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What's It Like to Go to Jail for Justice? One Person's Story

What's It Like to "Go to Jail for Justice?" One Person's Story

by Linda W. Swanson
August 4, 2013


At age 69, I recently found spending thirteen hours in a Washington, DC, jail one of the most invigorating experiences I've ever had, and it seems to have already helped to make the world a better place!

The US State Department had hired a company with ties to tar sands profiteers to evaluate the safety of a tar sands pipeline, with predictable results. In the week since my husband and I and fifty-two other people of all ages and backgrounds were arrested for protesting the company involved, the State Department has decided to initiate an inquiry to determine if there was a conflict of interest. Certainly we were not alone in shining a light on this particular corruption, but I'm convinced we made a difference and played a part in that turnaround.

I'm reminded of Pete Seeger's parable of the teaspoons when I think about the contributions each of us makes every time we take a stand against injustice. We may or may not see the balance of justice tip immediately upon the heels of our action, but without each of us doing our part, getting off our couch, and engaging, the weight will not shift in the direction of justice nearly as quickly as it could.

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We've now been arrested twice, and I'd like to share our story in hopes that you might decide one day to join us, not only in bending the world toward justice (one teaspoonful of sand at a time!), but also in experiencing a solidarity with others that is unlike any other experience we've had.

Two years ago my husband, Neil, and I decided to join Bill McKibben and 350.org's Tar Sands Action. Every day for two weeks up to 100 people sat in front of the White House demanding that the president reject the permit for the Keystone XL pipeline that was proposed to run from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico. Over the two weeks, 1250 people were arrested. We could have participated without being arrested. Many made that choice. But we chose to be numbered among those who were arrested in hopes of adding to the impact of the action. That was a positive, empowering experience that inspired us to participate in the more recent action organized by 350.org and others on Friday, July 26, 2013.

Earlier this summer, when 350.org asked if individuals were willing to risk arrest for (sadly) the same cause, Neil and I immediately signed on. This time there were more unknowns. There would be a single, secret event. There would be no "arrangements" with the police beforehand, since surprise was a key element.

Our action, a part of 350.org's "Summer Heat," had been joined to another action called Walk for our Grandchildren that was also demanding rejection of the Keystone XL pipeline. Over the course of the week prior to Friday, July 26, several dozen stalwart folks, ranging from children to folks even older than we, walked all or part of the 100 miles from Camp David to Washington, camping each night along the way. They arrived in time to join us for the mandatory training in nonviolent direct action from 6-10 pm on Thursday evening at St. Stephen's church in DC, and many of them also agreed to be arrested the next day.

As we stood in the dinner line before our training and mentioned that our previous training was only hours after the 2011 earthquake, a man beside us said he had been in training that same day and had been arrested along with us in 2011. We didn't remember each other, but we had found something in common and began forming a new community. By the time we'd eaten and chatted we had several more new acquaintances among the two hundred or so people present.

As the training began we were offered the opportunity to choose the level of risk of arrest we wanted to take the next day. The people choosing to be in Group A would be at greatest risk, because they were going further into the target building. Group B would remain in the building's lobby and were also subject to arrest. Group C would rally outside the building without risking arrest. As people learned more about the three groups, there was some switching, but soon most of us were comfortable with the level of risk we had chosen.

The next part of our training was an actual run-through of the action so we would have the feel of what we would be doing the next day. We were shown a diagram of the target building and told what areas of the church building would represent areas of the target building. We then had two complete run-throughs of our action.

The last hour of our training was a presentation by our attorney from the National Lawyers' Guild about the legal issues facing us. We were given a large amount of information about the law, police practices, supports that would be in place, and the levels of risk. We each filled out a form with our contact information and names of people who could be called in an emergency. We were told repeatedly that while there had been much planning, there was no guarantee that everything would go according to the plans. Neil and I concluded that sufficient supports were in place for us to be comfortable going ahead with being arrested. We joined Group B.

It was close to 10:30 pm when we left the training. We got to bed well after midnight and were up very early. We were to meet at 11:30 Friday morning in DC, and we wanted to allow plenty of time for any traffic problems, parking challenges, and Metro delays.

