By Joy First
Written January 14 and 15, 2008
I’m in Washington, DC on a nine-day trip arriving on Wednesday January 9. It is a long time to be away from my family in Wisconsin. I will be participating in an action to shut down Guantanamo on January 11. On January 16, I will be on trial with 33 others for the Rivers of Blood action in the U.S. Capitol on September 20, 2007.
There are always many opportunities to get involved in speaking out against our government’s illegal and immoral actions while I am in DC. On Thursday morning, I got up at 5 am and joined my friends Malachy, Eve, Pete and others at the entrance to the CIA in Virginia. We stood outside the gate holding a banner saying “Torture is Terrorism” during the morning commute. Later that day I went to DC Superior Court as the verdict was read for Mike Ferner. For more on that, see the story on “A True American Patriot”.
It’s very difficult to describe my experiences between January 11 and 12. I am still feeling traumatized by all that happened. I was arrested at the Supreme Court on January 11 with 80 others and was held for almost 30 hours being moved to five different locations during the experience. But as much as I am still feeling a lot of trauma, I think about how my experiences are nothing compared to what is happening to the men being held in Guantanamo, the men we were speaking for that day, who have been held for over six years with no hope of ever getting out. The majority of the men being held in Guantanamo are innocent. They were captured and handed over to the United States for a bounty during a period when our country was desperately seeking someone to blame for September 11, 2001. January 11 marked six years since the first men were brought to Guantanamo. The men being held have been, and continue to be denied their rights. They have no communication with their families, many are not allowed to talk to a lawyer, and many have not even been charged with a crime. They have been tortured. Their right to Habeas Corpus has been denied. Habeas Corpus is a fundamental human right giving us the right to a fair and speedy trial. This right is being slowly eroded by our government. The purpose of our action on January 11 was to bring the names of these men being detained in Guantanamo into the U.S. courts.
Those participating in the action to shut down Guantanamo met together on Thursday night at St. Stephen’s Church in DC to finalize our plans for the action. We were together from 4-10 pm. We met in our affinity groups, ate dinner together, and participated in activities to bring us together, inspire us, and help us to focus on our goals for the action. Tao Seeger, the grandson of Pete Seeger inspired us with his music. Many of us had participated in the action to Shut Down Guantanamo last year and so I saw many familiar faces that evening, and there was a real sense of community.
It was six years ago on Friday January 11, 2008 when the first men arrived at Guantanamo, and this January there were 80 actions all around the world calling for the end of this concentration camp. In Washington, the plan was to bring the names and stories of the prisoners illegally being held in Guantanamo to the U.S. Supreme Court in an act of nonviolent civil resistance. Most of us participating in the action had decided we would not provide our identification to the police. If we were arrested, we would say we were there on behalf of a particular man being held in Guantanamo. I was there on behalf of Hassan Abdul Said.
On Friday I went to the rally on the National Mall sponsored by Amnesty International and the Center for Constitutional Rights at 11:00 am. This was a permitted rally with several speakers talking about the horrors of Guantanamo. The nonviolent direct action, organized by Witness Against Torture (www.witnesstorture.org) , with people risking arrest would follow this rally.
There would be three separate groups who would be risking arrest. One was the large group who began with a solemn procession from the rally to the Supreme Court. Many of the procession participants were wearing orange jumpsuits and black hoods. Once they got to the Supreme Court they risked arrest by kneeling on the steps of the Supreme Court. About 40 people were arrested outside.
My friends and I hurried ahead of the procession so we could get inside the Supreme Court before the procession arrived. We had two groups who would gather inside the Supreme Court and I was in one of those groups. Beginning at about noon, my group slowly begin to make their way inside the Supreme Court building, attempting to look inconspicuous as we gathered inside. My affinity group, with about 13 people, had a 30 ft. banner, saying “SHUT DOWN GUANTANAMO”. The banner was wrapped around Matt’s body as he went through security. The plan was to go out onto the top steps of the Supreme Court and unfurl our banner as the procession approached the Courthouse. The other inside group, with maybe 15-20 people, was going to gather in the main lobby area and read a statement about why we were there and read names of the prisoners.
