Arrest for Civil disobedience

©2005 L.Timmel Duchamp

L. Timmel Duchamp wrote the following journal extract the day after the direct action in which she was arrested. To protect the privacy of the persons mentioned in this account, their names have been replaced with initials. Readers should bear in mind that the circumstances in Seattle began to change in 1991 and by the time of the WTO events of 1999 were utterly altered. Attitudes toward both direct action protest and civil disobedience have changed markedly.

24 January, 1990
Wednesday morning

My brain is just racing, the day after the action. (I should have known the experience would open me to a new area for exploration.) Everyone's been released—69 arrested by city police, 18 by the feds (according to last night's news coverage). Felt odd when I saw myself in some of the footage-but I guess the chances of that go up when you're one of the people getting arrested. D___ was pretty prominent in the coverage, too—KING even went so far as to use a picture of her as their icon for the story, though for El Salvador protests they usually use the Salvadoran flag. I didn't see much of her during the action, but I could hear her influence at work even when I didn't see her in the television coverage, for whenever you have people chanting "El Salvador will be free," you know it's a member of her group at work. (I myself got people on the bus chanting that for a while & persuaded them to change We Shall Overcome to El Salvador Shall Be Free.

Since everybody's been released, we're not going to get any follow-up coverage. But I did see that nine activists were arrested at the Fed Building in Bellingham yesterday morning; & some people marched in Tacoma yesterday noon. & Channel 11 News reported that Norm Dicks is seriously considering changing his voting policy on El Salvador & plans to make an announcement about it in the next couple of weeks.

My most interesting day-after thoughts involve ideas for the possibilities of civil disobedience in this particular situation. Having gone through the least uncomfortable experience one could probably ever have—less than two hours from arrest to release, no violence, no interpersonal unpleasantness with anybody, binders not cutting into my wrists, citing-out, not being booked—it's possible to think tactically about what is possible if you're willing to undergo greater discomfort & tension & plan as a group well in advance. What fascinates me is the power of negotiation large civil-disobedience groups have. I suspect a lot of this depends upon (a) most of us being white & middle class; ( b) Seattle's general attitude towards political protest & civil disobedience; and (c) orders from above to police about how political protesters are to be handled. Actually, at one point yesterday I began to feel uncomfortable about the easiness of it—started thinking I should have made them drag me to the bus, that we didn't give them enough trouble. Today, though, I see that we accomplished what we set out to accomplish & that a whole new set of people, including me, have discovered that civil disobedience is not a necessarily difficult experience to undergo: I imagine the pool of civil disobedience activists has now grown—but then it's my impression that the organizers of this action had that as one of their principal objectives... Although I saw nothing rough from the city police when I was on the scene (all the meanest stuff was coming from the feds, who in every situation consistently behave like thugs, anyway), the tv coverage showed one guy being dragged around by a horse patrol by the straps of his rucksack. (I think this happened after we'd been driven away: I need to talk to someone who was there through the whole thing, D____ probably—but I think there were two stages to the blockade, since the second bus must have had almost as many people on it as ours did.)

Here's how my arrest went: I'm sitting in the intersection, arms linked with women on either side of me (somehow a bunch of us women all seemed to gel together, though only some of us knew any of the others), & we're chanting (probably "George Bush Read Our Lips"), & women on my left are being arrested one by one & being walked off between two officers apiece. (According to KCMU, 96 police officers were assigned to the action; & according to police count, 450 demonstrators were on the scene at 8 a.m.) My turn comes: a young male Asian-American officer squats down beside me. "Do you want to leave now? Or do you want to be arrested?" I used his words & said I wanted to be arrested. (I realize now I should have said I wasn't going to leave or that he'd have to arrest me to make me leave—since it's really a misnomer to say I want to be arrested, when it was really that I intended to be arrested.) All this was said in the way a waiter might ask me whether I wanted to order dessert or not. After that he said: you'll have to come with me. At which point I got to my feet. I'm then between this guy (Y____, his name was) & his partner, a middle-aged white male with the name Q____ on his uniform—I remembered that name because it was so humorously close to Quayle—& they point & request (with a please, I think) that I walk ahead. (It was then that I saw the bus.) This is all so loose that it feels strange—but I realize that they would have preferred that I simply melt into the crowd & spare them the hassle of going through with arresting me but know that I won't because I could have done that just a few seconds earlier. (Of course the one thing they would have hated for me to do was to turn around & go back to the intersection—but then they were behind me & would have stopped me.)

