Interfaith Communities United for Justice & Peace organized a march and rally at the Federal Building in downtown Los Angeles today. The event’s culmination was civil disobedience, in which 14 people would refuse to leave the street in front of the Federal Bulding after the rally and, in all probability, get arrested. I was one of the 14.
This was my first civil disobedience, and I’m embarrassed to admit I was so nervous about it that two days ago, my back muscles in the middle of the left side started to spasm and I had to get an emergency massage the day before the rally.
We met at La Placita Church at Olvera Street at 8 a.m. Group members, who had met once before, talked about who they were and why they were doing it. There was an ecumenical service at the church, and then we marched.
We went north on Main Street, passing the “Occupy Los Angeles” encampment at City Hall. We turned west around City Hall on First Street, north on Spring Street, then east on Temple (completing the circle around City Hall), passing the full length of Occupy Los Angeles. It’s very densely studded with tents, and as much as I admire the spark and zeal of the OLA people, it’s been almost 40 years since I slept on the ground on college hiking club trips. And man, those tents were packed close together. I hope everyone is getting along.
We wound up in front of the Federal Building on Los Angeles Street. The rally featured a rainbow panoply of clergymen and women (notably George Regas of All Saints Church in Pasadena, pictured at the event here), a few folk musicians, a variety of movement people and activists and a few actor/activists (Mike Farrell, Mimi Kennedy). The surprise guest speaker was Cornell West. He hadn’t been expected, but was in town along with Tavis Smiley to speak to Occupy Los Angeles, and he made some brief remarks in his typically galvanizing manner.
The crowd wasn’t monster huge, maybe a few hundred people, but it was spirited.
After George Regas spoke, those who weren’t participating in the civil disobedience got onto the sidewalk in front of the Federal Building. Those of us who had blue armbands, indicating that we were CD people, formed a circle in the street and sang the usual array of leftish protest songs (“We Shall Overcome,” “Give Peace a Chance”). As we did so, a policeman on a bullhorn informed us that our permit to be in the street had expired and we were now an illegal assembly. We not only remained in the street, we broke out of our circle to form a line stretching across the street, blocking it completely.
Of course, the police had long since sealed off the block anyway, so it’s not like we were blocking traffic or anything. For all my advance nervousness about it, the event was pretty carefully choreographed between the police and ICUJP. It reminded me a little of summer at Camp Farrington in New Jersey. When I was about eight or nine, the boys of Bunk 7 went on a kitchen raid to steal food from the camp cafeteria at what seemed to us the middle of the night. At one point the camp’s head counselor came along and our counselor told us to hide, narrowly “saving” us from being discovered by the head counselor.
Nonetheless, the moment when we stood there stretched across Los Angeles Street, baking in the morning sun and cheered on by the crowd on the sidewalk as the police started to arrest us one by one, was oddly moving and intense. For me, it was a way of confirming to myself that I was willing to step up my level of activism a notch, from just being a keyboard commando to getting out in the streets and getting in the face of the state.
Again, I’ll be the first to admit that we got in the face of the state politely. This wasn’t like blacks getting clubbed, hosed and bitten by dog in the South in the ’60′s (interestingly, one of our group was a freedom rider 50 years ago and was beaten by Southerners). And it’s not like Syria, where they shoot or torture you. The police were very polite and well-mannered.
After arrest, we were taken to the central police station at Wall and Eight streets (I think). Then the men and women were separated, with the men taken to the new Metropolitan Detention Center near the Federal Building, while the women were taken to the older and more run-down 77th St. Station in South Central. It seemed like we were going to just sail through, but then they put the 7 men in a holding cell and kept us there for almost four hours.
Apparently part of the delay was that they had to send our fingerprints and stuff to Washington to make sure we weren’t scary terrorists.
It was an interesting bunch — George Regas, retired minister of All Saints Episcopal in Pasadena, a church so liberal that it was audited by the IRS of Bush the Lesser. He’s a portly man who radiates benevolence. There was a cherubic and good-natured Catholic priest, a Franciscan friar who had a wild streak in his younger days, a thoughtful and well-spoke Islamic-American activist, the freedom rider from 1961 (now a professor of social work at USC, he argued a case before the Supreme Court when he was a lawyer and had a quiet but feisty old-left quality to him), a Quaker activist in his early 60′s who had a boyish enthusiasm about him and a Carnaby-Street-style cap. Then there was bluewombat, author, ESL instructor and certified agnostic.
We agreed on most things, with the exception of President Obama. Most of us were inclined to vote to re-elect Obama, although their willingness to do so seemed premised on a non-empirical belief that he would become the liberal avenger in his second term that he failed to be in his first term. Bluewombat and the Franciscan friar weren’t buying.
It was pleasant spending time in the company of these men, but after four hours, I was eager to go. I tried to imagine the situation of the Pelican Bay hunger strikers protesting prolonged solitary confinement — I wasn’t in solitary and I had excellent company, but I was still starting to get antsy.
At around 5 p.m., they let us out and I walked back to Union Station, where I parked my car this morning. As I left, Sayed (I think that was the name of the Islamic guy) said he hoped my first experience of civil disobedience hadn’t left me less willing to do it again. Just the opposite, I said — it had whetted my appetite.