I’ve only been arrested once. I say that somewhat apologetically, since it seems like, at age 55, I should have been arrested countless times by now, given the number of things deserving to be arrested for. (Ending a sentence with a preposition is not on that list.)
What’s left of the memory of it came floating back up as I listened to the radio coverage of the death of Nelson Mandela. Amy Goodman was interviewing Randall Robinson, who in the 1980s led the non-profit organization TransAfrica‘s divestment efforts, which came to include protests and arrests at the South African embassy in Washington, DC. That had started with Robinson, Mary Frances Berry, Elanor Holmes Norton, and Congressman Walter Fauntroy all refusing to leave after a meeting with the South Afircan ambassador. After that, TransAfrica kept organizing daily arrests at the embassy, with 4,500 eventually being arrested.
My memory consists really of three dream-like images: Telephone switchboard. Sunny sidewalk, cops chatting, police van. Vaulted door and doorbell. That’s it, essentially. I re-build a narrative around them.
I was working then at the Institute for Policy Studies. It must have been 1985, and I was on the switchboard. (Maybe it was lunch time — everyone who worked at IPS took turns covering the switchboard at lunch — or maybe I was there for the day. I was — and still am — a good switchboard operator and receptionist. Robinson must have called, and I must have put him through to either Roger Wilkins or Nancy Lewis. I can’t remember, but eventually someone came down and asked me if I would be arrested that afternoon. There was some urgency, despite the routine that had developed — or because of it. The daily arrests were well-orchestrated: sometimes it was a single high-profile person, like Senator Lowell Weicker, sometimes it was a group of people, like a church group or a union local, students, or the staff of a non-profit organization. But it had to be daily, and that was a pretty remarkable feat to pull off, month after month. And on that day, something must have gotten screwed up: someone couldn’t make it or canceled, I don’t know. They needed someone to go get arrested, so I volunteered my services. Maybe I had been intending to do it and had just not gotten around to actually volunterring — a habit of mine. Or maybe I never planned to do get arrested at all, I don’t know. But I ended up saying yes.
I remember walking up Wisconsin Ave. — it wasn’t far from the IPS offices at the time, at 1901 Que St., at Dupont Circle. It was a beautiful, sunny day. I would have walked past the memorial to Orlando Letelier and Ronni Karpen Moffitt, two people who had worked at IPS some years before I landed up there, and who were assassinated there on Sheridan Circle.
I had been given instructions about what to do, but I remember being nervous — not about being arrested, but about doing it wrong. I knew I was at the embassy when I saw the two cops out front, chatting amiably; they said hello to me. They were used to this routine by then. I walked up to the door and rang the bell I have a blurry memory of standing there, hearing someone speak through the intercom but I couldn’t make out exactly what they said. I must have asked to see the duty officer of the day, which is what we were told to say. I think I must have been asked to step back to at least 60 feet from the embassy (this was the law everyone was charged with violating: no demonstrations within 60 feet of the embassy), but again, I can;t really remember and I had the sense again that I wasn’t doing something right. Maybe I was supposed to stay standing there, but I walked back down the sidewalk. Or maybe I stayed there but didn’t say something else I was supposed to say. Maybe the cops asked me to step back sixty feet and I did, instead of staying where I was. But I guess they at least knew what they were supposed to do well enough, so that they very kindly said they wer eplacing me under arrest, read me me rights, put that plastic band on my wrist (in front, I think?), and put me in the back of the van. I had done my wrong right enough.