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.