Chicago, IL–My gentle friend was returned to state custody even as I willed otherwise. Three days later, my Occupy Chicago brothers and I sat on cold stone benches, watching families visit their fathers for the hallmark holiday. We drove to visit our comrade together because that’s what families do. It was a hot Sunday, and I had finally entered the waiting area after being reminded my tank top was not welcome and I had to cover my body in a tee-shirt. At our comrade’s cellblock division, the guards did not perform the vigorous pat-down we found in other sections, even though they’re all part of the same Cook County system. In this division, number 6, my brothers and I simply dumped our nearly-empty pockets into bins and walked through metal detectors. At this entry point, the guards didn’t slap my breasts around, for which I was grateful. The last time I tried to visit my comrades and forced to consent to the state touching my body, my tits ached for days. Even though female guards were the ones searching my delicate skin for weapons, drugs, or maybe cigarettes, they still used the backs of their hands while I stood stock-still, rooted to the ground, choking on rage.After turning in our identification and while waiting for our background checks to clear, we sat on chilly marble benches, no phones or cigarettes to pass the endless time. We had hoped to also visit one of the NATO5 political prisoners that day, but it was looking unlikely we’d even see our solidaritécomrade.
One side of the cavernous waiting room boasted lockers, above which a sign reading “Visitor Lockers” was posted. Across the room, another sign read “Gun Lockers”. One of my brothers remarked it was like a high school football scoreboard: home versus visitors. He was right. They have guns. We have car keys and chapstick, our cellphones locked in my car. It’s truly an unfair fight and we are on their turf. Occupy Chicago’s lawyer told us recently that we were fighting an information insurrection. At that moment, we were defenseless. We could only compile mental notes.
Theoretically for aesthetics, tiny windows were cut in to the towering, multistory beige walls, making the square panels into block-shaped cartoon faces, with thin straight lines for mouths. I imagined them whispering to each other, reporting the sadness they had collected from the day after visiting hours were over. The energy was oppressive, depressive. At times, I could barely breathe with the weight of it all. I was waiting on the state, watching the minutes tick down as I gave them my coerced consent to check my background for warrants, forced permission for them to learn my name and address so I could offer some comfort to a fellow activist who had committed no crime. I would lean my head on my nearest brother’s shoulder, seeking reassurance that being locked in this bastard cop nest was the right direct action to take. Realizing the entire situation’s gravity, my brothers and I reached consensus that we would appear as boisterous and happy as humanly possible when we speaking with our comrade. We were all uncomfortable with Cook County’s chill, the process, and the environment and we’d only been there a few hours. Unlike our comrade, we could leave. His cold concrete cell was not our home. We were just the visiting team.
The guards would bark at the guests, uncaring they were addressing humans, with earnest need to see their dearests. Looking around, the floor in the waiting area was covered in food scraps and garbage. The restrooms had no toilet paper. Not only were the prisoners treated as subhuman, undeserving of quality and care, we, their visitors, were as well.
Groups of visitors, mostly children, mothers, and daughters came and went in 25 minute intervals. After each, I chirped to my family, “we’re up next!” until the room cleared out and finally the three of us, a couple and a man in wheelchair were directed into Visitation Room One. The visitation room was an ugly smoker’s yellow. The walls used to be white but had been exposed to so much exhaled nicotine, they began to turn a sickly morning-piss color. I longed for the open sky. Possibly as a cruel joke, we sat in plastic outdoor chairs. They were rickety and dirty. Our eyes were drawn to an unwieldy contraption before us and as one, we grimaced. A communication unit divided us from our fellow visitors and their time with loved ones, but that didn’t offer much space or privacy for conversation. In front of us all, a large black metal box with a centered video screen, an ATM-camera, and a payphone handset was the only connection to our comrade. There were no windows, just walls and a protruding box. We picked up the phone preemptively and the guard yelled at us, making everyone jump. Apparently, one mishandling of the 1990s-model telephone and the entire prison-industrial complex collapses.
Finally, we were instructed to pick up the handset and the monitor lit up, displaying our friend’s face. As one, my brothers and I beamed love and excitement into camera. We greeted him as one would a visiting dearheart, with “heyyyyyyy!’s” and grins bright enough to illumine the night. The conversation was hard, as we three had to share one phone. For the entire 15 minutes, two of us weren’t able to hear what our comrade was saying to me or our brother. The video camera which relayed his image into our screen was angled down, so we all stared at the crown of his head. We rarely saw his eyes or his smile. I hadn’t spoken to our fellow Occupier before picking up that handset. I had seen him around at our Cermak office, General Assembly and actions, but I flit in and out of Chicago so quickly, I simply hadn’t the time to befriend him past my congenial wave and smile. Now I was speaking with him, laughing with him. This person for whose freedom I’d worked so hard for staring at me from a black box in a wall. I tried not to cry. His arm was bandaged and in a sling. He said his arm had been fractured at the elbow. He didn’t say how. It was smart of him to keep quiet, as the communication device doubled as a recorder.
Realizing this and the breadth of the entire situation, my eyes widened and filled before I could choke back my emotions. I wasn’t conscious of reaching for my brother’s hand until I felt him in my own. My hand was slick and cold; my face masking my inner rage and sadness at the broken systems of government and law. We told him all of time, energy, efforts, care, and concern we were actualizing for him. We asked him how we could make his existence in there easier. He asked for Bukowski, commissary funds for toilet paper, and to let Occupy Detroit know he was all right. We promised to accomplish all of those requests. The final five minutes of our 15 minute visit was counted down digitally in the upper right corner of the video screen. We said good-bye and the video monitor blinked off. As the screen went black, I felt the forced light and levity I’d been projecting to bolster him fade away. My chest hollowed and I sat in that dirty, flimsy chair for a moment with my head hanging down, face in my hands. Simply, my brain was overwhelmed at the abject cruelty of the state and the lies of those bastards who ripped a gentle man from his world, in order to prove a point to we who speak out against repression, we who attempt to build a better world for all people.
As we walked silently through the doors and into the sunlight, the chill from that prison lingered in my bones. Leaving the cold rooms with the dirty floors and power-drunk guards is next to unbearable. Even though we go home, we’re not gone. We remain in locked away in our visited comrade’s memory, in the remains of the endless day locked away from all known beauty and joy. One of the Occupy family will be back the next visiting day. Jail support is hard on me, hard on my delicate heart, but serving jail time would be impossible without comrades, like me, like anyone who can harden their hearts and stand up in solidarity to the state. By dedicating time and energy to support our caged friends, we’re demonstrating to the state, the world, and to each other that their cases will not be forgotten.
- Natalie Solidarity -