Wednesday, January 23, 2013

This is the year of Ferocity.





The following is excerpted from a long letter I wrote to my friends and family on Jan. 16th, 2013. I am sharing it here. Welcome back, gorgeous curiosity. There's some new ferocity in the mix. If you'd like some background on my experience getting arrested at the eviction of OccupyLA, please do read my short piece at Slake Magazine. (And then buy it! They need support!)

Hello family and dearest friends.

I'd like to explain why I'm sending this mass email instead of offer you an empty apology for it. My priority is not convenience. My experience of a pretrial today, over a year since the Occupy arrest, was so confusing and difficult for me I'd prefer to very deeply and carefully record it once, share it with everyone, and avoid having to tell the story many more times. I hope you understand, and I'm so grateful that when I go to write something like this, I have such a long and trustworthy list of people I love to share it with. 

On Dec 27, 2012 (over a year from my Nov. 30 2011 arrest), I got arraigned and pled not guilty to two infractions (violations of municipal code, like speeding tickets). One of them was "loitering in a public park," another one some anachronistic code that ends up being something lighter than "disturbing the peace." At that arraignment appearance, the attorney representing the City of LA went against her own office's recommendation, and spoke off-record to advise me to plead not guilty so that at a following pretrial proceeding my fine could be lowered to something more reasonable (than the total of $800 she was calculating). I had already decided to plead not guilty but this was a surprise--that the office responsible for the ridiculous fine was now telling me to embed myself further in the system to try and get it lowered! I did enter the not guilty plea, and was given a pretrial date of Jan. 16. 

The expectation for this morning was very clear: I would say not guilty, the court would probably set another date for me to appear, and at that future date I could expect a fine would be levied and the case would be closed. 

I arrived for my pretrial hearing at Dept 40 in the Superior Court downtown with Jim, Craig, Gray, and Lindsey, who all sat with me and will have their own perspectives on what happened. (They were amazing, I am so grateful to them!) I checked in with the public defender, Jimmy, who told me I was "pro-per," meaning I had no attorney assigned to me. You don’t get a public defender unless you are facing jail time, and infractions don’t carry that possibility. They also don’t carry the possibility of having your sentence (fine imposed) lessened because of time you’ve already served, which means that the days I spent in jail are going to be effectively erased from the memory of the state. Like the arrests and time served that have been stolen from so, so many others before me, while more punishments, red tape, confusion, and implicit threats of incarceration are levied at them. Keep your head down or you will invite trouble. That is the ethic of a repressive regime, not a free society. 

Jimmy saw my infractions on the list, asked me about them, and when he heard that I was an Occupy arrest his eyes light up with a sort of hope and kindness I was not prepared to see. He took me outside and explained what the procedure was going to be, chatted with me about my choice to plead not guilty, and talked lovingly about his years in law school at Berkeley because he saw I was from “Burkley” on the court documents. (“Is it some other Berkeley?” he asked after showing me the spelling. “No,” I said, “that’s a lack of respect from the court.”)

Jimmy told me he supported the choice I was making to stick to my principles. He also told me I wasn't going to have my named called for a few hours because my case would be lowest on the priority list. He spoke very respectfully of his own cases: folks who were often already worn down by years of exposure to the unfairness of the police, court, jail system. I expressed my gratitude for his time and effort and he wished me luck. 

I was surprised, then, when my name got called almost immediately upon our returning to the courtroom. My case wasn't coming up yet, but the city attorney's rep called me to her desk to give me some paperwork and discuss my options. 

She informed me that the city was filing for a continuance, because the one officer who was capable of providing the necessary witness evidence against me was unavailable until after his SWAT training, which lasts until April. Normally for an infraction, if a defendant pleads not guilty and the officer who issued the ticket is unavailable, the charges are dropped. Let’s remember I was not ticketed; I was taken into custody, detained for hours in ziptie handcuffs, booked into Van Nuys Metro Jail, and held for days. 

In other words, instead of having this matter moving toward resolution, I'm being held on three more months of informal probation, during which I can't get approved to visit a friend in prison at San Quentin, can't get any more infractions without higher punitive consequence, and certainly can't get arrested at a protest action unless I want the court to make an even bigger case against me for a supposed "pattern" of behavior (which they are doing to other activists, right now.) I spent all of last year in this situation, because the City Attorney waited until the absolute last minute to file charges against me, and then filed injunctions, which are much more difficult to contest. You have no right to a lawyer or a jury trial. You just get squeezed for money. The California budgetary crisis, passed on to the working class, who usually plead guilty to infractions. Still, most people would be happy to face an injunction instead of a misdemeanor because of the removal of the possibility of jail time. 

