Ten years ago today (March 20, 2003) I was arrested for my first act of civil disobedience protesting the launch of the Iraq War. This was after months of peaceful organizing against this possibility and came after much self-reflection. This is the reflection I wrote ten years ago about the experience.
My First Time:
It’s nothing unique for me to remark in hindsight that my first time was nothing like I had expected it to be. I know this to be true for many people. It’s impossible to know what you are getting involved in until the deed is done, and you have had some time to reflect on the entire experience, from start to finish.
My first time came on March 20th, 2003, and I will certainly never forget a moment of it. How our eyes first met from across the street, and I knew, instantly, whether I was ready or not, that the dance had begun. The first thing I remember feeling was sadness, which was a very surprising emotion, considering how long I had anticipated this event. But I was sad, because I knew I was using this person for my own purposes, and was not taking into account their feelings at all. And really, now that I was actually in the moment, I realized how important their involvement was to what I was doing.
Then he smiled at me. It was not a smile of friendship, but rather a smile of mutual recognition of the dance we were now committed to. I would not go out of my way to force his hand, but we both knew he would soon arrest me. And with good reason. I was one of a few thousand people, some alone like myself, but the vast majority participating in organized affinity groups, that had shown up on Market St. in San Francisco’s Financial District on the first official day of our new War in the Gulf, to show their strong disagreement with the current administration’s foreign policy. Of the five-thousand or so who showed up, 1400 would eventually be arrested for acts of Civil Disobedience, and processed through a makeshift police station at Pier 27 rented by the city that day for this very purpose.
There are a lot of stories I could share from this experience. Like the fact that after spending hours in a holding cell, I found out I was officially charged with J-walking, or what it is like to have your hands bound behind your back for three and a half hours, much tighter than you think you can endure, or of the friendships made on the Muni bus I was loaded onto along with another 50 arrestee’s, or best of all the sounds and smells of pier 27 bursting to the seems with people who found arrest to be the last option for voicing their dissent. But it was that initial dance with my arresting officer, and the relationship we had for the few minutes it took him to cuff me and walk me to my awaiting bus to pier 27, that stuck out in my mind, and will never leave me.
Legally, once you initiate a crime, you are responsible for all that occurs thereafter. For instance, in the case of a bank robber, if a cop is killed during the robbery by bullets from another cops gun who is attempting to end the stand off, the robber can be charged with his murder, even though it actually was committed by another police officer. In my case, I knew that once I had initiated that dance, I was responsible, not just legally, but morally, for everything that followed. This was what made me sad. The realization that I was using this cop, and putting him in a situation that I can only imagine he had no desire to be a part of. It was something that I was theoretically prepared for. I have taken part in countless non-violence and civil disobedience workshops over the years. Yes, I had heard this sort of thing discussed, dissected and explained, but in practice, I found it entirely more intense than I had ever imagined.
As much as I was fully prepared to make the arrest as easy on him as possible, it took every ounce of self-control I had to not suddenly buy into the part of the wronged. Lets face it, no matter how you end up there, being cuffed feels like an injustice. You are being bound, and are losing control of your movement, with the knowledge that the situation will continue, and perhaps grow more confining, in the time to come. So, even though I was arrested because I wanted to be, I had to fight hard against the impulse to resist, to struggle, to fight back. And fighting back is exactly what I knew I needed not to do. Not just for myself, but again, because it was just not the right way to treat this human who I had already forced into an uncomfortable position.
I should also describe the scene around us. Mobs of well meaning people who knew that the police officers of San Francisco were not their enemy, yet who desperately, out of their personal feelings of impotence, needed a reachable target. Suddenly the men and women in blue, wielding weapons because we had forced them into a defensive posture on purpose, now looked like that target. Mob mentality is a scary thing. Strength in numbers, especially when fueled by perceived righteousness, can spin out of control in a hurry. I have no doubt that, removed from the present circumstances, most of the protestors assembled there would give very sane descriptions of what they would do in that theoretical situation. But the situation was not theoretical at all. The people chained to each other across Market St. were every bit as real as the fears of the police who had encircled them, and who were themselves encircled by a much larger mob of people they could only perceive as unpredictable.
As I was being led through these many circles, I was seen as a momentary hero by the other protestors. They saw me as one who had been wronged by our new, false, enemy. Many things were loudly shouted in my direction. “Way to go!” “Keep your chin up.” “screw the police!” “Be proud.” I felt an urge to mug for the cameras that were snapping the photo of the young man with long hair in the ‘Peaceful American Patriot’ shirt being lead in cuffs by a police officer. I was that guy. I was suddenly, and momentarily, a symbol of many things. Too many things. I was unexpectedly confused. Was this a moment of victory, or shame? Was I supposed to be proud of the fact that my country is so messed up that I felt moved to get arrested in protest? Even in my confused state, I knew the answer was a definitive ‘no.’
As I was frisked, catalogued, and loaded onto the bus that would be my home for the next several hours, I finally found the peace and space to begin contemplating what had just happened. I knew immediately that I had done the right thing, had comported myself well. But it still felt empty. It did not feel like the definitive next step that I sensed the movement needed. I was acting out of desperation, no longer concerned with the consequences, hoping just to signal to others in the world community that there were Americans horrified by their countries foreign policy. But to make this struggle work, to make it sustainable, this was not the best course. So then, what next?
As I look back, roughly two weeks later, I still don’t know exactly what that next step is. But it is starting to come into focus. I find myself thinking about Gandhi a lot. What would he have thought of the actions taken on Market St. that day? What would he do now? What is our salt boycott? And I think he might just smile if he knew the ideas coming together in my head. I won’t divulge them here, but stay tuned; this was my first time, not my last.