Letters from the Other Side of Jail, or: what I was thinking while you were talking
by Amy L. Clark
Dear Professor Aaron,
I will start this letter in the manner of the eminent, if elusive, London lawyer writing to Virginia Woolf. I will ask, “How in your opinion are we to prevent war?” I ask this question because though sixty-four years have elapsed between his letter and mine, there has been in this time no more pressing or contemporary question. I also ask this question because it is the essentially implicit question in a graduate course about the literature of war and atrocity. As a person of conscience and a privileged member of the educated class in the wealthiest country in the world, to read about trench warfare in World War I or the daily personal terror of life under the Nazis or a soldier casually inhaling cigarette smoke while kicking an elderly woman in the head, and not ask this one question would be to exist as a monster and not a student. And I ask this question of you, Professor Aaron, because in the fifteen weeks of our graduate study together you have not given your answer.
One of the criticisms students in our class have had throughout the semester is that the writers we have studied, while documenting the causes and conditions of war, have said nothing about how to prevent it. I am also interested in this question, posed to Woolf, because I am interested in her answer. She tells him that honest dialogue about such a subject would be certainly difficult if not entirely impossible. She says this because the lawyer is a man, while Woolf is a woman. The lawyer is of a group that has the ability and the proclivity to wage war. Though I do not necessarily agree with this statement, I fully understand Woolf’s sentiment. Who is this we? asks Woolf. And she asks this because she feels alienated from the We. I understand this because I too feel alienated. I am fundamentally alienated from the group of people who currently have the ability and the inclination to wage war. And I have felt at times during this semester alienated from the We that has been set up in our class. I feel that I have had different experiences and thought different thoughts than some of your other students in my own search for a way of living in the world that is common and valuable.
I lacked the courage, all semester, to stand up and say: I have heard of a way of living that is not violent. Though you may not agree with me, I think that I have one answer to your question. When students began to speculate on what they would have done to stop the Nazis, had they been living at the time, I did not get up out of my chair and scream: there are comparable atrocities being committed right now, all over the world and every day, and in your name. You would have done nothing, because those who did were shot immediately, and you cannot even get yourself off of the sidewalks and into the streets to make a statement about the current bombing of a small nation that has killed over two-thousand civilians and seven hundred soldiers, many of both children, though you live in the freest country in the world and are facing no more than the threat of a verbal warning, through a bull-horn, to go back to your homes.
You have asked us to think about what it is we are doing in this class. Because our subject is at once so broad and so immediate, I believe that what you have asked us is really: what are you doing in your life and in the world? What does it mean to live in the twenty-first century, to really live, which means to participate in and think critically about current events? I think that we are all, as citizens, students, and human beings, attempting to live in the most moral way that we know how. I think that what we have done in this class is important. We have studied literature, art which is the conscious attempt to make sense of the world and document it in a subtle, comprehensive, and personal way. Literature is important because it allows us to understand aspects of the world we would never otherwise have had the ability to experience. Reading is a moral act because it gives the reader new knowledge. It is a courageous act because that new knowledge means that the reader now has a new responsibility. The more one has been given the opportunity to understand, the less excuse one has for acting unconsciously or irresponsibly. All of us have read in this class about the horror that human beings are capable of and the way in which these horrors are accomplished slowly and, often at first, with the consent of both the populations that perpetrate them and suffer them. Now we can never provide this consent through our own action or inaction. We should know better.
This knowing is a direct result of the fact that we have come together twice a week to read and discuss, to share information and debate opinions. As Sontag reminded us this semester, standing back and thinking is important because “nobody can think and hit someone at the same time” (Sontag Regarding…118). But you also said in class one day that you felt “a certain kind of thoughtfulness precludes a certain kind of action.” Which seems to me to mean that taking a graduate course on atrocity is not enough. My question to you is: what is it that we do when we leave this class? What do we think about? What actions do we take and why? What do we mean to ourselves, each other and the world?
