“It is now past 11 o’clock. The park is now closed. You can vacate the premises, or you will be arrested in violation of city ordinance 10-36-185: being in a park after closing. This is your final warning.”
The police bullhorn echoed across what had been re-named “Liberty Square” or simply “The Horse.” Protesters were caught in the stark white explosion of light as transportable towers popped on, all of their expressions illuminated for the world to see. And see it the world would. Camera men from all of the major news networks lined the press section of the barricade; reporters from The Wall Street Journal to Al-Jazeera circled the camp trying to find one last interview from the loudest, most sound-bite ridden member of the crowd. They sat on the ground, arms linked, voices hoarse from chanting “1. We are the people! 2. We are united! 3. The occupation is not leaving!” and in-between slogans, musing over what it would be like in prison. The police moved into position, forming segmented lines around the camp, the group having encircles the medic tent, the bright red crosses fluttering in the fall air. The white shirts headed each section, their collars the same color as the zip-tie loops at their hips, leading their subordinates to their section. As the crowd watching from the sidewalk grew, the drums growing louder, the chanting more passionate, the first protester was lifted from the ground, his hands tied behind his back, and was lead to the awaiting paddy wagon amidst applause and chants of “Hero! Hero!” I looked at the man sitting across from me, his high-school-varsity-linebacker-turned-fratboy body sinking lower against the planter, and whispered “Wow, it’s really happening.”
The Occupy Chicago movement and I had some different views on a lot of issues, but regardless, I felt as though they had the right to express those view at any point, and if they wanted to peaceably assemble around the clock, then that was their constitutional right. That is what brought me to the occupation on Saturday. I went, hoping that after the week before where 175 people were arrested, that this time they would see the support and just let them stay. I was wrong. Soon, we were all linking arms, chanting slogans, and being picked up off of the ground one-by-one, put in plastic zip-ties and being led to our respective style of vehicle which would cart us off to Central Holding, where a 99% majority would experience prison for the first time, myself included.
I was asked by a white shirt police officer if I would like to be arrested because “if not, [I was] free to leave and come back next week or whatever.” I then stood up, my legs screaming from the past 2 hours of sitting, placed my hands behind my back and was walked over to the Sherriff’s bus, laughing that it looked just like the movies. As we all were taken into custody, the crowd cheered, snapping photos and chanting “Heroes! Heroes!” Inside the bus, the atmosphere was similar. We were reunited with the people we sat next to earlier, loudly greeted one another, and chatted about how we were upset that we missed the Hawks game, trying to ask the riot-gear-clad cops if they knew the score. They didn’t answer. The ride to the station was jovial, except for some complaints about the zip-ties being too tight, with the bus launching into “If you’re happy and you know it, smack your seat!” (the clapping of hands was impossible.) Some managed to pull out cell phones, and tweeted, texted, and Facebooked, a fitting moment for a movement that is based so heavily on the internet.
The bus arrived to a carnival style roped off walkway snaking through the garage. “I call the front seat of the roller coaster!” someone yelled from the back. We shuffled along, to the calls of “quickly now!” from the detention officers. The zip-ties were cut. We were given bags, told to remove any string or string-like objects, empty our pockets, and remove our jackets, which we could have back after a friendly pat down. There was a full cell of women from the protest near the entrance, and as we walked in, we got another round of applause, some of them making heart shapes form their hands, others holding up fists. Being placed in the holding cell was still another round of applause, and then the waiting started.
If you put a bunch of people who are willing to be arrested for their political beliefs in one cell, there is bound to be a political discussion. This was true on Saturday night. Discussions on what the next week would hold, on failed ideas of petitions, on what the exact message of the movement should be, on labor unions’ help, all were discussed in an organized form, the typical Occupy “stack” (line) and “peace guns” (flashing two childlike “guns’ made from the hands to signal joining the stack) were strictly enforced and followed by the impromptu general assembly in the prison cell. This discussion lasted until the moderator was called out for processing, then slowly turned to factions discussing the merits of socialism, why they were democrats, protests in the past, the world trade center attack conspiracy theories, reticence about the use of extreme leftists in the protest, and the need for a cigarette. People were slowly called out for processing, and when I left at 6:30am, there were still about fifteen people in my cell, with more in the two cells I passed.
