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You Must Go To Jail For Health Care

Aron Guy Nov 12, 2009

Since we got out of jail, we’ve been surprised by how much our 24-hour lock-up impresses people.

“Wow, you sure are brave,” many have said. “I can’t believe you did that. Did you know you’d get arrested?”

Of course we did. That was the point.

On the morning of October 28, nine of us staged a sit-in at the New York City headquarters of WellPoint, one of the country’s largest and richest insurers. In 2008 alone, the company pocketed $2.1 billion in profits. WellPoint uses these dollars to lobby against health care reform. And its influence on Washington extends far beyond the $7.8 million it has spent on lobbying over the past two years. Former WellPoint executive Liz Fowler now serves as a top aide to Sen. Max Baucus and authored the Baucus Bill.

Our purpose that morning was simple: We came to demand that WellPoint stop interfering with the legislative process and devote all of those lobbying dollars to saving lives. Security not only refused to let us enter the building, it flatly denied our request to talk to anyone working at WellPoint. Six of us managed to dodge a police barricade. We darted into the large lobby and planted our bodies on its polished floor. For fifteen minutes we sat with arms locked and chanted:

WellPoint profits, people die.
Medicare for all!

People came down from the offices to watch and took pictures of us on their cell phones. We continued to chant as members of the New York Police Department carried us out of the building, and we chanted all the way into the police wagons.

Was it fun?  Hell yes, it was. Many people, ourselves included, fantasize about going down sticking it to the Man. It felt good to disrupt their day, even in the smallest way.  It’s the next part, the jail part, that keeps people from  realizing the fantasy and occupying the lobbies of criminal corporations across the country.

But here’s the truth: jail’s not that bad. Unfortunately, many people are frightened of jail and would be ashamed of getting locked up.  This fear and shame is a boon to the powerful. It scares us into inaction.

We have reached a point, however, where inaction is no longer an option. Some 45,000 Americans die each year because they can’t afford health  care. We are in a battle for our lives. For far too long we have stood by and watched as the conversation over health care reform devolved into fits of hysterical shrieking. We will not prevail by sitting pretty on the promises of our elected officials. In such a din, our only voice is our bodies.

We must rid ourselves of the fear that silences us.

We must go to jail.

WHAT ARE THE RISKS?

This demand might sound reckless, like demanding someone throw herself in front of a car. But that’s only because of a lack of familiarity with the process.

The nine of us arrested that morning entered the sit-in knowing what to expect. Each of us had undergone civil disobedience training provided by organizers with Mobilization for Health Care for All, a campaign launched by Healthcare-Now!, the Center for the Working Poor, and the Prosperity Agenda.  These “Patients Not Profits” sit-ins are demanding an end to a system that reaps enormous profits by denying people care.

In addition to our training, we also had a support team. These are people who travel with you first to the precinct and then to Central Booking. There is always at least one member of jail support on duty, at the jail, 24/7.

On top of the jail support we had a lawyer who’d agreed to represent us pro bono.  The morning of the action we wrote the lawyer’s phone number onto our arms along with the numbers of support team members. These numbers came in handy. Any time we had a question, we used the jail phone to call one of the numbers on our arms. We always reached someone. Even the lawyer answered our calls.

We learned quickly that jail support is essential. Knowing that a support network is on the outside ready to fight for you helps you hold your resolve. Most people who are arrested don’t have the luxury of such support, and there’s no denying that those who can choose to risk arrest are privileged. It’s a privilege we should own.

IN “THE TOMBS”

We spent a little more than 24 hours in custody—6 in a holding pen at Manhattan’s First Precinct, followed by 18 locked up at Central Booking, also known as “the Tombs.” Let’s be realistic. Those 24 hours in custody were not comfortable. But if you know what to expect, jail is a discomfort you can prepare for. So here’s a run-down of the good, the bad, and the icky.

The first stop after arrest is the precinct jail. When we arrived at the First Precinct at 11 am, our group was divided into the men’s cage and the women’s cage. Because fewer women are arrested than men, the women’s cage is smaller. So, if you’re a female protestor, you’ll probably just be with your own crew at the precinct. Unfortunately, your own crew is quite enough to fill up the cage.  The five of us had to take turns between our cell’s lone bench and the cold, dirty, tailbone-bruising floor.

At the precinct we had our first experience with jail bathrooms. Take the nastiest bar bathroom you’ve ever seen and multiply that by at least two (depending on your taste in bars). The sink was clogged with muck and filthy water. The toilet had no seat.  It did, however, flush.  Woo-hoo!

After more than five hours, we were loaded back into the police wagon and taken to the Tombs. We were pretty hungry by then. We ate snack bars given to us that morning by members of our jail support team. The cops might confiscate these, but you should try to hold onto them because you don’t know when your next meal’s coming.

Shortly before 6 pm, a corrections officer led us into our home for the next 18 hours: the women’s holding cell on Level 2.  It was a grimy room with benches and a couple of skeevy pleather mattresses that looked like puffy exercise mats.  Imagine the worst bus station ever.  In one corner was a stall with a toilet. Next to that was a sink where the water came out like a drinking fountain, so you could either drink or wash your hands.  No soap.  The cell had dirty tile floors and florescent lights that never went out.  As you might have guessed from the name, there are no windows in the Tombs.

