I suppose the best way to start all this is to explain who I am and what I’m doing. My name is Nick, and I’m a member of the Church of the Brethren and a Peace Studies major at Manchester College. A couple months ago I was arrested at a witness in Fort Wayne, and was asked by my employers in the Residential Life department at Manchester to write a paper explaining what happened. I posted the paper on my own blog, and was subsequently urged to re-post it here. The paper was intended to be a complete account of my experience, and as such does not necessarily have one coherent message. I’ve edited out the parts that really only pertain to my school, so it may appear to jump around some but… well, read it for yourselves.
Thursday, March 29, 2007, I joined eight other Manchester students, and three faculty and staff in a peace vigil at the federal building in Fort Wayne as part of a nationwide campaign called the Occupation Project, a civil disobedience campaign aimed at literally occupying the offices of U.S. Congressmen who refuse to cut off funding for the continuing war in Iraq.
We gathered outside the building at approximately 11:00 A.M., where we stood with signs and a massive banner and signed a petition to end the war, and a few of us took turns addressing the crowd through a bullhorn. A person connected to the federal building, who will remain anonymous for his own protection, came out and said that he had to tell us to stay off the plaza, but commented that we were becoming a “swastika state” and said that if it got much worse, he’d be coming over to our side. We opted to stay on the plaza and did not receive further interference.
James, a conservative Brethren gentleman from Warsaw, took Anna (a Manchester student) and one student from Goshen College named Bethany with him to an appointment with Phil Shaull, Senator Lugar’s aide, where they talked for over an hour. A few others of us tried to enter to deliver the petition we had signed, but security informed us that only three citizens were allowed in the congressional offices at any one time. We asked the officer at the entrance about it, and he told us it was a blanket rule that had been in place for two to three years. Marshals upstairs later indicated to us that this was not true, and that the rules were basically arbitrary.
At about noon Bethany and Anna returned to the street and filled the protestors in on the details of their meeting, which they said went relatively well for a meeting with anyone in government. At that point Cliff Kindy (CPT member) and I entered the building and went upstairs to deliver the petition and meet James. Several others remained behind saying they would risk arrest there if it became necessary. We were met on the third floor by two U.S. Marshals, who told us that Phil had gone downstairs to address us. After securing a promise from them that we would be allowed to return to the third floor, we went downstairs and found James waiting for us there.
Cliff and I chatted with James in the lobby for a while, then engaged Phil when he came back inside. The four of us talked for thirty to forty-five minutes, Cliff discussing the situation in Iraq with Phil and me explaining to him the absolute necessity for us to do whatever we had to in order to stop the bloodshed. We tried repeatedly to get him to call the Washington office and attempt to reach Senator Lugar, but he declined to do so. Phil’s family showed up to take him to lunch, and Cliff told him we would like to go back up to the offices and “pray for a miracle.” Phil told us the office was closed, and we said we could just pray out in the hallway. He told us we were welcome to go up, and we thanked him for his time.
On the third floor, Cliff, James and I gathered outside Senator Lugar’s office and prayed for a while, then read the names of all the U.S. soldiers who were killed in Iraq in March. We continued to chat and pray until around 3:00, when U.S. marshals approached us and told us that we needed to return downstairs to wait for Phil. We asked if Phil would be returning, and they said they didn’t know. We expressed uncertainty about going downstairs since we didn’t know if we’d be able to come back up, and one of the marshals told us, “This isn’t an invitation.”
Cliff said that he couldn’t speak for James or me, but that he felt the best place for him to be was outside the office. I told the marshals that I would like to come downstairs with them, but that things in our country had gone too far and it would be too easy for me to just walk away from it all. He called four or five more marshals for backup and we were placed under arrest and put in handcuffs.
As we rode the elevator down with the marshals, I felt that at least one of them (the one who had told us to leave) had strong negative feelings towards us. I wanted to tell him that we did what we felt to do and he did what he felt he had to do, so I still felt as if in that regard we were doing the same thing. I asked, “May I share one thing?” He sharply replied, “No talking!”
We were taken to the back of the federal building and placed in a holding cell there. The next cell contained for or five men in orange jumpsuits, who asked us what we were in for. We told them the story and they congratulated us. We asked what their story was and their only reply was, “Long story, man.”