So it's here that one identifies the most elementary point of leverage—namely, that the police just want you to go away & stop blocking traffic & basically get lost. (Of course all this changes when you start making trouble by making them carry or drag you etc., because then they start feeling resentful at your resistance of their authority & at your making them do physical labor.) So then, as I'm walking, the younger officer says to me in a perfunctory (almost shy) way, you don't have a gun or knife on your person, do you? I think I laughed—not at the idea of their wanting to know if I was carrying a weapon, but at his asking me. I mean, what was the point? Of course a quick second-look at the question pointed up the class & race basis for the situation: the question was simply pro-forma to replace the pat-down that other less middle-class looking people had to go through. Anyway, I answered: no, I'm a non-violent person. Next, the other cop said: Do you have any i.d.? (I realized in retrospect that this was the biggie, since my answer would determine how easy or difficult my arrest was going to prove for the police; this is the one they really care about. & of course some people, doing civil disobedience, not only refuse to cooperate physically, but also withhold their identity. & these are the people that really get up the nose of the officers.) Yes, I said, but it's expired. (& it wasn't a driver's license.) No problem, Q____ says, dismissing the issue of validity. (Later, when I presented another irregularity, namely no employer I could name on the citation, when they were releasing me on my personal recognizance, I realized that in these situations they're likely to ignore anything that on another occasion might prompt them to give one a hard time.) So I get it out & hand it to him. & by this time we're near the bus. & Q____ fills out a ticket (like the sort of tags they put on furniture in antique & junk stores), strings the tag's wires through my zipper puller, & then some Henry Goldbloom-type character takes my picture with his Polaroid (& damned if I didn't have a hard time not smiling, the whole thing was so insipid, & people were making jokes & passing the time of day) & Q____ says he's going to have to bind my hands, so I put my gloves back on and position my wrists in the optimal position for comfort. Then onto the bus, which is by this time nearly full of arrestees & police. Q____ & Y______ disappear, presumably to make another arrest. Everybody on the bus has to be "logged in" on a clipboard (&, of course, counted); & everyone, officers included, is jolly. The Goldbloom character (his tag said E.C. M____) finishes his photography stint & is kibitzing with the underage women about whether or not he'll take extra pictures for their scrapbooks, & then he starts complaining about how the sergeant (the young uniformed woman in charge of the "pre-book" on the bus) made him shave off his beard & how his wife was upset with him about it (he later remarked to me that he hadn't worn his uniform in over two years—I suppose that means he was put into uniform just for the action, which may not be surprising given the flak somebody must have gotten about our getting onto the freeway the last time)... In the meantime, the action continues outside—I see someone being carried onto the bus by three cops from the direction of the Fed Bldg (which makes us think that maybe city & not fed cops were making arrests there, which I gather now was not the case), & then I see everyone who is not getting arrested moving in a procession around the side of the Fed Bldg—I imagine they're heading for the doors on the other side, which suggests that the police must have finished making arrests on the east side. & then we're driven away, through the industrial section, singing "The Wheels of the Bus Go Round, Round, Round," and joking, when the bus accesses the freeway, about our going to Portland, Eugene, Mexico, El Salvador...

