Confessions of an Ex-Protester


When I was 10, George Bush Sr. kicked off the first Gulf War with a dramatic countdown to midnight. Either Saddam pulled out of Kuwait, or it was war. I remember watching the news with my parents, but I don’t remember discussing it. My impression was that war was bad under any circumstances, but that our involvement in this war was particularly suspect.

In the days before the deadline, I made a collage of war-related newspaper stories, alone in my room, with no audience in mind except posterity. On the morning after the deadline, I wore a black armband to school over my T-shirt. I don’t know where I got the idea, though I harbor the suspicion that hippiedom is hereditary. Moreover, I don’t know what I meant to achieve. It seemed to me that war was a big, bad deal, and that people ought to do something with their hands or their mouths or their money or their clothes to acknowledge this.

This impression of mine was no less strong or better thought-out by the time George Bush Jr. declared the second Gulf War. Shock and Awe seemed like a fireworks show that charred the innocent. Careening into Iraq while al Qaeda huddled in other countries disturbed me. Worst of all was the sense that we were attacking Iraq just because we were angry about 9/11, which made us, in my mind, the bully who hits younger kids on the playground because his dad roughs him up at home. It seemed like something should be done, and protesting was what was available.

peace now illustration

The protests comforted me. I was in Austin, a student at UT, and protests were almost the only time I felt part of the larger community. On weekends, well-dressed, older couples would show up sporting anti-W buttons, and the anarchists would wear their black ski masks. People would bring dogs, kids with flags painted on their faces, and babies in strollers. There’d be hundreds of students-white Rastafarians with dreadlocks, poli-sci geeks with their wire-rimmed glasses, girls in sundresses. Somebody would get on a megaphone and preach to the choir. They’d be pithy and bold to their congregants, who would cheer. We would all feel that we weren’t alone, that our outrage united us, our defiance defined us, and that by massing in front of the Capitol or marching down Congress tying up rush hour, we were distinguishing ourselves from the apathetic masses.

Our reward was coverage. As long as the media covered the protests, there was some record, somewhere, of the American people objecting to this use of their tax dollars and names. But as the war dragged on, coverage-and the number of protesters-dwindled. The stalwarts remained, and the leaders had a new tactic: arrest. The more people arrested, the bigger the coverage. So the stalwart thing was to get arrested.

I didn’t go that day expecting to be arrested. But there we were, my girlfriend and comrades and I, in front of some company we’d been told was profiting from the war. We shouted in the street outside, and when the police came to disperse us, we sat down and linked arms.

The police started picking off the crowd at the edges and working in. There was time to decide whether we wanted to be arrested. My girlfriend and I had recently gotten together, and our purported political zeal was part of our early passion. We looked at each other and hunched down. They came for us.

The idea was to go limp enough that they’d have trouble moving us, but not so limp that we were resisting arrest. They dragged me by one arm after binding my hands behind me with riot cuffs, which are really just plastic bands. They loaded me with seven others into a wagon that was dark when they slammed the doors. My girlfriend was not with me. A girl on the bench across from me said, “I’ve been arrested three times. They’re probably just taking us off-site, and then they’ll let us go. We’re not, like, going to jail or anything.”

The other protesters and I responded with silence. I felt much less connected to these people in the forced intimacy of the paddy wagon, hands behind our backs. We kept our eyes down.

We were unloaded in the garage of the police station. “They’re just, like, going to hold us here for a while to scare us,” said the experienced arrestee. After all the paperwork was filed, we were led to a counter where we put our personal belongings into bags and were handed canvas shirts and drawstring pants in black and white stripes, and orange, rubber slippers. We changed and gave them our clothes. We were led down a hallway to a cell block and distributed into cells. We were given a paper bag with a bologna sandwich and juice box in it, along with a comb, toothpaste, toothbrush, a tiny bar of soap, a cup, and a small blanket. I was in a cell on the second floor, alone.

This was a surprise.

When I said I was willing to be arrested, what I really meant was, “arrested.” Arrested for the experience, arrested as a sociological experiment, arrested in theory. Arrested in retrospect. What I did not calculate was that in spite of being a white, middle-class college girl making the decision to get arrested, once I was in jail, I was actually in jail. I was not “in jail.” The guards and I were not in on some joke, wherein they knew we weren’t real prisoners and so it was not really like we were in jail. Once your cell phone is with your clothes in a paper bag somewhere, and you’re alone in a room whose door you cannot open, you realize this is no concurrent, analogous pseudo-jail you’re in. Your ass is in jail. On purpose. You are a very, very stupid girl.

I lay on my cot with my blanket bunched under my head. It was dusk; I had a little window. I couldn’t see a clock-I don’t know why I supposed they’d leave a clock in sight for prisoners, but they didn’t. I nodded off. I woke up. It was dark out. There was nothing to do. I ate my sandwich and drank my juice box. I brushed my teeth for a few minutes. The toothpaste was gritty and bitter. I thought about Martin Luther King Jr. writing his Letter From a Birmingham Jail. I’d loved that piece when I’d read it in high school. I’d imagined jail as a kind of interesting time-out, a time for reflection, of mental quiet. I’d thought that if you knew that being there did something for some cause you believed in, that it would be easy to be there, knowing that you were helping. I’d guessed that it would be a good place to read and write, like a retreat. I’d never imagined that each time MLK went to jail, he’d have to wonder if, this time, he’d get out again.

