(ed. Originally published August 25, 2013 – here!)
“I’m sleepy now. I never get into bed before three o’clock.
He should have killed himself last week.”
– Ernest Hemingway, ‘A Clean, Well Lighted Place’
There is a photo of a four-year-old me swaddled in a puffy, winter coat – a repurposed jump-rope cinched tightly around my waist securing an over-sized couch cushion to my butt. In it, I am standing upright-yet-unsteady on borrowed roller skates – but the picture clearly conveys that I am teetering on the brink of imminent catastrophe.
My sisters didn’t teach me how to roller skate that day, but that isn’t really important to me now. What matters is how much care went into helping me try. Solidarity – the sense that my struggle was inseparable from my sisters’ and yet could only be achieved through my effort alone – that’s what I remember when I look at that old photograph.
I am reminded of learning to skate because I felt much the same way then as I did when I surrendered at LA County’s imposing central jail to serve a 30 day sentence dispensed, despite many serious-sounding proclamations by my prosecutor and judge to the contrary, solely due to my involvement in “Occupy.” For whatever reason – mostly, I’m convinced, a combination of dumb luck and my own white skin – I had managed to live 33 years without seriously running afoul of the law. Or at least without encountering the consequences of being caught for it. Occupy changed that.
In truth, I hadn’t even had so much as a speeding ticket in the fifteen years before I became involved in that now-fashionably-maligned-but-always-hearteningly-earnest gasp for social justice. I had chosen instead to quietly lead my own unremarkable life, wallowing in an entirely individualized and mostly-private melancholy I was convinced I was fated to endure alone.
While I believed deeply that things were generally wrong in the world, I was unable or unwilling to muster what it takes to openly defy the forces that wanted things to stay that way. I accepted the bribes those forces offered me to keep quiet.
I grumbled here and there about politicians, sure. I groaned at the media circus that so often seemed so easily misdirected. I opened a Twitter account for the occasional rant, but was seldom compelled to use it. I did what most white people I knew did: I got by as best I could, day-by-day, making as little trouble as I knew how.
I finally found myself living vicariously through other revolutions – white-knuckling what felt like real anxiety as I watched live footage streaming out of Tahrir or Syntagma Squares. People were doing far more with far less against far more brazen injustices than I could fathom in North Africa, the Middle East, and even Europe. People were resisting in Greece and Spain, too. They didn’t see it as hopeless. They weren’t resigned to the sad, solitary fate I saw for myself.
It wasn’t long before I was angrily indicting my own government’s clear culpability in the repressive wrath each of these uprisings inevitably met. This was the “peace dividend” we had bequeathed to the world! I couldn’t overlook that each tear gas canister I saw fired into a peaceful crowd bore the same, familiar stamp: “Made in the USA.” Someone here was getting rich every time a crowd was violently dispersed and, in all likelihood, that person looks and acts a lot like me.
As I watched, the things I used to feel when I could still feel things started surging back into me anew. The first long-forgotten friend to revisit me was anger.
It was September, 2011 before I finally shed the last of the old, dead skin of my own docility. People were getting maced in New York for trying to protest against banks in lower Manhattan. They didn’t seem to be aligned with either of what I knew to be our corrupt political parties and they seemed eager for broader participation. They called themselves “Occupy.”
Participation! That was what I wanted! I wanted the sense that my involvement added something to those around me. I wanted to feel hopeful about something again. Yet nobody was covering it on t.v. Maybe, I mused, people here in Los Angeles could go to the media machines of this city – like Disney – and get them to cover what was going on in New York? I checked Twitter and saw others coming alive with similar sentiments. We’d “occupy” Los Angeles, too.
”As I watched, the things I used to feel when I could still feel things started surging back into me anew. The first long-forgotten friend to revisit me was anger.”
I resisted my cynicisms. I had organized before and I could help, I thought. If I believed in it, if I got there early enough, if I told them what was coming from opportunists and co-optations and how they might guard against it – I could help stave off the other cynics, resist the other pessimists, and deflect all who would eventually try to ruin it all. I had seen them do it before and I determined to help stop them this time.
I stopped joking that those camping at Zuccotti Park were part of some elaborate scheme to sell tents or sleeping bags and stymied my doubts about their sincerity as best I could. I set about trying to ease the dull throbbing of an apathy I mostly self-medicated with sarcasm, irony and a mean streak I ashamedly reserved for those naive enough to still try.
I made a vow not to roll my eyes at or mock anyone – if I could avoid it. I wanted to believe we were capable of doing something. Something, after all, needed to be done. I thought I had answers, but it wasn’t more than a day into the occupation of Los Angeles that I realized my own ideas fell far short.
They were, as is assuredly typical, predicated on a silly assumption that everyone shared my experience of life, or at least something strongly similar to it. It’s obvious they don’t – but it makes it easy to speak confidently given that assumption. It’s even easier when the culture around you encourages you to do so, while it decidedly discourages others.
I like to think I learned quickly. I declined all interviews. I made no long-winded speeches. Instead, I listened. And it was the best decision I ever made. I’ve never learned more from so many in so short a time as I did then. Significantly, I’ve never unlearned so much so fast, either.
I knew I’d relapse into old habits. Turmoil would open the door and doubt would creep back in. To steady myself in the face of the chaos of doubt and confusion, I’d likely return to my most-familiar comforts.
