The Long Waite Brigade

By Ben G. Price

Dear Jonathan,

Below is an essay on the events of January 31st in which I participated as a member of one of more-to-come "Democracy Brigades" intended to demand a redress of grievences on the matter of campaign finance corruption. Following the essay is a brief statement that I was prevented from making in the rotunda of the Capitol building by Capitol Police. On February 29th I will be in DC again for another such action, preceded by the arrival of "Granny D," (Doris Haddock), the 90 year old grandmother who has walked 3,200 miles to draw attention to the corrupting influence of big money in the polical process. (expect some TV coverage on Today show concerning Granny D's arrival on the 29th).

Best regards,

Ben Price

(Morrison R. Waite, Supreme Court Chief Justice in 1886 Declared Stupidly that Corporations are "Persons" Entitled to the Protections of the 14th Amendment. Much Mischief and Evil has Followed)

"Non-violent civil disobedience:" that's what we'd come to the Capitol Building rotunda to do. That's the kind of thing people do when their government behaves undemocratically and turns the weight of the law against those it's supposed to serve while coddling the enemies of democracy.

After passing through security where baggage is x-rayed and pockets are emptied, we of the Democracy Brigade went up the marble steps. Entering into the cavernous dome's interior, I looked up to the high but half concealed painted ceiling, where celestial images floated as if the Sistine Chapel had washed-up on American shores. I noticed a ring of white cloth attached to the upper rim of the dome and draped upward to the sphincter of an opening at the pinnacle. An uncomfortable image came to mind. "Looks like a giant diaper," I remarked to Lou Hammann, but let the rest of the metaphor hang in the air above us.

As a prelude to exercising our right to free speech in the same building where so many senators and congressmen go bellicose without provocation (which we, on the other hand, clearly had!), and in the same place where lobbyists write laws that give congressmen something to say, where corporate PR men and women pay for the keen attention of your representatives and mine as if they are just another commercial audience to be delivered to deep pocketed clients, in this place where the illusion of democracy was continually nurtured, we noticed the rich mythology that surrounded us. The inaccuracies invented by twisting real people who hunger for freedom into icons that can be safely chiseled into unmoving stone, painted in oil that fades, or molded in bronze that loses luster; the kitsch and culture clash of America's founding fantasies stood in grave contrast to the simplicity of defying tyranny that characterized our intentions.

Funny thing about how calm and confident I felt as we bided our time for the agreed moment of action. I had spent a restless night, but now as I watched the tourists stroll around the perimeter, and the lobbyists in their flawless suits chewing the air, and the gathering phalanx of Capitol Police waiting in the wings, this seemed the most natural place to be and the most reasonable thing to be doing.

Five past ten. Brad Blanton snapped open the cloth satchel and pulled out the folded vinyl banner. I grabbed an end grommet and walked with it toward the huge painting of De Soto's triumphant prelude to genocide while Lara Johnson held the center and Brad stretched the other end toward the (certainly) satirical portrait depicting the baptism of Hiawatha, who is accompanied by near naked but coyly posed native Americans condescended to in style and body lingo by the sophomoric missionaries.

Our banner stretched thirty feet, proclaiming the betrayal of democracy by big money. Nick Penniman (Alliance for Democracy National Coordinator) stepped forward and read the particulars of our grievance to curious tourists, a rolling TV camera, and to the suddenly mobile citizens in uniform. As Nick read, a police sergeant stepped forward and loudly proclaimed that we were in violation of one of the District's statutes. Nick read on, and then Mike Morrill tried to be heard over the police who continued to disrupt the highly educational and constitutionally protected exercise in free speech. Mike boldly projected his words, condemning the corrupting influence of money in the political process, against the police's barked warnings to disperse or be arrested. The third warning came so quickly that Mike's reading was interrupted as his hands were pulled behind his back and a set of non-reusable plastic zip-lock cuffs were tightened around his wrists.

At the same time, an officer stood in front of me and made eye contact. "Do you understand that you are under arrest?" she asked over the spirited cacophony of Lara, Brad, myself and the others who had begun to chant "Campaign Finance Reform Now!" "Yes, I do," I answered, and returned to the mantra, slipping my still folded statement of purpose into a pocket, knowing there would be no opportunity to read it. The next moment my left hand was removed from the banner and secured behind my back. Then my right, and as I was escorted from the rotunda I continued to shout, "We want our government back!" and "Clean Campaigns!"

It was the briefest of moments. Our chance to be heard in congress over the jangle of corporate money had come and gone, but only for the moment. We were hustled outside to a waiting van, away from the notice of cameras and the public. We were searched, and locked down inside the van, suddenly unfree to go as we chose, suddenly in the hands of people who thought it their duty to take our rights from us.

The police were courteous. There was little ire and only occasional notes of annoyance spiced their voices. They seemed cautious not to let us trip or fall on the icy pavement, or stumble as we entered the van to have a bar locked down over our ankles, and another over our torsos. Lara was separated from the males and placed in a rear compartment. We drove off.

