Occasionally I have been asked about my experience of civil disobedience. Here is an account I wrote shortly after my arrest in Chicago in 1991 for blocking doors at the Dirksen Federal Building at the start of the Persian Gulf War. Outside of a small Friends Meeting newsletter, it has never been published.
“That cop is staring at me,” I muttered. My friend Tom and I were hurrying down Adams Street toward the Federal Building. It was January 14, 1991, shortly after 7 AM. We had joined a steady flow of people streaming down the sidewalk. Big blue-and-white police vans lined the curb. It was overcast, clouds overhead threatening snow.
My hands shook. Tom and I were on our way to participate in the civil disobedience against the start of the Persian Gulf War called for by the Pledge of Resistance.
We arrived at the corner of Dearborn Avenue and Adams Street and saw 5000 people, instead of the 500 people we had expected. A huge crowd with signs and banners packed the Federal Center Plaza. A guitarist led singing from a stand in front of the Post Office Building and to the northwest of Calder’s red Flamingo sculpture.
We crossed into the Plaza. Judy, another friend, helped me tuck my long hair up under my stocking cap so I wouldn’t be dragged by it. Judy and her daughter Kathleen gave Tom and me quick hugs. Then we plunged into the dense crowd, frantically searching for the people from Synapses, the affinity group of Quakers, Brethren, Mennonites and Catholic Workers with whom we would join for the civil disobedience. Tom and I were Quakers.
For a moment friends stopped Tom but then we struggled on. Police were everywhere. Lines of them stood behind metal fences in front of the Kluczynski Federal Building’s big windows. Above its entrance, at the second floor windows, police officers scanned the crowd. My heart was pumping hard.
Finally I caught sight of Dorothy, a Mennonite and a Synapses member, and we wiggled our way over to her through the crowd.
“We wondered where you were,” said Arlene, a Brethren woman.
“We got off late,” I explained.
Just then the singing ended and chants of “No Blood for Oil!” rose. The big crowd began to surge to the east, aiming for the sidewalk along Dearborn. Our affinity group, a dozen of us, followed. As we shuffled along, I introduced myself to those who had not been at our planning session the night before.
“The People United Cannot Be Defeated! The People United Cannot Be Defeated!” roared the crowd.
Out in the street police on horseback clopped along slowly. Our group bunched together, then got strung out in the crowd. We swung around onto the sidewalk along Jackson Street, then between the Post Office Building and the Kluczynski Building. Cops walked beside us. In front of the Kluczynski Building Gene, another member of Synapses, stood praying. We circled the building again.
On the third round Dorothy said, “We’ll do it the next time.” Everybody nodded. Our plan was to join other affinity groups in blocking the Kluczynski Building’s main entrance.
We labored up the sidewalk along Jackson. “Pardon us, we’re trying to get arrested,” I muttered to people. A woman smiled at me. We got nearer.
As we got close to the front of the building, someone reported, “It’s packed! Dozens are sitting down at the main entrance and hundreds more are standing around them! We can’t get near!”
Our group reversed, tried to struggle back, failed, then joined people who were beginning to filter into the middle of Jackson.
Dorothy called, “Let’s head over to the Dirksen Building! We’ll never get to the main entrance here!” The Dirksen Building was the other Federal Building, just to the north.
As we crossed Jackson, I saw what I thought was the first arrest. A big man in a suit, looking like a businessman, fought four cops, who tried to drag him onto a paddywagon.
The crowd started to shout, “Let him go! Let him go!”
I yelled, “Don’t fight! Don’t fight!”
I looked around. Tom and I had lost the affinity group. As we ran toward the Dirksen Building, we saw Judy and Kathleen standing on the far sidewalk and waved to them. We crossed Dearborn, then Jackson again. At the southeast corner of the Dirksen Building, the rest of our group clustered around a revolving door, and Tom and I scurried over to them.