As we gathtered, I am sure we became conspicuous to the guards, but until we started the action they could not make us leave the building. Things didn’t go as planned. As the procession approached the Supreme Court, the guards locked the front doors and we could not go outside with our banner as planned. We decided to join with the other group in the main lobby and unfurl our banner there. As we began to unfurl our banner, it was violently grabbed by a guard and yanked from my hands. The guards seemed very upset and angry as they grabbed the first few people and put them under arrest. We all began forming a circle and then going down on our knees. Several activists were saying “Shut it down”. I was feeling overwhelmed with emotion. It was over very quickly and we were arrested at about 1:30 pm.
They took us to the basement of the Supreme Court building where we were handcuffed for several hours in what began a long night of processing. It is difficult to give exact times after this. We did not have access to the time unless we happened to walk by a clock. Time seemed to lose its meaning in the nightmare of the DC jail system we were thrown into.
There were 80 people arrested and the Supreme Court police were not prepared for us. The group of 30 people I was with who were arrested inside stood in a line in the hallway. The plan was that most of us would not provide our identification. The police were not happy about that and tried many ways of threatening us in order to get our names. We did not give our names because each of us felt strongly that one of our main goals was to represent a prisoner from Guantanamo and we wanted the names of these men entered into the system
After around three hours of processing at the Supreme Court building, they took the 21 women into a garage where we stood against a wall for another couple of hours waiting for a bus to transport us to another station. In the 30 hours I was incarcerated in was in five different facilities and four different jurisdictions. Though we were all becoming tired, there was a tremendous amount of solidarity as we shared stories and sang songs. Finally, I think at about 8:00 pm, we were put in a couple of vans and taken away. I only can tell the story of what happened to me and the women I was with after that. We were split into many small groups all over the city.
The nine of us in the van I was in were taken to the Capitol Police station at about 9 pm. I thought this is where we would be spending the night. We were frisked so many times over the night that I can’t even count the number of times. They frisked us again when we arrived at the Capitol Police Station and took off our handcuffs. During the time we were there we were in a small holding cell, we were in a small interview room being asked questions, but most of the time the nine of us were together in a room that looked like a place where they held classes and meetings. We sat there until 1:30 in the morning. We were able to talk and we passed the time talking to each other and talking to the guards who were there with us over a several hour period. During the time we were there, two members of our group were taken away. We didn’t know where or why they were taken. And so we were seven.
Throughout this period, we had no idea how long we would be held. We knew we would be held until we were arraigned in front of a judge. Because the action was on Friday, we were not sure if we would see a judge before Monday. Before the action we had heard that there was a Saturday court, but when we said this to the officers, they laughed at us and said no judge would be coming in on Saturday. So, I began to believe that we would be in jail until Monday. I also thought there was a possibility that they might hold me over until my trial on Wednesday.
It is a complicated relationship with the guards. They were very friendly and chatted with us and joked around with us, but of course the relationship was very unbalanced in terms of who had power. The guards had all the power and we had none. Things quickly turned around as we had to move to another location and they commanded us to stand up against the wall and we were handcuffed again at 1:30 am. My wrists were sore after being handcuffed so long earlier in the day and I was so relieved when the first officer put the cuffs on fairly lose, but then another officer came and tightened them up and it was very painful.
We were taken to the District 5 Police Station and the seven of us were put into a holding cell. There were two bare metal bunks in our cell that a couple of people spread out on and the rest of us tried to get some sleep on the cold dirty concrete floor. At about 2:30 am one woman in our group asked a guard if we could get something to eat. I hadn’t eaten anything since breakfast on the previous morning and I was nervous about the action and not able to eat much. The guard brought us a baggie with two sandwiches, one bologna and the other one American non-cheese. I ate the non-cheese sandwich and that was the only thing I had to eat while I was locked up for 30 hours. We also got a small cup of an artificial lemon drink. We tried to get a little more sleep after we ate.