Processing is a rather quick process, and incredibly misleading. Walking up for the mug shot, you think you’ve started to reach the end of your time there. A quick picture, a turn to the left, another picture, boom. You’re on to the fingerprinting. They digitalized fingerprinting, so each finger is placed on a glass plate with a red light behind it, some clicking, and there you go! Done! The whole process takes two minutes, tops. They then hand you a receipt for the belongings they took from you, and as the smile starts stretching across your face with thoughts of what you plan on eating when you get home, or the couch you plan to sit on that isn’t made from concrete, they call you down a hall, finally leading you into a new, smaller, colder, jail cell.
My cellmate was a vegetarian, but when the detention officer asked if we wanted a bologna sandwich, he (and I) enthusiastically said yes. After we finished, exhausted, we tried sleeping. The concrete benches did little to keep body heat, and as I shivered under the halogen lights that stopped my internal clock, I started to think that I made a mistake. Some amount of time passed (an hour? A minute?) and I stopped pretending that I could sleep. Walking up to the door, I looked around, trying to catch the eye of people in other cells. I could hear two men discussing the difference between communism and socialism in the cell to my right, finally ending their discussion with “but that really doesn’t matter. I’m a capitalist at heart, but I’ll be damned if the media cares about that.” My cellmate woke up, and we started doing calisthenics for warmth. Back at the window, I finally caught the attention of the detention officer, and when he came over, I asked for my phone call.
“Nope.” He said, chewing on the inside of his lip, looking past me at the white walls.
“What do you mean, ‘Nope?’” I asked, perplexed as to how prison movies had led me astray. Wasn’t it always when they were in their solitary cell that they were called up, told they had a phone call, and given a quarter for the payphone?
“I mean nope. You done missed your chance. You’re supposed to do it while being processed.”
“But no one ever told me that.” By this time the conversation had caught the ears of not just my cell block, but the cell blocks over, as we all were yelling. Others cells started demanding phone calls, doors were banged on, and chants that centered around expletives rang through the halls. Even though the cells were spread apart, only ten in each wing, the lot of the protesters had found out about the phone call issue.
“Don’t matter who told you what.” He said, getting annoyed at the noise. “No phone calls.” He turned, and lumbered off down the grey hallway, past the beige metal doors filled with men smacking the glass, screaming that their rights were being violated. Defeated, I went back to sleep, this time on the floor since it was slightly warmer.
I woke up to what I thought was a prison riot. There was pounding on any and every metal surface, throaty shouts and high pitched screams, “PIGS!” echoed through the hallways, and the officers yelled back for everyone to stop. I asked my cellmate what was happening as he kicked the bottom of our door. “There is a woman in one of the cells that needs her medicine, but the officers won’t come to her cell.”
Time dragged, but the network of communication established with Occupy Chicago’s human microphone (where when someone speaks, all who can hear echo) got information throughout the cells. Announcements of time were finally made. A lucky man who was finally able to make a phone call announced the information from the National Lawyers Guild. Demands for toilet paper were made. Demands for toilet paper were made again. Demands for toilet paper were continued to be made, until a few hours later they were met by a slew of expletives and yelling from an officer. The toilet paper then made its way under cell doors, through a complicated, angular system to anyone who needed it. That’s when I found the records in our cell.
Sixty to seventy vinyl records were in a plastic bag hidden behind out toilet. Rick James, Marvin Gaye, Prince, Bob Marley, they were signs of home, signs of freedom, signs of hope. We decorated out cell with pull out posters, lined the benches with record sleeves for warmth, and then tried to share our bounty. Slid under doors, the records made their way down the block, crossing the hall for the other side to have. Some throws were missed, and for the next two hours I worried that when someone walked past, we would get charged with some other crime, littering the hall with a bunch of stray records. Instead, when we finally had our cell door opened, we were just called “assholes” and told to pick them up. The best case scenario.
As we left, finally out into the warmth of Sunday’s afternoon, we were greeted by fifty or so people from Occupy Chicago, a handful of news cameras, more applause, and yet another chant of “Heroes! Heroes!” I never realized that going to prison would be such a celebrated event, but having spent the night cold and feeling alone, even while surrounded by people, it was a welcome sight. The poured us cups of coffee, handed over donuts and bagels, patted our backs, and thanked us for all we did. Five of us had left by 12:30pm, with a couple more trickling out after us. Our bags of items were returned, everything accounted for, and as I signed up for a NLG lawyer, talked with people about future strategies, and enjoyed the ability to take more than three steps at once, I felt a surge of pride. Not for myself, but for those around me who were willing to stand up for what they believed in, for those outside who had spent the night trying to keep each other warm and awake so that when we were released we would be greeted with friendly faces, and most of all, for the people that were willing to talk about or attend Occupy Chicago for knowing that there are problems in this country, but also knowing that the country is strong enough to be able to fix them.