Monday, June 16, 2008

My Guantanamo Experience

Our organizing project met about a week before the Camp4Unity event to discuss how the arrests would go down. When we'd talked about civil disobedience before, the notion was to get a delegation of clergy and others up to the Mayor's office and then refuse to leave. In recent days, this idea had come unraveled. The Nickels people, as is their propensity on the sweeps issue, weren't open to a meeting. The seventh floor office is built like a fortress with a receptionist behind glass and security doors. It looked like this route would most likely unfold as a group of people sitting in the Mayor's sterile lobby until closing time and then being arrested too late for the evening news. Not a real attractive idea.

I arrived to the planning meeting a little late. This was my Bleed for the Homeless morning, and my hands were numbed by stinging nettles. I was running on no sleep and adrenaline propped up by Adderall. Activists from Jobs with Justice and the Student Labor Action Project were already in our conference room with our staff and a few other organizing project members. I showed them the drawing I rescued from the trash that morning. "Here's something to rip your fucking heart out," I think I said. I was feeling pretty raw.

These were some of the people who planned to risk arrest at Camp4Unity. We didn't really have a working plan yet. "I have one idea," I said, "but it's a good one."

I'd run this by staff already to good reviews, and happily, it went over here as well. We'd link the CD to the memorial service, keep it simple, and we'd be in cuffs by ten a.m. A group would simply walk out into the street to halt oncoming traffic. Others would follow with a few tents, and we'd sit down in the street. The message was that the homeless sweeps are a human and civil rights atrocity, and that people need to stop and pay attention. Our arrests would be a way to withdraw consent from how the City does business.

No one blinked. "That'll work," someone said. After that, the discussion was pure logistics. Where in the street? Negotiations with police or not. Timing and program. We reached consensus in less than an hour. It was cool.

We agreed there was no reason to surprise the cops, and much to be gained by negotiating as much control over the process as we could. I agreed to make the calls. SEIU had blocked traffic in a labor action recently, and their organizer gave me the contact of the woman who did the advance work. She was in Puerto Rico, but she answered her cell.

Not a big deal, she said. In their case, the Mayor's office put them in touch with the City Attorney, and withing fifteen minutes the right cops were on the phone with them to work out how things would go down. They acted like pros. Jail booking, she said, was King County. I should call Ron Sims' office and talk to them.

I was having fun. The last time I'd done something like this was more than fifteen years ago, but it's like riding a bike. That time, I'd found myself alone in a small crowded room with brass from Massachusetts Statehouse Security, Boston cops, and State Troopers. It was a large CD at the Statehouse, which made it a multi-jurisdictional arrest scenario. The cops were polite and all business. The arrests went smoothly. No one got hurt. They set up processing in the Statehouse basement. We were all released within hours. This was the goal here.

It only took a few phone calls to reach the right person at King County. She was labor and easy to work with. While no guarantees were offered, she said it was in no one's interest to keep us there. They'd be ready. We'd probably be out by mid-afternoon. There would be lunch. A vegetarian option was available but the food wasn't very good. I laughed. I wondered whether her next question would be aisle or window. "It's OK," I said. We weren't really counting on lunch being part of the deal.

The City Attorney's office wasn't quite so helpful. Someone later told me that Tom Carr thinks we're all insane, and that we're in favor of people living in filth and squalor. It amazes me sometimes how obtuse smart people can choose to be. I explained that we were planning an arrest in the street on Monday morning, and needed to negotiate with police. After some time on hold, I was referred to the Citizens Service Bureau, the City's all purpose referral line. This, I knew, was stupid, but I called them anyway. I was transferred and put on hold a few more times before I was referred to the Traffic Sargent. This led me to the phone tree from hell, where I had seven different traffic supervisors to potentially leave messages for. I randomly chose two and waited. The return call came a few hours later.

I should call City operations and get a permit, he said. "I'm not sure you understand," I explained. "We intend to get arrested. I don't think the City gives permits for that."

There was a pause. "No," he said. "You wouldn't."

"This falls between the cracks," he said. "Usually groups get a permit for an event, and if they're going to do something illegal, they don't tell us."

By now, I was beginning to feel like I was speaking in some sort of an arcane language that only a few scholars had mastered. "Look," I said. "We're going to do this, and we're just trying to do it responsibly. Who can I talk to?" He said someone would call.

I got an email from someone in the City, asking whether we wanted a permit to go into the street. This made me smile. I ignored it and called a friend in Councilmember Licata's office to see if she knew any police brass who weren't idiots. She did. A few calls later, I was on the phone with Sargent Lou Eagle. He knew the drill. I was finally on familiar ground.