Dear Professor Aaron,
I would have liked to start my letters to you not as Woolf starts hers, but rather as Bakunin started his Letters to a Frenchman. With the statement, “I have already shown that France cannot be saved by the State” (ed. Dogloff Bakunin on Anarchy). I cannot claim to know the one true way to create a world that is peaceful, equitable and just. But I do believe that I know, both from my study of history and the humanities and from my personal experiences, that surely the way our world and our country is structured politically right now precludes the existence peace and justice. I have an opinion on how to prevent war. I am, as I have said, an anarchist. In the most fundamental sense this means that I believe that the system now in place for governing is all wrong and must be completely changed and that that change has to start with me. That war happens because this system is wrong. I believe in the abolition of bombs, yes, but also of borders and of bosses.
We have read this semester that, “blood lust and the desire to wage war are by no means innate. To the contrary, recent studies in the field of game theory show just how readily human beings establish cooperative networks with one another” (Angier “Humans not Doomed…” 1). We did not read in this class that:
equality must be established in the world by the spontaneous organization of labor and the collective ownership of property by freely organized producer associations, and by the equally spontaneous federation of communes to replace the domineering paternalistic State. […] The revolutionary socialists hold that there is a great deal more practical good sense and wisdom in the instinctive aspirations and real needs of the masses than in the profound intelligence of all the doctors and guides of humanity who, after so many failures, still keep on trying to make men happy (Bakunin The Paris Commune 2-3).
Personally, I have a certain kind of hopefulness that some people call a problem with authority. And this has led me to believe in both these statements, and that one allows for the other to be true and viable.
Anarchy is a state of being, and therefore can work as a political system precisely because it is a way of interacting that cannot be imposed on a population but must arise from individual understandings coming together and establishing order from “the bottom up” (Bakunin Immorality of the State 7). Anarchy subverts the danger of war or economic and social injustice because by its very nature it precludes the danger of, as you put it in class, “putting ideas before people.”
But individual understanding does not come to people as a revelation out of nowhere. From my personal experience as a worker and a citizen I believe that most people in America are angry or at least unsatisfied. Chris Hedges presupposes this when writing about the appeal of war. He says, “The eruption of conflict instantly reduces the headache and trivia of daily life. The communal march against an enemy generates a warm, unfamiliar bond with our neighbors, our community, our nation, wiping out unsettling undercurrents of alienation and dislocation. War, in times of malaise and desperation, is a potent distraction” (Hedges, War is a Force…, 9). But Hedges stops conspicuously short of addressing the “headache and trivia of daily life,” never wondering why that trivia is painful and desperate instead of the very reason a person gets up in the morning. The real and unstated question is: why is that warm bond so terribly unfamiliar? As educated people, who have read here about the way in which nationalism and capitalism and war serve the very few at the expense of the majority, we need to start to ask ourselves why we feel alienated and meaningless. What is more, we need to start to ask this of other people. We need to know that there is something other than war that can give us meaning and create bonds. To start to see for ourselves that there is a way of experiencing the world that is not detrimental to us, our bodies and minds and souls, and then to have the courage to show others. All change comes from within, and social change comes from communicating this to others who have experienced the same kind of feelings so that a consensus for action can be reached. It is daunting, but it has to be imagined and acted on or it will never happen.
Dear Professor Aaron,
When we met to discuss my paper you told me that “burning down half of Canada” is not the way to accomplish anything. And I did not say: no, but burning down all of it might be.
I believe very much in the actions of what you would probably term “adventurists” in the best, Lenninist sense of that word. Though I do not necessarily think that to throw a rock through the window of Starbucks is the most coherent way to express outrage at a society that values mundanity through trivial uniformity and competition through conspicuous consumption and an economic system that encourages exploitation and the ridiculous importation of goods and services at untenable prices to countries that would otherwise be able to sustain themselves environmentally and economically, I do think that actions like that rock is a rare and valuable expression of all that. When people have decided, collectively, that a system is ethically wrong and unable to accomplish liberty, justice, human dignity and the well-being of individuals, no action that one of those people commits can be construed as “adventurist” –as not in the service of the greater cause. The greater cause is to find a way to be more human, to exist as an individual with the right to take action in the service of one’s own freedom. And that is at the heart of what George Orwell means to express when he has his character Winston realize that “because an action is futile does not render it meaningless” (Orwell, 1984, 141).
The idea that to act against something is to act for liberty of course only applies to actions taken against a system, not an individual. A system, whether it is an economic, political or ideological system, is essentially a faceless institutional structure created to “put ideas before people.” Like communist co-operatives that find that the needs of the co-op are addressed at the expense of the people of the co-op, or a democracy in which more than fifty percent of the citizens do not vote; like the bank down the street that would turn down most people in the neighborhood applying for a loan.
