Chicago, IL–Jail solidarity is one of those amazing things that has come out of Occupy but that you don’t hear talked about outside of the movement. In case you aren’t familiar with the practice, when arrests happen at an Occupy protest, we gather outside the jail and hold vigil until our comrades are released. This often involves staying overnight, but people bring food and a spirit of solidarity, making the most of the situation.
While working my second job of the day this past Wednesday, I was monitoring Twitter and feeling a bit guilty. Some of my friends were in Wisconsin, marching against the failed Walker recall. Other friends were marching through downtown Chicago to the Canadian consulate in solidarity with the student protests in Quebec. And there was a memorial to a beloved mental health consumer and advocate who passed away in her sleep happening at both mental health clinic occupations.
I was missing all of the above because I was working, but I felt guilty because I had slept between jobs that afternoon instead of stopping by one of the mental health clinics or doing other Occupy activities. I know that it’s a good idea to sleep on occasion, but with so much going on it’s easy to feel like I’m not doing enough. Or at least that I wish I could do more.
I’m a nanny, and I was cuddling with an adorable baby girl (who happens to also be my niece) that evening, checking Twitter between wiping her spit-up. As I watched in horror, my Twitter feed started to blow up. First I learned that one friend had been arrested in Milwaukee as others were trampled by police horses. Within minutes I was seeing tweets from my friends in Chicago describing unprovoked police brutality and many violent arrests. I saw pictures of police officers using metal batons on protesters and heard that one young female comrade was surrounded by six cops, beating her brutally before they arrested her. I was in shock; I hadn’t expected a relatively ordinary march to end this way. My heart sank as I read the names of my friends who were taken away by the CPD, seemingly targeted for being main organizers within Occupy Chicago, but some of the most sincerely peaceful people I have had the honor of meeting.
Until this week, I had not participated in jail solidarity actions because one of my nannying jobs starts very early in the morning. As I watched the violence unfold, however, I did some quick mental calculations. I had slept several hours during the day; I could probably stay awake through the night and head directly for my morning job, given enough coffee and adrenaline. By canceling a couple of daytime appointments, I could even get a nice nap in later. It was the least I could do for my friends (who were later joined by those violently arrested in NY). So I went home to get a change of clothes, some snacks, a blanket and pillow, charged my devices, then headed back into the city toward the jail.
As I pulled up across the street, I could hear them still banging on pots and pans, making quite a ruckus through the otherwise still night. There were about 25 people, with more arriving periodically. I said my hellos, gave a brief statement on livestream, and found a spot to set up.
A short while later, a group of plainclothes cops came out of the station. The leader of the pack approached us with a printed copy of the sound ordinance in hand, telling us we had to stop making all that noise. I didn’t hear the rest of the confrontation because I was distracted by a plainclothes cop who had come around the side, where I was sitting. The most polite way to describe him is “meathead.” He was wearing a tshirt that said, I kid you not, NATO SUMMIT 2012 – WE WOKE UP EARLY TO BEAT THE CROWDS. He spent the next several minutes trying to provoke us and shining his flashlight in our eyes and cameras when we tried to take his picture. Luckily we did get a couple of photos, even if they aren’t as close or as clear as we would have liked.
After that confrontation, however, they mostly left us alone. We settled into card games, conversations, food runs, and cuddle piles. We were able to use the bathroom inside the station, but it meant walking a gauntlet past at least ten pissed off cops for the dubious privilege of using a metal jail toilet.
At about 2am, I bedded down. I never quite got to sleep, but I spent the next few hours lying on the sidewalk, drifting in and out of the conversations around me. When there was a lull in conversation, the rustling of the rats in the bushes took over. At about 3:30am the first camera crews showed up, but once I saw another press liaison had it covered I hid from the bright lights under my blanket and tried to tune it all out. I gave up at 5, accepted a donated cup of coffee, and started getting ready to head to work. None of the arrestees were released until after I left, so I didn’t get to hug them, but I’m glad I spent the night regardless.
Those early morning hours were very meaningful to me, and I wish I had enough words to express what I felt. I was aware that I had given up the comfort on my bed to not-really-sleep on concrete in solidarity with my friends in Milwaukee, Chicago, and New York who were doing the same inside jail cells. I felt the warmth and camaraderie of my friends around me and those at home sending messages throughout the night. I was overcome with the knowledge that if and when I got arrested for exercising my First Amendment rights, these same people would rally around me. And I knew that I was part of something special, something that no cop in a stupid tshirt could take away. We’re a family, and a community, and a force to be reckoned with.
Morning came and I went back to what I call my civilian life, but the experience of jail solidarity will always stay with me. Unfortunately, it’s an experience I expect to have many opportunities to repeat in the near future. But these arrests don’t weaken us; they make us stronger, individually and collectively.
I’ll see you all out in the streets.
- Rachel Allshiny -
Editor’s note: This post is one of many recounting events on June 6th, in which cities all over the world marched in solidarity with protests in Quebec. You may read about New York’s march here, an arrestee’s account of the experience here, and multiple points of view of the same march’s first five minutes here. The photo for this post above is by Abel Mebratu.