"What do you want," he asked. "These are people who plan to cooperate," I said. "We don't need any unnecessary dramatics or force. We don't want to be prevented from going out into the street. We don't want you to block off both ends and leave us to have an all day street fair of we want." He laughed. "No. That won't happen," he said. "We need that street."

He assured me that arrests would be swift and said they'd prefer we allow police to direct traffic around us instead of blocking the whole street. Fine, I said. The charge would be pedestrian interference. We'd have a trained police liaison on site, and Eagle would be there directing things on his end. It would go smoothly.

"I don't know if you're expecting us to drive you all around the block and let you go," he said, "but we don't do that anymore. You'll most likely be taken to the jail. "Fine," I said. "I've already talked to them." I asked for precinct booking if possible, and Eagle said this was basically a political decision from higher up and he didn't know what would happen. I said I understood.

The morning went smoothly. Police said they'd be more open to precinct booking if we blocked Cherry instead of Fourth. Our group of CD folks took about three minutes to process the news and said that would work. Within two minutes a phalanx of bicycle cops had the intersection blocked and our bus was parked down the street. There were fifteen of us. Within ten minutes the arrests began.

While we waited Reverend Rich Lang told me he anticipated the removal of his large cross. I joked that perhaps their next step would be to remove his Alb and throw dice to see who gets to take it home.

The arrest was as by the numbers as they come. Three warnings on a bullhorn. Then, one by one, Miranda and a gentle walk to the bus. They took Polaroids on our way in as we emptied pockets into a brown bag and were cuffed. Inside the bus we were all high on adrenaline and having a nice time. Police were courteous. One person's cuffs were loosened immediately upon request. The drive to West Precinct was brief.

When we arrived, a stone faced cop boarded the bus. "Alright," he said. "I want every one's IDs."

One of us said they'd been taken and were in the bags. He looked at us as though we'd just refused an important request. "OK," he called out behind him. "They don't have any IDs." There was a perplexed silence. I saw this for what it was. Cop humor. "He's just fucking with us," I laughed. "You're fucking with us."

After that, they processed us by two's out of the back of the bus. We were given our stuff back as they checked our addresses. They were nice to us. We'd been arrested at 9:30 am. By shortly after ten, we all stood on the sidewalk, free to go. We did a group photo. I'll post that when I get it. I was home enjoying a glass of wine by noon.

Not exactly Guantanamo. Guess they didn't want to mess with us.


Packratt said...

Glad to hear none of you had to spend any time in the King County Jail. Though, it's pretty expensive for the city to have people booked into that place so it stands to reason that's why you were let go off the bus.

I'd have to say, though, it was a pretty civil display of civil disobedience. The way it ought to be done I suppose.


Roger Weaver said...

I think next time, to be more effective, you all ought to stay home and meditate, just do nothing, that'd be far, far more effective. In fact, a strong case could be made that you would do more good if you all would just spend the rest of your life doing nothing at all. Do not speak, do not write- just do nothing. Please.

Anonymous said...

I read your blog regularly and am refreshed by your writing, you insight, and your tenacity in exposing the city and their bullshit. But as a longtime reader i have to call you on yours this time.

But how humanizing is it for people who resist to negotiate directly with their oppressor on the method on which they will be oppressed? What this tactic suggests is that a new front needs to be opened on these clowns running our city. That might mean you need more people, which might mean drawing other communities to be involved--
communities that operate outside the professional activist milieu.

The city is, and has demonstrated that they will do as they please in spite of how bad it looks. This history has come full circle and many folks who have moved here in the past 10 or so years have yet to see the full cycle. Some of us who have been all the way through it have. It has to cost them more in power and money, then it "saves" them to conduct such acts of oppression in such a fascistic manner. That is all these people understand. There is little time to wait for them to become "compassionate". City hall learned how to carry on business as usual while allowing arranged protests long ago, and were pissed when that part of the social contract was broken in 1999. How dare we!

Somehow it occurs to me that if the problem gets solved, some people will be out of work...

Tim Harris said...

Well. That's a point of view. The notion that CD should be unmanaged and completely "in your face" to be effective is one I'm familiar with, and I've participated in these to good result. The question is what are you trying to accomplish?

Our goal was to radically elevate the visibility of this issue in the media, challenge the city frame that somehow the sweeps are being done responsibly, and establish our reputation as a group that knows how to stick with an issue, build bridges, and gradually escalate in tactics as need be.

There are gains and losses to a more militant approach to CD. One potential loss is in the media focus being on the drama of the arrest rather than the issue. This always happens anyway, but the more out of control the CD appears, the more open one is to loss of credibility. To bring people along, as you say is necessary, that credibility is essential.

Believe me, my assessment of the City is in line with yours, and perhaps beyond. We've been fighting this since September and know well what we're up against. So, what we have here is a tactical disagreement. Smart experienced people arrived at our decision by consensus. I believe we made exactly the right call, and took exactly the right approach to have powerful results.