When we arrived at the South Precinct station, a number of non-uniformed people were standing on the sidewalk, waiting (the captain & a lieutenant, among others). It is at this point that the to-ing & fro-ing began, for we had three no-i.d.s to worry about. Those with i.d.s go first, an officer told us. No, we said, the no-i.d.s have to go first. No, the officer insisted, the no-i.d.s will go last. Well then none of us have i.d.s, we said. The officer debarked. A few minutes later, a white-haired, rosy-cheeked, near-retirement white male got on the bus. (His appearance didn't match Hillstreet's Phil, but his demeanor & personal style did: more about this Hillstreet Blues garbage later.) "Folks, I'm Captain" (B____, I think he said, but I'm not sure). "We're just as anxious to get through this quickly as you are. Now we're not going to book any of you, we just want to get through this and on with our work. What we're going to do is start with everyone who has i.d." Well of course we stopped him right there & said that we couldn't do it that way, that the no-i.d.s had to go first before any of us would sign our citations (& the implied threat was non-cooperation: it didn't matter that we had physical i.d.s on us, we could all be technically non-i.d.s ourselves by simply refusing to sign, or refusing to give the info needed, on the citation). He didn't like this at all, of course. "The no-i.d.s take longer," he said. (The three women had assured us they wouldn't lie about their names & that they had phone numbers for verification & that they had no outstanding warrants, & so we were taking them at their word in our negotiations.) "We'll have to run them through the computer. & make phone calls. Etc. Since we can only process four people in ten minutes [it turned out they were faster than that], they'll just be holding up the rest of you." We expressed concern that they might be booked if we agreed to be processed. We didn't mention, as we were negotiating, the SPD's tendency to single out three or four individuals for special treatment, nor that our bargaining power lay in solidarity. It was clear it would have ruined their day if we'd all refuse to cite-out & force them into booking us because first, they didn't have enough people there to book us; second, they have limited space; and third, it costs $100 per person to book & there were thirty-nine of us just on that bus, which meant it would have cost them $4000 just to book us. The basis of the negotiation was understood, not spoken. No threats were issued on either side; there was just laughing & smiling & smalltalk with the Captain. Finally we agreed to be concurrently processed while the officers started establishing the no-i.d.s' identity. One of the women doing the talking referred to the "twinkle in your [i.e., the Captain's] eye" etc.

So okay, then some of us started moving around the bus (we'd been doing that anyway to discuss our position before negotiations—with police present, of course, since they not unexpectedly refused to give us privacy when we requested it), & the Goldbloom character cut loose some of the plastic & replaced it with looser binders (because some people had circulation cut off, & an older woman—60s, maybe even 70s—she told me about doing CD in Nevada at the test missile site where you just keeping going back & getting rearrested because they don't want to hassle with you there, even though it's federal, presumably because it would then be in the news all the time—had an obviously painful arm, though she didn't say anything)—& then we got more of this word-of-honor stuff from the officers, & the Goldbloom-type made a speech about how we have to be wearing our binders when we leave the bus (the inference he wanted us to draw being that he'd get in trouble if we weren't, & of course we wouldn't want to get him into trouble, would we). I'm not sure that I could have gotten out of mine or not. I decided not to try because I didn't want to have a new piece of plastic wrapped around my wrists more tightly than the first one. (One guy had deep welts in his wrists & had a painful time regaining his circulation.)

At a certain point, one of the precinct officers boarded the bus, to give us a piece of his mind. "The Lieutenant," he was referred to when we later asked another officer who he was. This guy was black & nicely dressed in plainclothes. & he was furious at us. We should all be booked, he said, we should all be in jail because we had interfered with lawful police business, blah blah blah. He was fairly snarling & foaming at the mouth, & was sure as hell radiating a lot of bottled-up violence. He snarled when someone pointed out that the captain had said no one would be booked and said he didn't care what the captain had promised... which then of course raised concerns about whether we had been hoodwinked. (At that point I recalled the Lawyers' Guild warning never to believe anything any police officer tells you when you're in custody.) We knew we still had leverage, because at least half of us were still waiting to be cited-out. So we halted our cooperation, & another officer came & told us that if there were no warrants etc. no one would be booked, that if the captain said it then it was true, it was his precinct, that the Lieutenant was just a little pissed-off...

Okay, here's where I have to insert something about the difference I could feel through the whole thing for my being middle class & white. Not since living in New Orleans have I been so acutely aware of such privilege. Consider: they asked the older (white) man in a clerical collar whether he was sure he wanted to be arrested; they very carefully helped up the old (white) woman when they were arresting her (as though they were helping an old lady across the street); they asked me if I had a weapon instead of patting me down, they sometimes said please, they referred to me as "this lady here," & the woman sergeant made small talk with me, telling me that we (meaning officers and demonstrators collectively) "must have done something right to get weather like this, I thought sure it would be raining & we'd be into our yellows" & I in turn point out how beautifully sharp the Olympics are today. The first thing that occurred to me on the bus—specifically with the Goldbloom character & the sergeant—was that they identified with most of us in a really elemental way—i.e., they saw us as being just like themselves (& I seem to recall at least one of the officers saying s/he was against military aid to El Salvador). Then, when we were sitting outside the precinct, & most especially for the two times the captain came on the bus to speak to us, I was aware that they probably also see us as the taxpayers they're working for (in a way they likely never think of people in the black community, & especially not people arrested for things other than political protest). & then when the black lieutenant came on the bus to snarl, this unspoken underlying sociopolitical operation became stark.