Things would get hectic – especially with the historically malevolent LAPD so close to us. At Occupy Los Angeles, we literally slept in their shadow. Their gleaming, billion-dollar headquarters towered over us day and night as we talked unironically about ‘revolution’ on the ground below. So it really wasn’t a matter of ‘if’ they’d be unleashed upon us but ‘when.‘ Yet with so many around me seemingly convinced the LAPD were “our friends,” doubt and confusion could hardly be suppressed. I just resolved not to let it ruin this opportunity to make my life something other than the model of ’quiet desperation’ it had become.
Of course, only after all that – a year-long and sometimes reticent reemergence into the world with a renewed commitment to care about other people and try harder beside them – did I ever find myself surrendering at one of the most imposing, loathsome correctional facilities in this gulag archipelago we call ‘The United States.’ It wasn’t until I truly cared about something that I ever got in trouble.
Of the five specious charges from two, six-month-separated incidents that were levied against me, I was found guilty of three misdemeanors by a jury who were specifically instructed to disregard the glaring, political commonality – in fact – the only thing that tied the charges together; The Occupy Movement. As I knew they would, the LAPD had eventually been set upon us. And for a full year, they never let up.
While I was sad to see such unvarnished, political persecution in my country – and sadder still to find myself the subject of it – it was through long dialogues in tents with people who didn’t share my experiences that I came to finally realize that all trials are political. I saw that warehousing other bodies – the only thing we truly do in our otherwise useless jails – is itself political. Everyone we disregard this way is done so under a distinct politics of dominance and control – and for the first time in my lily-white life – that dominance and control was being exerted openly against me.
”Everyone we disregard this way is done so under a distinct politics of dominance & control – and for the first time in my lily-white life – that dominance and control was being exerted openly against me.”
Luckily, as in that old photograph that inspired this story of my political reawakening, I was lovingly prepared for all the sharp edges and blunt traumas that awaited me in jail by people around me who cared. Some of them knew what awaited me. Others could only imagine. But if they couldn’t stop me from falling, like my sisters before them back in those rollerskating, halcyon days of youth, at least they could lessen the bruises or soften the blows I was bound to take. And if not that, this new family around me promised to be nearby to pick me up and dust me off again afterward.
When I was four, it was my sisters who packaged me up like a delicate, faberge egg in that goose-down cocoon and sent me careening out into the asphalt world of suburban Connecticut. “You can skate, Craigy!” They clamored. “Go ahead! Do it!”
They had stayed just outside the camera frame, offering both their encouragement and their playful ridicule – but I knew they were there if I needed them. They’d brace me if I fell, kiss my scrapes if any managed to get past their overzealous protective gear, and put me back on my feet before I knew I had even fallen.
Before surrendering to jail, it was two of my comrades who ensconced me in a pharmacopic bubble and extended endless understanding and subtle distractions from my anxieties. On the way to the Twin Towers that morning, Lindsey and I sang Shania Twain songs. Songs easily get stuck in my head, and so I worried that my musical subjectivity would plague me inside the presumedly hyper-masculine jail environment I was bracing myself for. I couldn’t imagine singing “That Don’t Impress Me Much” in LA County Jail without consequence.
Earlier, we had discussed having the space and opportunity to recover after my release – at my own pace and on my own terms. It was the extension of a privilege few can count on. An understanding and an opportunity few can expect. They also continuously assured me how close they would be. Just out of reach – just out of frame – but available, visiting often, and ever-attendant to whatever unforeseen traumas awaited.
My particular panics seem so esoteric now, but who knows what other people are afraid of in similar circumstances? Strange things – what one needs to be calmed of, to be steeled against, to be assured of – facing the unknowns of incarceration!
I wasn’t really worried about assimilating to jail culture, about feeling personally violated and dehumanized by guards or other inmates, or otherwise being a begrudging witness to my own commodification as a warehoused body – so much as I was about tormented by fears of my impending nicotene withdrawals. I had also developed an irrational-yet-near-paralyzing fear that my confinement would coincide with a major, Katrina-sized catastrophe and I’d be forgotten in a cell. Lost in the system. Left behind. These were the strange fears that gripped me most.
Of the latter, apocalyptic fear, I also felt a certain guilt. If, in normal circumstances, I ever considered the fate of those incarcerated – left behind by guards who’d rather tend to their own families in such a crisis – it was only as an afterthought. Realistically, if it weren’t for Katrina horror-stories I’d heard in the wake of that disaster, I never would’ve given much thought to it at all.
It was different now that I was going to be inside myself. I pointedly made a comrade promise not to forget about me if something like that happened.
I hope I remember that promise myself now that I’m out. Others – some who woke up later in life, like me, and finally caught but a passing glimpse at the gnarled fangs this system tries to hide from us behind pretty veneers like “Rule of Law,” or worse, the many more who were born with it snarling directly at them without any veneer at all – will seemingly always be trapped inside.
After all, the worst thing I feared might happen in jail did happen to me. It didn’t take a spectacular event like a disaster to demonstrate it, either. It was immediate and overwhelming. It was systematized and unrelenting. I was forgotten in plain sight.
I want to try to remember that. I want to remember it especially when others don’t. As Eugene Debs once famously remarked, “while there is a soul in prison, I am not free.” I hope I don’t forget.
(ed. read part 2 – here!)