writing to know, knowing thru being, being for writing... this is me, writing about the one thing i know, which is myself... and even that is sometimes a mystery...

Sunday, July 02, 2006

taking on the army of one -OR- how i nearly got arrested -- an exclusive story from the ground

[sorry! it seems my links to the article don't work. while i try to figure this out, please just read ahead. this post is more detailed (tho more editorialized) than the article i wrote anyway...]

this just in!

the military and chicago police hate peace!


i had heard stories of police brutality in chicago. so harsh and disgraceful and heartless as to be compared to abu ghraib.

but i didn't believe it. could never have believed it. until this weekend.

yes, this weekend signifies my threshold of patience and understanding for the law and law enforcement and authority.

because this weekend, i witnessed the oppression --the unlawful and unjustified and unwarranted-- oppression of civilians and the death of first amendment rights at the hands of law enforcement.

what started as merely an effort on the part of ten to twenty pro-peace advocates to distribute information regarding the iraq war and military un-truths soon became a violent confrontation between civilians and an overwhelming police force.

and i only barely evaded arrest.

"well, surely she's being dramatic," you say. ha, i only wish i were. "stephanie could never have gotten in trouble with the law. that just seems so unlike her." ha, that's what i was thinking too. in fact, that's what i've been thinking this whole time. "surely this is all a bad dream and i am going to wake up any minute now."

well someone please pinch me and kick me in the head, cause it ain't happening...

i've always been a loud person. but i've only recently been a vocal one. and only recently did i start challenging authority figures (my parents, MU administration, President, bosses, now police...) in the name of justice and good conscience. but never, NEVER, would i have imagined it would one day come to the point where i'd be threatened arrest.

it started like any normal day: i rolled out of bed, awakened an hour earlier than i had planned to be by an urgent phone call. work-related. "hey it's eric from the national lawyers guild," is what the guy on the other line says. i've been working with him and some friends from my work, chicago indymedia, to sort out some reported police abuse and suppression of first amendment rights. apparently, just the day before, a group of student activists from various org's had been ordered and forced off park grounds during the taste of chicago for flyering. when i heard this it seemed too silly to be a big thing. "obviously this can't happen" is what i said. "it's a public park... there can't be 'designated' free speech zones. this is loony!"

au contraire mon frère.

i saw today exactly what the guild and other activists had reported to me about. and i was dumbfounded.

indeed, within minutes of us getting to the taste, there were people on alert. the pro-peace groups that gathered there, too many to count, consisted of no more than a few individuals, each representing their own personal agenda (i spoke with mothers and fathers, aunts and uncles, and siblings of serving military men and women, many of whom constituted a support group of people who had lost loved ones in the war), but united under a common goal: to provide information to the passers-by in the park that day about military recruitment tactics. one father who lost his only son in afghanistan spoke of all the false promises made by recruiters to get him to enlist that had ultimately resulted in his son's death.

and i saw first-hand the insidious ways of military recruitment: the basketball hoops. the chin-ups challenge. the merchandise giveaways. the sexy recruitment "sales" persons. all sly marketing moves meant to enchant and brainwash and entice young children into enlisting. it looks so fun and rewarding! free steak dinners! movie tickets! cool free swag! and basketball! wowza! i was convinced: snow white's evil stepmother was more subtle than the military pretends to be.

and the most disturbing part was the targeted demographic: 8-14 year old boys and girls, who, with their parents' encouragement (don't be fooled, adults are no more wise or immune to the military's evil ways than children are) would participate in the army mind tricks and feats of strength, so that eventually two young prepubsecent boys would be locked in a manhood challenge, fighting each other to sign up for the military.

i overheard one mother say to her son, who was fighting gravity and a newly forming hernia to stay chin above the metal bar, "stay up there son! show them how strong you are!... but don't let them take you away from me!" then, realizing the company she was in, and feeling the favor of the crowd turn against her as they shunned her with their eyes, nervously corrected herself, "just kidding! hahaha...ha"

there was also the unmistakable care on recruiters' parts to pay special attention to the minority boys in their unwitting audience. kids from black, hispanic and asian families were of special interest to them. and if they were lower/working class... JACKPOT! they were preying on the impressionable youth of our macho-aggrandizing culture, and much to their success. i was disgusted and ashamed.

