I want to tell you that police arrested me and put me in jail for the first time in my life yesterday. I also want you to know it was nerve-racking the entire 12 hours. I left jail around 2:00 in the morning on May 9, 2017.
Seattle Police officers approached my body, put my arms behind my back and snapped handcuffs onto my wrists. My arms twisted in a way I didn’t know they could. I was walked to the police SUV, told to spread my feet and then patted down on every inch of my body while t.v. and newspaper cameras looked on and my activist cohorts who weren’t being arrested chanted anti-Chase Bank messages.
I was cuffed and stripped of all power as police put me into the back of an SUV with City Council Candidate Jon Grant. He and I were two of the four arrested at the Chase Bank we were assigned to peacefully disrupt in Wedgwood in the north part of the city. I had to sit on my hands as I looked out the barred windows. Police took us to the North Precinct station. Inside the station and still in cuffs, another officer patted me down again, every corner of my body. Then, he shoved his hands in all my pockets pulling them inside out, emptying everything I had on me which only consisted of a few anti-Keystone XL Pipeline flyers, a pen, $23 in cash, my bus pass and my driver’s license.
Officers asked if I needed to pee and get water. I said yes, they removed my cuffs, and I did those things. Then, they put the cuffs back on me.
Jon and I were immediately put in a small, grey, concrete block holding cell with a glass window on the door. It was just the two of us. We sat uncomfortably with our hands still cuffed for about two hours. When I needed to adjust my glasses because they were slipping down my nose, I couldn’t because my hands were behind my back.
I’ve been volunteering with Jon’s campaign so I knew him a bit. But, we got to dig deeper into his thoughts around the state of the mayor’s race, Seattle’s homeless crisis and about our work experiences.
Kimberly and Ceci, the two women who were with us and who were arrested, were in the cell next door.
Sometime around evening rush hour, police loaded me and Jon into the SUV again. I wasn’t sure what was happening next as we headed toward downtown, watching the beautiful skyline over Lake Union on a sunny day through the barred window of the police SUV. The officer was playing classical music on the speakers. Jon and I didn’t speak a word to each other, just a few glances. We were being recorded.
Turns out we were headed to the main King County Corrections Facility to be booked along with 24 more folks who’d taken part in the peaceful direct action at 13 Chase Bank branches across the city simultaneously.
Our SUV drove us into a secure garage and we were led in cuffs to another holding room with a window. This time we watched as more than a dozen other activists lined up to get booked. Some of them were wearing white hazmat-looking suits with black paint smeared all over them to mimic oil.
The next thing that happened was an officer again took all my things from my pockets (as I’d put them back in when we were being transferred). After being stripped of every possession I had, they led me to a changing area behind a curtain. An intake officer sternly told me to let him know when I’d taken off all my clothes, including my underwear, and had put on the red prison outfit with orange socks and orange flip-flops and army green underwear.
I did so, then was led into a small and crowded holding cell with eight other men, most of them from the same Chase Bank action. We had to sit shoulder to shoulder because of limited space. There was a window next to a door. The door also had a window embedded in it. All we could see out the window was the booking desk. We saw some of our cohorts walking in and being booked. The women were being led to a cell next to ours. Some winked at us or waved, some with slight smiles on their faces.
There was one silver toilet in the room with us, out in the open. Everyone gets to see you doing your business. There is no privacy. There was one water fountain that looked dirty near the toilet. I felt claustrophobic. I tried to relax. Little did we know, this was the beginning of another ten hours in jail on top of the couple Jon and I had already had at the north location. At this point we didn’t have to wear handcuffs anymore, which was a much welcome development because things were about to move extremely slowly in the process. We were going to be sitting next to each other with nothing to do but talk from about 3:30 p.m. to 1:30 a.m. But, the conversation started slowly as everyone was hesitant to say much in case we were being recorded.
Somewhere in that time, King County Jail employees asked me to come out and take the first mugshot of my life. I gave my fingerprints. I now have a record.
Here’s what it looks like. (Note that the times listed were not the actual times we arrived or were set free, these are just the times that things became official. We arrived earlier and stayed later. Also note that there is a charge for Criminal Trespassing, which all 26 of us received. Technically the King County Prosecutor makes the final charge, not police, so it’s yet to be seen if we’ll actually face charges. Other activists doing similar actions have had this same booking charge only to never receive actual charges from the prosecutor. Finally, note that I did not have to pay to get out.):
If this sounds jarring that’s accurate because it was jarring to me. However, this didn’t happen by surprise. I had known what I was getting into for more than a week. I wouldn’t have ever considered doing something like this even just a few years ago. But, since November 2016 I’ve woken (more than I already had) to what’s going on in our world, and that has shifted my priorities.