Dorothy and the others sat crosslegged in the door while we stood around them. The clouds had dispersed, and sun beat down on us. Cops and employees loomed around us. Thousands of people chanted in a roar. I looked over my shoulder. In the middle of Jackson people rocked a big police van back and forth, the one the police had tried to drag the businessman on.
“Wait ’til they arrest us, then take our place,” Dorothy said.
We stood watching them for a minute. A Dirksen Building employee, responding to another angry employee, said, “No, I understand why they’re doing it.”
After a few minutes, the police began to lock the door from the inside. Arlene said, “They’re locking up, let’s go to another door.”
Some of us followed her to the east side of the building, leaving Dorothy and the others where they were. We found another door and, for a moment, stared at it uncertainly. No cops or employees were around. I looked at Arlene, and she looked at me. Then she dove down and sat in front of the door. I followed her; so did the others.
We sat for a while. A woman approached. She tried to get past us but we wouldn’t move.
“I gotta get to work!” she shouted. We all looked at her.
“People are going to die,” I said. She made a face and stalked away.
A few minutes later a guard came over and locked the door. We scrambled up and trotted over to the northeast side of the building, facing Adams. A few people already squatted in the revolving door. We joined them. Away from the sunny side of the building, it was colder.
For a long time we sat and nothing happened. Eventually we started to chat. The others were from the Pledge of Resistance. A few cops stood nearby, watching us.
I grew tired of sitting so I ran to the other side of the Dirksen Building. The huge crowd in the plaza thundered out, “No Blood for Oil! No Blood for Oil!” In the middle of Jackson a row of police on horseback faced the crowd, which had also filled the street.
When I returned to the door, I found that more people had joined us. Supporters milled around, just beyond the knot of police. Arlene’s daughter stood reading aloud from the Bible. Some people chanted, “Send George Bush, Send Dan Quayle, Send Neil Bush, When He Gets Out of Jail!” The cops laughed.
I dashed back to Jackson. Cops drove the sides of their horses hard into the crowd now. People grabbed at the horses and at the officer’s legs. The roar of chants echoed against the buildings.
Back at our door Arlene told me that some of the people in our affinity group, including Tom, had gone to block other doors. Others had replaced them. More cops had arrived, too. I squatted next to a young woman, who introduced herself as Mary Kay, and we talked for a while. She was from the Pledge of Resistance. About ten of us blocked the door now.
At last the police walked over to us. A short, burly officer with a mustache started writing numbers on the back of people’s hands, then attaching thin red plastic bands to their wrists and writing letters and numbers on the bands.
As he worked, Mary Kay asked me, “Do you want to be dragged or do you want to walk? ‘Cause I don’t want to be dragged.”
“I don’t want to be dragged,” I replied. “I don’t want to cause the cops trouble. It’s not them. It’s Bush and Saddam.”
When the officer came to me, I apologized for making trouble for the police. He smiled and shrugged. “It’s our job,” he said.
After the police conferred for a few minutes, the cop began to handcuff Mary Kay and together with a white ratcheted cord of plastic. As he tightened the cord, Mary Kay said, “Now, not too tight! My wrist is very delicate!” He frowned but left it loose around our wrists. He cuffed the others, also in pairs.
The cops talked together for a few more minutes. Then the paddywagon backed up to us.
Mary Kay and I rose. Wrist cuffed to wrist, we began to walk to the van. I took a few steps and raised two fingers in a peace sign. Our supporters cheered. Mary Kay and I mounted the steps into the van and perched on a long metal bench near the front. Through a small metal grate over the paddywagon’s cab there was a patch of blue sky.
In pairs the others entered and slid onto the parallel seats. We chatted quietly, cheerfully. The last person to board came fighting, tossed in by three cops. His head was bleeding.
Fucker hurt you?” one policeman asked another, rubbing his arm.
We kept talking, eventually introducing ourselves. Like most of the day, I didn’t get last names. Elizabeth, a college student who had joined in on an impulse, was with us, as well.
“My mom works at the Federal Building,” she said.