I would never advocate violence against an individual, and I think that most people experience acting violently towards another as an abomination. Reck-Malleczewen reveals that, “I have now lived for more than fifty years, have been forced to descend into certain dark places, and I have emerged with one piece of wisdom: no harm that I have ever done has not caused me pain later on” (Reck-Malleczewen Diary of a Man…71). The condition of being human is often construed as the need to act in one’s own best interest. But to act in our own best interest means not to do harm to others, because that would cause us “pain later on.”
I accept as true the idea that human beings are endowed with an enormous amount of empathy, and in fact enjoy putting this empathy to use. This is how literature works. We read because reading allows us to become someone we are not, to have experiences and reflections that were not available to us before we opened a book and identified with the particular, personal involvement in the situation of another. The works we have read in class this semester are effective because they are a specific rendering of someone else’s life. Robert Graves does not say war is bad because it killed someone. He says, “at my feet lay the cap he had worn, splashed with his brains. I had never seen human brains before; I somehow regarded them as a poetical figment” (Graves Goodbye to All That 114). It is the difference between saying bombs are falling on Baghdad and saying that a child died after having his legs and arms blown off by a cluster bomb and that his corpse, fallen in the street, was lacerated by glass falling from a shattered window.
Dear Professor Aaron,
The texts that we have read together are all stories about the way in which one comes to see differently. I have come to see myself and the world differently than I once did, and I have been trying to understand how this came about.
Last March I found myself sitting on the sidewalk, my skin burning from pepper spray, learning how to breathe again. I was sitting with a group of anti-war protesters in Washington DC at the end of a march designed to show our government, our media and our world that many people in this country think that the both the means (war) and the ends (occupation and economic exploitation) our government is employing in regard to Iraq are unacceptable. One of the protesters was an old, white-haired union activist. He looked around at the young people on the sidewalk and asked us how it was that we had come to this point. What had led all of us to go out into the streets, sometimes at great personal risk, to attempt to make a statement about the injustices being committed in and by our country? One woman talked about walking back from a bar, drunk and broke and angry, and coming upon a street corner speaker saying there was a better way to live. A man told the story of being a construction worker in New York City after September 11th, and volunteering to clear the rubble of the World Trade Center. He said that he realized then that that was the kind of destruction our nation has inflicted on others and invited upon ourselves. My story is simple and small. Someone else would have had a better story, and could have expressed it more beautifully. In fact, someone else did, which is why our class this semester was the study of historical works of literature on war and atrocity, and not the study of my childish attempt to reconcile myself with history. But I offer this to you in the hope that it is the stories of ourselves as human beings, above and beyond political and intellectual beings, that shape the way we interact with each other and the respect we therefore accord others. This is what I said.
Dear Professor Aaron,
I have two distinct memories from kindergarten. The first is of my raincoat, printed on the inside with little whales, hanging on a peg in the coatroom. It is the only raincoat I remember ever owning. In my second memory, I am on the playground. I am, I think, sitting on the seesaw. But I am looking at two boys from my class sitting on top of the monkey bars. They are not swinging or hanging from the bars, they aren’t doing much of anything except sitting there, high up above the playground and the rest of us on the very top of the structure. The teachers of the kindergarten, there were two of them and I can’t remember them at all, approached the students, little kids, and told them they had to get down. They were afraid that these kids would fall from what was probably a considerable height, and they insisted that they climb back to safety immediately. I remember that one of the boys came down, but the second little boy stayed up there and refused. He was threatened with a time-out and he still kept saying no. I don’t remember how they got him down eventually, but I remember that he just kept saying no over and over again, no matter what he was threatened with. I know that the first time he was extricated from the monkey bars, he climbed back up as soon as his feet touched the ground and he wrapped his little legs around the bars. And I remember that when he was finally down and held by the arms of the teachers, they made him sit down for the rest of recess with his back to the playground. This I remember best of all: I remember his tiny back to the playground, his face turned toward a wall, composed and smiling. That was the exact moment I realized that if you didn’t care at all about punishment or the people who inflicted it, you could do whatever you wanted.