my fellow activists and i, no more than just ten to fifteen of us (only 5 of whom were actually doing anything, the rest being lawyers and legal observers, or friends of participants. even then, all we were doing was distributing literature and talking to people!), each representing a different organization, armed ourselves with flyers and leaflets, handbills with information on the military and their enlistment tactics. we spread out around the army's booth and began passing out information.

moments later, police began appearing. in the matter of a few minutes, there was a wall of law enforcers blocking people (including those interested in enlisting, ha!) from the army booth. i had two officers push me away. ME! of all people... i guess my slight 5'5" frame, peaceful nature, easy smile, and literature were a clear threat to public safety...

i said as calmly and strongly as i could to one officer, who was of a particularly irritable nature, to "please don't shove me." surprised by my assertiveness, he towered down at me, shoulders thrust back, chest puffed up (you know, typical male animal battle stance) and snarled, "i'm not shoving you. i'm touching you. you want to see what shoving is like? i can show you!!" he then put some extra pressure into my shoulder, a push which, had it not been for the now tightly packed crowd and my surprising sure-footedness, should have sent me hurtling to the ground.

he eventually backed down, but only after one of his fellow officers, who must have noticed the absurdity of the situation (large muscle-y policeman tries to start a fight with a skinny teenage asian girl) asked him to move away and "cool off." (pssh, really. that guy was so riled up i could see the veins in his head and eyes popping. hope he never takes the CTA. that might be enough to kill him...)

the growing mass of police, now well out-numbering our already small group --at one point i counted 6 high-ranking officers (white shirts) and about 10-15 others (blue shirts)... that's more than three officers per acting peace advocate!-- began to threaten arrest if we did not relocate to a "designated zone."

um, excuse me?!???!!!

"designated zone?" we cried, "there are no designated zones for free speech!"

as we cited our rights (um, does the FIRST AMENDMENT sound familiar? um, like "there shall be no law abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people to peaceably assemble..." hmm...) the cops told us that they respected our concern, but we needed to move to another "approved" area to exercise those rights.


last time i checked, there were no restrictions to the first amendment. and it doesn't get any clearer than this: we were there to practice our right to freedom of information and voice, our right to assemble peacefully (tho we had never even intended to "assemble" in the first place!)

the officers told us that if we wanted to protest, we needed to move away from the army's booth and relocate to a "public" street.

hmmm, last time i checked, neither the army nor the police owned the sidewalks of the public park.

furthermore, it was not a "protest." it wasn't even a concentrated effort. in fact, in all my history doing progressive demonstrations and actions, i had never seen one so poorly planned or executed. more than half of those in attendance were merely standing silently holding flyers, hoping that someone walking past would take one. i got so upset watching the fruitless efforts that i joined in the efforts to offer my talents for voice projection and persuasion (i'm a weathered street teamer. a usually fearless veteran of numerous grassroots street actions).

with the growing tension in the situation, and the escalating hostility from police, our efforts seemed to double in volume and persistence. soon, the threats of arrest were being drowned out by chants of "resist! don't enlist!" and my reading of names of soldiers killed in the war.

and i only got louder and louder. i could feel the blood rushing to my head. i could feel my neck pulsing, the muscles buckling with the strain from my backpack and my voice. i felt the eyes of people walking by, heard their snickers, but also the awe and appreciation. i received hi-fives, hand shakes, shoulder gropes, along with hateful glares, confused expressions of disapproval, garbage tosses, and the growing negative attention of the local law.

but this did not deter me. i'm stubborn. and i work especially well under pressure and duress. if anything, the police were making things worse by taunting me. i love to challenge probability. if things look hard, i like to prove people wrong. if people threaten to take me down, i make sure i don't go down without a fight.

as i could see them eyeing me, most likely debating handcuffing me on the spot, i began shouting the names. and as i got louder, i also got faster. it was ridiculous. i could see people in my periphery walking past with looks of urgency. they must've thought me mad.

my friends came up to me. three of them. "we want you to know," they said, "that those officers have been talking of arresting you." a sick self-gratified smile crept onto my face. "we love what you're doing. it's working! the booth has emptied." i looked and saw it was true: since the first arrest, the number of people visiting the booth had dwindled. now, there were hardly any. "but we want you to know, that if you keep doing it, you'll probably get arrested." i said that again to myself. i felt the meaning with my lips. the words in my mouth were like a bitter refreshing drink. it woke me up to the reality of the situation.