Besides sleep, there’s nothing else to do but talk—there’s no reading material allowed, no pens or pencils or papers. Certainly no TV or radio. Your hands just sit in your lap for hours. But it was so cramped, dirty and noisy that only the junkies could sleep it out.

None of us could believe how much talking there is in jail.  It felt like being trapped in Ricki Lake’s studio audience for eighteen hours.  At times it got so raucous we couldn’t even hear each other. So a lot of time we just sat and listened – to stories about boyfriends and babies and cheating men and ungrateful children and how important it is to get an education and why it’s better not to smoke weed, which, considering how many people were in there for marijuana possession, we can understand.

The cell held about thirty of us. We never felt threatened by any of our cellmates. That’s because no one wants trouble. Jail’s a dirty waiting room where everyone just wants to go home.

The food was an experience.  They served us “sandwiches.” We think that these must have been frozen and thawed a few times, because they were weirdly stale in some spots and deeply cold in others.  We had two options. What they called peanut butter and jelly was two pieces of bread smeared with a grayish-red paste. Option Two offered a yellow slab of something similar to cheese.  The best thing we were served was milk. Bottom line: Don’t ask. Just eat.

The times they feed you don’t necessarily match the meal times posted.  We had our breakfast in the middle of the night because they had to move us to holding cells next to the courthouse at 5 am and they didn’t want to feed us at that hour. So, at 2 am, we all lined up to get our rations: two boxes of single-serving cereal, two small cartons of milk and two bananas.  Our “feeding,” the CO’s called it, laughing. CO’s like to tease people in jail the same way some people like to tease the animals at the zoo.

More often than not, it seems like they don’t know what the hell they’re doing with you.
Accept that many things will not make sense, but you will need to do them anyway. For example, at around midnight, the guards shuttled all of us from our holding cell to a much smaller one with a broken toilet. We complained and they moved us back to the original cell. Ten minutes later, they got the other toilet to flush and returned us to the smaller cell. Being moved to that smaller holding cell was tough. It became so crowded in there that we couldn’t move without stepping on each other.

To make your jail experience easier, it’s important to be comfortable with “the humanity.” As one of our cellmates put it, sometimes it stank in there like “hot buttered ass on a roll.” A diet of milk and bananas will do that to you. Also, the junkies were probably feeling a little sick.  Every once in a while the cell smelled like death.  If you don’t have a sense of humor about other people’s functions, you might try to develop one before getting arrested.

Legally, you can be held in the Tombs anywhere from 24 to 72 hours before seeing a judge. It depends, the CO’s tell you, on the number of people flooding the system. We were relatively lucky. At 5 am, our names were called and we joined 20 other women in a line. The guards marched us to  a row of tiny cells behind the courtroom, divided us up among three of these cells, and left us to wait for the judge. An exposed  toilet in the corner of each cell made the space feel like a bathroom stall with benches and bars.  It was a long and cold five hours.

But then our lawyer appeared in front of our grateful eyes and the next thing we knew we were standing before the judge. We received our court date and that was that.  There wasn’t even any bail.

And what had it been, really? Boredom. A little anxiety. A lot of discomfort. It was not an ordeal out of which heroes are made. We never felt afraid. And we came out of our experience with a deep appreciation for due process, as well as a new sense of empathy for those denied it.

The crushing boredom of the night also taught us our most valuable lesson. When we were being led from one jail cell to the other and back, we passed a counter with a newspaper on it.  Aron snatched the paper and put it under her shirt. Once finally settled, a few of us huddled in the far corner of our cell to read it.  We divided the paper into little pieces and folded up the pages so we could tuck them away quickly whenever one of the CO’s came by.

Those contraband pages were gold. The experience made us wonder: How do you go from freely walking down the street to hoarding a stolen paper as though your life depended on it?

We’ll tell you how. Enter the lobby of a billion-dollar corporate crook and sit down on its polished floor. Then you’ll see how quickly that illusion of freedom evaporates.

NOW IT’S YOUR TURN

Single-payer health care is an achievable victory. We have fought long odds before and won. We must come together to do so again.

Going to jail signals to those in power that we aren’t afraid of them. And a night in jail is an education. In education, there is power.  After a night in jail, we know now that there is nothing to be afraid of. We also know what we’re willing to do for our beliefs.

You, too, can go to jail. If you want to effect change, you MUST go to jail. And those who for whatever reason are unable to go to jail must do what they can to support those who do. Not until thousands of us flood the system with our bodies will our demands be heard.

Mobilization for Health Care for All is expanding the sit-in campaign to include the offices of our elected officials. Just as we must hammer home to insurance companies that we will no longer tolerate their criminal behavior, so must we tell our politicians that we will no longer allow their betrayal.

We must say: “We sit here before you and demand that you listen. Until you do, we will not move.”

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