At the time, although I didn’t then have the language to know exactly what I meant, I vowed to be like that for my whole life. To do whatever I wanted to do or thought that I should do, without hesitation caused by the societally imposed consequences, or regard for the people who had the power to designate both what appropriate behavior is and the punishment for acting otherwise. It is a pledge that I thought of often growing up, and that I still think about. As an adult, I realize that it was an admirable aspiration, and one that I have never been able to live up to. I have never been dispassionate and dry-eyed in the face of trouble. And I have been in a lot of trouble, and always understood the possibility of more.
When I was seven years old I was in the first grade in a cheerful public school classroom. We each had our own desk, side by side in a big U formation facing the teacher. At the end of the day, just before we lined up to leave the school, we had to clear everything off our desktops and put our little plastic chairs up on the desks, seat down, legs in the air. Our teacher’s name was Mrs. Johnson, and she was probably the best teacher I ever had. One day, after all twenty-one of us had lined up to wait for the bell to ring and release us, Mrs. Johnson patrolled around the classroom looking at desktops. When she came to my desk she found six Crayola markers scattered around the chair. I knew that I hadn’t left any markers on my desk. I had cleaned up like I always did, and when I had put my chair up my desk was empty and neat. I was sure of this. She told me to clean the markers off my desk and put them away before I could go home, and I told her that they weren’t my markers. Of course she didn’t believe me and she told me that I had to clean up these markers. I kept insisting that I hadn’t put them there and they weren’t my responsibility and that it wasn’t right and I wasn’t going to do it, until she told me that I would have to stay inside and miss recess the next day. I remember standing in that line and knowing that I was already in trouble and being absolutely terrified of what further punishment might be in store for me if I stood my ground, and thinking, briefly, that if this conversation continued much longer I would miss my bus and then I would be in real trouble, terrifying, unknowable trouble, stranded and lost at the school with no one to come pick me up. So I walked out of the line to my desk, cleared up the markers and put them in the supply closet. And I wept the entire time. Hot, angry tears at the unthinkable injustice that had been inflicted on my seven-year-old consciousness. That I could be accused of something I didn’t do and be required to serve a punishment for something that wasn’t my fault, and that there was no one to stick up for me and get to the truth of the matter was unbearable.
When my mother picked me up from daycare in the evening I told her what had happened in the first grade that day. I don’t remember how I phrased my version of events, but I am sure that I said it’s not fair several times, and I am sure that I cried about it all over again. I remember that my mother said to me, when I was done, what do you want to do about it? And that I thought she was probably the most insensitive grown person in the whole world and that no adult could ever understand the particular powerless injustice of being in the first grade.
She suggested that I write a letter of protest, explaining my position to my teacher. So we dragged out the Fisher Price typewriter and the old cloth-bound dictionary on which my mother had taped the phrase Obedience to Authority as a reminder of Milgrim’s 1974 experiment, and she sat down on the kitchen floor with me. We had a thin, wall-to-wall, blue, black, red and white plaid carpet. It was probably the ugliest carpet ever made, and I will always love it for this moment. We sat on that kitchen floor all night long, me dictating and her typing up different versions of my Position Paper. It was agonizing; my mother insisted that if I was going to do this I had to do it right. She told me that no one would listen to me if I didn’t present a clear argument and spell all words correctly. This required consulting the dictionary a lot. Both my mother and I have always been terrible spellers. We finally finished long after my bedtime. It was titled My Position Paper, and it started with the sentence: My name is Amy Clark and I am in Mrs. Johnson’s first grade class. I think it was two paragraphs long. When it was done, I affixed one of my school photos to the upper right hand side of the paper.
The next morning when I walked into class, I handed my paper to Mrs. Johnson. I wasn’t afraid anymore, and I didn’t care if I did have to stay inside at recess time. My mother had believed me. Someone in a position of authority had seen the truth and told me that that truth mattered. And to her credit, Mrs. Johnson did something that no other teacher of mine until college ever would. She read what I had written, thought about it, and wrote a response entitled My Position Paper. The first line was: My name is Mrs. Johnson and I teach a first grade class. I did not have to stay in at recess that day, she let me go outside and play. She said: I was wrong. I made an honest mistake and I appreciate your taking the time to respectfully correct me. You see things differently and that is valid. I am sorry that I hurt you.