The cops slammed the door shut, hopped up on the back gate, and the van rolled onto Adams. As we lumbered down the street, tall buildings slid past the grate. I looked at my watch. It was 8:30 AM. The van turned a corner, rumbled further and pulled into an alley. We sat, not speaking for a while.
“Short ride,” Helen, another Mennonite and Synapses member, said at last. “Must be 11th and State.”
Then the door opened. “Out,” a policeman ordered.
We exited the paddywagon. Several beefy cops stood on either side of a door. We marched a few steps into the building and then into an elevator. An old man, yawning, shoved the gate shut, and we ascended. He opened the gate. Chanting suddenly boomed: “No Blood for Oil!! No Blood for Oil!!”
“Women out,” a cop said.
I said, pointing to Mary Kay, “I’m cuffed to her.” But then, since the cord was so loose, I slipped my hand out. I handed it to the policeman, who took it, raising an eyebrow.
I couldn’t see what was going on but I could hear the women go through some kind of processing.
The policeman said to Howie, the guy who had fought being put on the van, “OK, you, out.”
A few minutes later, the cop said to me, “Out.”
I left the elevator. The processing area was a small room with a counter. Cells lay to the left and right. Four other men stood waiting. The women had gone.
“Empty your pockets and put everything on the counter,” an officer ordered me. I did so. After a minute, he patted me down. Then I put everything back in my pockets.
A guard said to me, “OK, come on.”
He led me to the right, then to the left, past cells filled with male resisters, who greeted me. Chanting continued.
When I appeared around the corner and the guard unlocked the door, the entire holding cell burst into applause and cheers for me. The cell contained about 35 people.
Everybody talked, chanted or sang. Clearly people felt that if they were released, they would go right back and block doors again. I made my way to the side of the cell and squatted down.
Howie roamed the cell asking people who they were and where they had been arrested.
A hefty balding man with a beard sat on the bench to my left. “Name’s Sam,” he said, holding out his hand. We shook. He was a member of the Communist Party. Soon he was deeply involved in describing Communism to me. We argued violence versus non-violence.
“I’m surprised the Party allows you to participate in a thing like this,” I said. “I’ve always heard they call this sort of thing adventurism.”
“Nah,” he responded, “We’re free to take part.”
I looked beyond the bars. One of the jail guards walked by. He wore one of our peace buttons.
“What floor is this, anyway?” I asked Sam.
“Sixth,” he said.
As time passed, I talked with others in the cell. One young man worked with a Jesuit program in the city. Another was a street kid. I spoke with an activist from ACT-UP. I took my stocking cap off and let my hair fall free.
At one point, a black cop unlocked the cell for someone, then spoke with us for 15 minutes, with the door wide open and 40 of us sitting and standing inside. “Yeah,” he said, “Well, I agree with you guys, this whole thing is fucked. I got a nephew over there. But what you gonna do? They tell us to stop you guys, we gotta arrest you.” He shrugged. “You know, this charge, this civil disobedience, it’s just a bullshit charge.”
“You oughta join us,” I said.
“They’d fire my ass” he replied.
“Wouldn’t the union protect you?” someone asked.
He laughed. “Union ain’t gonna do nothing….”
People kept talking. Sam the Communist, Howie the Pledge of Resistance member and Brian the ACT-UP activist stood in a tight circle, explaining their beliefs to each other. And the chanting and singing continued. I met others: Vietnam War resisters, religious people like myself. The big businessman arrested earlier passed by, escorted by a guard. I talked with a high school student, who had been arrested by mistake. I chatted with a young man, recently graduated from a college in Iowa.
“You know,” I commented to the Iowan, “it would be great to do something at an Iraqi consulate. Show we don’t support either side. Is there one here?” He shrugged.
We asked resisters where they had been arrested as they were brought in and yelled it from cell to cell: the Post Office Building, the Board of Trade, Wabash Avenue, State Street, the Exxon Building, Lake Shore Drive. This was the only way we had to get news. Other than that we were cut off from the outside world.
