Cops and Activism – A Personal Testimony of Arrest by LAPD

Yesterday I was arrested.

A few minutes ago I heard journalist Alan Nairn’s latest cellular phone call to Pacifica radio. He read a statement which he gave to the Indonesian military, who are “detaining” him in West Timor. The officers and generals and secretaries are trying to decide what to do with him. Meanwhile their underlings viciously scour the countryside of East Timor to kill what is left of Timorese resistance, their “effort to annul the people’s choice,” in the words of Bishop Carlos Belo. Nairn’s statement accused top Indonesian officials of crimes against humanity in East Timor, Irian Jaya, Aceh, and in Indonesia proper. He implicated U.S. officials as well for funding, arming, and ensuring that the massacres carried out by Indonesian troops, police, and militias could take place. Nairn gave the statement to the Indonesian officers in charge of martial law in East Timor. His future is uncertain. His fate is in the hands of people who would love to see him punished for challenging their authority, but who hold back because the outside world is paying attention.

Yesterday I felt a fragment of what Nairn must be feeling. Our demonstration in front of the Indonesian Consulate on Wilshire Blvd in Los Angeles began peacefully. Organized by the East Timor Action Network, in conjunction with the International Action Center, the demonstration was well-planned, and sent a powerful message to those who heard and saw. Approximately 100 of us gathered with candles for short statements by people recently returned from East Timor as part of the UNAMET team which oversaw the 30 August independence referendum. In addition we heard prayers from leaders of the Catholic, Jewish, and Methodist communities of Los Angeles, in solidarity with the priests and nuns who became special targets of militia violence during the post-election debacle. The atmosphere of sadness and hope moved many to tears. Cameramen from local TV stations were there. If you only saw the TV coverage, you might have thought it was an exclusively peaceful and solemn occasion.

After the gathering we marched along the street in front of the consulate, across the heavy traffic at the intersection, along the other side of the street, and back. The first intersection crossing was smooth and striking. The column of people ignored the change of lights and continued across while drivers waited, confronted with huge banners with messages like “Indonesia Out of East Timor,” and “Stop U.S. Complicity in Genocide.”

Across the second intersection the column faced five L.A.P.D. officers who were watching the procession. We marched with a spirit of anger and liberation. I have no idea what anyone else was thinking, but my mind was full of images of Timorese dying at the hands of U.S.-backed militias. I thought of the complacency of the people packed in their cars driving every day to work, mostly ignorant of the reasons for their privilege, and of the consequences of their ignorance. I thought of the gasoline that flowed through the engines of those cars, and of the Timor Gap oil which Indonesia wanted to exploit.

The column began crossing the street, at the crosswalk. During the crossing the traffic signal changed and the cars wanted to go, but we continued. A group carrying one of the bigger banners stopped completely in the middle of the intersection but one of the police officers, who had apparently crossed to our side, called them back to the curb. Full of adrenaline and defiance I danced in front of the stopped cars as I headed back to the curb with the other demonstrators.

Before I was all the way back the light changed again and the “WALK” signal came on. Hey, we can walk now, come on guys. A few of us started across again. The cops didn’t agree with our assessment of the traffic signals. The four remaining police officers started towards us. The people around me seemed to believe that if a cop says a “WALK” signal means “DON’T WALK” then the cop is right. I didn’t. I was full of rage and frustration. People should feel the pain and suffering of the Timorese, the Yugoslavs, the Iraqis, and the long list of peoples the American empire has robbed, bombed, and killed, starting with the Natives of this continent. Our society shouldn’t retain its privilege without coming to terms with the truth of its conquest. My mind saw this in an instant. Clashing with cops became a struggle against the complacency of my people. The police symbolized the authority and domination of privileged groups over others. How could I accept that authority when it stemmed from such rotten roots? I ignored the police. I continued across the street. I forget if I tried to wade through the four cops or if I tried to sidestep them. It doesn’t matter. I was grabbed by the first cop, the leader. My fury refused to see his uniform or his gun. He was just a human being like me. And he had no right to grab me. I tried to pull away. He said to me, “So you’re resisting arrest.” I was under arrest? I’d never been under arrest, but I wasn’t about to submit to some stranger grabbing me. Yeah, I resisted! I don’t remember what I said in response to his question, but my wife later told me the cop complained to her that I used harsh language. Poor guy. Two other cops came to assist the leader. Each grabbed an arm. Again, they weren’t officials to me, they were just men trying to hold me, and naturally I resisted.