About fifteen minutes later, the Fort Wayne Police arrived to take custody of us and transfer us to the Allen County Jail. The officer who drove James and me to jail was sympathetic; when we told him we were trying to get Senator Lugar to cut off funding for the war, he said “Right on, that’s the thing to do.” Overall we found the police to be much more civil than either the U.S. Marshals or the jail officers.
Jail was an eye-opening experience to say the least. To understand it, you must take all of your pre-existing notions about what people in county lockup are like and recognize that they are completely untrue. For starters, your cellmates are your friends and the officers are not. Any idea of people injuring each other in there is completely ridiculous — on the contrary, my jail cell had a better community than most other places I’ve been. Everyone saw everyone else as friends, we were all on the same side, sympathy was plentiful and there was no prejudice, no cliques and no judgment.
One of our cellmates was Bill, a forty-something white man who appeared to have some Puerto Rican ancestry. Bill had run his own drywall business for thirteen years before he was picked up for felony DUI. He was placed under house arrest and not allowed to be self-employed, so he lost his business. He was required to have a job on a clock, but nobody would hire him because of his felony conviction. With no job he was unable to pay his court fees or house arrest payments, so he was hauled right back to jail.
Another young man, twenty-two years old, had a three-year suspended sentence for felony assault and was out on work release. He had a girlfriend, a small child and had finally found a place that would hire him with his conviction. He was trying hard to get his life back together. On his fourth day on the job, however, he failed a urine test and is now facing three years hard time.
The case that struck me most, however, was Joey. He was originally charged with battery against his wife, but that had been dropped in favor of a criminal recklessness charge. Joey suffers from a condition that causes him to have seizures, but the officers at the jail denied him his medication. Two of our cellmates said they’d been locked up with him before and he had a seizure, to which the officers said, “He’s fine, he’s just having a seizure” and threatened to add charges to anyone who helped him, even after he cracked his head open on the floor. Joey was released at the same time as me, but unlike me he had no money, no friends and, with the restraining order against him, nowhere to go. He was clearly mentally ill and in no condition to be out on the street, but instead of finding him any sort of help they just showed him the door. Right before he left, he grabbed my hand and said, “Pray for Joey and Angela, man. I’m trying to get right with God… pray for me.” I’ve never seen such a hard case.
One of our cellmates told us, “If y’all come back and protest this jail I’ll be out there with you.” He was right… we have so much more to protest after seeing what conditions are like there. One of our cells didn’t even have a bathroom — we were told they let people out every four hours — the officers were rude, and everyone in there had been in before. Talk about the revolving door… it’s clear that the system isn’t helping anyone.
After about five hours in custody, Cliff, James and I were released on our own recognizance with a promise to appear in court the next morning at 8 A.M. We were met outside the jail by some of our supporters, including Dave, a retired police officer and current rabble-rouser who, as far as I can determine, does everything (including working for the Fort Wayne Aggregator, fwaggregator.org). Turn your back on him for five minutes and he’s edited and posted a video online, made a half-dozen signs and banners, and called every local news media outlet twice. They drove us back to North Manchester.
Friday morning I got up bright and early to be at Cliff’s farm by 7:00. James met us there, and we drove to the courthouse in Fort Wayne together. There we got another look at how difficult the system is for people as we were directed, redirected, misdirected, and overall confused as to what the procedure was at the courthouse. We were required to see a video about our rights, but a (generally rude) officer from the sheriff’s department talked loudly at us the entire time, making it impossible to listen to our rights or what he was saying. I wonder if that’s the point: that keeping us from knowing our rights makes us less likely to exercise them (e.g. trial by jury) and expedite proceedings.
In court, Dave ran into an old neighbor of his named Bob, a former DA and capable, well-respected attorney. Bob offered to represent us for a “nominal fee” — a couple hundred dollars and some fresh asparagus to take all three of us to trial, versus a normal fee of at least one thousand dollars each for a jury trial. Bob filed some papers declaring himself as our lawyer and suggesting that the three of us be tried together and talked with the prosecutor, all within half an hour of meeting us.