People counted themselves off, someone yelling out, “One!”, then others continuing up to one hundred and seven. We cheered.
I started to study my surroundings. The large holding cell, which was crammed with prisoners, had a wall and three sides of bars. Benches were along the wall and in the middle. A urinal was attached to the wall. Beyond the bars ran a small corridor with frosted heavily-meshed windows. Everything was grey, except the benches, which were blonde.
In the afternoon people talked more quietly. The chanting and singing had ceased. Many of the resisters spoke violently, some wanting to kill Bush. I argued against the violence. Guys went over and peed. Guards took out a few people to be booked.
About 3 PM a cop called out my name and let me out of the cell. Several others joined me.
“Line up there,” the policeman ordered us, pointing to the wall, and we did.
After a few minutes, he led our little group down the corridor, past cells full of male and female prisoners, out into a big hall, then into an old courtroom. Both men and women filled the benches. I saw Dorothy and smiled and waved to her.
For an hour we slowly slid down the benches as, three at a time, people sat before detectives typing out arrest forms. The detectives, holstered and leisure-suited, joked with each other as they typed.
When my turn came, the detective asked, “ID?”
I handed him my driver’s license. “How many were arrested?” I asked.
He looked up from his typewriter. “‘Bout a hundred and twenty-five,” he said.
When he finished, I carried my forms to the other side of the room and plopped down on another bench. People there introduced themselves and compared experiences. I felt someone tugging at my hair, which I had tied back, and I found the street kid holding it. “Mighty long,” he joked. His hair hung in a braid halfway down his back.
Sliding down the bench, I found myself near Dorothy. “Are you okay?” she asked.
I smiled. “Just fine. It feels good to be here.” She nodded.
For four hours we inched up the benches. I started to get tired. Someone passed around scraps of newspaper.
On one side of the room the police took mug shots of prisoners. A guy who earlier had been pointed out to me as someone active with NORAID made a goofy face when they tried to take his photograph, and the policeman standing next to him gave him a hard shove.
At last my turn came. An old detective carefully fingerprinted me four times, instructing me to wipe my fingers clean between each press.
“Why four sets?” I inquired.
“City, State, Federal and Parking,” he joked.
We never did find out who the fourth set of fingerprints were for. Later we thought it might have been for the CIA or Interpol.
He sent me over to the railing in front of the judge’s bench to wait to have my photograph taken. The college graduate from Iowa stood next to me. A policeman handed me a card with my name and a number on it.
A few minutes later, another cop, a skinny young man, came over and asked me, “What’s your name?”
“Sandman,” I replied.
He grimaced. “When I ask you your fucking name, tell me your name!” he snarled. “Not no goddamn nickname!”
Surprised, I stammered, “It’s really Sandman….”
He peered at my card, made a face, then stamped away. The Iowan laughed. A policeman beckoned me over to the wall. As I looked directly into the camera and held up the card, a photographer took my picture. Then he took a profile.
A guard led several of us out of the courtroom, down the hall, past a couple cells where teenagers sat and into a back area. One at a time another policeman posed us against a wall for more photos.
“That was City, this is FBI,” another resister explained to me. The cop led us back to the place where we had been searched. For a long time we waited as the police discussed where to put us.
One of the teenagers sitting in a nearby cell mumbled to another, “That’s some of the cats got arrested today.” The other nodded.
At last a guard took us back to our original cell. Prisoners sitting in other cells smiled and waved as we filed by. It was 8 PM. In a few minutes more people joined us, but only a third as many filled the cell as before. Prisoners began to lay full-length on the benches.
Lionel, a member of Maxworks, homesteaders on Maxwell Street, loudly demanded, “How about some food?! How about a phone call?!”
The guards were now white, unlike the morning when they had been mostly black, and they ignored his calls. Or they replied, “Oh, yeah, sure. Any time now….” Some guards were Hispanic. They smiled at us but didn’t say anything.
I leant against the bars, peering out. Just enough space existed to see part of the entrance to the cell area. Occasionally guards and prisoners passed back and forth. I thought about how completely pointless sitting in a cage seemed. At the same time I felt clear about how completely right what I had done was.
