Editor’s Note: the Occupy Market Street Bridge action took place on November 17, 2011. The action was part of a National Day of Action by the Occupy Movement.
I’m not really the kind of person who usually likes being called “dear” by total strangers, especially when they are men. Especially when they are cops. But when one of the cops who was arresting me called me ‘dear’ (while he was removing the sign tied around my neck), I found it strangely comforting. I mean, it could have been something much, much worse. For an instant, I flashed on a moment in the mid-80s when my brother Doug told a South Jersey waitress, “I’m not a hun. I’m a Visigoth,” but better judgment prevailed, and I did not make a snarky comment to the cop in question.
In many ways, I feel like I’ve been waiting for this moment for my whole life. The moment where the stars aligned, and people in the United States decided that standing up for themselves was worth the not-inconsiderable risks involved. The people that I sat down on the Market Street Bridge with ranged from young, white college students, to long-term unemployed men, to social media activists, to older African-American women, to professional leftists like me. We were black, white and brown. We did not fit into one easy stereotype of “activist,” but we all wanted one thing–to highlight the fact that there simply aren’t enough jobs in this country for everyone who wants one.
We linked arms and chanted. We made jokes with the cops about how we weren’t going to resist arrest, but we might need a minute to get the circulation back, because our feet and legs were cramping. The guy next to me turned the “we are the 99 percent” chant into a pirate tune, and we rocked back and forth, singing and swaying. When it was time for us to get locked up, we rose and walked to the vans and cooperated with the police.
When we got to the Roundhouse, the detectives who processed us were for the most part professional and respectful (though there was a moment of joking about “Occupy the Cellblock”). There were seven other women in the van with me, one of whom had many priors for civil disobedience, the rest of whom were being arrested for the first time. We gave our info, had our shoelaces removed, cut the strings off our hoodies, emptied our pockets. I had hoped to bring a pen and notepad into jail to take some notes on my experience, but my pen was deemed to be a potentially dangerous weapon (I guess it IS mightier than the sword!!), and I was forced to throw it out.
After that, the waiting started.
The other CD veteran and I were put into the same cell, a 10′ x 6′ foot metal slab that was painted the color that was called “Flesh” in my 1970s box of Crayolas. We both laid down on the metal bench and tried to sleep. From the snoring, I’d guess that her efforts were more successful than mine, but who knows–maybe I snored too. I noticed that the previous tenant had left us some decorations–a rope, braided out of jail toilet paper was tied to one of the bars, and a series of water bottle labels had been meticulously folded into geometric shapes. I tried to guess, from the number of labels, how long she had been there.
They don’t turn off the lights in jail, which makes it a) hard to sleep and b) harder to ever guess what time it is. There’s something very disconcerting about having the exact same shadows for 17 straight hours. At odd times of the night, men mopped the floor with the most horrific-smelling bleach, and female guards delivered cheese sandwiches (on Wonder Bread) with tiny bottles of water. There didn’t seem much rhyme or reason to the timing of either of those things.
I thought a lot about my kids, and how much I wanted to wake up with them, instead of my cellmate. I chatted occasionally with some of the other women, and daydreamed about taking a long, hot bath. I wished I could feel warm. I wished that the guards would turn off their flat screen TV, so I could just hear myself think.
After a while, it became apparent that we were not being processed in a timely way. There were few other women prisoners when we arrived, and all of them left before we were even fingerprinted. Around 8 am, when I was finally processed, the guards who were in the processing room bitched about the night shift not having done any work, and I felt familiar, like I was listening to any day shift worker talk about the previous night’s shift.
More waiting. More trying to sleep, with my hoodie as a pillow. More fantasizing about what I would do when I got out of jail, as I unsuccessfully slept.
A group of women were brought in from other precincts, and we ended up in the bail interviews with some of them. They expressed surprise, first that we had been arrested at all, just for sitting on a bridge–second that we were still there and hadn’t been seen by a judge yet. They also told us that the charge we had taken–“Obstructing a Highway”–was most commonly levied against prostitutes.
We had our bail interviews with a clerk that was only visible via a monitor–mine was somewhere–presumably in the same building but who knows?–asking me about my job, where I lived, who could vouch for my character. At one point, he asked me about my hangouts and I laughed…”does my office count?” He thought it probably did, so I gave him the address.
Back to the cell…more waiting.
I sat on the bench and stared at someone else’s hair on the floor, trying to decide if it was natural or part of a weave. I thought about sex, in the hopes that I could distract my body from its tired aches and pains with the memory of happier times. I really, really missed my phone. I wished that it could all be over. I recited poetry in my head, and wondered if the friend I’d asked to feed my cat had made it to my place, wondered if I’d be out of jail in time to pick up my son from school, or if my ex would have to do it.
At about hour 16, a guard came back and took all the women off the cellblock and put us into a room approximately the size of an elevator to wait for our hearing with the bail judge. One by one, we went into a room with a guard and another monitor. On the split screen were the judge, my lawyer, the court reporter and a view of myself I wished I didn’t have to look at. The judge explained the charges being leveled against me, told me that I was not getting bail, but instead being released on my own recognizance, and told me that I had to show up for court on the next business day at 9 am. I went back to the small room, listening to some of the other (non-bridge-sitting) women sob as they were told about bail in amounts ranging from $1,000 to $5,000.
From that point on, it moved kinda quickly. We got our personal items back (minus my favorite lip gloss–I’m holding @michael_nutter personally responsible for that one!), and had our wristbands removed. When we went outside, a small crowd of supporters cheered and gave us sandwiches (not of cheese & Wonder Bread!) and coffee. I collected my keys and my phone, and went to pick up my kids, reading the hundreds of supportive emails, facebook messages, texts and tweets that had gone unread the night before.
So why’d I go through all that, you might wonder? Why did a middle-aged, middle-class mom decide to write a legal support number on her arm with sharpie and dress in four layers of clothing to stay warm, both while sitting on the street & when in jail?
Philly’s Managing Director, @RichNegrin, has pointed out that no Wall Street bankers are commuting home during Philly’s rush hour, his implication being therefore Occupiers are wasting their time by blocking city streets.
I think that’s a pretty amazing oversimplification of the Occupy movement, personally.
It’s not just about Wall Street.
It’s about the fact that at the current pace of job growth, it will take 8 & 1/2 years until the state of Pennsylvania returns to full employment. That seems too long to me.
I don’t know about you, but I remember the ’80s in Philly pretty well. The times when you couldn’t park your car in any neighborhood with any. single. thing. in view, without risking a broken window and a stolen thing–even if that thing had very little obvious value. The unemployment rate was lower in 1985 than it is now–and the current unemployment rate is surely contributing to a hastening decline of our neighborhoods.
I don’t want to go back there. I want to be in a place where we, as a society, are moving forward again. And I think we’ve been asking nicely for corporate America to create jobs for quite a while, with very little effect.
Hiring is slow and corporations are sitting on tons of cash. Clearly, they aren’t going to spend money unless they feel like they’ll lose more money if they don’t.
So let’s do what we can to cost them money. Let’s do what we can to make sure that they are convinced that we won’t go away easily. Let’s make sure that they understand that we’ll put our bodies on the line to restore the American Dream, if that’s what we have to do.
Let’s occupy bridges, and school rooms, and boardrooms, and courtrooms, and the offices of elected officials–not just on Wall Street, but everywhere. Let’s make them see that they have no place to hide.
Kati Sipp | Executive Vice President & Political Director at SEIU Healthcare PA