Notes from 100 Central Street

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Sometime into my 43rd hour in the custody of the
New York Police Department, I started to cry. “I just
don’t see how we can stop this,” I pleaded with my
cellmates through my tears. “I feel this country and
myself just sinking and sinking. At what point does
this kind of repression stop being proto-fascist and
become just plain old fascism?” My cellmates gave
me toilet paper to wipe my tears and hugged me
until I stopped crying. They had no words of comfort
to offer. We all felt the same way.
An hour later, we were banging on the bars and
shaking the floor with our chant, “This is illegal! Let
us go!” Within minutes, several floors of demonstrators
joined in the chanting, and those on vigil below
sent their voices up to meet ours. After twenty minutes,
the guards promised we’d be next to get our
photos taken, another step on the excruciating
process of being arraigned and released. A f t e r
another hour, we were waiting still, seven women in
an eight by nine foot cell, taking turns sitting on the
bench and stepping over our comrades sleeping fitfully
on the cold, concrete floor.
After almost no one was processed or released on
Tuesday night, somewhere I knew the delay was
part of a deliberate strategy to keep the streets clear
of demonstrators until Bush could give an expertly
directed, perfectly choreographed acceptance
speech on Thursday. And, while that knowledge didn’t
prevent me from hanging onto every false estimate
of my release time given to me by my wardens
(which ranged from “I don’t know” to “six more
hours” to “we can keep you up to three days”), I
placed more stock in the combination of rumor and
information circulating among the cells about
habeas corpus and threats of contempt charges and
fines levied against the NYPD. I left the courtroom
at 6:45 pm on Thursday, a bit disoriented that I wore
no chain on my right wrist and that no one was
yelling at me to keep my shoulder to the wall. But I
knew Bush’s speech would start soon and I would
miss it because I needed a medical exam, legal
advice, and the first nutritious food I’d eaten since
breakfast two days before. The Republican plan, if I
might call it that without hard evidence, had worked
on me and hundreds of others. We were too busy
taking care of ourselves and each other to protest
what had hurt us. For some of us, it felt like a slap in
the face. We weren’t used to being immobilized like
this. We were going to miss the big event, and it was
going to go on with or without us.
There is an unacknowledged myth about radicalism
among white people that allows us to feel like
we’re supposed to be at the forefront of social
change movements. It goes something like this:
white, middle-class people are well-positioned to
become vanguard activists because our privilege
gives us the economic and social capital to use in
our work and shields us from the worst oppressions
of the state. At times there is an element of truth to
this myth, as there are to many. But if it sounds like
a variant on white guilt, or an apologia for why
white people can’t stay in the background, it probably
is. But it might help explain why even in New
York City and against the Republican Party, the
counter-convention events were still overwhelmingly
white. Our radical Valhalla is too full of white
people: my friends are more likely to argue about
the spirit of Paris in 1968 than Kinshasa in 1960.
I’m no exception—I needed to Google to find the
date for Kinshasa but not Paris.
As self-centeredly myopic as our unspoken vanguardism
has been, it has also never been so wrong.
The comfortable padding of privilege is being worn a
little thinner by the Bush administration, and the preemptive
arrests at the RNC are only the most recent
and visible examples. (The prosecution of artist and
professor Steve Kurz on counter-terrorism charges is
another). We could, of course, try to shore up our
racial and economic position (as Log Cabin Republicans
seemmasochistically desperate to do), or,worse
yet, claim our time in jail as an‘authentic’ e x p e r i e n c e
of oppression that is on par with the experiences of
others. But I don’t think that we will do that. In New
York, the bystanders swept up in the mass arrests
were as supportive of the protesters and outraged at
the guards as the demonstrators, and no one (least of
all the police) was keeping track of who ‘should’
have been arrested and who ‘shouldn’t ’ have been.
I’d like to see that happen on the outside, and I
believe it can. We, who find our white skin and middle-
class backgrounds not buying us as much as they
used to, must develop more complex forms of solidarity
and collaboration with those who have been
too busy taking care of themselves and each other to
come to ‘our’ p r o t e s t s .
I’ve returned again and again to that 43rd hour
crying spell and gotten angry at myself for having no
better inking about how to stop the spread of fascism
than I did then. I’ve cried about it all over again, and
then laughed at myself for the arrogance of wanting
to have all the answers. I’m still sorting through the
contradictory emotions, observations, and conversations
that came out of being in jail for two and a half
days. I’m vigilant not to allow the peculiar combination
of weariness and bravado that accompanies
being a political prisoner (for however short a term
and minor an offense) to obscure the fact that I still
know nothing about living in prison for years on end.
“Why does my story matter?” I ask myself as I tell it
to anyonewho will listen. There is no way to impose
artificial coherence on my experience because what
this story will matter has more to do with whatwe all
do now than with what has already happened. We
have a collective responsibility to gather the threads
of these experiences, observations, emotions, and
conversations and weave them into a new narrative.
We need to take charge of what stories are told about
us and what stories we tell ourselves. Being a reflective
activist, I can’t help but make this sound like a
consciousness-raising session where everyone sits
around in a room and talks. But it isn’t. It’s a collective
working out of error, experience, and coexistence
through action, and the action had better start
right now.

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