A Day In The Life – Jail
As many of you know, Alexandra felt very strongly against the war in Iraq. Since last year, she has attended countless vigils, demonstrations and has even gone to jail! Alexandra has decided to share these accounts on her official website: from the time of her first arrest, to carrying out her sentencing.
It is Wednesday morning, March 19th , and I am outside the federal building in downtown Los Angeles. President Bush has pledged to start bombing Iraq in 12 hours, and I feel very sad that the tens of millions of anti-war protesters around the world have been unable to stop this war. I am here with about 20 others, all with strong religious convictions that violence is not the answer. I am the only one with no religious convictions, but I do believe that violence is not the answer. I have decided that I must step up my stand against this impending war, so today I will do a civil disobedience. Civil disobedience is a non-violent form of resistance, and has been used by activists like Thoreau, Ghandi, Martin Luther King Jr., Cesar Chavez.
This morning, I will trespass onto federal property openly and peacefully. It is a testament to how strongly I am against this war. After singing and praying for peace in front of the federal building, fellow protester Robert and I walk up the steps to the federal building. I am carrying a sign that says “The Iraqi people are not my enemy” and Robert is carrying a sign that says “No war in Iraq”. The nation is on “Orange Alert”, and there is a phalanx of 10 officers who are lined up in front of the entrance.
Robert and I are stopped at the top of the steps and the sergeant tells us we cant go any farther. Robert and I explain that we need to go into the building because we disagree with the federal government’s decision to go to war in Iraq. The officer tells us that if we take another step we will be arrested. We say that we understand that, but that we morally cannot just sit by as our nation wages an illegal, immoral war.
We take that step.
Robert and I are arrested, handcuffed and frisked. The officers were very good at putting me in handcuffs and putting me up against the wall. We spend the next couple hours in a holding tank. We are processed and released. We will have to appear in court in the next few weeks on the charge of refusing to comply with an officer.
That evening, the United States begins to bomb Iraq.
It is 8 am on Wednesday morning and about 20 of us gather around the corner from the downtown Los Angeles federal building. Everyone is with the LA Catholic Worker except Vietly and I, but we have been coming here regularly so we know most everyone at least by sight. I continue to be an ardent admirer of these folks, who dedicate their lives to feeding the poor and promoting peace, and I am honoured to be among them as we protest the Bush administration’s policies. As happens every Wednesday, we fall into single file behind a drummer and begin to slowly, slowly walk around the block. Most of us hold signs. President Bush says the war is over, but there is still fighting and looting in the streets. America has “won”, but Vietly and I know that the war is not over – you just don’t drop 10,000 bombs and fire tons of depleted uranium on a country and then leave. If America doesn’t successfully and democratically rebuild this devastated country, then the whole world, but especially America, loses.
It takes 15 minutes to get around the block, as we are walking silently, meditatively, to the soulful beat of the drum. We pass the federal courthouse and the federal jail – in a couple of months I will be spending time in both places for my Wednesday morning actions. This block is like one-stop shopping for a peace activist: protest on the east side, get sentenced on the south side, go to jail on the north side. We round the corner to the federal building and we see the 15 or so officers lined up in front of the main doors. They know us now, and because most Wednesdays there is someone who does a civil disobedience to protest the war, they are ready for us.
Today, we fan out in a line in front of the building on the sidewalk, and have a silent prayer for 15 minutes. It is during this prayer that Vietly and I are going to do a civil disobedience. I am nervous, and I know she is too. After a few minutes, we begin to walk silently up the stairs towards the officers. Vietly has a sign that says “Peace is Patriotic” and my sign says “SHOCKing and AWEful”. At the top of the stairs, the commanding officer gently tells us we cannot go any further. I say that we believe the war is illegal and immoral and we want to get into the federal building to protest. He is very kind and says he understands (and I suspect he might even agree), but that we cant do that. We have a polite discussion for a couple minutes and when Vietly and I don’t back away, we are arrested. This time no handcuffs, probably because the officers know me from my last arrest and because Vietly is so tiny they know she cant give them much of a hard time even if she wanted to!
