I’ve been trying to figure out where to start. In theory, this should not be a difficult question—one begins at the beginning, of course. We like to think that our lives move in linear progression; we start here, and we end up there.
In my experience, though, this is not the case. We move, rather, in cycles, ever returning again and again to the places that call out to us.
I am sitting in a peaceful and quiet living room, and everywhere I look I see signs that this is a home full of love. I have access to everything I could possibly need. There are no distractions to prevent me from writing of the events of July 29th and 30th.
Yet I find that the peacefulness and quietude themselves are jarring when placed next to my memories of the past couple of days.
As I sit here, looking at the computer screen and trying to figure out where to begin, I see a flurry of images, hear a scattering of sounds. The mental snapshots of the story have yet to be neatly filed and put into a meaningful order—they are still a mess, as though someone took all the pictures and tossed them in the air; they lie all over, next to each other, on top of each other, obscuring each other. I look at one and proceed to the next, and they are juxtaposed, full of non sequiturs.
We are sitting in our cell after we’ve seen Judge Raven, and we are waiting to be released. We don’t know how long they will make us wait—four more hours? six? I look around at the faces that have become family to me, and I see that we are afraid to hope too much; our faith, while still strong and unwavering, has nonetheless been dealt a blow. We are exhausted, hungry, hurting, isolated. We offer each other encouragement—it’s almost over, we say, we’re almost there. Soon, soon…. And as we wait, we hear a low rumble…and again…and again…. Someone is drumming. Our people are waiting for us outside the jail, and they are drumming for our release. From inside our cell, deep in a twisting concrete labyrinth, we can hear them. Their love and support have penetrated the cold walls of the jail and reached us. In our most difficult moment, our people found a way to reach out to us and remind us that we were never alone.
Sitting on what is not yet a familiar concrete bench; metal bars, like handles, run like railroad ties along the length of the bench, spaced every two feet. Very convenient for handcuffing someone where they sit. Or for preventing them from lying down and sleeping. I sit in the space designated between two of the bars. A man, over six feet tall, wearing an orange jump suit, face and head and neck and hands covered in grayscale tattoos, feet chained together, sits next to me. Our hands are each cuffed in front of us; we are waiting to be booked in. I smile at him and say hello. We get to talking, and then I say, “I can’t help but notice that you have a lot of tattoos. What made you decide to get that many?”
He smiles and shrugs. “Too much time spent in prison.” The smile moves the tattoos that are on his eyelids, cheeks, chin, eyebrows.
“You got all of those in prison? But they look so detailed, so professional! What in the world did you use to tattoo?”
“The motor from a Walkman.”
I ponder this for a moment, but can’t quite make the leap from Walkman to tattoo. So instead I ask him, “You have so many, and they’re so different from each other. Which one is your favorite?” He blinks in surprise, as though no one has ever asked him this question before. Inwardly, I wonder if I just opened the door for him to start making inappropriate remarks, but it seems it was his turn to surprise me.
“None of them,” he says. “If I had it to do over, I wouldn’t have any tattoos.”
A thin young woman, arrested in a hotel room in the middle of the night, huddles next to me on our cement bench, hugging her knees and shivering through the thin tank top they let her put on to cover her nakedness before dragging her away. She had been arrested for missing a weekly payment of a fine of which she had already paid more than half. Earlier, when our hands had still been cuffed, she had said her back hurt, so I had given her an awkward back rub. We had talked, and she said all she wanted in life was a second chance so she could be a nurse, because she loves taking care of people.
Now, the night is only beginning, and I am exhausted. I’m leaning forward, head propped on my uncuffed hands, eyes closed. And then there’s a tentative, gentle touch on my back.
“Thanks for the back rub earlier,” the young woman says quietly. “It felt good.” And she proceeds to return the favor.
Early morning after a sleepless night. The cell is all cement and metal; the only soft objects in the room are two partial rolls of toilet paper and three feminine pads. The walls are cinder block, painted stark white. The cement bench with the metal bars dividing it wraps all the way around the wall. In one corner, there is a stainless steel toilet. We use the garbage can for privacy, since there is no stall around the toilet, only a hip-high cement wall. The harsh fluorescent lights have been on all night; the other inmates told us that they are never turned off.