A history professor from Circle Campus, an older man and a long-time activist, struck up a conversation with me. “The police were rougher during the Central American hearings in Washington,” he noted.
About 8:45 PM, still at the bars, I saw my friend Tom and a few others led out of the cell area.
I sat back down and talked further with the history professor. Steve, a lawyer from Pilsen, joined us. A member of the Wobblies stretched out on a bench, added an occasional comment. The young student kept complaining about how his arrest had been a mistake.
In time everybody but myself laid on the benches or floor and slept. I leant against the bars, then sat on the end of a bench. I wished I had brought a book. In time I turned to meditating about things in my life: about my ladyfriend Sonja, about Chicago, about writing, about the Spirit. About the War.
I looked around the cell at these people resting, suddenly very moved. They had been willing to risk arrest and even a beating for their beliefs.
About 10 PM the night shift came on. A black guard strolled by the bars.
Lionel called out, “Hey, man, we been in here all day! When we gonna get out?” Others complained, too.
The guard said, “All day, man? They’re checking your records with the FBI in Washington. I’ll see what I can do.” He disappeared.
I resumed my watch at the bars. An hour or so later the guard reappeared.
“Hey, what’s going on?” someone demanded.
“I’m trying, man,” he said, frowning. “It takes time.” As he turned to go, he said over his shoulder, “Hey, you guys keep up the good work.”
Near midnight the guard returned with another guard and, reading from cards, they let four resisters out. Everybody was drained now. A few of us talked softly.
At 1:30 AM they came back again. They called out the remaining people’s names. We left the cell, except for the history professor.
“His name ain’t on the list,” said the guard. “Don’t worry. I’ll get you out,” he said to him.
We all trooped out to the counter area. As we waited for the elevator, I said, “Maybe we shouldn’t leave without the professor.” None of the other resisters responded. A police sergeant gazed at me, then shook his head. I told the guard, “Please make sure he gets out. And thanks for your help.” He bobbed his head.
The elevator delivered us to the first floor. A long counter manned by police lay perpendicular to the entrance. Through a window I could see our supporters waiting outside.
“Sandman,” one of the cops at the counter called out. I went up and signed a pair of forms. “You can go,” she said.
I stepped outside into the cold night air, the Iowan behind me. I didn’t know anybody.
Two Pledge of Resistance members came over. “You guys OK?” one inquired. We nodded. They asked us to sign a list of arrestees and told us about a legal meeting to be held at DePaul University, sponsored by the Pledge of Resistance.
The Iowan and I stood around for a while, looking at the building and the people. “Headed north?” I finally asked.
“Yeah,” he said.
We trudged north on State Street, searching for an open subway station. Coming upon an all-night restaurant, we stopped and, ravenous, I bought a sandwich. He bummed a cigarette.
At Madison Street we paid our fares and stumbled down the steps to the platform. Exhausted, we stared at a food kiosk as we waited for the El.
“You guys get arrested today?” the Indian running the stand asked.
I said, “Yeah….”
“Well, good for you! I’m glad someone’s doing something!” he said.
After we boarded the train going to the Howard station and sprawled out on the seats, the Iowan said, “The guy gave me some candy….” He smiled, showing me a bag of ju-jubes.
At our trial in a West Side courthouse, on January 28, we stood in front of the judge in a line. The people being tried were a few from my affinity group and some Pledge of Resistance members. Mary Kay, to whom I had been handcuffed, stood next to me. She had brought her baby, who nestled in her arms.
After the charges were read (mob action, trespass), we sat together in the back of the courtroom. Judith, our lawyer from the National Lawyers Guild, conferred with the judge, then approached us. She said, “The judge said he admires what you did. He said he wants to give you the least he can.” She smiled and added, “He was a public defender, and this is his first day on the bench.”
Finally the judge announced that the charges were dismissed. The police officer who had arrested us didn’t show up to testify.