This was the first time that I realized that words have power, and that in my mouth and coming from my pen, those words gave me power. I could stand up to people with infinitely more authority than me, and without anger or hatred or fear, I could make a difference. I never shut up after that.
When I was in seventh grade, I was friends with a boy named James. James was a troubled kid, and a troublemaker. He was one of those boys who wore black jeans and a white tshirt even in the middle of winter, who knew from home about fighting and brought it to school, one of those boys who called the local police officers by name. We had first period reading together. One day in the middle of the term I was sitting in the classroom early, maybe ten minutes before class started. There was only one other student in the room and the teacher hadn’t shown up yet. Another kid from our class, Dan, ran in and stopped in front of my desk. I didn’t know Dan that well, but it was a small school and he was a friend of a friend, and he knew that I was one of James’ few friends. He looked at me and said, “James just took forty-seven Tylenol PM and washed it down with a bottle of Dr. Pepper.”
“What?” I said, “Where?”
“Out in the hallway. Right there, he took the entire bottle except for three that I saw roll away on the floor.”
“You have to go to the office and tell someone,” I was not panicking, but all of my senses suddenly became very alert.
“I’m not going.”
“You have to go, you saw it happen. Go tell someone right away.”
“I don’t want him to get in trouble. He did it in front of like eight people, but I don’t think anyone told anyone.”
“Shit.” I couldn’t believe that no one was doing anything. I knew that not wanting to get James in trouble was a stupid, nonsensical excuse, and I knew that Dan knew this, which is why he had told me. I knew that James would die if all of this was true and no one did anything. Dan walked quickly back out of the classroom. I just sat in my chair for a moment, breathing. And then James walked in to first period Reading, carrying his skateboard with his backpack strapped to it. “Shit. James, did you just take an overdose of pills?”
“James, are you lying to me?” I didn’t get up, but I looked at him very closely.
I got up and pushed past James out into the hallway. I ran to the office, and for the first time saw it as a place of help, a necessary place. If there had been a phone in the building where I could have called the ambulance myself, I would have. I hated the administration for being petty, they hated me because they were petty, and above all, they hated James. But this would have to be more important than that. “You have to call an ambulance.”
“Wait, why?” The secretary looked uncertain.
“You have to call the ambulance right now.”
“Who is it?”
“James Pease took forty-seven Tylenol PM and threw away the bottle.”
She called the ambulance, and then got on the intercom and called James, who had been sitting in Reading this whole time, down to the office. When the medics got there they told me that if we had waited ten more minutes he would have died. I watched James walk to the ambulance, climb into the back and sit down. We didn’t look at each other.
The next day, James wasn’t in school. When he wasn’t in school the day after that, I called his house. He told me that the school principal had called him right after he got out of the hospital and told him he was suspended for substance abuse.
I had to get off the phone with him so he wouldn’t hear me crying in frustration, rage, and sorrow. He didn’t want any of that from me. But this was about more than him. This, I knew even then, was not the way to treat any struggling person, was not the way to treat any child. And I knew also that it was not the way they would have treated another child. My step -sister was at the high school that year, a straight A student, and liked by all the faculty. She played sports and hung out with the right crowd. That year she had intentionally taken an overdose of asthma medication in the high school bathroom, and when she had to spend a night in the hospital all the faculty made her a get-well-soon card.
I spent all night in front of our computer in the basement writing a respectful, too respectful I think when I re-read it as an adult, but impassioned letter to the principal, the school counselor, and the superintendent.
James served out his suspension, and the superintendent wrote me a two sentence response telling me he appreciated my concern but that more qualified people were making these decisions.
By the time I was a senior in high school, I had written many letters. I had also started seriously writing fiction. My parents helped me find a correspondence writing program for gifted youth, and every other week I sent off a manuscript and a letter to a professor in Maryland. She sent them back, marked up, edited, and with long letters of criticism and the occasional word of praise. Those letters may have saved my life, or at the very least, my way of life. She ripped up my stories, but she did so because she took the form, content, and me, the author, seriously. I was writing stories about the kind of people I knew, and they were the kind of people I never read about in my literature classes at the high school. They were the people I sat next to in class, but who were never called on to speak. I simply stopped raising my hand. I didn’t stop speaking, though.