I thought we wouldn’t be able to see a judge until Monday, so expected to spend the next couple of days in jail. Therefore, I was surprised and very happy when the guard came in at 6:30 am on Saturday morning and told us to get up, that we were leaving and we would be going to court that day. I couldn’t believe it and kept asking if it was true. They handcuffed us again and our wrists were so sore from being in handcuffs so long the day before. We were loaded into the back of the police van.
We were taken to the dreaded Central lockup, of which I had heard so many bad stories, but it was the stepping stone into court so I was happy to be there. Once there we were fingerprinted digitally using a computer. I hadn’t yet given my name, only that I was here representing Hassan Abdul Said. The officer said that if I was in the system, they would find me quickly with my fingerprints. We were then put into cells. Many of our fellow activists had spent the night there and we said hi to them as we walked down the corridor to our cells.
About an hour later, the guards came and got us and said we were going to court. They had a wrist band for me with my real name on it, but at that point it didn’t matter to me anymore. Hassan’s name was in the system. We were again handcuffed and put into a police van and driven to the court. The officer loading us into the van said that Dr. King would be so proud of all of you. Those words meant so much to all of us as we drove to the courthouse. I knew that this officer really got what we were doing.
At the court, we began to see more of our fellow activists who had been arrested the day before, and eventually we were all there. I had hopes that this was almost over, but it turned into a very long and intense day. They shackled our ankles and took off the handcuffs. We were then put into holding cells waiting for our arraignment. I think this was at about 9:00 am. The guards told us that court would begin at 11:00 am. The 80 of us who were arrested at the Supreme Court were divided up into about 4 or 5 holding cells. There were 14 women in the 8x8 cell I was in. There was a little metal toilet in the corner of the cell. The water bubbler did not work. Three of the women in my cell became very dehydrated and were vomiting. Our ankle shackles were not removed the whole time we were there. We tried to keep our spirits up by telling stories and singing. At one point a guard came back and told us to stop singing because they could hear it in the courtroom.
Early in the day our lawyers began coming around and talking to us. They told me it was very possible that they would hold the people who had a trial on Wednesday over until the trial. There were quite a few people, including me, who would be going to trial on Wednesday the 16th for an arrest in the US Capitol on September 20, 2007. I was devastated to hear this news and became very anxious thinking that I might be held in jail until Wednesday.
Hours passed and the court did not begin. At some point our attorney’s, Mark Goldstone, Jack Barringer, and Ann Wilcox, came and said that we had a very sympathetic judge and they complained to him that we were not getting any water. I had been able to drink only a few ounces over the last 24 hours. The judge ordered the guards to get us water immediately. I think the judge was not happy at the way we were being treated and he pressured the prosecutors to give us a deal where we could get out of there quickly. Mark Goldstone told us we were being offered a Stet agreement to sign. This meant that if we agreed that we would not be arrested for 6 months, we would be released that day. After 6 months, if we were not arrested again the case would be dismissed. If we were arrested, we would have to answer to the charges.
Each cell discussed what they wanted to do. We were all so warn down at that point and wanted to get out of there so badly. I said that I was tempted but that I did not want to sign the Stet agreement. I knew I would be returning to DC for another nonviolent action in March where I would be risking arrest. From experience I knew that the prosecutor always tries to offer something like this to deter us from coming back. However, we will not be silenced. We must continue this work and so I was committed to not signing the agreement. I would plead “not guilty” and come back for trial. Many of the women in my cell wanted to sign the agreement because they would not be back for another action soon, but as we talked loudly to our fellow activists in other cells, I found that there were a large number of people who wanted to plead “not guilty” and would not sign the Stet.
