Reflections of a First Arrest

ArrestMy cousin Shelley has been joking with me ever since Occupy, “So, have you been arrested yet?” Until recently, the answer was always no. But things change…..

I am sharing this account of my arrest along with 16 other activists who chose to participate in an act of Civil Disobedience for countless other activists who have yet to go through the experience. I hope it helps in making the decision of whether or not to volunteer for arrest.

On Monday, June 8, 2015 we took to a major intersection in Hartford CT and held our position. Our signs and our voices proclaimed that Black Lives Matter. A notice from Moral Monday CT had announced an action but I wasn’t certain until I arrived what that action would be. When I arrived, a contingent was already in place, stretching across the crosswalk and blocking traffic, forcing police to redirect the flow. Sidewalks and above- street walkways were crowded with on-lookers. Familiar chants filled the air and I found myself in the company of amazing, dedicated, everyday people, some of whom I already knew and many of whom I was meeting for the first time. I took up the end of a large banner being held by a young man and together we faced in one direction of on-coming traffic. A white female passenger in a large car that was slowly making its way past us looked at my young partner and me and said “We should just run them all down.” As much as I wanted to respond with a hearty “Fuck you, lady!” I instead wished her a nice day, remembering that were all there representing not only a cause but also each other.

Those of us stretched across the road were a diverse crowd. Religious leaders from Christian and Unitarian churches, Pagans (yours truly), white people, black people, men, women, young people and older people, working people, retired people, students, experienced activists with a personal knowledge of what it means to get arrested and others, like myself, who were about to find out. I was at once feeling defiant and scared, brave and intimidated, certain and wondering what I was getting myself into. Internally, I kept asking if I was doing the right thing, if the risk of whatever lay ahead was worth it. The answer kept coming back with a “Hell yeah!” I was with leaders I respect and trust, people from the Hartford community from whom I continue to learn about engaging as an ally. What better time and what better cause could ever present itself for me to take the plunge?

I was on the street for approximately an hour when the moment of decision making arrived. An announcement was made that HPD was on the way to arrest anyone who did not clear the street. So Debra, what’s it gonna be? Two things helped me decide to stay. The first was the statement from one of our event leaders that there’d be “no hatin’ on anyone who decides to step back”. It made me realized that I was solely responsible for my decision and it was one that I and I alone, had to be proud of. The second was Sofia, the magnificently energized woman standing next to me, holding my hands as we all linked together. I recognized a friend on the sidewalk and I broke rank long enough to give her some belongings that I asked her to take for safe keeping. Returning to the line, I was greeted by Sofia’s hug, beaming smile and statement that she knew I’d be back.

Shortly after 5:00 p.m. HPD arrived and one by one we were led peacefully to the vans – women in one, men in another. As I got closer to the van and realized this was actually going down, my fist rose into the air as automatically as I breathe and from that moment on my warrior Goddess was engaged.

My first frisk… good grief.   A female officer grabbed the front center of my bra over my shirt and gave it a shake. No ma’am, I’m not hiding weapons in my bra, I thought to myself. Thanks for giving me the opportunity to publicly rearrange myself. Into the van we went along a long narrow seat. The vans were divided and separated down the middle by a floor to ceiling wall so there’s not much room in front of the seats and people’s knees. Nor are there seat belts. One by one, my new family joined me and we had a limited view of what was happening outside. What we COULD see very clearly were the small streaks of dried blood on the van’s center wall directly in front of us. I asked one of the officers if there was any disinfectant spray to get rid of it. The answer… “No, we don’t have anything like that but don’t worry. It won’t hurt you. Just don’t touch it.” Very nice. If this was found on an ambulance there would certainly be consequences.

We arrived at the police station at approximately 5:30 and were immediately told to sit down and remove the shoe laces from our shoes. Really? Really?????????? Laces, belts, jewelry, personal possessions all went into sealed plastic bags that were tagged with our names. When this little bit of business was finished we were frisked again. I asked about the chances that we really had armed ourselves during transport but got no answer. The cops had much less of a sense of humor than the rest of us. Following the frisk, eight of us were put in a cell and I heard the proverbial clank of the door slamming shut and there we were – eight women, some of us strangers before that afternoon, now facing charges and unsure of how long we’d be there together. We were black, white and Hispanic, straight and lesbian and we all began to share who we were and why we were there. It is also where we began to check in with each other to make sure everyone was doing okay. Woman power was in the house!

We were all called out one by one for mug shots and finger printing and signing papers. Finger prints are done electronically these days. It was busy and at times the cops looked frazzled, one not knowing what the other was doing. We did nothing to provoke them but neither did we do anything to make their jobs easier. And then came the famous phone call! Never in my life before activism took over did I imagine that I’d be making “that” call. I called home, said I was in the pokey and had no idea at all of how long I’d be there – I’d call when I was out. I was then returned to the cell.

