Monday night, June 10, I was arrested in a mass act of civil disobedience, the sixth in a growing wave of peaceful protests against North Carolina’s state legislature, which has been at work on a Tea Party agenda since it turned Republican in 2010. I’ve written elsewhere about the movement, its goals and prospects. This essay is about getting arrested for the first time.
The arrests were in the rotunda of the North Carolina capitol building. An officer, an older man with the daunting, cadaverous look of a Southern lawman in a 1970s movie, informed each of us that we were under arrest for failure to disperse when ordered, then handed us over to the younger and more contemporary-feeling capitol police. I didn’t hear a Miranda warning, and the disposal handcuffs of white plastic (place on wrists, pull to tighten, snip to release) do not click shut.
Almost ninety of us spent the next hour or so in the capitol cafeteria, seated in rows of straight-backed chairs whose upholstery had a faded, abstract pattern, a motel blanket very loosely inspired by Hopi blankets. I had some time to study the wall posters: most touted North Carolina agriculture; a few seemed to celebrate cafeteria food with close-ups of tater tots and corn dogs.
After we surrendered our personal property and posed for mug shots, we were done in the cafeteria. A gray bus took us out of the capitol, past a sodden and diminished crowd of supporters, still cheering, to the Wake County Detention Center. Here in fairly quick order a new set of officers clipped off our cuffs, then (?!) patted us down for weapons. There was no mouth-check, no orifice check, but the hands on my belly and inner thighs felt more purposeful than nominal. I had tried to dress decently for the occasion, including fashionable socks in blue-and-white horizontal stripes, and the man searching me asked, sounding merry, “They lock you up for your socks?”
We had been arrested a little before 7, and it was now about 8:30. I spent the next 90 minutes in a holding cell with six other men. We left the cell before anyone had to use the single, unconcealed toilet in the corner. (Two flushes per hour, we had been warned.)
From there we were back on benches in an ICE processing room, arranged in odd perpendiculars so that no one sitter looked another in the face, like the answer to an LSAT logic problem involving the efficient packaging of solipsists. The magistrates were housed like DMV workers, behind a small row of plexiglass windows arrayed along an otherwise windowless wall.
I was lucky. I was one of the first to be called out of the room, shown a charge sheet from behind the plexiglass, asked whether I had ever been arrested (no), and released on my own recognizance. I was home before midnight. Friends were already posting my arrest pictures, and I was too worked up to sleep long or well.
I am not a Christian. I don’t generally think of “not a Christian” as a useful category, but in the Baptist Church where the NAACP gathered its civil disobedients two hours before the action began, it seemed to matter acutely. For more than an hour, what had been announced as an essential training session was strong preaching about the darkness on the state and the need for divine help. Everything was in God’s hands, the speakers told us, again and again – even one of the legal volunteers, who eventually took the stage.
I don’t like this kind of talk from the other side, and it turns out that I don’t like it any better from my own side. In fact, I probably like it less, because, by standing there, wearing a green armband to indicate my plan to be arrested, raising my singing voice rather than be silent, and being silent (if not bowing my head) during the several group prayers, I was part of it. When you add your body and your voice in those circumstances, you are among the number. You count toward support for whatever the speaker, or prayer leader, is saying. There is no menu, no unsubscribe button, no comment thread to register your “Well, in some respects….” I felt as if I had married into a family that was beginning to shame and frighten me.
I thought naturally of Thoreau, militant watchman of his own autonomy, who entered and left his night in jail entirely all by himself. That was probably the only way he would have been able to do it. I made it a secret test of myself, in my own mind only, whether I could hold onto my ambivalence without bailing – first literally, until the arrest, then psychically, once there was no physical leaving.
From spending a lot of time with lawyers, I have a crude idea of what it means to be dragged into what we implausibly call the criminal justice system. A simple arrest and arraignment can mean days in jail. That is only the beginning of being disqualified for jobs, military service, even voting – a lifetime of explaining yourself and, often enough, being a second-class citizen.
Anxiety picked at me all day. Eventually I realized what it was. I felt as if I were crossing over a threshold. On the other side, “the state,” or really some police lieutenant or assistant prosecutor, would decide whether I could ever come back. Soon I might have no place to be, no work to do, no node in the social web.
I think this Kafka-esque fear, of being drawn into the machine of law and consumed, or exiled from it entirely, must be basic to modern life. All I needed to trigger it was the prospect of arrest, even though I am well trained as anyone to know better.
I had donned my best manners, the manners I acquired as a barefoot homeschooled kid who isn’t sure what normal people will require of him, and so brings his all. I thanked the officer who arrested me, the magistrate who arraigned me, the officer who escorted me to a seven-person holding cell, and both the officers who carried my umbrella while I was handcuffed.
That seems the key detail to me. When they came to arrest me, I handed my big umbrella to one of the capitol policemen as if he were my valet. I held it out with no doubt that he would take it. This was not because I am used to being looked after hand and foot. But I knew instinctively that this was a high-service situation. In the photos, I guess I look enough like a prisoner if you know the context, but I could also be a colonial administrator strolling, hands clasped behind his back, flanked by his batmen.