“Except yesterday morning,” one woman says. “They put the whole building on lockdown, turned out all the lights. We were finally able to get some sleep.”
Why did the building go on lockdown? Because a bunch of crazy protesters out front got Sheriff Joe in a tizzy. (That would be us.)
“It’s him! It’s him!” Excited whispers rouse me from my drowsiness in the evening.
I look up and see a man surrounded by guards standing outside our cell. He’s looking in through the window, observing us as though we were dogs in a kennel. Sheriff Joe Arpaio, come to observe the prisoners that got in the way of his plans to raid innocent people’s homes that day.
One of my sister protesters walks slowly up to the window where Sheriff Joe is looking in. She is smiling, and her hands are formed into the shape of a heart. She, like most of the rest of us, is wearing a bright yellow t-shirt that reads “Standing on the Side of LOVE.”
Through the window, she shouts to him in her Spanish accent, “I love you, Sheriff Joe!”
He blinks. I could have sworn he took a step back, as though she had dealt him a blow. He points to himself. “You love me?”
“Yes,” she says. “I love everybody—all my brothers and sisters. I even love you.”
Sheriff Joe does not appear to know how to handle this; he turns and leaves.
“Sit up! Sit up now! On the benches!”
I am jerked out of my exhausted stupor by a guard shouting. I fumble for a seat, trying to get out of the way of any other prisoners; I don’t want the guards to think they have an excuse for violence. Once we’re all on the benches, blinking dizzily in the harsh light that was never turned off, the guard looks around at us, then opens the door the rest of the way. Time for breakfast. Must be 6:30am.
A guard pushes a plastic bag my way. Inside is the exact same thing they fed us for dinner twelve hours ago: two oranges, two hot dog buns (individually wrapped), a pack of generic cookies, a “Little Hug” barrel of artificially flavored fruit punch, and a portion cup of peanut butter.
They feed their prisoners this meal twice a day. No other food is ever brought in.
“Excuse me,” I say to the guard, “I have a question.” She pauses, and I explain, “I have a cracked rib.” She looks at me doubtfully and starts to walk away, and I hurriedly add, “It isn’t a new injury; I reported it to medical when I was booked. But it’s made it so I couldn’t sleep. Could I have a blanket, or a pillow, or anything the would cushion my rib so that–”
“No.” She slams the door behind her.
Girls and women wearing black-and-white striped shirts and pants. They are being brought in and ushered out; the guards shuffle the prisoners frequently. I’m guessing it’s so that the prisoners can’t form community, get to know each other, or offer one another support.
The problem today is that they arrested so many protesters, wearing their bright yellow t-shirts, that they don’t have enough cells to keep us all separated. And we are offering our community to everyone who comes through the door.
Together, we had a joke contest, and I told the only three jokes I know. We sang songs—some together, some as rounds, some solos, some English, some Spanish. We had a morning yoga class. We did the “UU Hokey Pokey,” where we put our open minds, loving hearts, helping hands, and whole selves in and shook them all about.
Sometimes, the guards make us all go stand in the hallway. Our friends in the cell next to ours are being made to stand in the hallway, and the guard is yelling at them to keep their backs to the wall and not talk. We stand in the window of our cell, looking at our sisters in the hallway, and we do the chicken dance for them. The guard doesn’t notice, but our sisters have smiles on their faces again.
1:30am. I’m awakened from a fitful doze by a guard slamming the door open and yelling for all of us to get up and stand in the hallway. I stumble out the door past two male inmates in black-and-white stripes holding brooms. It would appear that they have come to clean our cell.
While the inmates throw away the oranges and buns we had stashed from dinnertime, the guard stands in the hallway with us, trying to make us feel like fools for getting arrested.
“You people obviously never read SB1070,” he says.
We look at him in astonishment. “Yes…we did.”
“Well then you obviously didn’t understand it.”
“I’m pretty sure we did understand it. That’s why we were protesting.”
“You couldn’t have understood it,” he says. “Because if you did, you would know that SB1070 is just a law letting us do what we were already doing.”
One of my sisters says, “When unjust actions are signed into law, that doesn’t suddenly make them right.”
And I add, “That just makes you a criminal.”