Behind the Scenes in DC

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<em>Ed. note:</em> Utne <em>editor-in-chief, Nina Utne, was arrested during the Washington DC antiwar protest on September 24. This is her mostly unedited account of the event.</em>
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<strong>It is hard to type right now</strong> because I have a huge open blister on my right middle finger, from tying pink balloons. My son, Oliver, came from college to DC for the march so I conscripted him and his friends, Zan and Ezra, as well as my niece, Ingrid, and her friends, to inflate and tie and beribbon almost 2,000 balloons with me in an assembly line. If, in any of the meager coverage of the march, you saw those highly visible and festive spots of pink, my blister is worth it and my accomplices will feel gratified.</font>
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<strong>I also have a large bruise</strong> on my right wrist from getting arrested, but I’ll get to that.</font>
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<strong>I have never considered myself an activist</strong>, but, increasingly, I find that I can’t not act. So I felt compelled to show up in Washington DC, to contribute whatever I could, and to experience the power that comes of knowing that we are not alone. I figured I’d do whatever CodePink needed me for, whether tying balloons or running errands or tracking down details. As it turned out, I ended up spending a lot of the weekend at the epicenter of the action — with Cindy Sheehan — doing whatever needed doing. At one moment I was grabbing likely looking women in a hotel lobby, trying to find someone who had decent looking black shoes in Cindy’s shoe size — and was willing to loan them on the spot (I found someone) and the next taking notes on precisely what a high level politician had said to Cindy so that he could be held accountable and then rubbing her shoulders in the car. I learned a lot about her — her shoe size, the sound of her voice when she’s talking to her children, her eating habits, her deep connection with her sister Dede, her stamina and her vulnerability, as well as about her adaptability, her common sense and quick mind and her salty and almost omnipresent sense of humor. I see her sitting with wet hair and a towel on her head, after yet another night of almost no sleep in a new strange bed, about to embark on an endless day of being the focal point of an exploding movement. She is eating an egg sandwich, watching the discussion about herself on <em>Meet the Press</em>, and trying to fathom the icon she has become, with a wry disengagement. Meanwhile, she spreads love and truth as best she can where ever she goes, with total authenticity and dedication.</font>
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<strong>During the march on Saturday</strong> I wandered, crisscrossing paths with Oliver and his friends and with sons Sam and Leif, who had taken the bus from Minnesota. I wanted to take in all the flavors and varieties of people, to float from current to current. Suddenly a black wave broke in from the right — the anarchists. Somehow their arrival created anarchy in my sense of direction and I found myself going in circles. By grace, at the moment I realized that I was thoroughly confused, I spotted Susie, Joan Baez’s assistant, who credits an ad in <em>Utne</em> for her job. Susie was with Joan and Jonathan, a successful businessman who had decided to dedicate his life to being of service and had showed up at Camp Casey in Crawford, Texas, which was also where I had met Joan and Susie. Jonathan, with Joan’s guitar slung across his former-college-wrestler’s back, had been enlisted to blaze a trail through the crowd so Joan could get to the stage. Susie took Joan’s hand and I walked behind them watching the expressions of delight on the faces of all the people who recognized Joan. And noticing the deftness with which Jonathan and Susie manuevered Joan through the crowd — an art in itself. So that’s how I got to waltz backstage. I felt guilty just waving to Oliver and his friends over the fence — I maybe could have figured how to smuggle Oliver in, but not the three of them.</font>
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<strong>Monday, the day of the arrests, I had decided not to get arrested</strong> — I thought I could be of more use helping to coordinate bail money and rides and phone calls, and besides, if I got arrested, I might miss appointments in New York on Tuesday. Just as we got to the park, I realized that Cindy needed water, so I gave her my water bottle, which — despite that fact that it leaches plastic — I was attached to because of the way it turned from blue to purple depending on the light. But, hey, anything for the cause. (Now — shameless plug — I’m going to get one of those <a title=”stainless steel non-leaching ones from our new online store” href=”https://www.utne.com/store/”>stainless steel non-leaching ones from our new online store</a> — and so should you, for your health. And you’ll be supporting independent media.) Then I realized that the jail might be cold, so I left Cindy on a park bench in Lafayette Park for just a moment to see if I could find her a sweatshirt. Within 45 seconds, I found an old friend with a sweatshirt in a beautiful and unusual shade of blue that exactly matched his striking eyes. He handed it