance or protest. He told me to "walk over there." This was the really weird part. I had the feeling that he would just as soon I had walked away. Neither he nor his partner, Officer Q_____, touched me. I wasn't sure where they wanted me to walk, so I turned around & looked at them, but when they said nothing assumed that if I didn't walk where they wanted me to they'd let me know. A few seconds later, I saw the bus & realized that was probably where I should be going. The officer asked me if I "happened to have" a weapon—a gun or a knife—on me. No, I said, of course not. I'm a non-violent person. & then a few seconds later Officer Q____ asked me if I had any i.d. When I said I did, he said that in that case everything would be simple. We arrived then at the bus, & using my i.d., Q_____ filled out a little furniture tag with my name. The other officer told me I'd have to be handcuffed. So I blew my nose & straightened my hat & got myself in order & then put my hands behind my back for the plastic binding. Then Q_____ attached the furniture tag to my zipper & dropped my i.d. into my pocket & velcro'd it shut for me.

They took my picture & the officers joked with the photographer. & then I was told to get on the bus, & I did. & found all the police on the bus joking with everyone who'd already been arrested. One of the officers—who insisted on calling me "young lady"—complained about how his sergeant had made him shave off his beard the night before & how his wife wasn't pleased. At one point the sergeant said to me that I must have done something right, because the sun was shining for the first day in weeks.

At no time did any police officer convey an attitude of emergency or urgency or sense of danger. Every police officer I had dealings with was jokey, smiling, friendly, & respectful towards me. In my heart I'm certain that none of them considered me a threat to public safety. & I don't believe anyone else present at the action did, either. As Bryan James said on a KOMO newscast, "The police were smiling, calm, relaxed." Laid-back, I kept thinking.

Would they have been so laid-back if they really believed we were more than an inconvenience?

back to essay