At the Capitol Police building we were individually frisked, searched, and stripped of "dangerous" possessions like jewelry, belts, shoelaces, and coats with drawstrings. Inside we were photographed; fingerprints were taken and we were then corralled in a classroom with right-handed writing desks. (No hidden message there. I'm left handed; I noticed!)

The first Head Game of the day was in play, and the prisoners went on the offensive. The police camped out for the next four hours at two long tables with their stacks of forms. One of them had placed a small microphone on the table. It was almost unnoticeable. The beige plastic sheath nearly concealed its nature, but the similarly colored wire that ran from the device toward the officer's belt gave it away. I mentioned it in passing to Lou, who seemed not to see what I was talking about.

I felt sorry for the officers, confined to the drudgery of filling out paperwork manually, in triplicates. Meanwhile, the prisoners chatted and laughed, speculated naturally about what was likely to happen next, and went so far as to openly discuss future protests and strategies. And we got to know each other a little bit. We got to understand a little about how each of us had formed a commitment to social change.

For Brad it was the Vietnam war. He is a veteran protester, a clinical psychologist and author, interested in what makes people tick and what makes them work together. And a hell of a story teller. Lara is a South African citizen, experienced with political action against apartheid, civil rights, and other social issues. Mike Morrill's background in the church, his ethical commitment to social justice, extends to labor issues, campaign finance reform, humanitarian efforts in Bosnia and the former Yugoslavia. Lou is also grounded in moral imperatives that spring from experience in the church. He's an educator in comparative religion and philosophy and his lively enthusiasm for the cause was infectious. Nick Penniman, Director of the Alliance for Democracy, is focused, knowledgeable, and good natured. His suggestions and insights kept me conscious of the impact our second Democracy Brigade would have, and its importance in keeping the faith with the first Democracy Brigade that had protested and been arrested in October. Nick's focus seems to be always on the future and what we can make of it.

If bureaucracy wasn't invented as a tool to torture the instinct for liberty out of people, I don't know what it's for. The hours of paperwork, repeated questions ("Price, what's your SSI number? Johnstone, what's your middle name?" "Hammann, ever been arrested?"), the back and forth peddling of supervisors from other parts of the building, the unconcealable embarrassment of some of the officers, all of it seemed to prove that this whole exercise was simply part of a ritual devised to frustrate our spirit of defiance, deflate our enthusiasm for the cause, and make us never want to come back.

Fortunately for the officers, and all to the better success of our protest, I think it was they who learned a lesson. Who, after all, was made the captives of routine? Not the prisoners! We laughed and openly sympathized with the police-folk's plight. When they finally gave us some news, that we would be arraigned that day and were to be transported to the DC lock-down at the District Police building, we were told they'd have to cuff us again, but this time with thicker bands and this time they'd "really be tight," because the District Police are, apparently, less tolerant of protesters like us, and we'd be just another group of prisoners in the general prison population. I took this to mean that some one among them had been annoyed by our continued high spirits and that it had been decided we needed to see some additional wing of the criminal just-us system.

They were true to their word and clamped on the cuffs to the point of pain. A presumably higher ranking officer made his entrance and, on the move, allowed as to how he's thought about protesting but he'd never want to lose his freedom like we had. I told him I felt more free than ever right now, and that before we'd gone into the Capitol I had already lost my freedom. Now I was doing something about it. His dubious rejoinder was unenthusiastic and unconvincing.

I didn't get out of the building before making them cut my cuffs loose. My left thumb had begun to burn. Either a nerve had been pinched, or the circulation cut off. They re-cuffed me, this time less tightly. We were reintroduced to the van's cold metal bench. Then off to DC lock-down.

It's a cozy little joint and the five men in our brigade were the only tenants of the cell block. Lara was separated from us again, and we wouldn't see her until we were shuffled off to another jail. By then two other women were in our company for the ride. Here in the DC lock-down we had cells with a thick sediment of green paint that I bet goes back to the Jurassic. I know the insect specimen I spotted belly-up on the floor goes back that far.

Now, either the DC Police budget is less than the Capitol Police budget, or they just like doing things the hard way. Rolled ink on a metal brick for finger prints. A hand held Polaroid (with which the desk sergeant seemed unfamiliar) for photos. The cells are tiny, dirty, big enough to turn around in on your heel, and accoutered with two chain-suspended metal "bunks" and a commode the sight of which induces immediate constipation. Head Game, Part II, I noted.

Our lawyer, Mark Goldstone joined us and passed the time with us as we were processed for our arraignment. The continuation of Head Game, Part II took on the form of a processing deadline that was in jeopardy, with the implication that if photos and prints were not done in time, there'd be no arraignment and we could look forward to a stay in jail. We generally presumed this to be more didactic play-acting, and showed no surprise when, two minutes before the amateurishly promoted deadline, we were told that a brief extension had been granted. Soon we were zip-locked together and transported to the Circuit Court and the cells that hold its prisoners. We briefly reunited with Lara for the trip to Head Game III.