One of the things we talked about in that cell was whether or not we would post bail or elect to stay if they decided to keep us. It was a unanimous decision to stay. One of our group was bailed out by her wife before they had a chance to talk about it and when she asked if she could refuse the posted bail and stay she was told no. She left with hugs and assurance that we’d keep her with us in spirit. After some time, they began to call us out and told us were being transferred to a different jail. At first I thought that applied to everyone but they only took four of us and I still don’t know why. It was at this point that the experience escalated on the emotion scale because not only was there a third frisk but I became personally acquainted with metal shackles. Yes, metal shackles used on prisoners who pose dangerous threats, shackles used on ‘bad’ people. With my hands up on the wall in front of me and my feet spread behind me, I was told to lift first one leg and then the other. It was at this point that I called out to the women still behind in the cell that “the shit gets real now” and I looked at the cop who was shackling me with another “Really??????” Before being loaded into the van, three of us were also shackled together by the wrists along a chain. I was horrified and amused at the same time and thought of scenes from movies where escapees had to get rid of their chains in order to make their get-away.

When we got to the second destination we were unshackled at our wrists but the ankle jewelry remained. Here’s important information: Metal shackles, no matter how loose around bare ankles, hurt when you walk. Wear socks! We were also frisked again. They really like that. We were put into a cell and waited for an explanation of what would come next. We again talked about ourselves, checked in with each other and used humor to pass the time in a cell that was too cold, with a toilet that afforded a view of the sitter’s left leg to people outside the cell. We had to ask for toilet paper and there was no soap to use with the ice cold water that trickled from the sink. They fed us two sandwiches. One was white bread with one slice of American cheese and the other was white bread with two slices of something that was supposed to be baloney. We asked if we could order from the GMO and gluten free menus but once again, our sense of humor was far superior to theirs. Seriously, no consideration was made for health or religious food requirements. Not all of us ate. It was during this time that we talked at length about the relative ease with which we were able to handle our incarceration compared to the terror that might be faced by a young black boy or black man locked up for little or no reason. How different would their treatment be? What were the chances they’d be released in any reasonable time? What were the chances they’d even make it as far as we did after being arrested? That was, after all, part of the reason we stood our ground on the street.

We asked for the time when we were visited by a woman from the court who was there to interview us in order to determine whether or not we would be held or let out on a PTA (Promise to Appear). It was 8:15 p.m. We answered questions about our age, place of birth, education, drug or alcohol use, whether we rent or own our homes, how long we’ve lived there, whether or not we have health insurance and if so, with what company, whether we were employed and if so where, did we have any children and if so, did they live with us. She said she’d be back with an answer in about an hour and a half or so. She was way too perky for my mood and I was happy to see her go. Up to this point officers only came by the cell once every 15 minutes to check on us but shortly after Ms. Perky left, a female officer came by and seemed to want to “chat”. “So, why are you here?” “We participated in the Black Lives Matter event.” “Black Lives Matter…. What is that?” “You work in this building and you surely know what Black Lives Matter refers to.” She tried to engage us in a conversation about good cops and bad cops and our combined sense was that she was trying to test whether or not we were really candidates for being let out on a PTA. I honestly believe that her job was to identify which of us were trouble makers and should be kept in jail. We didn’t cooperate. We stopped participating in conversation. She lost. I was happy to see her go, also. We seemed to simultaneously realize that volunteering information and trusting in the apparent good will of officers was not in our best interest. I offer that as an important point to be remembered by anyone who is arrested for the first time. Officers who have you locked behind bars are not your friends and you are not guests at their party.

Ultimately it was determined that we were not threats to national security, that we wouldn’t run for the hills causing a national woman-hunt and that we could be transported back to our first jail to be released without threat to the community. But first… we had to be frisked again! Shackles reappeared on our wrists. We made our way to the van and back to our starting point. The cops there greeted us with relief that one of us in particular was okay because information was being posted on facebook that she was sick and they weren’t allowing her access to her medications. For the record, that didn’t happen. Our belongings were returned to us and we left by the side entrance. It was approximately 10:45 p.m.

As a group of our fellow arrestees and other supporters, after standing vigil outside the station until our release, greeted us with welcoming hugs and a bit of joyous noise, I thought of the word “family” a lot. I was grateful for every single one of the people there. It was then that we learned that the four of us women were the last to be let go. As anxious as I was to get home and begin the process of sorting out everything that happened, I also wanted to stay there for a while with these people to whom I was now connected in an indescribable way. The power of community and shared vision is what keeps us strong. It is a power which can make an experience such as this one less (if only slightly) intimidating. It is a power which reminds us that as activists, what we do is important enough to risk the indignities of arrest.

We are all due in court on June 17th.   Prior to that we are meeting for a debriefing of what we’ve shared so far and what we can expect when we go to court. At that meeting I’ll be asking about possible reasons why four of us were singled out for prolonged detention, separated from the rest of our group. I will also ask for advice on the best way to follow up on that nasty bit of blood in the van business. It’s not over until it’s over… my warrior Goddess is still engaged.

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8 Responses to Reflections of a First Arrest

  1. ubenmaat says:

    While I understand the need to openly and noticeably protest this large problem, there’s an issue that I’m struggling with. How do you reconcile the assumed benefit of your protest with the very real fact that you’re making hundreds of people’s lives unnecessarily difficult? People who are tired and under-slept, who work too long at their poorly paid jobs, who may or may not have children to get home to.

