Number 59

Principal author:
John L. Clark


I describe the experience of being arrested while participating in the recent Tar Sands Action.

At 1515 on August 22 I became a free man again; I was released from Washington, D.C. metropolitan police custody without any arraignment for my charges. About 52 hours earlier, at 1134 on Saturday, August 20, I was arrested in front of the White House by Washington, D.C. Park Police SWAT team officers and charged with failure to obey their orders to disperse our protest. I and 64 others were arrested in response to our protest of the Keystone XL oil pipeline in particular, and decisions that exacerbate global warming in general. The police assigned me number 59.

This number, my identification, was attached to me with a blue bracelet that joined the plastic handcuffs that already restrained my arms behind my back. Handcuffs abruptly stripped me of the use of my arms and hands. This is obvious; what is not obvious is the personal and constricting sense of loss and alarm that accompanies their use. They bit into my wrists, and the back handcuffs put a constant and unrelenting pressure on my shoulders. Then the police packed us shoulder-to-shoulder in a sequence of vans, with maybe half a meter of space between the seat and a bisecting wall. How do you arrange your displaced arms and hands in order to sit?

It was a hot and humid day. We had planned to dress formally to symbolize the serious nature of the decision and of our protest. Any added discomfort could be considered a dress rehearsal for a warmer future world. The word "stuffy" is particularly apropos to describe the conditions inside the vans after they had corralled us into them. We lurched around and sweated against our fellow activists as the van sped away, with sirens blaring, to the first of several locations where they would hold us. When we arrived, we crouched and waited in ignorance and anxiety for a time, until they finally let us out. They claimed beneficence in allowing us to wait on the sidewalk instead of in the vans; it might have been strictly dangerous to keep us in the vans for the hours we waited to be processed.

I was most strongly affected whenever they moved us in the vans, for it was then that I was most aware of the degree to which I had surrendered my agency and my autonomy to others. In all I actually suffered very little, and quite a bit less than some of my fellow activists, who had particularly tight handcuffs or back problems or issues with the heat. I remember seeing Bill McKibben grimace in response to sharp pain several times, and a different kind of heat flashed through me each time.

Eventually they did divest us of everything but one layer of clothing. We learned later that this caused our fellow women—who had been processed first and separately—more distress than it did us, as they ended up in a particularly cold location and their clothing generally provided less covering. Hunger increased, but we managed. They divided us into groups of a dozen or more in small holding cells designed for one person. It was after midnight before they transported the last of us, including me, to the jail. Importantly, they actually had food there, even if it was only minimalist cheese or bologna sandwiches.

The jail cells were cages. For the first time we were truly behind bars; the cells also had a layer of steel mesh as well as two steel shelves that were intended as beds. Trying to sleep on them was an aching exercise in balancing pain and need. Each cell had its own light, which they never turn off. Jail provides no cycles or rhythm, only constancy in confinement.

Thankfully, we still had each other. We learned about our fellow activists through conversation and quizzes, and we kept our spirits up. We waited, and we prayed. Sunday dragged on, so at one point I asked the guard, who was briskly making his rounds, if I could receive Eucharist. He scoffed at me and trotted off. A few of us, including me, were moved from that jail to another one in the middle of the afternoon. There was a nice thunderstorm underway; we could just barely see it through the little grated windows in the front and rear of the van, but of course we could hear it everywhere. I remember seeing the rain pour down for a moment before they impelled me into the new facility. Our cells there had more bars, but no mesh. The lights were brighter. It was still Sunday, so I reiterated my request for Eucharist; that guard flatly denied my request. We did receive the last of the sandwiches that night.

Some very interesting discussion about nonviolent resistance and other topics passed between our cells. We again fought our steel or concrete beds for sleep. The hours dragged on, and at last, early on Monday, they moved us again. At the new facility we encountered US Marshals, who handled us more gruffly. They shackled our legs, but at least we were all back together. The bars there were red. We expected that we would finally get to see a lawyer and a judge. Again we supported one another, and again we waited. Then, in midafternoon, they released us.

Throughout, our guards were generally quite careful about the way they treated us. As one of my fellow protesters put it, though, “the structure of our confinement [was] clearly penal”.

I now have a concrete basis for my once cerebral sympathy for others who suffer imprisonment and punishment. Mine was just the briefest taste of the suffering that too many others have experienced, but I still feel a growing sense of solidarity with current heroes such as Tim DeChristopher and Bradley Manning, as well as with those who fought oppression during the Civil Rights and Vietnam protests, and with so many others. I now possess a basis on which to value my freedom. I hold my fellow protesters in deep admiration and respect, and I am proud to have stood with them in protest of the intensifying destruction that we wreak on our world. We should never treat other people with the same inhuman contempt and disregard that we, and so many others before and beyond us, were forced to accept.

This page was first published on 2011-08-25 10:01:00-04:00.

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