Below is my assessment of the recent non-violent civil disobedience action which occurred on Jan. 17, 2002, on the steps of the United States Supreme Court, to mark the 25th anniversary of the resumption of executions in America.....
At approximately 10:15 a.m. on a very cold Thursday morning, Jan, 17, 2002, 7 anti-death penalty activists unfurled a 30-foot banner on the steps of the United States Supreme Court which read "Stop Executions!"
The action was taken to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the resumption of executions in the USA, marking the date in 1977 when convicted killer Gary Gilmore was shot to death by a firing squad in the Utah State Penitentiary.
A Supreme Court police officer, stationed near the public sidewalk, well below the protesters, upon seeing the unfurled banner, immediately phoned for assistance. Within seconds, numerous other officers emerged from within the Court. One approached Abe Bonowitz, who was holding one end of the banner, and violently snatched the banner out of his hands. Another officer tore the banner from Ron Kaz at the other end of the protest line. The officer proceeded to use the same forcible action to rip the banner from each of the other 6 protesters' grasp. The banner was then hurredly thrown to the side while police officers positioned themselves both directly in front of and behind the 7 activists.
Each demonstrator was ordered to leave the steps, and after each refused to do so, an officer informed each that they were going to be arrested. Police officers then proceeded to handcuff each demonstrator while reading them their rights. The activists were removed from the steps in front of the main door of the Court, and were taken to a side entrance.
Still outside the court, each activist was frisked and photographed. All the while, the main plaza in front of the court was sealed off to everyone else. Visitors were told to use the building's side entrances. Police officers then went to the public sidewalks in front of the Court and then to the side of the building where the activists were being detained and threatened to arrest members of the support team and 2 different photographers. All our supporters were told to get off the public access/sidewalks....none moved, and the harassment by the Court police continued for a few more brief moments. The photographers also refused to move off the public access space despite threats of arrest, and ultimately they too were left alone.
Approximately at 11:30 a.m., the 7 demonstrators were led into a police van, and were transported a few blocks to a Capitol Hill police station for booking.
The 7 arrested activists would ultimately spend between 7 1/2 to 8 hours the police station.
During that time, the following occurred:
A 10-year veteran police officer told a relatively new officer, in front of some of those arrested: "They are not going to get of here with a citation...any number of reasons can be used (on the form) to keep them here...You can put down "ID not matching," or "unlikely to appear in court." The meaning was clear....we were all going to be detained, and detained for a long-enough time so that we would have to spend a night in jail.
And this is indeed what occurred.
With incredulity, we sat in groups of 2 or 3 and watched a variety of police officials spend hours filling out forms from information we gave them, only for them to tear up those forms and begin again. To my knowledge, the forms were filled out 3 times. I had my photograph taken 4 times, and was fingerprinted twice.
At one point, I was placed in a cell with 2 others cohorts, and we were left there for several hours. No one came to check on us, or to ask if we wanted or needed to make a call (this was finally done after many hours of incarceration).
During the entire period of incarceration, only 1 other individual was brought into the police station, and he was placed in a cell directly opposite from where I was held. He remained in the cell for approximately 30 minutes, and was then removed and taken from the building.
Each of us was, at some point, handcuffed to a wall, along with one other activist, in the same room where we had begun the process of information- giving many hours before. The same officer who had earlier instructed his colleague make up an excuse to keep us in the station was among several officers who would sporadically come into the room and yell at the 2 folks to "sit down and stay down!" on the very narrow bench.
At no time during this period of incarceration was food or water ever offered.
It was only when the police shift changed and new personnel arrived that the processing of us began in seriousness. Some of the newly arrived officers were displeased that we were still in custody, almost 9 hours after the original moment of arrest.
We were readied for transport to the DC lockup facility. Only when I asked for my heavy coat was it brought to me; the officers would have been quite content to send us outside in subfreezing temperatures without our winter protection.
We were transported, and arrived at the facility at approximately 9 pm. Again, we were separated by gender, booked, and taken to the holding facility; each of us was placed into a cell with one other person. None of the 7 activists was put into a cell with any other member of our group.
We were each re-fingerprinted (for a national and FBI database) and re-photographed.We were each offered a baloney sandwich and some juice. To my knowledge, none of the 7 of us ate or drank this offering.
We remained jailed in this fashion throughout the night. Sleep was almost impossible due to the constant yelling, noise, excessive heat, metal beds with no mattress, no running water, and guards who came by for their checks. At one point, when it was relatively quiet, a male guard came through the cellblock at 3:30 a.m., and woke everyone (who was lucky enough to be asleep) up, yelling: "I have to get you people ready to be moved to the courthouse at 6:30. Wake up and show me your identification numbers! Failure to do so will result in your being left here until Tuesday morning...you won't see a judge if you don't wake up and show me your identification! Everybody wake up!"
Then, as most of the prisoners awoke, they began yelling and cursing, and general verbal chaos ensued...this lasted almost until the time that the guards returned (at 6:30 or so). One group of 10 male and 10 female prisoners was readied for transport by 7:30. None of the 7 activists was in this first group.