According to Bob, we’d already received quite a bit of attention: the prosecutor (the real one, not an ADA) had been on the phone with the U.S. Attorney discussing our case and decided to move for dismissal due to a conflict of jurisdiction: state laws violated on federal property can be tried in federal court, and they were “trying to sort it out.” Since there’s no law precluding them from trying it in a state court (or, to my knowledge, in both courts), I’m fairly certain this was an excuse to get our case off their hands and try to minimize publicity. Since the area U.S. Attorney got his job as a favor from Richard Lugar, and since Richard Lugar will want to keep this quiet, chances of charges being refilled are, as Bob said, “slim.” The judge dismissed the case and we went on our way.
When we exited the building, we found that Dave had been busy: he had a big poster saying “Jail the WARmakers, not the PEACEmakers,” along with smaller signs saying the same thing with “Free Cliff, James and Nick.” He drove us to the run-down offices of Frost Illustrated, a left-leaning political newspaper, where we were interviewed about our experiences by a man named Michael who had extremely long dreadlocks.
My beliefs in nonviolence originated with my family. It wasn’t about belief or creed or religion or spirituality: it was the simple understanding that violence was under no circumstances to be used to solve a problem. I never got into fistfights with my younger brother because it was just not done. I wasn’t even allowed to own Ninja Turtles or Power Rangers because they were too violent.
But while my family was able to craft an understanding of nonviolence for me, my desire to act comes from my faith. As a member of the Church of the Brethren, I am committed to following the only we creed we have: “Continuing the work of Jesus: Peacefully, simply, together.” And, while getting arrested Thursday was a small part of that, I’ve still fallen terribly short of what I could accomplish.
We are entering our fifth year of war in Iraq, and Cliff tells us his contact at the Pentagon says an invasion of Iran is a “done deal.” It’s estimated that between 650,000 and one million Iraqis have been killed as a result of this war, in addition to 3,250 U.S. soldiers and thousands of other coalition troops and civilian contractors. And the terrible tragedy of it is, we live in a democracy. As Gandhi said, the government operates only with the support, or at least consent, of the people. So the bloodbath in Iraq isn’t the administration’s fault. It isn’t congress’s fault. It’s my fault.
As long as we quietly obey the letter of the law and go about business as usual, we are guilty of every death in Iraq. The blood of hundreds of thousands of innocent people is on our hands because, presented with the sickening horror of conditions there, we turn our backs. Or we comment how we’re against the war, hold a sign at a protest, write an article in a newspaper, contact our representative… we accept the strict guidelines of the system, a system that has been deliberately and effectively crafted to keep us quiet and submissive.
Fear keeps us in line. A far greater fear and stigma surrounds arrest than did forty years ago, to be sure. Rules stack upon rules until we all have jobs, careers, and reputations to worry about, so we pretend we can’t do anything about the travesties we witness. It would have been easy for me to just walk away from it all, but then instead of answering to the district attorney, I’d be answering to myself and to God.
Jesus said, “Love your enemies.” Jesus said, “Blessed are the peacemakers.” And Jesus said, “Take up your cross and follow me.” You cannot tell me that Jesus would read about the deaths, rapes, thefts, kidnappings, bombings, loss of infrastructure, and continuing violence in Iraq and then go back to his quiet home and do his homework. You cannot tell me that the logical conclusion of Jesus’ message is a near-silent complaint by someone who is still obediently upholding the status quo. You cannot tell me that Jesus was not being arrested right beside me. In fact, if I were truly serious about doing my part, I wouldn’t have been getting arrested in the federal building Thursday: I would have been in Iraq standing in front of a tank. That is the kind of radical discipleship that Christianity is really about.
These are our times, and God demands that we act. As Ron Sider challenged at the 1984 Mennonite World Conference, “Unless we are ready to start to die by the thousands in dramatic vigorous new exploits for peace and justice, we should sadly confess that we never really meant what we said, and we dare never whisper another word about pacifism to our sisters and brothers in those desperate lands filled with injustice. Unless we are ready to die developing new nonviolent attempts to reduce conflict, we should confess that we never really meant that the cross was an alternative to the sword.”