Today, on my 34th birthday, a Criminal Trespassing charge feels small in comparison to the destruction of life that the Keystone XL Pipeline would force on Native folks and you. Are we actually going to sit back and send you a world that you can’t live in? I want you to know I at least tried to stand up.
I took part in this because Chase Bank is set to be one of the largest lenders for the Keystone XL oil Pipeline. And, public pressure on banks to stop funding the Keystone XL Pipeline (and other pipelines) is a huge thing we can do to protect our planet. We’ve already seen activists have wins on this front. By protesting and doing peaceful direct action at branch locations, activists pressured the City of Seattle to divest $3 billion from Wells Fargo (another key bank lending to oil pipelines). Other cities across the country followed Seattle’s lead and divested as well.
Under Obama, it was perhaps more effective for anti-pipeline activists to put pressure on government institutions and buildings. However, under Trump, you’re better off going where the money is and trying to shut it off.
Keystone XL is a nightmare for many reasons. It would only create a few dozen post-construction jobs. Keystone’s tar sands oil is far more toxic and dangerous than regular oil. It would generate the carbon emission equivalent of 40 million more cars or 50 coal-fired power plants every year. This is about water. This is about life. It is about doing what’s right to give our kids and grandkids a future.
Earlier this year I told you about a direct action training I went to. The organization that put that training on was 350 Seattle, which has a long history of direct action to protect the environment. So, when I got a text message that they needed more folks to join the largest mass peaceful action disrupting bank branches in Seattle’s history, I was ready to say yes.
I first went to an information session with about 70 people. It was one of three meetings offered, so hundreds of people were attending if you combined the activists at all three meetings. 350 Seattle’s meetings are held in a church in our neighborhood, Capitol Hill. Churches have become a common spot for activists to organize here. Churches offer some of the few remaining places for people to meet that’s not in a bar. It’s hard to even secure a regular weekly space in the Seattle Public Library because there is a limit to how many bookings you can have. To further this point, all of our Capitol Hill Neighborhood Action Coalition (NAC) meetings have been at a church as well.
During the 350 planning sessions I was assigned to work with a group of about 13 folks including Jon Grant and some of his staffers. A week ahead of time we assigned everyone in the group a role, they then had specific trainings with professionals for their roles. Those roles included:
- The person who talks to the police
- The person who shoots Facebook Live video
- The person who does other social media
- The person who talks to press on the scene
- The legal observer
- The jail support person who stays off site with all our belongings and waits to follow us to wherever police may take the folks who get arrested.
- And, finally, the folks who are willing to get arrested.
We then set up a second meeting with our small group to discuss how we wanted to
peacefully disrupt our assigned Chase Bank location. We also set a time to get together to make banners, go over chants and plan all the other details as we could’ve been occupying the bank branch for up to four hours. That’s a long time to keep energy up with songs, chants and testimony.
The morning of our action we met up an hour beforehand and finalized our plans. We then walked a block to our Chase Bank and entered chanting an anti-Keystone XL Pipeline message. Kit, one of our most experienced members, and Kate, our Media liason (and Jon Grant’s campaign manager who also has protest experienced and has been arrested before) led our chants and read our demand letter to Chase Bank.
We unrolled our banner in front of the teller windows. And, the four of us risking arrest, Kimberly, Ceci, Jon and me, linked arms and blocked the entrance from the inside with our bodies. An older woman customer inside at the time remained in her seat, calm, looking slightly curious as we explained why we were there. The manger and few other staff members tried to keep going about their work. We let out anyone who wanted to leave. But, we didn’t let anyone in as our goal was to get the bank to close for the day, to disrupt their service.
We sang chants that included this one, which was my favorite.
“People gonna rise like water.
We’re gonna calm this crisis down
I hear the voice of my great granddaughter
saying shut down Keystone now.”
As we chanted and offered testimony about why we were inside disrupting business, the four of us at the door actually had to start blocking customers from entering. Several customers just turned away when we told them the branch was closed and handed them a flyer about our action. Then, one man about my age screamed at us, “How many of you all drove cars here?!? Huh!? Tell me that!” At one point, another man, this time someone in his 60s who was trying to get in got angry with us and started trying to ram his body into us. His attempt to use physical aggression did not succeed in getting him inside.