We are escorted up to the same holding cell, but this time the officers are much friendlier than before. We are mugshotted (I try to do a slight smirk to look like I am a confident activist proud of my actions, but I don’t think I succeeded…) and fingerprinted, which takes a long time as the machine doesn’t read our prints well and bleeps everytime “error”.
The cop finally ignores it, but it makes me wonder if the same companies who made the Black Hawk helicopter and the “Smart” bomb made these fingerprinting machines. Apparently the reason I wasn’t fingerprinted last time was because the machine was out of order. Hmmm… I never got a photo taken either – did they run out of Polaroid film?
The officers tell us that we are a welcome relief from the people they usually arrest, and I guess that is true. We have been arrested because of our strong opposition to our government’s imperialist policies, and we are respectful of the professional way the officers are doing their jobs. As I suspect they respect us (even if they don’t agree with our stance) for doing our jobs as concerned citizens of the United States.
Vietly and I are released a couple hours later.
I drive to the downtown federal courthouse with Ian, Vietly, and our close friend Jim. We are meeting my lawyer, John Crouchley, there at 2pm. As I mentioned before, the courthouse is just around the corner from where I was arrested, and I have been there several times in support of other anti-war protesters, so I am entering somewhat familiar territory. My lawyer is a federal criminal lawyer, but he has never dealt with a case like mine before, where his client (me) is refusing to pay a fine or do community service. I believe that to pay money to the government I am protesting is counterproductive to my antiwar beliefs, and that my biggest service to the community was to protest the war. To me, jail time is not so much a punishment as a continuation of my protest. John feels his job is to get the best deal for his client, and as virtually all of his clients have fervently desired fines and community service instead of jail time, he is still getting used to the fact that those are exactly the sentences I do NOT want. I have requested that John not ask for any leniency in any way, and I have made it clear that the reason I hired him was to convince the judge that I have no intention of paying fines or doing community service for my civil disobedience. If the judge imposed a fine or community service, I will be back in the courtroom in a few months, having not complied, which is such a waste of time. I have not hired him to get me the lightest sentence, but to get me a sentence that I can morally fulfill.
I am very touched because my manager, Daniel, and his partner, Chris, are at the courthouse, and a dozen Catholic Workers, all there to support me. We fill half the courtroom. I have plead Guilty to both my charges of failing to comply with an officer, so I am here to be sentenced by Judge Andrew Wistrich. The prosecutor who has been prosecuting all the anti war cases is also there.
John does a good job of informing the court that I am a longtime activist and that I cannot morally pay a fine or do community service. The judge looks confused (this is his first peace activist case) and asks if we understand that his only alternative is to send me to jail. We say we understand. I read my statement, which is very watered- down from what I had originally written, but both John and Ian thought my first 2 drafts were too political. The statement read as follows:
I stand before you because I committed two acts of non-violent civil disobedience to protest the policies of the Bush administration and the war in Iraq.
I learned in my 6th grade history class that dissent is one of the pillars of our democracy. I believe that the war in Iraq was illegal, immoral and it breaks my heart that we – the United States of America – are now more feared for our military might than we are respected for our democratic spirit.
So what do I do to dissent?
I write to my representatives, but they fear being labeled un-patriotic, and they vote for war.
I call the White House, but our president has his mind made up to fight.
I join marches in the streets, but the media doesn’t report on them.
So when my representatives are too afraid to listen, the administration is too misguided to see, and our media is too embedded to tell the truth, I chose non-violent civil disobedience.
Civil disobedience is done as a last resort, because someone feels so strongly about something, they are willing to get arrested for their beliefs.
My moral code dictates that, in these times, I cannot sit quietly by. Even though I am a little afraid of the consequences of speaking out like this, I am more afraid of the consequences of not speaking out. Our democracy is built on dissent, and without it we wouldn’t be a free country. I cannot be silent.
The prosecutor spends 10 minutes saying why I, and other anti-war demonstrators, are a menace to society. She recommends 30 days in jail, and John almost jumps out of his seat. I tell him not to argue. I will take whatever the courts give me and it is important to the dignity of my beliefs not to deal down with the government. I know this is hard for John not to fight for his client, and I admire him for struggling to understand my code of ethics. He is a good man, an excellent lawyer, and I am glad he represents me.