When the door of the holding cell swung shut, I took the moment to savor the weight of that whoosh-click, the solid, decisive sound of the lockup. When I started a conversation in the processing room, an officer told me firmly to have no contact with the female prisoners. But when I apologized, she grinned at me, and I grinned back.
Throughout, I felt something like, Oh, these are your rules. This is what you do around here. Like failing to remove shoes in the foyer of someone else’s temple: a faux pas, but a matter of manners, a curious point of difference, not something that really applies to me, that grips and can hurt me. So this is what it’s like if you’re Hindu. So this is what it’s like if you’re in jail.
That’s enough to mean I was not, really, in jail. Like Thoreau the night he spent behind stone walls in Concord, I was a tourist, intrigued by the perspective of this exotic place.
About half an hour into the cafeteria portion of the evening, an impish, bearded, floppy-haired guy in his sixties stood up in the back row and announced, “Gentlemen, if you need more handcuffs, I have an extra pair.” He had slipped his, a Houdini trick that isn’t too hard in plastic, and was holding them aloft. He looked delighted.
The capitol police, understandably, were not delighted. I was interested to notice that I was not at all pleased, either. In fact, I was pissed at him, and on behalf of the cops. They had been civil and careful. They had chatted a little with us. Not ten minutes earlier, they had offered to adjust handcuffs for anyone who was uncomfortable.
It wasn’t just that they were behaving well. I realized, in my indignation on the cops’ behalf, that they were only superficially our jailors. More basically, there were our collaborators. Many were probably sympathetic: they were women, African-Americans, public employees and union members. Regardless, it was because they did their job, and we did the job we had assigned ourselves, that we could make our symbolic appeal from the people of North Carolina to themselves, as Thoreau put it.
After that, I didn’t feel so mixed about my possibly fearful good manners. We owe people respect because they are people, because they are fellow citizens, and so on; but surely we owe our dutiful and hard-working collaborators a special care in how we treat them. I wish Thoreau, who sometimes saw workmen as rustics, had expressed his debt to his jailor, whose civilized behavior was a joint in the culture that let the writer make his point.
6: Ambivalence II
Coming back to Thoreau is hard to resist. I read “Civil Disobedience” the night before my arrest, and again two days later.
The first time, I was not inspired but irritated. Thoreau falls afoul of today’s shibboleths: he does not make a theme of his privilege; he is some kind of nineteenth-century patriot, who wrote “westward the star of empire” in praise; you could read him and not learn that there are women in the world. And he is so self-righteous, so convinced that the world needs moral heroes, and willing to take the role without self-irony.
I thrill, for an instant, when Thoreau tells me to let my life be a counter-friction to stop the machine. But in the end, I also hear Thomas Hobbes, the philosopher of skepticism and fear, who warned that self-righteousness and self-certainty, when they produce a self-authored ticket out of one’s political community, are intellectually disreputable and downright dangerous.
This is why civil disobedience strikes me as such a fine balance, one kept up not just in the souls of those who go to jail, but in the police force, the court system, and the constitutional culture that recognizes some lawbreaking as Thoreau’s appeal to civic conscience, an appeal from the majority to the majority. But, I thought when I read the essay again, Thoreau’s outrageous claims are part of that culture, the moment of absolute conviction that needs to be tempered, along the way, by doubt and respect for one’s many collaborators – including those who disagree, who are in power, but do not crush the note of disagreement.
Thoreau wrote that, in a slave society conducting imperialist adventures, the only place for honest people to meet freely was in jail. It was there, he said, that the slave, the Indian, and the Mexican should come to plead their case. It is true at least that you can meet startlingly admirable people in a cell, like the man in my cell who had sat-in against segregation when there was not much reason to expect anything better than a truncheon and a jail term. Without any exaggeration, I ended up feeling it had been a privilege to sit in that holding cell, no matter how great a relief it was to leave it.
Why do it, without religious certainty or even any great moral self-confidence, hoping not to be, or seem, self-righteous, and with no confidence of success? The best I could say before I went in was that civil disobedience is like election canvassing: if I admire other people for doing it, I ought to do it myself. I should take my own relative wealth and security as reasons to pitch in, and not indulge the toxic fantasy that I am somehow too busy or important. That, and the thought that we don’t really know where social and political change will come from: since history really is surprising, we should take our chances throwing stones into the water to see where the ripples run.
Not long after my release, something snapped into place. Being a liberal, I sometimes quote Oliver Wendell Holmes’s remark that paying taxes made him feel he had purchased civilization. It always rings a little hollow, though. I am no tax-refuser, unlike Thoreau, but I do not feel that.
Monday evening, though, I had that feeling, exactly that feeling. By going willingly to jail, I had paid my small part into the common fisc of democratic conscience. For the moment, North Carolina and I were square.