Chicago, IL–For someone who’s never been arrested, I sure spend a lot of time at Cook County Jail lately.
As part of Occupy Chicago’s ongoing jail solidarity effort for the NATO 5, who are facing terrorism charges, I have been attending as many court dates as my schedule allows. Most of these court dates are just for updates, or to set new court dates, but being there is an important show of support. At the first few I attended we pushed our luck a bit by standing and raising fists in solidarity, so much so that the judge has taken to reading a decorum order before calling any of their cases. He claims it’s not really aimed at us, just meant as a point of information for “people who only know about court from TV,” but since it uses words like “conduct of solidarity” and “protest,” I tend to take it personally.
Here’s what a NATO 5 court decorum order looks like:
All persons in the courtroom must remain silent during all proceedings. There will be no talking, noise making, standing, kneeling, waving, hand raising or other conduct of solidarity, camaraderie, protest, approval or disapproval in the courtroom or in the hallway outside the courtroom.
Going to court is always a bit of a hassle, but worth it to me in the end, even just to see a glimpse of them through the tinted glass that separates us from the courtroom itself. It makes the long drive, seemingly random security procedures, and waiting through other cases worthwhile.
Visiting hours for the NATO 5 always conflict with work and other obligations of mine, so I haven’t been able to see any of them until this week, when I had a few days off. For me, spending my time off making visits to friends in jail is the new normal. I put out the word that I was planning a visit for Monday afternoon and found two small groups of friends also planning to visit. I met up with the earlier group and we left our stuff at an occupier’s apartment within walking distance of the jail and set out on our way. (Note to everyone: being without my cell phone for several hours makes me twitchy.)
We walked about a mile to Division 9, the maximum security jail where the original NATO 3 are being held. It was a cool 97 degrees, abundant sunshine and humidity making us sweaty within minutes. We walked in holding only our IDs but were still patted down and sent through a metal detector. Inside we waited to sign in for our visits – I was seeing Jared Chase. I’ve never met any of them personally, but have been sending books from the Occupy Chicago library and Jared had sent me a personal thank you. So I figured he would be my first visit. When they asked me what my relationship to him was, I wanted to say “comrade-in-arms” but settled for the safer description of “friend.” Then we sat on stone-tiled benches and waited to be called. There was a lot of bureaucracy and waiting involved, which isn’t surprising, but does start to feel mind-numbing after a bit. When I was finally called I walked through another metal detector, got patted down again, then made my way to an elevator that took us up to the visitation room.
The visitation room has no air conditioning, and I soon felt sticky and claustrophobic. It is a long, narrow room made entirely of gray concrete, barely large enough to accommodate friends and family on one side of the Plexiglas, up to 10 or 12 prisoners on the other. With no phone I had no idea what time it was, because who wears a watch anymore? It’s a tiny taste of what prisoners feel all the time, miserably uncomfortable and cut off from the outside. I must also admit that I felt my privilege, seeing the racial breakdown of the room. The number of young children visiting their fathers — and how routine it seemed for them — was heartbreaking.
Eventually a group of prisoners was brought in, and most of the people I had come up with had their visit. No Jared. I waited through the visit, which lasted 20 minutes or so. Then waited for the guards to exchange one batch of prisoners for another. Still no Jared. It had been at least an hour at this point, so I went back downstairs and asked at the desk. They told me to go back up and wait. I saw my friends in the outer waiting room, already finished with their visit to Jacob, another of the NATO 5, and felt bad for holding things up. But I would have felt worse if Jared came out for a visit and nobody was there. So up I went.
I sat in that sweltering room through another prisoner switch and watched as a third batch started filing in. By this point I had become friends with some of the other visitors, who were impressed at how long I’d been kept waiting. They began flagging down the guard and asking him when Jared Chase was going to be brought in. Soon some of the prisoners whose visitors weren’t there yet chimed in as well. It was a surprising show of support to me, all these strangers wanting to make sure I got my visit.
About halfway through the third visit, they finally brought Jared in. I had been getting discouraged and wondering if it was worth sticking around, but one look at him gave me my answer. I introduced myself and he thanked me again for sending books. He is quiet-spoken and it was sometimes hard to hear him over the noise of 10 other visits in progress, but we managed to have a good conversation. He told me what other books he’s been reading and asked for updates on the student protests in Montreal and the impending teachers’ strike in Chicago. He hadn’t heard much about the police violence and subsequent protests in Anaheim, so I filled him in. He told me he grew up in Anaheim. He wanted to make sure the others were getting visits as well, and I was touched at his concern. It would have been a lovely conversation had there not been a window between us, had he not been cuffed, had we both been free to leave the building.
But parts of the conversation were more difficult. He told me that he’d been “in the hole” (solitary confinement) all of last week, and hadn’t been allowed visitors. The reason they gave him was that there “weren’t enough cells.” I could tell that he didn’t buy that excuse, and neither did I. He looked sad and a bit lost when he said, “I didn’t even do anything, and they put me in the hole all week.” I wanted to give him a hug, because he looked like he needed it.
He told me he’s getting lots of letters, and he really appreciates them. He’s trying to write back to everyone but currently isn’t allowed to have a pen, due to a prisoner stabbing last weekend that put them on lockdown. Hopefully he’ll be able to resume writing letters soon. Looking in his eyes as he told me this, I felt a mixture of sadness and outrage. This man doesn’t belong in a place where pens are considered weapons, and not in the metaphorical mightier-than-the-sword sense. He belongs in the streets with us, changing the world.
I reassured him that we haven’t forgotten them, that we will continue to visit and write and send books and show up for court. But I could see that being in jail, and periodically in solitary confinement for no apparent reason, is wearing on him. As our shortened visit drew to a close, he thanked me for messages of solidarity from other occupied cities and gave me a solidarity fist on his way out.
I want to encourage anybody who is able to please visit those who are still incarcerated while they fight these ridiculous charges. I know the above story is full of frustration and bureaucracy, but it’s so necessary and so worth it in the end. They are trying to break these guys down by randomly imposing solitary confinement on them and making it nearly impossible for them to see visitors. But we won’t let the games they play keep us from supporting our comrades.
We will not forget them. We will not waver in our support, no matter what they do to discourage us. Our strength lies in our solidarity.
To learn more about the NATO 5 and our jail solidarity efforts, visit http://nato5.occupychi.org
To learn more about the Occupy Chicago library’s efforts to coordinate book donations to the NATO 5 or to donate shipping funds, visit http://ochilibrary.wordpress.com/books-for-the-nato-5/