right over for the cause. But by the time I got back, Cindy and her sister Dede had been swallowed up in the large group of military families and vets who were planning to get arrested and they were completely surrounded by cameras. I passed the sweatshirt through the crowd to her and went to stand in the press area to watch the process unfold — 370 got arrested, plus 40 who got arrested earlier in the day at the Pentagon. During the long preamble to the arrests, I went to get cases of water and snacks. When I brought the water, I handed it to the cops who delivered it. The mood between protestors and cops was cooperative, with a sense of orchestrated inevitability. There was a large group of clergy right in front of the press area, and a pale blond woman stood waiting, tall and slender, beautiful and resolute in her Episcopalian robes. Everyone took pictures of her.</font>
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<strong>The group of CodePink women came and sat in a radiantly pink circle</strong> right in front of me. Among them were the women who came to help Cindy when she was alone in the ditch in Crawford and then stayed to become Cindy’s improvisational support and infrastructure. They were singing and laughing and, like sirens, they beckoned me in. “But don’t you still need me out here?” “No, it’ll be fine,” they said. Come, come. I calculated the appointments that I’d miss and lifted the yellow police ribbon to duck under. A heavy set cop with a mustache blocked me. “But I want to get arrested.” Too late he said. “But how can it be too late to decide to get arrested?” You can’t come in here, he said. So I backed away from the ribbon, took a few breaths, and then went forward and under. I was almost sitting down in the circle when he grabbed my arm.</font>
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<strong>Surround her, someone ordered</strong> and suddenly I was under a pile of pink women. The cop still had my arm but I wriggled it loose. I thought for a moment that he would give up, but he he grabbed me again and it seemed prudent to quit struggling. When I got up, he was furious, screaming in my face, why did you have to do that? Why couldn’t you have decided earlier? Why didn’t you stick to the plan? He walked me over to a police car, stood me against it, put metal cuffs on me, and told me I was going to a different place and would be dealt with separately from the other protesters. Then he sat me on the curb and told me I’d be there for a while. As I waited, it started to dawn on me that the last thing he wanted was to wrestle a middle aged woman with press credentials. When he walked by me, I told him that I appreciated that they were doing their best to do their job as gracefully as possible and that I hadn’t intended to make his life more difficult. “Well, you did,” he said, “and I’ve been on duty since 5:30AM.” “I’ve been on since 5:00AM,” said the woman cop standing above me. I listened to her answer her cell phone and explain to one of her children — they were boys, 5 and 7 — that she wouldn’t be home for dinner, not until late. On one of his trips back and forth the heavyset cop said that this wasn’t how he had hoped to spend his birthday.</font>
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<strong>Eventually they switched the metal cuffs to plastic ones</strong>, which cut into my wrists, and took away my shoelaces. There were moments when I was nervous, but I knew nothing really bad was going to happen to me. The discomfort was so paltry compared to the suffering we were there protesting, but still it was enough to open my awareness just a tinge. I had time to ruminate on such things while I sat on that curb. Then they put me in the back of a police car by myself and seatbelted me, still handcuffed, against the hard plastic seats which made the handcuffs cut in more.</font>
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<strong>As the police car pulled away from the White House</strong>, the driver, a dark haired cop in his 30’s, turned to look at me and asked if I was OK. He asked me a few questions and we quickly discovered that we had grown up near each other, that I had gone to Minnesota for a man and that he had come to DC for a woman. That I was still married and he was divorced. By the time we got to the station house, he had held a picture of his 7 year old daughter up against the barrier between us and told me about his $15,000 successful battle for full custody of her. He said that in his work he prides himself on being able to discern who is on which drug with almost uncanny speed and accuracy. So it still mystifies me, he said, that for two years I was blind to the fact that my own wife was an alcoholic and a coke addict. He said that they had a really ugly divorce but that after she went through treatment and agreed to get regular drug testing, he voluntarily gave her half custody and now they’re cooperating as parents. As soon as we got in the door of the station, he cut my cuffs off, though I noticed that there were bars for handcuffing prisoners everywhere.</font>