With the feds everything would have been different. First, they'd just as soon have booked all of us: they don't have to worry about where the money comes from to book seventy arrestees, they don't have to worry about keeping in good with white middle-class taxpayers the way city police have to, & they don't in any way, shape, or form identify themselves as like us—au contraire, we're the enemy, we're subversive, we're trouble-makers out to rock the boat. & thus they want to be as mean & unpleasant to us as possible. This is the way the city police used to feel: & I imagine still do feel in other cities than Seattle; but here the nice-rule breaks down only when demonstrators don't play along with the temporarily altered rules of the game. But even so, I imagine that in D____'s case, probably the officers who exerted "excessive force" took some flak from above (even though their fellow officers were likely supportive). To use another example, the anti-abortion demonstrators take the most brutal treatment, because they're the most obstreperous. The personal element comes into it again. & also their reputation for being extremists—a reputation I don't think Central American-issues activists have.

It's pretty clear that in Seattle anyway press interest in actions depends upon whether there are arrests or not. (Now that I've been through this very mild experience it seems almost funny to think how most people who've never done civil disobedience have a sort of awe about it—the press especially, but also people like Reverend Cook, who made a speech about "putting one's body, mind, & spirit on the line" or some such thing (& then afterwards thanked us individually & shook our hands as we stood blocking the entrance to the Fed Bldg—a little inappropriately, considering we had to break the line of our linked arms to shake his hand). So an action has intrinsically more kick if people are arrested—whether they block traffic or not. (It's easy to see one could do a lot of traffic obstruction without necessarily getting arrested. And it's true that when protestors decide impromptu to march down the street during a rally, the cops don't try to stop them but simply do their best to reroute traffic. After yesterday, I understand now why that is. Also, I'm gathering from the news footage that even when motorists are pissed-off at being stuck in traffic, they generally end their angry remarks with the statement: "Well it's their right to protest, if they feel they have to...") But as for getting arrested: "Wow, what commitment!" is the response. Someone the other day pointed out that when protestors are detained, the press stay interested & keep recapping the action. That's something to be borne in mind, along with all the other reasons the city police don't want to have to deal with booking protestors.

So one can start to speculate about possible tactics and strategies using civil disobedience that goes farther than the initial arrest on the street. Some tactics probably wouldn't work more than a single time, because if it caused enough of a headache, the hierarchy would be prepared for it the next time. It's obvious they were determined to be prepared this time, having been caught with their pants down the last time, when we took the freeway. I can just picture the big boys sitting around swearing they're never going to pull that kind of stunt on us again, not even if it means putting all kinds of people back into uniform & out on the street: ergo, E.C. M_____ having to shave his beard for the occasion. God I wish I'd had my hands free for taking notes! I would have loved to have been writing full, detailed descriptions & making sure I got all the names right & so on. Or if I'd been carrying a tape-recorder! After all, they didn't ask me if I had a tape recorder concealed on my person!

So was doing C.D. empowering? Not in the way I'd thought; but it was empowering in that it's given me a sense of how being willing to make trouble as a group can give one a lot of leverage for negotiating in situations where the people you're dealing are operating under constraints that don't touch, say, federal police. I can see now why D____ & her friends wanted to go no-i.d.—except in their case it proved a mistake, since they were hauled off separately, in squad cars, and kept isolated from the rest of us, who knew nothing of what was going on with them. Communications is everything: we desperately wanted to let the people on the second bus know about our three no-i.d.s (especially when we heard they'd started scrawling graffiti all over the walls of the cell in which they were being held). Though now when I think about it, it strikes me that it would still be possible, after the fact, for people willing to be arrested to simply present themselves at the place of detention & & demand the release of those who'd been booked—as long as the group were large enough to make it costly to the police to arrest them.

Strangely, once one has cited-out one has the sense of losing one's leverage for jail solidarity, when in fact all one would have to do would be to be re-arrested as a group. (This is why when demos last long enough people sometimes go back to the scene & sit again in the intersection or whatever; because of this, it strikes me that further sorts of civil disobedience away from the original scene of the action would seem logical...)

I need to think more about all this. The possibilities are intriguing. I need to reread Barbara Deming's book & look at other accounts of civil rights activists' nonviolent direct actions. This is a well-developed area of political practice, meaning that an enormous variety of strategies have been used: I'm after all just a babe in the woods.

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