The judge then sentences me to 6 days in jail, 3 days for each count. That night, I send out the following email to my friends and family:
On Wednesday, June 11, I was sentenced by the federal government to 6 days in jail, because of 2 civil disobedience actions I did to protest the policies of the Bush administration and the war in Iraq. I will start serving on Friday, June 13.
I think this is a fair sentence. Since it was made clear to the judge that I was morally unable to pay a fine to the government I was protesting, or to take probation which would curb my ability to dissent, I understood that the only option he had left was to incarcerate me.
The most important thing we can do as Americans is not to be silent when it comes to our government’s policies, whether that government be liberal or conservative. Speak out peacefully and with respect, and our nation will remain open and free.
Subject: Alexandra out of the clink
Date: Thursday, June 19, 2003
To: Family & Friends
Thank you for all of your calls, cards, thoughts, emails and the offers to bake cakes with files in them. I have been released from the Metropolitan Detention Center, and I was sustained by your support and love.
My experience was the best it could have been under the circumstances. The federal marshalls let me keep Martin Luther King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail with me while I was fingerprinted, mugshotted, stripped and made to “squat and cough”. 5 hours later I arrived in the woman’s wing, 9th floor North, which houses the 80 or so females (there are thousands of men in the MDC – proving that women are the better sex?). The women are 19- 70 years old and are pretty equally divided racially: White, Black, Latino and Asian. There was none of the racial tension that you hear about in the men’s prisons. I was lucky to be in a federal facility, as the fed crimes are generally about mafia stuff, drug rings, bank and mail fraud, and probation violations, instead of the more in-your-face violence in the county system. My bunkmates were a bank robber, a drug user and a women who was a secretary in a medical supply store that sold some beakers to a methamphetamine producer, and we all got along very well. The woman who became my surrogate mother in jail was Katrina Leung, who was an American spy and has now been accused of being a double agent for China.
I ate alot of Wonder Bread and dry Rice Krispies; I showered quickly because staph is rampant; and I learned to pee in front of my roommates, although it isnt easy going to the bathroom when a guard could walk by any minute. I was grateful to be let out of my cell for most of the day into a common area. I read two books, did the Stairmaster every day in my green prisonwear and jelly sandals, led several yoga workouts with other inmates every night, and watched what the others watched on TV: “Cops” , “Real World” and “Law and Order” (I think they didnt see the irony in all that, but I found it amusing – I guess we like what we know).
I learned that humans strive for normalcy in any situation – while all vanity went out the window for me (there were no mirrors anyway), women bought makeup from Commissary and signed up to use the curling iron. They communicated with the men on the floors below through the vents and the toilets, and called them “boyfriends” even if they had never met personally. Husbands and wives are often put in cells directly in line with each other, maybe so the feds could bug their vent conversations. Yes, communication-by-toilet: food, letters, photographs are sent down through the toilets by somehow draining them and snaking bedsheets through the pipes. Apparently an autograph I had innocently signed ended up in a man’s 2nd floor cell, and I was thereafter forbidden by the lieutenants to sign anything.
The recidivism rate is huge, and it makes me sad. One of my roommates, at 53, has been in jail or on probation for the last 30 years. I see that alot of the women choose bad men with criminal histories and many think a jail sentence of 5 years is short. I realized that I was so disconnected from the outside world when I was in there that I didnt look out a window until my last day inside.
I am thrilled to be home with my beloved Ian, who bore so much of the burden of my situation. I have a beautiful life “on the outside” that I dont want to jeopardize, and I have promised him it will be a long time before I do another civil disobedience. However, I will be out tomorrow night protesting the Bush administration and its policies! Just a bit of chanting and sign waving…
Many activists have spent so much more time in prisons hundreds of times worse than I experienced, and I am in awe of them. I was lucky to be among women who were kind to me, with guards who were for the most part respectful, and in a prison system that was treating me fairly.
Thank you again for all your support.
Peace and love,