I studied my cell. On the wall behind the cot, a previous tenant had written, “Julie Garcia was hurt by Officer Ramirez on November 9, 2001. He hurt her bad.” Garcia had apparently written this in her approximation of a police report, as if someone who would see it from inside her cell could do anything about it. I wondered how she’d been hurt, and how she had a pen. I wished I had a pen. I took my bar of soap and started writing on the inside of my door, but erased it when I heard a guard approach. I was so scared of them, and they hadn’t done anything to me. They hadn’t had to.

Our doors opened. “File down in silence!” shouted the guard. She was large and angry, and her hair was slicked back in a tight braid. We filed down in silence and were led to a room for processing. There, relieved, I could see my girlfriend across the way and some acquaintances who’d also been arrested. We all smiled, put on brave faces. I was so happy to be around other people. We were fingerprinted and photographed. It was novel. Some of the levity, the sense that this was a funny experiment, returned. “Did you get your phone call?” we whispered. Some people had, some hadn’t. Some people had seen a judge; most hadn’t. No one was sure if there was an order to what was happening or if everyone in charge was making it up as they went along. Some people had been interviewed and questioned. None of this had happened to me, nor would it. We were led back to our cells. After the doors relocked, a protester in another cell cried out to the angry guard. “I need my medicine!” she whined. “Where’s my phone call? I need to call my lawyer! You have to let me have my medicine!”

The guard walked right up to her cell door. “Shut up!” she yelled. She was furious. “Shut up! Just shut up!”

I imagined myself black and here, or poor and here, or innocently charged and here, or even guilty and here, caught, stupid, trapped. It was the only time I’d had no control over my body. None of us had any power. She would not get her medicine.

Around 4 a.m., our doors unlocked and opened. I put my souvenir cup and toothbrush in my paper bag and carried my blanket down the stairs to line up in the hall. No one spoke or looked at each other. One door in the block had not opened. It was the girl who’d called out for her medicine.

“Hey!” she cried. “Hey, my door’s still locked! Hey, you guys, don’t leave me here! Don’t leave me!”

We left her there without looking back. Nobody spoke up for her. As for me, I flared with anger at her, fearing she’d rouse the wrath of the guard who had the power to send us back to our cells until she felt like doing otherwise.

I was too scared of being sent back to lift my eyes or speak as I retrieved my belongings, signed something, and walked toward the door.

When I got out, I felt an animal urge to run. I did run toward my sister and all the other protesters who, it turned out, had camped outside the jail waiting for us to be released. The had brought drums and danced and sung and talked politics. They’d had a grand old time. They greeted us as returning heroes. My sister drove me to Kerbey Lane restaurant, and we had breakfast. Then she dropped me at the Omelettry so I could open the restaurant as scheduled, at 5:30 a.m.

I saw one of my regulars that morning, an older woman who was a social worker and skydiver and did tai chi. She was the kind of older woman I wanted to be when I grew up. She said, “How are you,” and I told her where I’d been, what I’d done, and why. She laid a hand on mine. “Good for you,” she said. “If I were younger, I’d be right there beside you, getting arrested.”

I wanted to be proud of myself like she and my sister were proud of me. But my secret fear was that this was my primary motivation and reward: to be proud of myself for doing something, however ineffectual. But I wasn’t proud. I wasn’t proud of leaving my fellow protester. I didn’t feel like I’d done anything to stop the war. It had been a gesture, nothing more. Rendering myself helpless in a cell, feeling how easy I was to control and to scare, cost me something. It cost the other side nothing.

I’ve thought about that night in jail for years and still don’t have a good answer to the question, “What can I do about it?”

I have come to know this: What I longed for when I wore my black armband and, later, my stripes, was not for Saddam to stay in power or annex Kuwait, or for our country to mind its own business, or any other reasoned, politically minded belief. Both as a child and an adult, my desire was childlike and simple and passionate. I wanted peace. I wanted my love of peace to do something. I once imagined a single fingertip of metal taking a long, slow path toward the breast of an Iraqi woman, imagined it pressing gently against the cloth of her gown and then rending the gown, just a little, silently, and then stopping exactly as its tip depressed her flesh. I imagined myself, on the other side of the world, eyes closed, teeth clenched, fists balled, willing the universe hard enough that the bullet stopped there, then reversed, withdrew, excused itself gently, and fell to the ground intact. I wanted wanting peace to do something.

I know I cannot stop the war. I cannot stop even one bullet, not by shouting, not by surrendering my freedom, not even if I martyred myself. But if it’s peace I want, I can create peace, here. My circle of influence stops at my friends and family and co-workers, but I have a circle. The only governing body I control is my own, but I control it completely. I have no mechanism at my disposal by which I can know I am stopping war. But I can fight ignorance by learning. I can fight apathy by voting. I can defend free speech by listening respectfully. And I can champion human rights by suppressing my own impulse to treat others callously.

I used to go to protests for the sense of community, for reassurance that I’m not alone, and for the feeling that I’m doing something for peace. I rarely go to protests anymore, but I still move through my life with the knowledge that every stranger is a potential comrade, and every day is a barricade.

Emily DePrang is a writer from Pearland, Texas.