Should you care to organize something more militant with your own credibility being on the line, please be my guest.

Anonymous said...

Tim, your line of reasoning is lost on me (#3), because you have assumed that I was calling for more "militant" civil disobedience. I was not. I was merely pointing out that this tactic is often overdone, and so often, I've seen movements stuck here as a means to promote the issue, and do little more to achieve concrete gains (but keep money flowing in). This is where most support for issues I've seen hit the wall and begin shrinking, or merely treading water for years.

I agree with you that there is an appropriate place for "militant" CD, and this might not be the place. But again, that was not the thrust of my criticism. Similarly, you suggesting that I am supposed to organize my own "militant" action and put my credibility on the line, falls flat. To make that suggestion is to invite outside people to engage in the sort of wing-nut adventurism that destroys the process and hurts the benefactors. That indicates a lack of respect--a sort of "well then show me yours", and a dismissive attitude toward a third (or fourth, or fifth) way of thinking about tactics.

What I was trying to get at, and maybe in dismissing the notion that I am advocating some form of militancy that will be more clear--is that there are a multitude of tactics that are on the same level of politicization of the community and the corresponding risk people are willing to put up with, but does not go as far as to capitulate to power while being an exercise in resistance as mere spectacle. This isn't a non-violence CD vs. militance argument, though it is easy to simplify and paint a critique of tactics in those terms to avoid the central issue. That issue that I was raising was that it is dehumanizing to negotiate the terms of ones oppression when there is no hope that oppressors will back off when things escalate (e.g. the police and courts).

You know as well as anyone that the police and the city government will kick our assess no matter how "nice" we've played in the beginning. The point is to make the cost of doing so so great that it opens up more room to take more power in opposition. Because taking power back is where things get done--not hoping people in power eventually see the light--though if one or two people do that is always helpful.

Maybe all it this latest thing does is empower people, but I think the jury is still out on that. Once it becomes the end-all-be-all you're done. People start drifting away. One becomes locked in a sort of issue isolation that can go on for years, while the power continues to erode what little we have left, and which leads to the perpetuation of a sort of non-profit bureaucracy.

Like I said earlier. You writing is good, and so are your insights. It would break my heart to see such clear minded analysis and action go down the tubes of non-profit activist hell.

This is what I meant by "opening a new front". The media front is simply one angle. Sometimes a movement needs to make links to folks that aren't necessarily mired in a specialized group in a specialized issue. All institutions of power have multiple pressure points, many of which are only accessible by other groups or people that are not necessarily active in your cause, but might have a stake in it, due to a natural affinity or connection or because they feel it is just the right thing to do.

I only have taken the time to respond because based on your words I consider you one of the most forward thinking advocates in town (at least of those that write) and it would be a shame to see that edge blunted by the "progressive" conservatism that allows the city to do their deeds.

Tim Harris said...

Anonymous. My generous assessment of your comments is that you don't know how to think and are hopelessly cynical. My less than generous assessment is that you are either a sell-out or a provocateur.

I have, along with Real Change, pushed the envelope on this issue as far as possible. We broke the story, have organized three tent cities, and have acted courageously and forthrightly from the beginning. To say that we're somehow more interested lining our nonprofit nest than creating change is unadulterated crap.

And, you can't argue with success. The public debate has radically shifted, and the Mayor's office has lost credibility on this issue. We can't take all of the credit for that. but we can take a lot of it. Our work has been consistent, public, and strong. The Mayor's office hasn't stopped the sweeps yet, but we're winning. And we're not going to stop.

I respect people's right to hide identity when it needs to happen, but this kind of BS sniping from behind the blinds doesn't exactly elevate my respect for you or your point of view.

Anonymous said...

Just remember--treat enough people like assholes and you'll realize over time that fewer will take you seriously. I'm done here.

signed, a potential ally that will think twice about giving you the benefit of the doubt.

Anonymous said...

Tim, your comparing your CD arrest to the egregious conditions at Guantanamo makes a mockery of the injustice our government has perpetrated on those detainees.

I agree with the previous Anonymous, if you don't stop this theater of parody, no one will take you seriously.

Tim Harris said...

"Theater of Parody." I like that. Maybe I'll rename the blog.

Apparently, the art of irony is lost on some of us. Thanks for the feedback, but I'll keep taking my chances.

Mike said...

Anonymous 1 and 2 (if you are indeed two different people) I have encountered your sort many times. Where are you when the hard work is done--when the decisions you love to pummel are being made?

You give criticism a bad name. Whether it's by design and conscious intent or not, you are a saboteur.

Please take none of this seriously. Please take the benefit of your doubt and be done. You are of no help here.

Anonymous said...

We're of no help?

And you?

There are still people who are homeless.