Jan. 15, 2007

Every morning in this house, we talk about the terror war and sometimes we argue over it. Two out of three of us feel shame and anger at the rush to violence, the mean-spirited ignorance, and the gall of the governing.

One of us feels differently on this topic, but I can’t account for that.

Our street corner summits are different. We are unanimous in our agreement that United States public policy on extending the war reflects something other than American opinion. So, as I can, I place my person in front of power to be counted against the invasion and occupation of Iraq, because I am your citizen.

The casual comment of a friend during one of our street corner summits was to portend the event for me, “You don’t really know this country, until you’ve been to jail,” he said. “It’s a cultural experience.” He had been in 1970 and was sent on a very fast path from his cell to the fields of Vietnam, at which point began another cultural experience.

My time was different, but I would agree with him now, that you do not know this country until you go to jail. Then you might have a tiny inkling of what domination is about.

I was taken off a sidewalk open to the public, because I was carrying a sign.

I know this because I asked the security guard of the Bonaventure Hotel in Los Angeles who handcuffed me why the people carrying brief cases could walk there and I could not. He made a citizen’s arrest, as I said I would walk in the street then.

I was searched, legs spread, up and down, and inside my bra. Because it was a female officer and she was very considerate, I wasn’t upset. I was saddened when I saw the observers, a cadre of black suits and badges on the balcony, all smiling at the spectacle. I was rendered a prisoner, an impression which will never leave me.

From the rear seat of the police car, I watched them block off the sidewalk with yellow caution tape. If the tape had been there earlier, I may not have had this problem. But, by that time Prime Minister Tony Blair was probably already gone, all my personal belongings had been confiscated, handcuffs applied (with one cuff growing tighter and tighter), my hair pins removed, stuffed in the crunched space of a patrol car, on a hard seat, with little room for legs, arms pinned back, hair exasperatingly amok, hot, and breathing stifling air, waiting.

I didn’t have much with me, because I was only going to be gone an hour: my watch, my car keys, my glasses, my hand-painted, cardboard sign which said USA: Unrestrained, Self-interested, Agression (sic) and my sorely missed hair pins, because hundreds of hairs seemed to find their way into my eyes and nose with no defense from my hands.

I also didn’t have any identification with me. I couldn’t prove that I was a legal driver, an American citizen, a student, a CPR provider for American Heart Association, a volunteer for search and rescue nor any other association. I was an unknown, so assumed dangerous, processed into Los Angeles 77th Street Regional Jail, Aug. 3, 2006.

I asked my family, who cares deeply for me (but has varying opinions on activism) not to post bail, because I thought I would be out the next day and didn’t want to bother them.

When the officer took off my handcuffs and asked me to put my hands in the air, I could not. My arms had been held back several hours by then and the muscles refused to work. The anxiety we both felt, she because I was not obeying, and me, because I could not, was palpable for a minute, until my arms slowly raised.

My first encounter with another prisoner was in the holding cell, where we were allowed to make telephone calls. She seemed about the age of my mother and her feet and legs were swollen from Diabetes. She had kindly eyes and as we were together, she could not help but see me cry as I ask my sister to reassure my mom that I was fine, in good spirits and not to worry. My cellmate shared her story, caught on a sidewalk with enough drugs to escape pain for an afternoon. She came to Los Angeles from Boston where she had had a good education. She was interested in politics and knew more about Tony Blair than the police officers who processed me. I think they were going to take her to the hospital for treatment.

Once you are actually in jail, there are no clocks, no natural light and no way to keep track of time, except when jailers come in for various duties. The schedule seems designed to disrupt sleep, because the first call of the day is about 4 a.m. when they pass out medications. I learned to say that I wanted a “cold setup” for which they gave me a mild painkiller that I could pass on to those who needed it. Breakfast came somewhere between 5 a.m. and 8 a.m. Lunch happened between 10 a.m. and 1 p.m. and I couldn’t tell when dinner was or what it was for that matter.

That was the first day.

The night before, one of the girls talked into the wee hours with me, because she knew it was my first time. She tried to prepare and reassure me. Not knowing when or what is the hardest part.

I stared at the ceiling from my top bunk (lights are on 24 hours a day), trying to make the water stains fit shapes of the states. I could see California, Florida, Vermont, Maine, Wisconsin, New Jersey, and the rectangle states.  

I learned the first morning that they don’t serve coffee in jail. My cellmates found it humorous, that I thought coffee was an essential. I also found out that toothbrushes, hair brushes and showers are not essential.

I pointed out to the guard on my second day that the pink receipt I was given said: “If you remain in custody the morning following your arrest, you will be allowed to shower, shave and brush your teeth with materials provided by the jail.” She said “I don’t know why it says that. That was written years ago. We don’t do that.”

The guards didn’t spend much time in the cell. You better jump up if you want something to eat or any medical supplies when the guards come in. The door opens and slams (boy howdy) in less than a distracted minute. To feed six to12 women in that amount of time requires real technique.

Another fact of life in a women’s jail is that the prisoners start menstruating. Even at my age, when I’ve become irregular, my body received the call and cramps worked their way up and down my back and through my thighs to align my cycle with the other women. That’s the way a woman’s body works; wherever women work or live together, we “moon” at the same time.

One thing you really learn to appreciate within four walls, are people who are not whiners. By my third day, as women and girls came and left, I began to feel some desperation. I cried again, but it was an immense sadness for all humans. As I lay in the quiet room where all slept or pretended sleep, my eyes rested on the shoulder of a girl not much older than my niece. The delicate nape of her neck, in leaf repose, was innocence incarnate.

It reminded me tragically of another beautiful shoulder, of a “boy-man,” sent on a mission of ill fate. I saw him when only his shoulder was above the icy creek water, draped over blue granite, skin translucent and muscles no longer able. Death by drowning? His tracks (found by a search dog) told another part of his story, racing and stumbling in stupor to the treacherous edge. Methamphetamines, whose notorius history includes people in power and soldiers in line, were involved.

The ways of control are multitudinous, but brain washing, programming and language distortion allow the executioners to take on bows, ribbons and medals. Passivity in the face of injustice offer up the vulnerable for sacrifice and the hopeful to servitude. When you find yourself in civil disobedience against unlawful, immoral or inhumane actions, know that there are many others, putting their shoulders into the effort with you.

When they let me shower and released me onto the street that fourth afternoon, I wanted to skip. The first person I talked to while waiting for a bus, said, “Oh yes, a-thor-i-tee!”

The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are two of the greatest problems of the United States today, and yet, those are symptoms of a greater problem of domination and powerful abuse. One recipe for change is: work on the worst first and build small successes along the way. May you be well and strong.

Unusual light on the High Sierras. Photo by Craig Marshall

The Dog Leg Diaries
Tales of Restoration

by Karen Riggs


Mar. 13 A Question of Governance
Mar. 13 Pokey's Timing
Sept. 2 Mia at Work
Mar 15 Mookie's Door
Feb. 15 Kisses in the Wind
Feb. 8 Mookie at the Window
Feb. 5, Raking Weather

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