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<strong>Sure enough, I was getting special treatment</strong> — I was the only protestor there. Then came the interminable inventory taking, and paperwork filling and waiting for the temperamental fingerprinting machine — I hate that damn machine, he kept saying — and the fingerprinting which took forever with the damn machine. We had a long time to talk. He talked about being with his daughter and said, focusing intently on the paperwork, that after his parents had divorced when he was young, his father had disappeared except for maybe once a month. He said heatedly without looking up, “I promised myself I’d never do that to my kid.” He said that his mother is a fan of Cindy Sheehan’s — “My mother is a devout Catholic and a liberal democrat and still sort of likes Bush. I can’t figure her out,” he said. “I’m pro-life, myself, he said. I’ll tell you why. I dated a girl who was the product of a rape. Her mom was about to get an abortion but something made her change her mind and then she decided she wanted to keep the baby. It’s weird, I don’t even think the girl was pro-life and we never talked about it, but that’s what made me decide how I felt.”</font>
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<strong>”I can certainly honor why you feel that way,”</strong> I said, “but I’m pro-choice.” Then we moved on to talking about the protest and how the cops handle the arrests. “You’d be surprised how many of the guys get involved with women they meet at these protests,” he said. We talked about the movie <em>Crash</em> and that we both loved it. “I used to know Matt Dillon pretty well growing up,” he said. I said Matt Dillon seemed like he’d be a nice guy. “Nope,” he said, “an arrogant asshole.” He said that he had served in the first Gulf War and had been in favor of this war in the beginning because of Sadam, but that we needed to get out. He’s sure there won’t be a draft because there will just be more and more recruitment ads everywhere and kids will keep buying into military service as a ticket to college. “That’s why I joined,” he said. We talked about the information I get about what’s going on in Iraq versus what he hears. I told him about an almost-completed film I’d just seen of interviews with returning disabled vets. “I’m skeptical about everything,” he said. “My mother hates that about me.” I told him that I would try to send him a copy of the film. Finally everything was complete and the heavy set cop was back, mopping his brow, to sign the papers. I told him that I hoped the rest of his birthday went better. He made a guttural sound and said he’d be happy as soon as he got home and had a beer.</font>
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<strong>The dark haired cop took me over to do another, different, set of fingerprints</strong> and chivalrously poured the really hideously disgusting slime off the top of the hand cleaner before he offered it to me. Not much longer, but first you get the authentic experience, he said, as he ushered me into a cell that had nothing but a narrow bench, a bar for handcuffing, a silver toilet bowl with no seat or paper and a filthy floor. After a while he came back, dialed the phone for me so that I could get picked up and led me out of the station. At the door, we shook hands. I told him that he was a good guy and it was too bad that I wasn’t an eligible DC woman. He looked away and gave an aw shucks laugh before the door closed between us.</font>
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<strong>Someone had donated money for a car and driver for Cindy in DC</strong>, so Patrick, the Jamaican driver, came and got me. By this time we had gotten to know Patrick pretty well — and vice versa — and he had gotten to the point of being only slightly shocked by the bawdiness of our humor. Patrick and I had spent that morning together while Cindy was lobbying on the Hill, first at Kinkos and then futilely searching for ribbon on Capitol Hill, until — eureka — a florist shop! so that Cindy could tie a laminated picture of her son Casey to the White House gate, which would trigger her arrest. He said that the most interesting client he’d had before us was Jerry Falwell, who still stayed in touch with him, and that the security for Cindy was only slightly less complex than at the inaugural. By the time Patrick picked me up, it was about 7:00PM and raining — the rain had held off until just the right moment. All the other protestors, except Cindy and Dede, were still handcuffed and waiting in buses to be booked. But a few wily activists — perhaps those with cleavage — had managed to keep their cell phones with them and to wriggle their hands out of their cuffs, so I got an interim report. I just heard today that some protesters weren’t released until up to 10 hours later than I was and many were in handcuffs the whole time, including people in their eighties, but the CodePink group sang the whole time.</font>
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<strong>Patrick and I went to pick up Cindy and her sister</strong>, Dede, who had already been released and were packing up their stuff to move to yet another strange bed. Cindy would be starting early the next morning with an interview on <em>Good Morning America</em>. They dropped me off at the train station. Patrick and I hugged goodbye and he openly conceded that we were way more fun and more interesting than Jerry Falwell. I had long hugs with Cindy and Dede and we all said we loved each other and that our paths will keep crossing. Then they drove away and I got onto a train and hurtled through the darkness to New York.</font>
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