I wouldn’t call myself the most politically active person out there. I buy into our consumerist culture just like everyone else. Do I worry that we’re destroying the environment? Of course I do. Does that stop me from driving a fossil fuel-guzzling car or wasting valuable potable water on twenty-minute showers? Hardly. Does it make me a hypocrite? In all honesty, it probably does.
So, how did I find myself in the back of a police transport vehicle during a mass-arrest for a political protest? It’s a long story.
I grew up in the suburbs of Middle America. Before moving to Los Angeles after college, I had never seen a homeless person who wasn’t hitchhiking on the side of the road. That all changed very quickly after settling in LA. Suddenly, the urban poor were everywhere, and, after burning through my savings and struggling with low wages, high rent, and the effects of an overall shitty economy, I became one of them.
Los Angeles is often depicted in the media as a pristine playground for the extremely wealthy. While certain parts of the city definitely meet this description, many parts do not, and those parts that do not are frequently less than a block away from the wealthy parts. In fact, I would go so far as to say that the majority of the Greater Los Angeles area is basically a giant slum juxtaposed with grotesquely rich areas. Income inequality doesn’t just exist here. It is blatant, and it is everywhere.
The thing about poverty in the face of extreme, showy, fuck-off wealth is that it makes people bitter. And, at least in my opinion, I believe that that bitterness was a big part of what fueled the rise of the Occupy Wall Street Movement—especially the Occupy LA faction. I also still believe that that bitterness was completely justified. In my opinion, there should not be billionaires in a world where people are starving and living on the streets. There just shouldn’t be. Such a small group should not have that much control over the world’s assets—especially when they’re withholding them from everyone else around them. Those beliefs are what led me to support the Occupy Movement in spite of (or maybe even because of) my middle-class background and values.
I supported the Movement, but I also saw that it was in trouble from the get-go. The Media was painting the participants as a ragtag group of lunatic fringe conspiracy theorists with nothing better to do than to sit around in public spaces, holding picket signs. Without the media to back them up, Occupy protesters were fighting an uphill battle to gain the support of the public. They were losing momentum, and they were losing it fast. I wanted to help.
When I heard that the City of Los Angeles was going to evict the protesters occupying the space in front of City Hall on the night of November 30, 2011, I decided to get in my car and drive down to Pershing Square to show my support for their cause as well as their right to protest. This was no easy task. The Los Angeles police force was on high alert. They had blocked most of the highway exits leading downtown. I had to park over a mile from the site of the protest and walk down there.
The area surrounding the protest was eerily quiet. But as I got closer, things became much louder. Hundreds of protesters filled the streets. I picked up my homemade paper sign and joined them.
I remember it being cold that night for November in LA. I wore a gray pea coat, a pink beret, and a handkerchief scarf. I had dragged my boyfriend at the time along with me, convincing him to act on the idealism that had fueled so many of his drunken political tirades. As I chanted along with the crowd, holding my sign in the air, I began to notice the police gathering around us. They weren’t wearing their typical cop uniforms. They were wearing riot gear. I heard a voice from a loudspeaker telling everyone to leave the premises. Before I could process how to respond to their demand, I looked around and realized it was too late.
The entire city block was surrounded by an enclosure of police officers brandishing riot shields, side-by-side in a formation that resembled a picket fence. One of the other protesters told me to put my scarf over my mouth and nose in case they used tear gas. My boyfriend looked at me and said, “We’re going to jail.”
The fence of riot shields began to close in on us, becoming smaller and smaller, surrounding everyone and leaving us all with nowhere to go. Officers were grabbing protesters left and right. It wasn’t long before I felt a police officer grab me from behind and pull my arms behind my back. He twisted my forearms and pulled them back so tightly that it felt like my arms were going to break. I screamed involuntarily in pain as he put the zip ties on. He then led me to an area on the side of the street where I sat with a group of fellow arrestees. They took my ID and wrote my name down on a clipboard. We sat there for at least an hour before we were loaded onto a mass-arrest vehicle.
Each prisoner was placed in their own seat enclosed in a small cage. I could feel the zip ties cutting into my wrists. My arms were hyper-extended. The pain was almost unbearable. I remember having red and purple welts on my wrists when the zip ties were finally removed hours later. I also remember having to pee worse than I had in my entire life.
Almost 300 people were arrested that night. The city was so overloaded with prisoners that it didn’t know where to put them all. We sat on the mass arrest vehicle for over six hours with no bathroom breaks. One of the prisoners peed their pants. I barely managed to hold it until we got to the jail. My group was taken to Van Nuys jail in the San Fernando Valley, an hour’s drive away from Downtown Los Angeles.
When we got to the jail, we waited in the vehicle for another hour before we were processed. We were then searched, frisked, and our belongings were confiscated along with our shoelaces.
We were transferred to temporary holding cells with the general population of new arrestees for the first few hours. My cell included a schizophrenic woman who kept yelling random threats to no one in particular and a rough-looking prostitute who kept pulling her dress down to expose her breasts.
Eventually, we were transferred to another cell where we would remain for the duration of our stay. Each prisoner was assigned to a tiny bunk bed with a small scrap of blanket that did little to insulate us from the freezing temperature our cell was kept at. I left my coat and boots on the entire time.