Slowly, however, consciousness set in. At some point my rational brain returned and I realized I couldn’t hold back four men with guns, although for about 5 seconds I had kept them from bringing my arms together behind me. This made one of the men holding my arms very mad. When I did relax my struggle, he retaliated. He wrenched my arm behind my back and then twisted it upward with excruciating force. I doubled over and the two cops pushed me to the edge of a police car. A pair of handcuffs closed over my wrists and the tough guy said something like, “he’s going to really feel this.” I howled in pain as the metal rings squeezed tighter than necessary over my wristbone, biting my skin.

The sight of my wife Sonali, eyes red with tears and screaming at the police officers and at the stunned demonstrators who refused to get involved, brought me back to full awareness. My anger faded. I felt remorse for causing Sonali pain and for spoiling the demonstration. I felt fear of what the police were going to do to me. Especially the tough cop who I angered by my resistance. They opened the squad car back door, bent me over, and tried to shove me inside. I was going in head first, without my hands to guide me, so I tried to slow their pushing. They thought I was resisting and pushed harder. Once inside I tried to slide to the right side of the seat, either because I imagined that someone would follow me in or because I was trying to get as far away from the pushing hands as possible. I can’t remember which. The tough guy didn’t like that: “I didn’t say you could move over. Get back here!” He didn’t say NOT to move over either. I was being handled like an armed and dangerous criminal.

I sat in the back seat of the squad car with my hands clamped behind my back for two hours. Already sore from the struggle and the vengeful twist they received, my shoulders continued to ache in their unnatural contortion (they are still pretty sore). I felt like a caged animal. Cuffing someone’s hands behind their back sounds like a harmless and humane way to subdue them. In truth I never felt so claustrophobic and afraid. How many of us are ever deprived of the use of our arms? It feels degrading and completely disempowering. Especially when someone else does it to you and you have no idea when they will remove the shackles.

I could speak with Sonali, but only with police permission. Once she tried on her own to talk to me through a crack in the car window. When she walked away one of the cops closed the window.

Through the windows the scene was surreal. The protest continued as if nothing happened, but a small contingent of the activists, led by Sonali, hovered around the cops, trying to keep them accountable. A number of the bystanders promised to be witnesses. Luckily we had the perfect witness: the channel 13 cameraman hadn’t left right after the prayers like the other media representatives. He had the arrest on film.

There were more police on the scene than we thought. Across the street there were at least two plainclothes cops. The sergeant of the uniformed officers crossed over and exchanged cellular phones with one of them.

All along, it was unclear whether or not they would let me go, or what they would charge me with if they decided to arrest me. Obviously “resisting arrest” made little sense if the decision to arrest came long after any resistance. After two hours of debating, relaying information to headquarters, and wasting time (probably to intimidate me and to set an example for the other protesters), the cops decided that they were indeed going to arrest me. Two new cops arrived to take me to the station, photograph the injuries caused by the apprehending cops, fingerprint me, and book me. Then I was released on my own recognizance. I am required to report to court on 6 October for arraignment. I was never formally arrested, nor charged out loud. Nobody read me my rights. It turns out I was arrested for “interference,” a vague word for vague circumstances. Essentially I made things difficult for the police and ignored their orders, so I had to be taught a lesson.

If I were poor and/or a person of color I would probably still be in jail. Normally the bail for my accused offence is $1000, but they told me they trusted me to be there for the hearing because I am a scientist. In other words it is in my interest to obey the law. I am a member of the professional classes, and stand to gain materially from the continued existence of the structure of domination, which the police are paid to protect.

Unlike most people arrested yesterday (in countries like East Timor, for example), I can now safely contemplate my experiences. Here in my cozy office sitting behind my thousands-of-dollars government-bought workstation I have the luxury to assess the outcome of my actions, and to express my thoughts to others. I lost control of myself on the street, and it was probably a big mistake to challenge the police physically. Perhaps if more members of the crowd joined me we would have made a real statement and the level of police intimidation would have been lower. I was told by the sergeant that this was the first arrest he had made in the five demonstrations which he monitored at the Indonesian Consulate. In terms of results versus “expenditures,” people like me clashing with police at demonstrations only represent a tiny signal engulfed in the wash of noise which most of us are exposed to. Unfortunately, most activists are, like me, members of a privileged class. It is in our interests not to get arrested, nor to risk physical or emotional trauma, even for a good reason. We have a lot to lose. Maybe that’s why we should do it.