One of these stories was based on an actual experience I had in high school. I had fictionalized the names and the place, but the events were all the same. It was about a seventeen-year-old girl trying to convince a seventeen-year-old boy to go to Planned Parenthood for an HIV test. It was a good story. I submitted it to the school literary magazine, where I was one of the editors. All of the submissions had the names removed before any of the students looked at them, so none of the other editors or the committee members knew that the piece was mine, and certainly none of them knew that it wasn’t exactly fiction. The entire committee agreed that the story should go into the magazine. Except for one student. The chief editor of the magazine was a senior named Charles. He was valedictorian of the class. He always wore a button-down shirt and formal shoes, and he got along very well with all the teachers. He was often seen pushing a media cart through the hallways. He was a devout Catholic, and a Young Republican. He was not a stereotype. He was just a kid.
He didn’t only object to the piece, he threatened to quit the magazine if it was published. The faculty supervisor, Charles and I had a meeting. They asked if I could take the words “Planned Parenthood” out of the story. I said no. Charles eventually gave in on that, but then the teacher asked him what other objections he had to the piece. He paused to think. The three of us were out in the tiled hallway, late after classes had ended for the day. I was leaning against the wall, cool tile on my cheek. “It’s just,” he said, “people like that don’t exist.”
I started to shake. I didn’t say anything, but hot tears dripped down my cheeks, splashing against the tile. The piece eventually made it in to the magazine, with some editing. But I didn’t really care. I will never forget that to people like Charles, people like me just do not exist.
When I got to college I met other people like me, people who live in the world in a way that is sometimes marginalized or misunderstood. I was able to look around at people with similar experiences and understand that I was not alone and need not feel isolated. This allowed me look at things happening outside of myself and my personal experience, both as a cause of my dissatisfaction and as a result of my own inaction. I began to think “more and more and everyday about the world” (Paley Enormous Changes…100). And when I was a senior in college four airplanes were hijacked and crashed into the World Trade Center in New York, the Pentagon in Washington DC, and a field in Pennsylvania. I heard older people compare this tragedy to the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the explosion of a military barracks in Africa, the destruction of Belgrade by American bombers. I said: I am twenty-one years old. This does not remind me of anything. Since then, I have been trying to integrate the feelings that I have for the nobility of humankind with the knowledge I have that human beings willfully commit acts of unspeakable atrocity.
In graduate school I found that I could not sit still. I began to attend events and marches against the war the American government was planning and then, of course, carried out, against Iraq. At one vigil, I stood around singing with a group of old lefties, and when they sang, “we are not afraid, we are not afraid, we are not afraid today,” I yelled out, impulsively, “I am afraid!” I am afraid of endless war, I am afraid of the leader of my country who has pledged to fundamentally change, by force, the government of a sovereign nation so as to make it more to his liking, I am afraid because the real definition of preemptive is the rule of military power alone, I am afraid that we are rounding up people of color in this nation and making them register, and I am afraid that I am next. I am afraid because no one in power is saying the words we need most to hear: equality, economic freedom, self-determination. I am afraid because I turned on the news one night and I saw a man, and he was on fire.
And then, this is what happened. I was with a group of students and a few older people at the front of a protest in Medford, Massachusetts on February 26th 2003. I was facing the police across a barrier. I linked arms with the other protesters and stared down the line of police in riot gear. Some of us, on either side of the metallic barricade, looked like we were afraid. We were also young, and we were angry. Many of the protesters had been penned-in by police before. Most of us had been in New York City the previous weekend, crushed onto sidewalks up against barriers when the police ran a van through the crowded streets at thirty miles an hour. And most of us, the previous weekend, had chanted “Who’s streets? Our streets!” and nonetheless stood on the sidewalks and did not jostle. This time, the police had put up a barricade where they said they would not, and we were young and we were angry with our government and we were sick of doing what we were told. We squeezed each other’s arms a little tighter where we had linked them together, elbow to elbow, hands clenched into fists at our sides. Someone started a call and response chant: “Repeat after me. Repeat after me. There’s more of us than there are of them. There’s more of us than there are of them. There’s more of us than there are of them. There’s more of us than there are of them. We’re going through. We’re going through.” This part the police got right in their report. They said: At one point People yelled 1, 2, 3, go! and the crowd surged forward. This was that point. Together we rushed against the police line. It took less than thirty seconds to bring down the barrier and even less time for our arms to be separated. I don’t know what happened to the people on my right and on my left, but in those thirty seconds I remember exactly what happened to me, as if each second was slowed and stretched. I closed my eyes and threw myself forward. The barricade was down and under my feet. I was up against a plastic shield. I remember exactly how large the black letters spelling POLICE were, and that they were just under my nose. The officer behind the shield was pushing and I was pushing, and I was amazed that there was give and take, I was not just pushed back, I was almost past him. He could have been the one who ended up on the ground. The officer whose shield I was crushed against had pulled out a black metal baton and it was just above my right ear, but I was not hit. I was kicked, though. I remember that I had time to notice the involuntary curl upward of my lips into a smile because it seemed silly to me that with all that gear he was simply kicking my legs with his boots. I couldn’t hear anything, each second of struggle was silent, as if every bit of my energy was concentrated on my muscles, my body up against a shield and a man. And then I was on the ground. I don’t know how I got to the ground, if I fell or was pushed by the crowd or if the police threw me.