Jail was a new experience for me. With no cell phone, I was limited to calling people whose phone numbers I had memorized that would be willing to accept a collect call from a correctional facility. For me, that was my immediate family. For some reason, collect calls from jail are insanely, prohibitively expensive, costing about $25 for each connection in addition to a several dollars per minute charge that must be billed to a credit card. The phones they use are remodeled payphones with terrible service, so the calls frequently become disconnected. With no clocks, there is also no way to tell time, so it can be extremely difficult to get ahold of people on the outside. I have no idea how families living paycheck to paycheck would be able to keep in touch with their loved ones behind bars.
At first, I was very quiet, laying on my bunk for hours. I ended up crying before finally falling asleep. Eventually, the tiredness gave way to boredom, and it wasn’t long before I was exchanging life stories with the other prisoners. Most of the other arrestees had been living at the Occupy LA Camp. They were hippies, activists, and idealists that were, for the most part, extremely committed to political change.
They described the camp to me. It was actually a very cool system. There was no exchange of money. Everyone used the barter system and shared work. They had yoga and self-defense classes. One of the girls in my cell helped run the t-shirt shop.
By law, prisoners can only be held for 72 hours without being charged and/or brought before a judge for an arraignment on a formal charge. The city of Los Angeles had every intention of keeping as many of the prisoners as they could for the full 72 hours, if possible, to keep them from talking to the press.
Three days can be a long time if you’re in a jail cell. This jail made every effort to make our stay as uncomfortable as possible. In addition to keeping the cells at a constant freezing temperature, we were kept under bright lights that were shining directly into our eyes 24/7.
The cell held about twenty women, and we shared one toilet that was kept in the middle of the room with no stall. We took turns holding up blankets for each other for privacy. The food was inedible. I didn’t eat the entire time I was there, and it was lucky that I didn’t because those of us who ate the food ended up with violent cases of food poisoning. The only source of water was the sink next to the toilet that people used to wash their hands with. There was, of course, no soap. We also weren’t given cups.
Medicine was administered every 12 hours. Most of the female prisoners were on their periods. We were given sanitary napkins and ibuprofen for the cramping only if we happened to be awake at the time the medicine lady came by. We weren’t allowed to shower the entire time we were there.
After 24 hours, it began to hurt when I peed. I knew I was developing a urinary tract infection from the unsanitary conditions of the jail and the effects of remaining in the same clothes for days on end with no shower while on my period. When I asked the guards if I could see a doctor, they told me I would have to wait until I was either released from jail or transferred to the prison.
We decided to do a yoga class in our jail cell to stave off the boredom. It helped. One of the girls also read Song of Solomon out loud to us, as we were only allowed to have religious texts in our cell.
I was actually bailed out after two and a half days. My family had had trouble getting ahold of me, and were scared by the bail bonds company, who made them think that I would have to remain in jail indefinitely unless they paid $500 to bail me out. As I mentioned above, the jail couldn’t have legally held me for more than 72 hours without bringing me before a judge, but my family didn’t know that.
Leaving the jail was surreal. There was just enough power in my phone to call my family and let them know I was alright. Then, I had to go about the interesting adventure of finding my way back to my car, still parked an hour away in Downtown Los Angeles, with no money and a dying cell phone. As I walked down the street, people kept giving me weird looks. I looked down and realized I still hadn’t put my shoelaces back in my boots—a dead giveaway for people who lived next to a jailhouse.
I took a bus to the subway station (the bus driver was nice enough to let me ride without paying a fare) and used my TAP card to take the train the rest of the way back to the city. Walking down the street felt bizarre. It was also quite painful. My sides were aching. I didn’t know it at the time, but the urinary tract infection had spread to my kidneys. I worried that my car had been towed while I was away, and was overjoyed to discover that it had only been ticketed.
I drove home and took a hot bath to ease the pain in my sides. The next morning, I went to the clinic and was given a prescription for antibiotics to treat my kidney infection. After that, I went to the courthouse to await the release of the other prisoners. I met members of the National Lawyer’s Guild who had agreed to represent the protesters. As the prisoners arrived by bus and were released, the activists celebrated, passing out homemade vegan snacks and cigarettes to those who smoked.
In the end, charges against the protesters were dropped as long as we took a mandatory first amendment class. The class was BS. We watched a 30-minute video and were sent home.
This November will mark the 4th anniversary of the eviction of the Occupy LA protesters from City Hall. Overall, it was a pretty eye-opening experience. I realized that even in a society that proclaims free speech, the government and the media possess a lot of power to silence voices they find to be a problem. I also realized how important individual freedom really is and also what a complicated issue it can be. These laws that can strip away our privacy, our rights to due process, or our rights to speak--we don’t believe they really apply to us until they do, and by then it’s too late. We believe we’re safe as long as we are doing what we’re supposed to, but I learned that that isn’t always the case.
Shortly after my arrest, the Occupy Movement fizzled out. This happened mostly due to a lack of public support. Imagine what might have happened if we’d all worked together as citizens to protest economic corruption. They could arrest 300 protesters, but they couldn’t arrest us all. Maybe one day, Americans will all stand up together and take back their freedoms. Until then, we are just going to have to wait.