As we all gathered on Friday morning, a few things did not proceed as we'd been told in our training. We had expected that the A, B, and C groups would be given identifying colored armbands so we would know how to arrange ourselves on the way to the building. There were no armbands, nor was there any mention of them on Friday. When we finally lined up to march from our staging area to the building (a distance of about two blocks), we called out to each other to assemble in the proper order. We also found that a motorcycle officer was stopping traffic so we could safely cross streets, and that made some of us wonder if the police had been informed and were expecting us.

The speed at which we walked along the sidewalk was much faster than I had anticipated. Neil was breaking into a near run to keep up, and he kept motioning for those of us behind him to close ranks. I caught up to him at the door of the building, and he tried to keep the door open for people behind us to enter. He later told me that a policeman had pushed him off of the door and closed it. We still don't know if all those in the B group managed to enter the building.

We knew to expect construction in the lobby of the building, but it was more extensive than described. Instead of being able to sit around the perimeter of the circular lobby as the B group had rehearsed, we had to regroup and move further into a straight hallway with elevator doors on each side. The A group (we learned some of these details later) was not able to get up the stairs to the second floor. That meant that the entire A and B groups were together in the elevator area. We had been told that something like that could happen, so we were not particularly surprised.

Quickly we sat down along the two walls and began singing and chanting. There was general confusion among the building staff. The security guard and other building personnel were dialing their cell phones, and police began to arrive. One of the officers pulled out a large plastic bag with handcuffs. Eventually a speaker was set on a table and one of the officers began addressing us. As the usual warnings were given so anyone not wanting to be arrested could leave, some people did get up and leave, wishing the rest of us well. Finally our trainer approached each of us individually and advised us that if we did not leave at that moment we would be arrested. I took that occasion to ask him a question that was still on my mind. "Does it matter if the number of people arrested is large?" I wanted to be sure my arrest would make a difference. He replied, "Yes. It does matter. But don't do it if you don't feel comfortable."

Neil and I wanted to make a difference. We decided to be arrested. There was no turning back. Fifty-four of us remained in the building. Our trainers left before the final warning so they could keep track of us and be present at our release.

A policeman I'll call Officer G. approached Neil and asked him to stand. Because I was right beside Neil, I rose with him. Officer G. put handcuffs on each of us while telling us that he would try not to make them too tight on our wrists. Neil told him it was great that we were going out together because we would be celebrating our 45th wedding anniversary in a month, and Officer G. responded that we now had a new memory. It was a friendly conversation under quite unusual circumstances.

Because we were the last ones into the building, Neil and I were the first to be escorted out onto the sidewalk where the paddy wagons awaited just beyond more than a hundred cheering supporters and a few photographers. As we headed out the door, Officer G. said he was going to make sure we were in the same paddy wagon, but it soon became clear that would not be possible. (We saw Officer G. at the rally the next day. He recognized us and told us he had tried to keep us together. Apparently there were too many women being arrested, and they had to take the men and women to separate precincts.)

See 3:11-3:17 of video for Linda and Neil.

Since Neil and I were no longer together, I can only report on my experience of the rest of the day. Ten or twelve women were in my paddy wagon and we were taken to the first precinct in Washington, DC. When we reached the jail, women officers took us one-by-one and instructed us to remove everything except our clothes and empty our pockets. All of our possessions (jewelry, IDs, money, shoe laces) were put into large plastic bags with itemized lists on the outside.

After that I was instructed to put my shoes and socks back on and was taken into a cement block room with a six-foot-long cement block bench built out from one wall. At one end of the bench was a low wall and beyond it was a stainless steel toilet. The door was locked behind the officer when she left. I could not see out of the room because the windows were mirrored glass.

One fact of being in jail is a complete absence of any way to tell time. There were no clocks and all of our watches had been taken. We had to ask officers to tell us what time it was as the day progressed. I was alone for quite a while, but then over time ten or eleven more women were let into the room with me. At one point, an officer stuck her head in and motioned for about five of us, including me, to come with her. I wondered for the first of many times if we were going to be let go. Nope! Instead we were moved to another room, one that was four or five times as large as the one we left.

This is where I spent about five hours of the afternoon of Friday, July 26, 2013, and it was one of the most enjoyable five-hour periods I can recall! When things settled down, there were nine women in that space. We ranged in age from early twenties to early seventies. We started our time together with yoga and then moved on to singing rounds and other songs (the acoustics were amazing). We told each other our stories of why we were there, learned salsa dancing, and told jokes. We made up tar sands lyrics to the Macarena song and danced the Macarena. We even had regular semi-social visits from one male officer who seemed to like us and wanted to chat. Some of us found we already had unsuspected connections with others of our group, but by the end of our time together we all felt a special closeness that led to hugs every time someone was called to leave the room.