    I’m not talking about the cities or surrounding areas where the murders take place. Those areas have the right to raise holy Hell, to express the full potential of their rage at society’s indifference and injustice.

    I think Black Lives Matter is wholly worth protesting, marching, and even getting arrested for. It is worth making trouble for the cops and the nation’s establishment. What I don’t understand is why this has to be done in a way purposely designed to make the lives of everyday citizens worse.

  2. Debra says:

    Thank you for asking your question. It is one that I’ve been asking myself since actions such as ours began. I do understand the disruption caused to others and had to think long and hard about participating should the opportunity come up. Here are some thoughts that I hope you will consider:

    Most folks who disagree with traffic slow / shut downs raise the issue of inconvenience. It is my hope and goal that the experience opens discussions about inconvenience vs. the daily, monthly, yearly conditions endured by countless communities around the nation that prompt such actions. If just one or two of the inconvenienced travelers goes home to think about a national crisis that hasn’t had his or her full attention before now, we’ve moved one step closer to engaging the nation in thinking about a solution. If one person stuck in traffic, who has been sympathetic to the cause but uninvolved in working toward solutions is motivated to become so engaged, we’ve moved another step closer to building a more just society.

    I’ve been thinking about several recent times when I’ve been stuck in traffic in or near Hartford. One was just a few weeks ago on I91, driving home from New Haven. Stuck behind cars moving at a snail’s pace, we didn’t know the cause of the delay until we reached the area where work was being done to repair a broken and dangerous section of the road. While I had every right to be frustrated with the delay, would it have been reasonable for me to say that the work shouldn’t be done because it caused an inconvenience? I offer that the work we were doing when we occupied the intersection was akin to the road work being done during my drive home from New Haven. In each case, something was being done to address immediate and potentially life-threatening problems.

    We survive traffic inconveniences all the time but rarely suggest that the causes of the congestion should be eliminated. Trying to navigate traffic after a sports or theater event can last the better part of an hour in Hartford yet no one is heard to say that the arenas and theatres should be closed. Coming home from a fair last year, the parking lot was so jammed it took more than an hour just to exit onto the street and town traffic was slowed to a near stop for miles. I’ve not heard a single suggestion that the fair be discontinued. I understand that these situations can all be anticipated by those who choose to participate but they certainly have a negative impact on motorists who are totally uninvolved with the cause of delays.

    Driving home at the end of the work day can be the ultimate in fatigue and frustration here in the Hartford area on any given day of the work week. People, while unhappy with it, take it as a given. It is a price they are willing to pay on a daily basis for the opportunity to access their job. I hope that our temporary disruption on June 8 was a price at least some motorists were willing to pay in order to bring attention to a national source of shame. Would I prefer a less disruptive way to share the dual message of Black Lives Matter and the fact that our nation must start paying serious and collective attention? I most certainly would. But our collective national rallies, marches, community meetings with police departments and letters to the editors of our newspapers haven’t moved us very much forward. The reason, in my opinion, is that no one has been sufficiently “inconvenienced” by those actions. No one has been forced to literally stop and think about why people are protesting.

    The rate of disrespect, disenfranchisement and dismissal aimed at Black communities is no longer being tolerated. A way to send that message must be found and what we did was an attempt to deliver the message. Was it right or wrong? That depends to a large degree not only on how much racism affects our personal lives but also the degree to which we care.

    I will end with the observation that while the events making national headlines regarding the targeting of Black Americans have taken place in cities other than Hartford, it should be noted that Hartford is not without its own concerns. The potential for police brutality exists in every city where communities of color are afforded less respect than their neighbors. Our action on June 8 was not only to remind the community at large of the problem but also to let the police department know that we are paying attention. Just on the off chance that a future disaster might be avoided by such an action, I believe it was worth the short lived traffic inconveniences.

    Respectfully……
    Debra

  3. saffronrose says:

    I remember hearing Starhawk say (or perhaps I read it–how many decades ago now?) “The first time I was arrested…” I think my brain stopped right there. FIRST TIME? Gah, I am such a whitebread at times. What you’ve written made more of an impact on me than her story. I don’t know if I will find myself needing to do something positive for which I may be arrested to calm someone’s exaggerated fears. I’m 61. Not like I’ve got a career to worry about, and I live in the SF Bay Area, where activism of any kind is rife (and that’s a good thing). You’ve given me an idea of what I might face (I’ll remember the socks, which I may have to buy, as my feet sweat when confined), and precautionary notes. I don’t think I have a pair of shoes which lace.

  4. ubenmaat says:

    Wow, thanks for such a detailed reply. Those are all really good points. Especially the comparisons between the protest and road work/theater/etc. Thank you.

  5. Joshua Harrington says:

    Debra, you are my hero. I hope we can stand together some day. Thank you for giving me such a thoughtful response to the inconvenience question.

  6. Debra says:

    Joshua, we’re all in this together in one way or another! I’m glad my response reached you.

  7. Debra says:

    Thank you for considering what I wrote.

  8. Debra says:

    Take an extra shirt or jacket, too. It was cold in the cells!

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