Courage, my friend

Recovering from a day in jail after our Extinction Rebellion direct action at City Hall yesterday. I’m tired. I’m privileged in so many ways, as an able-bodied white woman, so this is not a “poor me, I just got out of jail” post. My experience with the police the two times I’ve been arrested has thus far been polite and gentle, even friendly. I won’t deny that I am underemployed and struggling with the weight of debt and the hectic navigation of the gig economy, but I set my own schedule and can afford to take the day off to protest as well as a day to recover from the experience. In short, I can choose to get arrested and I don’t live with the very real fear that I will be harmed by police as many of my poor, black, and brown comrades do.

All that being said, jail is not fun. Twice now, I’ve been surprised that a day spent doing nothing could be so exhausting. But I’ve realized that, duh, spending even nine hours in a toxic environment like that is sure to be draining emotionally, physically, spiritually, mentally.

Yesterday, the moment of arrest was one of excitement. Energy was high, as we had been singing while blocking the road that runs alongside City Hall Park. Reporters and camera people swarmed through the crowd of activists, pushing microphones and lenses as close to our faces as they could get. Eventually, the police who had been lining the street moved in to arrest us. I was surprised to see the same officer who arrested me last month lean down to arrest me this time. He smiled in recognition and then zip-tied my hands behind my back before passing me off to an escorting officer, a tall Afro-Latino man named Eddie.

Eddie led me to a line of my fellow Rebels, each with their own escort, waiting to be placed in a big, white bus – emblazoned with the words “Courtesy, Professionalism, Respect.” The wind blew cold and each time I shivered, he instinctively squeezed my arm as if to help warm me.

As we waited, I could hear the faint sounds of singing and foot-stomping on the bus. A crowd of people stood on the sidewalk and cheered, “Thank you!” every time an arrestee got on the bus. I felt enlivened and defiant and hopeful.

We were driven to One Police Plaza, which, if you don’t know the area, is a street over from City Hall. It would have been faster to walk us over there and I half-jokingly told one of the supervising officers that this was a waste of fossil fuel. He laughed and admitted that was right, but assured all of us that 5% of the NYPD’s fleet is now electric. Oh great, I thought to myself, though it’d be better to just abolish this whole fucked-up system.

At the precinct, they separated us by gender – well, you know, the typical binary of biological sex. The men were placed in one big, open room; as a woman, I was led down hallways lined with filing cabinets and stacks of cardboard boxes to a row of cells. An officer took what little I had in my pockets – a tube of chapstick, my red lipstick, my house keys, a pink-wrapped pantyliner. One officer told me I could ask for that later. I don’t know why they took that but let me keep the $10 in cash I had on me. I was directed to remove my shoelaces, which were placed in a manila envelope labeled with my name. A young Latina officer took me to a cell about 8ft long and 4ft wide and shut the bars with a bang. To one side was a “bed” – a slab of wood just a bit wider than a bench. In the opposite corner, a seatless toilet. I took this small window of privacy to squat and relieve myself. No toilet paper, no soap. I looked around at the bare walls covered in scratchitti, visible through a fresh coat of beige paint. I could make out the words “macho man” neatly etched into the bench.

A few minutes later, an officer brought in two other women. Thankfully, in addition to the bench, we had a blue gym mat that we placed on the floor. This provided some cushion for the arthritic bones of S——, a 60s-something-year-old woman from the Hudson Valley (by way of England). She and L——, a single mom of a teenager from Brooklyn, and I traded off who got to lie down on the bench or floor. The odd one out had to stand or sit on the edge of the bench.

I felt chilly, wearing only a flimsy blazer over my white t-shirt which bore half of a bootprint from a photojournalist who fell on me during the die-in. S—– lent me her fleecy coat. I felt foggy from dehydration and hunger. An officer brought us paper cups of water pretty early after being placed in the cells and when I asked for more later, she rolled her eyes in response and never came back. An orange and some apples helped tide us over, all three of us politely refusing the stale-looking sandwiches of American cheese or PB & J.

I could feel the adrenaline of the morning quickly wearing off. Excited chatter about the successful action – 62 arrested! – faded to sharing about our lives. S—— and L—— connected over their experiences of divorce and motherhood. We talked about cooking and our relationships with our parents, what had awakened us to the reality of climate change, articles we’ve read about how scientists estimate that we’ve lost 40-50% of birds. Whales are starving, bellies full of plastic.

Our world is so sick. These thoughts settled in after the thrill of the action faded away. How is it possible to hold so much hope and so much grief at the same time?

All of this sadness and inspiration and joy and exhaustion and boredom ebbed and flowed around our tiny cell over the next several hours. At times, we grew quiet, meditating in a cross-legged position or stretching out with jackets-turned-pillow-and-blanket.

I began to feel disoriented. There was no sunlight or even a clock to indicate what time it was. It was nearly impossible to see anything beyond the section of the hallway just in front of our cell. Still, any time we heard some action from the right or left of us, we peered out from behind the bars, straining to see if anyone was bringing water or, hopefully, news of release. Somehow, we could hear everything and nothing at once as noise bounced off the brick and steel – all conversation flowing into one never-ending din.

I was surprised to notice that I felt no desire for my phone. Normally, I’d be checking it constantly, emailing, texting, you know the deal. I found it kind of nice, actually, to be disconnected.

The first time I was in jail, the officers were friendly, occasionally walking down the hall to update us on our status. This time, the officers seemed annoyed and begrudgingly listened to, yet never really answered, our requests for information. One of our comrades began banging on the bars, other women joining in until an officer yelled at us to cut it out. Someone began singing “If I Had a Hammer,” and for a while, we traded songs and chants. I could feel my energy lift and my favorite moment was when we sang to each other, inserting each woman’s name to replace the first word in this stanza:

Courage, my friend
You do not walk alone
We will walk with you
And sing your spirit home

Finally, after more than nine hours, the sweetness of release was granted. My arresting officer handed me my belongings and took me back through the corridors. I smiled and waved to my male comrades I passed still waiting in that room. I felt jealous that they got to be together and have space to move around.

The officers behind the front desk handed me a form with information about my court date. They attempted to joke with me. “How was your stay? Do we get five stars?” Um, it was alright, I mumbled. I grabbed my paper and yet another officer walked me out into the chilly night air. He asked if he’ll see me the next day, fishing for information about another action. I responded, “Do you think I would tell you?” He chuckled and wished me a safe trip home.

I felt relieved to see Rebekah, my housemate, and the Rebels who showed up for jail support. They greeted me with a cheer. One of them handed me a Vitamin Water and I scarfed down a slice of cold vegan pizza from a pile of snacks they brought for arrestees. It felt difficult to make conversation. My head felt heavy and words wouldn’t come easily. All I could think about was getting home. I grabbed my phone from a bag – a team of jail supporters collects belongings from those risking arrest before an action – and was excited to see that I had a promo credit on the rideshare app called Via.

I booked the ride and walked through darkened Chinatown to the pickup point. I still felt disoriented and was relieved to get into a car with a headphones-wearing passenger and a non-chatty driver, who kindly lent me his phone charger. As we drove over the Manhattan Bridge, I opened up my phone to see texts from friends and family as well as 51 notifications on Facebook. It was heartening to see so much support from people and I felt some of my tiredness and achiness ease away. I pored through photos from XR London, delighting in the colorfulness and whimsy of their actions. I sighed and rested my head on the window, reminded that I am part of something bigger.

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