Finally about 5:00 pm they began to bring us to court in groups of three with the shackles still around our ankles. We had spent a good part of the day crowded in a tiny cell where we had to take turns sitting on the floor because there was not enough room for all of us to sit down at once. The three women who were sick vomited repeatedly. Everyone felt so bad for them. They were apologetic, thinking that by being sick they were making it harder for everyone else. We tried to reassure them. There was a lot of support and care among us during a very difficult and intense day.
The cells slowly began to empty as people began to go before the judge. None of us who were left behind had any idea what was going on in the courtroom. The anxiety rose for me as I wondered whether I would be released that night (Saturday) or held over until Wednesday. We anxiously waited to see if anyone would come from court back to the cell to be held over. Two individuals were returned because they had not completed their pre-trial interview. The pre-trial services people were supposed to go home at 4:00, but supposedly the judge made it clear to the pre-trial services that they needed to stay and finish the interviews with everyone so they could be released that night. One of the people returned to complete her interview was a woman who was put in our cell.
I was the last one from our cell to be called before the judge. I was feeling very anxious not knowing what would happen. The US Marshall walked with me down the long hallway to the courtroom. All the sudden, I stepped into the courtroom. It was an incredible transition and I felt like I had stepped through the looking glass into another world. I wasn’t prepared to be in front of the judge so quickly once I left my cell. All the sudden I was in the front of the courtroom with all eyes on me. It was very disorienting. For the last 30 hours everything was grey and now I was back in a world of color. I had not had hardly any food and water and that added to my feelings of disorientation. It felt so good and so safe to get a quick hug from Mark Goldstone and to have him standing beside me. I think I said something to Mark about feeling really spacey because I had not had any food. He told me it was almost over and I would be released.
The judge asked me to state my name and I said, “My name is Joy First and I am here representing Hassan Abdul Said, who has been suffering in Guantanamo for the last 6 years because of the illegal actions of our government. I plead not guilty” Anyways that is what I planned to say and I think I pretty much got it out that way, but I was feeling so disoriented that I am not totally sure. Then Mark repeated to the judge that I was pleading not guilty. The judge gave me a date for a status hearing and I walked over to the clerk and signed the paperwork. Then the US Marshal told me to sit down and he unlocked my ankle shackles that I had been wearing for 10 hours. I couldn’t believe I was free to go. I could hardly contain my emotions. I met and hugged many fellow activists and supporters out in the hallway. I had a good dinner with close friends that night.
This was a very transformative experience for me. Several long-time activists have said that this was one of the most difficult jail experiences they have had. There was a lot of personal suffering and I am thinking about the work I am doing and feeling more committed than ever to continuing this work for peace and justice. I know I can survive a difficult experience like this and come out of it stronger. I know there are many people, both inside jail with me and on the outside, who share love, and hope, and commitment as we work together for peace and justice. It was an incredible experience bonding with the people I was jailed with. I’m very scared when I realize that what I am doing means that I am beginning to think that my personal safety is not as important as the principles of truth and justice that I am struggling for.
And I know that what I went through was not anything compared to what the men in Guantanamo have suffered for 6 years. Many of them are being held illegally, not being charged with any crime. They are separated from their families and have no communication with them. They have no access to an attorney. They are being tortured. What I had that helped me get through my experience was the hope that I would go before a judge on Saturday or Monday and have my case heard. Most of the men being illegally held in Guantanamo have no such hope. Their right to Habeas Corpus is being denied.
This was a very emotional experience mainly because we knew that it was critical to get the names of these men entered into the US court system. Later my good friend Pete Perry told me that when he walked into the courthouse on Saturday to support us, he checked the court docket and the names of a good number of the men from Guantanamo were listed on the docket in a U.S. court for the first time ever because those were the names we gave the police when we were arrested. Each of the 80 people arrested was able to stand up in court and say the name of a man being held in Guantanamo and get that name entered into the court record. We accomplished that goal, but we still have a lot of work to do as we continue our struggle for peace and justice.