A second group of 10 male and 10 female prisoners was readied for transport at close to 8 a.m.--all 7 of us were in this group. The 10 males were handcuffed and placed in a van, then driven a short distance to the courthouse. The area within the van was incredibly small, so that the physical sitting arrangements were strained because some of the males were of a large body size.
When we arrived at the courthouse, we were left in the sealed compartment in the van, still handcuffed together, for a long time. Breathing was difficult, and it was stifling. Two (2) of the non-demonstrator male prisoners began clamoring for the guards to atleast open the back door of the van to get some air into the compartment...the guards just laughed and told everyone to "shut up and be quiet!"--- when the complaining resumed a few moments later, the guards became very beligerent and threatened to mace everyone in the van, while leaving the doors closed, so that everyone would choke on the spray. The complaints and cursing from the prisoners subsided for only a moment, then once again resumed in full vocal vigor. Again came the retaliatory threats of mace from the guards, accompanied by their cursing and laughter.
Finally, after one more round of strong complaints about the lack of air in the van, a guard finally opened the back door, and a gust of cooler air entered the compartment. Immediately all the men were ordered out of the van, and brought into the courthouse. The 5 Court demonstrators were led upstairs and placed into a large cell, and the other 5 with whom we had been transported were placed into another, separate holding cell. I did not see the 2 women who participated in our action.
Everyone was told that they had to give a urine sample for a drug test. Failure to comply would result in delayed processing. The women had to do the same test in their holding facility, and also were ordered to "turn around, drop your pants, and squat and cough." This was done in the presence of a female guard. None of the male prisoners had to undergo this treatment.
The remainder of the day was then spent waiting in 2 different large 2-room holding areas with about 90 other male prisoners. We witnessed an incredibly slow process in which only a few of the arrestees were taken to the court before the noon hour.
It became clear that the 5 Court protestors would not be called to court for their hearing until everyone else had been processed, and this is exactly what occurred. Throughout the entire day of being held, we were again never offered food or water.
At about 3:30 p.m., the last 75 men being held were moved to another holding facility next to the main courtroom. There were 8 cells, and each held between 8 to 10 males who then spent the next few hours waiting to be called into the courtroom so their case could be heard and adjudicated.
Again, it was clear that we would be taken at the very end, and this in fact is what occurred. Police officers finally came for the 5 males at approximately 6:30 in the evening. The the 2 women were led into the court after us. We were led to a small area with only 3 seats; a court officer yelled for us to sit down. The court officers were very abrupt with us. One by one we were led into the court and positioned to stand in 3 columns behind the attorney, who stood before the judge.
After several moments of dialogue between the judge and the attorney, a trial date was set for June 27 (at the request of the attorney representing us). Then the judge told the attorney that the 7 of us were NOT allowed to go to the Court itself, and incredibly, we were NOT allowed to be within a one-block radius of the Court, including its public sidewalks.
The following dialogue then occurred:
attorney--"Your honor, I don't think you can tell citizens that they cannot walk on a public sidewalk in front of the Supreme Court. They can indeed be restricted from the grounds of the Court, but not from the public sidewalks."
judge---"I can indeed so order it. I wear the robes. If they don't comply, I will send them all back to jail."
attorney---"With all due respect, I do not think you can place public sidewalks off-limits to my clients, your honor."
judge---"I am not going to debate this. You will either comply with this order or your clients go back to jail until Tuesday at the earliest. This is the beauty of the system. I make a ruling. You are entitled to appeal that ruling. You may even win your appeal. But your clients will be in jail. Do you want them to go back to jail? It's up to you."
attorney---"my clients do not wish to return to jail, your honor, and I will accept your decision, though I do not believe you can do this."
judge----"For the last time, I can do it. I wear the robes."
We were then instructed by the judge to stay away from the Court, beginning immediately, as we had to walk back to the original police facility where we had been held on Thursday after the arrest, to reclaim our possessions. We were told that if we went by the Supreme Court on our way to the police station, we would be arrested and jailed for violating the judge's restraining order on us.
It was clearly subfreezing when we were released....had we not asked for and been given our heavy coats from the first station the night before, we would have had to walk several long blocks without heavy protective clothing.
We had been arrested around 10:30 Thursday morning, and we were ultimately freed at approximately 7:30 Friday evening, some 33 hours later. This was the result of unfurling a banner at the Court which remained visible for about 35 seconds.....in some form, all 7 of us experienced: repeated interrogations, searches, fingerpringting and photographing, dehydration, extremes in climate from very hot to very cold, sleep and food deprivation, collective threats and intimidations from guards and law enforcement personnel, including the judge himself, that any one individual's failure to comply with a given order would result in all of us being taken back to jail and placed there until at least Tuesday January 22. The stalling tactics of the Capitol police and the ineptness of the officers had been clearly aimed to put us at the greatest disadvantage possible.
We were told that our failure to notify the Supreme Court police of our intentions to do the demonstration warranted a sharp crackdown on us as a punitive measure and as a way for the officials to "send a message."
The trial date will be back in Washington DC on June 27, prior to the annual Fast and Vigil at the Court (June 29-July 2). It is not yet known how many of the demonstrators will seek to defend themselves at trial, or choose to be represented by an attorney.Back to Action Home Page