The manager notified Kit that he was obligated to call the police. In fact, Chase had been aware for weeks of this action. 350 Seattle had held a press conference in front of a Chase branch to demand they announce they’re not funding pipelines. If they did so, we would not have gone through with our action.
Police arrived in massive force. More than a dozen officers in multiple SUVs, cars and a van or two waited outside. They told Kit to let us know that those of us not risking arrest should get outside, so everyone but the four of us at the door left the building. We knew arrest was coming soon for those of us at the door. Ceci was linking arms with me on my right. She’s in her 60s and this was also her first time to risk arrest, as it was Kimberly’s on my left.
Ceci had told her children where she was and that she may be going to jail. Her passion for protecting our water and Native lands was obvious. As it looked like police would be approaching us soon, she asked that the four of us alone at the door take a moment of silence to get in touch with the Earth and with why we’re standing at this door about to go to jail. She asked that we remember those who’ve given up their lives and lands already. To remember those who fought at Standing Rock. Then, the police came for us.
Here are some photos during our action and the arrests:
And, here is what it looked like in the news headlines and across the city:
Following our arrests and booking into King County Jail, I got to know my cellmates who also participated in the Chase Bank action. I put my head together with these guys coming up with games to play as we sat together for hours in a tiny cell. We played word games, we tried to solve math story problems, we shared interesting stories.
The processing at the jail took what felt like an eternity. We were shifted from one cell to a second to a third. Almost no one came to check in on us as we waiting hours upon hours wondering if we’d even get to leave. When we got word that we’d be leaving it was another five hours before we were actually released. Among those I was with most of the 12 hours were a man who works in tech who is helping design a new technology platform for political and movement organizing. Another cellmate was a man in his 30s who’s been involved in environmental activism for a long time and has been arrested before for actions like sitting on a railroad track to stop an oil train. Another was a man who recently got his PhD in math. Another was a man who’s a mental health counselor.
At one point I got to make three five-minute phone calls. There’s also no privacy on this step. In one of the cells we spent time in there are phones on the wall, but only the speakers. The entire cell of 15-18 people can hear your conversation. You have to have your conversation over voices and sometimes a flushing toilet. I called our legal aid number which I’d written on my arm so that they could find Nick’s number on my contact sheet and call him.
I realized I don’t know anyone’s phone numbers in my head. They’re all in my phone. I don’t even know Nick’s number by heart. Lesson learned: know Nick’s number. This lack of numbers also left me with no choice when one of the agents at booking wanted a phone number to call to verify all my information was correct. The only number I knew off the top of my head was Mom and Dad’s in Oklahoma. So, with no warning, they got a call from a jail officer informing them of where I was and asking them strange questions at 10:00 p.m. their time. Because this happened, I decided to use one of my five-minute calls to talk to my dad personally and update him on the situation. The entire cell listened as I tried to help him understand why I was in jail.
Being inside the jail I saw firsthand the racial disparity. Most of the folks we saw coming in and being booked were black. Among them was someone who joined us in our cell for a few hours. He’s someone who lives in a tent in one of the homeless encampments in Seattle. He told us about how much the city’s sweeps of the camps had destabilized his life. We heard stories from other black folks who have been in and out of this jail for a long time, struggling to break the cycle of a system working disproportionately against them.
I barely scraped the surface of understanding the pain that people go through in the prison system. I had the privilege of leaving because I’ve never had a record and I’ve always had the system working in my favor. I have a new appreciation and empathy for what it’s like to have to give up control of one’s own body and privacy.
Our release brought a surprise. At 2:00 a.m. I expected that I’d have to go all over the city to retrieve my cell phone and keys that I’d left with our jail support group member. But, as we walked out the door into the chilly air, a crowd of about 20 people began cheering, including Nick and Daniel and our friend Sophia! Nick ran up to me and hugged me. He said he’d been waiting with the group of organizers and Daniel for six hours! I felt ridiculously lucky.
350 Seattle had pizza ready to feed us and they had all our belongings. They followed up with calls of gratitude and to make sure we were okay. In the morning I received texts from Mom wishing me happy birthday and ending with, “Are you out of jail?”
She also emailed me these pictures from when I was a kid. I wanted to share them here. I love my family so much and I miss them today.
There’s a lot of big news from Seattle and from D.C. happening today, but I’m too tired to share it with you right now. Next time.