Where the DC lock-down had been dingy, dirty, and uninviting, the cells into which they lead us now were an eye-opening experience in institutionalized racism. A large holding cell with a capacity for approximately 50 inmates was filled with bright orange and yellow prison-garbed African American young men. They laughed and taunted gently as our little band of all white males was led in. But we were not put in the same cell with the other prisoners. Instead, we were deposited in another large holding cell, empty but for us. I believe it was Lou Hammann and Mike Morrill who protested to the guard that we should be placed with the rest of the prisoners and didn't want to be treated differently. Their appeals were ignored. Another frisking. And then we were told that a pre-arraignment "pee test" was required. Again we protested. Mike made it clear he would not submit to such a breach of his first amendment rights. So each of us in turn refused to submit to the hazing, which had nothing to do with the "crime" of exercising our free speech in the rotunda.

As we waited briefly, Lou struck up a conversation with the prisoners across the way. They were curious why we had been arrested and he explained our cause to them. A general sense of comradery seemed to be generated, and someone in the other cell called out that we should protest the conditions we see in this jail. Soon we were shuffled off to a pre-arraignment "interview" with court counselors who brought more forms and questions with them, and no advice. "Do you use illegal drugs?" "Ever been treated for alcoholism?" and other irrelivencies.

Whether in response to our refusal to be drug tested, or simply as part of the hazing of an unwanted contingent of non-violent white prisoners, we were taken to a cell block adjacent to the court room and deposited three in one and two in another. Small holding cells already occupied. I stepped over a prone young man as I entered. Brad and Nick and I in one cell, with three other prisoners. Lou and Mike were across the way and down the hall from us. And where was Lara? We hadn't seen her since arriving at this third lock-down of the day. We hoped she was safe. And I thought about how she didn't have the same opportunity to talk with others in the protest that the men continued to enjoy for the next several hours.

The disparity in justice as it is doled out to people who can afford lawyers and those who rely on the good will of an increasingly cold-hearted court system became clearer, listening to young men tell each other their stories as the hours passed. And as the cells slowly emptied out and our cell mates were taken to trial, we continued to talk about plans for future actions, where we needed to be going, why there is so little accord among well established social change organizations, and what we need to do to get some of our cozy and complacent allies off their butts.

We were called next to last, but with general accord among our little group told the jailer that the young man who would be last deserved to go ahead of us. That's not how it works, we were told, and were lead into the court room. The contrast from cell to mahogany lined court was stark. Open one door, take three steps, and we were transported into a different world, one occupied by people in absolute control, sitting in elevated seats, speaking in ritual cadences. There were not enough seats for three of us, so Lou, Brad and I were returned to our cells. More Head Games? I wondered. Within ten minutes we were brought back to the courtroom, whisked past the court recorder who noted the prisoner number on our plastic hospital-like wrist bands.

And then it was suddenly over. We were pointed to the back of the courtroom. Outside in the corridor stood Mark Goldstone, Ronnie Dugger, Randy Kehler, Patricia Hammann, along with the rest of our Democracy Brigade. I strolled out to join them and there were hugs all around.

The excitement of wanting to accomplish something important tempered the good news that we were free. Free and without strings attached. We had not been "papered," which is to say that the court was not going to proceed with charges. And yet, Mark explained, until just a few moments ago it seemed that Brad and myself were going to be held over in jail. Why? He didn't know. And no explanation for the court not going ahead with charges.

I had been prepared for a stay in jail, almost would have preferred it. I wanted to make my case against the betrayal of democracy! But another thought went through my head as we went out the court building and into the cold night air: I can come back and do this again. I can tell them again that I want democracy restored. I can join my voice with the growing number of others until we are heard. And I mean to.

Below is the brief statement I was prevented from reading:

Democracy Brigade
January 31st, 2000

Why I'm here in the Capitol rotunda

Money isn't speech; it's volume! Because Congress can't hear our voices over the megaphone of bankrolled corporate dollars, I thought if I got closer, if I came here to the place where our elected representatives are supposed to be "about the people's business," maybe they could hear me a little better.

For the same reason I discourage my son, Andy, from listening to loud music through headphones that block out the rest of the world, I don't want my congressmen and senators to listen to big money. Just like headphones, corporate money isolates our impressionable representatives from interaction with the real world . . . of democracy.

The voluminous siren song of money damages their ability to hear the will of the people. And the messages that are being pumped into their malleable minds can't be screened for appropriateness by sovereign citizens who are responsible for the good behavior of their government.

Corporations have become surrogate parents in the eyes of our representatives, the latch-key kids of an absentee democracy. But we are here to tell them they've been fooled by the Hook of the Captains of industry, and it's time they come back from never-never land and get their homework done.

This is our home; the people's home! There are no "corporate citizens" here, good or bad. There is only the will of " We The People!" When that is drowned out by the hoops and hollers of Congress's lost boys and girls as they dance around their growing war chests, so too is the character and virtue of government drowned in a rising tide of corruption. We want our government back! Now! No "ifs, ands, or buts!"