We didn't start being called out until quite late in the day, perhaps as late as 6pm. First one woman was removed and we cheered because we assumed she was being released. After some time another of us was removed, and then another. Then three names were called and mine was one of them. We hugged those who were left and assumed we were on our way to freedom.

Then came the lowest moment of my time in jail: when we walked back into the area where our possessions had been taken from us, we saw all of the women who had preceded us out of the large cell. They had not been released. Nor would we be released at that time. We learned that nine of us (a somewhat different group of nine from those with whom we had spent the afternoon) were being transferred to the DC central jail because the computer system had broken down and our records could not be processed at the first precinct.

So, we were handcuffed once again, but this time in pairs, and we were once again put into a paddy wagon. We could see a digital clock on the dashboard. It was 7:14 pm, and we had no idea how much longer this process would take.

To our surprise, we learned that the plastic bags with our possessions would not be leaving with us. Once we were processed us at the central jail, we would have to return to the first precinct to recover our property. For some women that even included their shoelaces. We asked how we could possibly get back there without money or metro cards, and the best answer was that we would be given bracelets at the central jail that Metro might honor to let us catch a train back.

After we were unloaded at the central jail, we were taken into a room with desks and computers and more friendly officers who removed our handcuffs. Two other women and I were together for digital fingerprinting, digital mug shots, and recording of all of our pertinent information. Then we were offered a drink and the notorious DC jail fare of bologna sandwiches. Being vegan, I opted for a cup of fruit punch and was grateful for the liquid and the sugar.

We asked how much longer we would be kept and were dismayed when someone mentioned possibly a couple of hours! That would have put us outside around 10pm. It had already been a long day and was about to get a lot longer.

The three of us were taken down two flights of stairs to a cellblock lined with two-person cells. One of the women and I were put together in one cell, and our friend was alone in the neighboring cell. Eventually all nine of us were on this narrow corridor in cells that had two steel shelves or bunks along one side and a toilet that sat at the opposite end from the door.

We were not alone down there, judging from the sounds of other women at the far end of the corridor. I wouldn't call it screaming, but at a minimum it was intense conversations at full volume. That noise was steady, punctuated by the frequent sound of heavy doors slamming. Later we began to hear similar conversations but the voices were clearly male.

My cellmate and I sat down on the bottom bunk. She wisely suggested that we sit quietly and meditate for a bit. That helped calm any fear or anxiety or sense of claustrophobia that might have come up. And then we began to talk. We talked and we shared and we laughed and we rested and we marveled at the experience we were sharing. From time to time an officer would walk by and we would ask how much longer we would be there. The answer was always that they were still doing the processing. Would we be kept overnight? No, not overnight. As the hours passed, we wondered if that could be true.

We wondered what we would do when released onto the streets of DC very late on a Friday night with no resources other than some bracelets that we had not yet been given. But my cellmate and I did not dwell on such thoughts. We decided that with directions we could find our way by foot back to the first precinct. Also, the nine of us agreed that we would not leave until we were all released and on the street together.

The last time we were told the time it was after 10. The talking began to slow and the rest periods began to lengthen. Even the voices from the ends of the corridor quieted. Every door that slammed suggested the possibility of release, but each time I lifted or turned my head there was nothing promising in sight.

During quiet times, I decided to take in everything I could about the experience from the slamming doors and shouts, to the cockroaches in our cell, to the welding that held the steel of the cell together. The last two or three of the six hours in our cell were spent in even deeper conversation and sharing with my cellmate. We marveled at our good fortune at being paired with each other. How could we ever have imagined the richness of that experience! At times I found myself feeling a little alarmed when I thought back to the moment when our trainer reminded us we had to leave right then or be arrested. If I had actually left at that time, I would have missed one of the extraordinary experiences of my life. This is not hyperbole. It is how I truly feel.

Finally there was new activity outside our cells. Two officers arrived with a bundle of papers. The first named called was mine. Our cell door was opened and I was invited to step out. Then my cellmate's name was called and she joined me. Then our friend who had been next door by herself was removed from her cell, and then two more from across the hall joined us.