The protesters and the police both suffered from the same certain knowledge that once a person puts on riot gear he ceases to be a human being. Those helmets are made to obscure his face. On the pavement, I was curled up, balanced on my knees and my shoulders. Someone was shouting “stay down!” I shouted, “No!” then I looked back and realized that the person telling me to stay down was handcuffing me. There was an organized effort by the protesters to un-arrest us; someone grabbed me by the shoulder and tried to pull me up, but he was pushed away and I fell back to my knees. I squirmed a little on the ground because I was in pain, and scared, and in handcuffs, and the officer on my left kicked me once, hard, in the ribs and the wind was knocked out of me and I was very still after that. They finished securing the cuffs on me, kneeling on my back and holding my shoulders to the pavement, although I was not moving. I will never forget those thick, plastic handcuffs, securing one wrist atop the other.
I was in jail for five-and-a-half-hours. The two women in my cell and I used much of our time telling stories and singing songs. When we ran out of stories we started to chant. We chanted “no war on Iraq, no more blood for oil!” and “Bush, Cheney, you can’t hide, we charge you with genocide.” And for laughs, the kind of laughs that only come from something deadly serious, we chanted, “tell me what democracy looks like; we are what democracy looks like!” I thought of Thoreau, imprisoned for civil disobedience, saying that the biggest mistake his government had made was assuming that he would rather be out in the world controlled by their policies than sitting in a jail cell, where all just men should be. Then I thought: it is cold here and I am tired and it hurts when I breathe and I am bored. I thought: I don’t want to be in here at all.
I have not been arrested since, but I still go to protests. And I still think about all of the conversations I have had, the letters I have written, the books I have read, and the actions I have taken that have made me the kind of person who lives her life like this. I still live my life like this, and I hope that it is a common, valuable, and more or less moral way to live.
Dear Professor Aaron,
There have been thousands of people in the streets practicing direct action over the past years. I was one of those people, and I met many others.
Every time we met, we asked each other: were you there on the 26th, the 15th? Were you there in DC, in New York, in Boston? The time we surrounded the White House or the time we marched on the pentagon? Were you there, were you there, were you there? Where were you when it all happened, everywhere and over and over again? We had been young, as the man says, and now were not too old. We realized eventually that we were asking each other about our lives. About the people we were becoming and what we meant to each other and in the world.
It may be true that objective history always goes on outside of oneself, but a whole generation, mine, has experienced in one way or another and for the first time the feeling of having a place in that history. Many of us have stood up in public and demanded something other than the inheritance of violence, terror and oppression that we have been promised.
We have read in your class of all the futility and mundanity and ridiculousness of attempting to be a moral human being in a world bent on self-immolation with increasingly apocalyptic technology. And I would like to say now that everyone in our class has read all that and still showed up twice a week to try to understand. Each of us, for our attempt, for the fact that we get up in the morning in the twenty-first century and think at all, because we go out and march around and scream and throw rocks, or stay home and write a story or a song or a letter, or have sex and love, each of us should get extra credit.
Nothing if not sincerely,
Amy L. Clark
(Note: Amy L. Clark received the 2004 Emerson College Graduate Non-Fiction Award for this essay.)