"if you do get arrested," my friends said, "we won't let them take you alone. we'll go with you. can you afford to do it?" i thought about a night alone in a jail cell. the police twisting my arms. cold steel cutting into my wrists. my parents learning their first child had been arrested. it wouldn't matter the circumstances, they would disown me. i thought about my clean record, now reading "arrested for protesting." i began to shake.

"bastards!" i spat. i became quiet.

my friends took me out of sight. i sunk into a ball on the ground, nearly sobbing, but angry at myself. i couldn't get arrested. despite how much i wanted to, despite how much i wanted to be a martyr for our cause, i couldn't do it. i was a coward. i was scared. and i was selfish.

"i'm so sorry" i gasped. "i can't do it, i can't!" they rubbed my back and comforted me. but it wasn't enough. i was struggling with myself. i didn't know who i wanted to destroy more, my self, or my opponent. the destruction of one required the sacrifice of the other.

and in that moment, i couldn't do it.

i sat on the sidelines, helplessly watching as our efforts began dying down. the cops had pulled out ziplines, plastic makeshift handcuffs resembling the plastic ties used to close up garbage bags. i wanted to sick on myself as i watched the police take 7 of my friends away, their arms twisted painfully behind their backs. two of them were still in high school. many of them were the parents of soldiers in the army. one was a 60-something year old woman, clad in bright fuscia from head to toe, her shirt reading "stop the next war."

as i chanted "shame! shame! shame!" with the others, it became clear that we were in a war of our own that day. we were in a struggle to defend our rights against the face of a cruel and hostile military authority.

there were cries of unrest and disapproval. those left began verbally attacking the police. we loudly demanded to be told the grounds for arrest, only to be denied comment. we told them they were wrong, they were denying first amendment rights, that they were breaching the law.

the police didn't care.

and i saw the fear and disbelief spread on everyone's faces. it was a grave day.

"ladies and gentlemen!" i yelled, "you are witnessing the death of freedom and democracy today! innocent people are being arrested for practicing their constitutional right to free speech!"

cries of shame and anger rang out that night. they still haunt me now.

because in that moment, when it mattered most, i was too scared to defend myself and my friends against a clearly wrong authority. and it shames me now to call myself an activist.

what right do i have now to exercise my rights, if i was too scared to defend them that day? if you don't speak up against wrong, what right do you have to consider yourself right? if you allow yourself and the voice of your cause to be silenced in the face of oppression, when are you ever going to be able to overcome it?

freedom must be earned. and once you have it, don't let it be taken away.

celebrate your freedoms, your rights, and your voice! people too easily become complacent in this society and fail to challenge wrongdoing by government and authority. our trust in government authority has become an opiate for individual choice and freedoms, and i beg you, on this day, if on no other, to celebrate your freedom by practicing your rights!


see video footage of the events and the arrests
see my first-hand account
read my article on indymedia
read the tribune's story
more on police brutality in chicago


  • At 10:32 PM, July 05, 2006, Blogger Ray "Raedien" Devine said…

    Wow Steph, awesome post.
    People need to know this junk.
    As for your breakdown, you have already done FAR more than most people ever do in their entire lives; take heart.

    I really want to read your article on indymedia, but it doesn't seem to be working...(the link).

    I don't really have many other options (my internet connection sux at home, so it's pretty much text for me, sorry, I wanted to see your vid's too)

  • At 7:45 AM, July 06, 2006, Blogger brian said…

    Good Thursday morning my friend,

    I am sorry for not being here sooner in support of you. You are an activist, you need to be beaten up and arrested to amke a difference. I will send you an e-mail tonight.

  • At 11:17 PM, July 08, 2006, Blogger Ogbuefi Stephi said…

    thanks for the support, friends. it's been rough coming to the realization that we're living in a police state... especially since i'm surrounded by such amazing people.

    still considering relocating to canada though... and who knows, by the time i move, i think global warming will have taken care of the whole weather problem, which is currently the only reason i can think of to keep me from doing it!



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