The five of us were given the promised bracelets that each had our mug shot along with other identifying information. They were fixed to our wrists, and when everyone was ready the five of us were led to an office where there were papers to sign. We were told exactly when we had to return to court and the consequences of not doing so. Accompanied by two or three women guards, the five of us went back into the garage where we had exited the second paddy wagon and re-entered the building through a different door. This time we headed for an elevator.

As we got off the elevator we could see that we were entering a large lobby area. There was a circular desk in the middle of the room with an officer sitting at it. As she saw us approach, she said the most remarkable thing: "Your husband was just in here."

Whose husband? Mine? My cellmate's? Both of our husbands had been arrested with us, and we assumed they had been taken to another precinct with the rest of the men. Could they be here waiting for us? Might it be that we wouldn't have to walk back to the first precinct in the dark at what we now knew was 1:30am?

We passed through a turnstile and out into the night and into the waiting arms of not only our two husbands but also our trainer and several people who had not been arrested but who stood by all those hours just to greet us upon our release. It was wonderful beyond words, partly because it was so good to be out and to see familiar faces, but also because it was so unexpected. We should have known that we would not be left to our own devices, but we forgot.

Neil looked as happy to see me as I was to see him, and we had a big hug before he told me there was pizza (cold by now, of course) and that he had a salad for me. We ate, chatted, and waited for the other four to be released. Someone found an article on the Time magazine web site about our protest and arrests and shared it. Someone else had a picture of Neil and me being led out of the building we had occupied.

Eventually we all went our own ways with plans to see each other in a few hours at the rally back at Lafayette Square Park. Neil and I recovered our car at Union Station and drove to the first precinct where the woman at the desk looked up and said, "Have you come for your stuff?" Everything was there from earrings to money, and all I had to do was sign for it.

We got back into the car and drove home, arriving around 3:30 or 4 in the morning. We would only get three hours sleep because we did not want to miss the rally on Saturday. That might be our last chance to see our new friends.

Neil and I had so many tales to tell each other. I learned that he had been released around the time we were being moved to the central jail – around 7pm. He and my cellmate's husband and others then went to the first precinct to await our release, only to find out two hours after we had been moved that we were no longer there. They somehow rushed over to the central jail with the pizza they had ordered for us, only to wait on those cold, granite steps for three more hours until we were finally let out.

Neil told me what the men had done to pass the time together (and it didn't include salsa dancing or the Macarena). I told him everything I've written here and much more. We both rejoiced at the entire experience. While we did take a risk when we sat on private property, and even as I write this I do not yet know what will happen when we go to court, we were so richly rewarded. We have new friends for life, friends with whom we share a unique bond. And more importantly, something has shifted regarding the pipeline process.

There was fairly good coverage of our action with the number of people arrested featured prominently in most articles. Our action helped to keep the issue in the public eye. Now there will be a re-evaluation of the information the State Department received.

One never knows the full impact of one's actions. The important thing to me about our two arrest experiences is that we acted according to our convictions. Yes, there was a risk. But what is the risk to our planet if we sit in our comfy chairs complaining to our own four walls. That's the real risk, as far as I'm concerned.

For those of you who have stuck with me to the end of this long tale, many thanks! I hope this account of our two arrests, so few in number when compared to those of so many dedicated activists, might lead you to consider dipping a toe into this river of active, participatory democracy. It's not just voting that makes us citizens. Voting might be the least of it. We need to notice what is going on in our country and we need to connect to what we see in such a way that we are inspired and even impelled to act for the common good. Sometimes that might even mean going to jail.

Have You Been To Jail For Justice?
By Anne Feeney

Was it Cesar Chavez? Maybe it was Dorothy Day
Some will say Dr. King or Gandhi set them on their way
No matter who your mentors are it's pretty plain to see
That, if you've been to jail for justice, you're in good company

Have you been to jail for justice? I want to shake your hand
Sitting in and lyin' down are ways to take a stand
Have you sung a song for freedom? or marched that picket line?
Have you been to jail for justice? Then you're a friend of mine

You law abiding citizens, come listen to this song
Laws were made by people, and people can be wrong
Once unions were against the law, but slavery was fine
Women were denied the vote and children worked the mine
The more you study history the less you can deny it
A rotten law stays on the books 'til folks like us defy it

The law's supposed to serve us, and so are the police
And when the system fails, it's up to us to speak our piece
It takes eternal vigilance for justice to prevail
So get courage from your convictions
Let them haul you off to jail!


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