A uniformed guard opened the door to our holding cell March 20 and said, "Hey, you protesters! I'm with you. We don't need to be fighting no damn war."
We were too stunned to ask his name before the cell door closed. He was the only guard who expressed support for the peace movement during our brief stay in the Hamilton County Justice Center.
But several guards in the booking area discussed the peace movement with us, making clear they support the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Following our arrest, several Cincinnati Police officers also engaged us in debate.
That, of course, was the whole point of our conduct — to stir discussion.
For about 30 seconds I was an "embedded reporter" on the front line of the peace campaign. That's how long my feet were embedded on a Fifth Street crosswalk before a police officer ordered me to move.
I declined, and he charged me with obstructing official business. (See Porkopolis.)
Charged with the same offense were Ben Hergert, 17, a saxophonist and clarinetist who attends the School for Creative and Performing Arts; documentary filmmaker Barbara Wolf; human rights activist and landscaper Michael McCleese; and Nathan Goedl, an art student who works at the public library.
In cities across the United States, more than 1,500 people were arrested in peace demonstrations March 20, the day after the U.S. attack on Iraq began.
In contrast to the satellite-guided bombs and other high-tech weapons fired by the military, the technology of the peace strike in downtown Cincinnati was primitive: All we did was stand in place.
In San Francisco, hundreds of peace supporters blocked downtown intersections, clogging traffic for several hours. Here, dozens of people temporarily blocked rush-hour traffic on Fifth Street as it passed Fountain Square.
Aside from Hergert being knocked to the ground, the five arrests in Cincinnati were uneventful. But the next five hours provided lots of insight, some of it quite unexpected:
· The officers who handled our arrests were courteous and professional. Hergert and I were held in a squad car parked in an alley across from the square. After an hour, the officers loosened our handcuffs, which were cutting off circulation to our wrists, and opened the car windows.
· Wolf observed that we were receiving exceptionally gentle treatment. "If we were black, this would be a whole different experience," she said.
In the Justice Center, we got a hint of what she meant. Two Hispanic prisoners were unable to speak English, and the staff on duty apparently didn't speak Spanish. The staff seems to have a private joke for such occasions. A female officer said to the Hispanic prisoners, "Refried beans?" A guard walked past them, saying, "Burrito?"
· Men and women aren't allowed to talk to one another during the hours spent in the booking room. We didn't see a sign warning us of the rule. But Corrections Officer K. Samson threatened to put Wolf in "the hole" to punish her for talking to her fellow protesters, all of whom were men.
"Talk all you want when you get out," Samson said. "You can live together."
The officer also threatened to revoke McCleese's bail for talking to Wolf.
"I can keep you here all night," he said.
We didn't stay all night. We were released at 11 p.m. We will go to court during the next few weeks and, if convicted, the adults face a maximum of 90 days in jail.
As we arrived at the jail, a Cincinnati Police officer stopped.
"Let me ask you one more thing," he said. "Was it worth it?"
How does one decide such a thing? Handcuffs hurt the wrists and the shoulders. Jail is boring. Being arrested in an unpopular cause — most Americans support the war — is uncomfortable.
Was it worth it? A handful of police officers and jail guards, most of them military veterans, had dialogue with peace activists as a result of our arrest. Dozens of commuters were forced to think about the war and the peace movement while we inconvenienced them.
The arithmetic of protest, like the jail's math, is imprecise. Held on $1,000 bond, we were released upon payment of 10 percent — which the sheriff's department computed to be $120.
We don't want to go to jail for 90 days. But more important, we don't want people to be killed in Iraq — not in our name. If sore wrists, a bit of humiliation and even a jail sentence are the price demanded to separate us from the U.S. invasion, then we got a bargain.