The city attorney rep handed me the unexpected continuance paperwork, and she pointed at another indecipherable form, telling me if I wanted to take a guilty plea that day I would be charged with two “lesser” infractions. Jimmy entered our conversation. He wasn’t representing me, because I do not get an attorney assigned to me without the possibility of facing jail time (infractions are always fines). But, he advised me in front of her as a friend of the court not to take the “deal,” to move forward with my “not guilty” plea, and he walked me back outside the courtroom again to show me which parts of the continuance document I should address when my case was called. 

As I read the document, I moved from a kind of annoyance at what seemed like some bloated little bureaucratic skin tag to real rage at an intrusive cancer. I won’t detail all of it here, but I’ll give one important example. The continuance claims as its foundational premise that only one officer has the necessary info for the case to proceed. Without his testimony, the City is unable to prosecute, so, the continuance is a request to wait until he’s good and ready to get up and bear witness. Which will be after he’s done with SWAT training. 

However. Three male officers were involved in my arrest, and two used “pain compliance” on me that night. All three officers carried me out of my circle of comrades to a line of other occupiers in custody. I did speak to the cops. I said, “The last man to touch me like that was a rapist,” and, “No thanks,” when the officer carrying my upper torso said “The cameras are off, you can walk now.” When my glasses fell, I said, “You knocked those off, I think you should pick them up and put them back on me,” and the officer on my left picked them up off the ground and folded them over my shirt collar. One of the three who took me into custody cuffed me, and another officer told him to loosen the cuffs when I cried out. Another officer entirely walked me to a different line, where my information was taken and my ID checked by another. Yet another officer walked me to the line to wait for the bus. 

I refuse the premise that there is only once officer capable of providing evidence that I was processed in that mass arrest. I refuse to elide from this narrative the dramatic political theater concocted by the LAPD, in which 1400 armed, uniformed cops, many with riot gear and rifles, stood in concentric circles around unarmed protestors for hours, before systematically brutalizing every person who didn’t stand up when they were commanded. They used pressure points. They twisted our legs. They expressed their disdain for us over and over again. One officer stood directly across from me for hours on end, refusing to meet my eyes but no doubt hearing every chant I led. One officer processing my paperwork said, “You work at USC? How could you do something so stupid?”

I refuse to participate in a political fiction designed by the City Attorney’s office: that an arrest is best remembered by the cop who puts his name on the booking form. I refuse to shamefacedly accept that I must wait another three months to have this matter concluded because that one precious officer, whose personal memory is the only one capable of narrating my arrest, has to complete his SWAT training and can’t miss a day or he might fail his test! I refuse to believe that his killer-training is more important than my peace of mind and ability to do the work I love so much, but more importantly, I refuse to allow the entire edifice of this response to protest, which is built to make the costs of dissent too high, to steal my sense of purpose or dignity. How could I do something so stupid? Well, which is stupider, participating in a system that hurts everyone, or saying NO and taking your lumps on your own terms?


I don’t think I can write anything important, love anyone hard enough, work deeply enough at world-making projects, or overcome my fear of pain, repression, abandonment, death, what-have-you, if I haven’t let go the notion that what I believe in and what I represent has any more chance in hell of fitting in to the state structures Americans operate in today. In other words, I fully embrace the adversarial relationship I am in with the institution of criminal “justice” because I am disgusted by it on behalf of the millions of people who are bullied into submission by its punitive capitalist formula. My story is only interesting insofar as it is a window into the larger injustice faced by thousands, many of whom have been convinced that this is just how life is in Los Angeles, in California, in America. 

Thanks to Jimmy’s quick tutelage, I objected to the continuance. I mentioned that there were multiple officers involved in my arrest and so the premise of the continuance was faulty. I reminded the court that this matter had been dragged on for over a year. I requested discovery of all materials pertaining to the case. My heart was beating so hard I actually thought it might be visible through my skin.

The judge granted the city its continuance despite my objections. I am ordered to appear again on April fifteenth. The judge did make a note that there were to be no more continuances after that date. I will be watching the LAPD’s video of my arrest sometime in the next few weeks. (That will be a great test of my ego, I’m sure, since I’ve probably unconsciously self-aggrandized since the event.)

I’ll be contacting the NLG for some advice and will enter the courtroom four months from now with a statement that, even if it never goes on court record, will at least establish two crucial truths: I refuse to play victim to the City’s strongarm, and, I am not alone in my anger. My circumstances allow me the freedom to say NO--I can risk a higher fine because I have financial support, I can risk additional, emotionally taxing court dates because I have such a strong circle of love supporting me, I am healthy, my grad student schedule is somewhat flexible, and so on. 

And so I am resisting, because it is necessary. I will keep pleading not guilty. For those who are unable to stand and fight this kind of state-sanctioned abuse, and even for those who simply believe themselves unable for spurious reasons, I have compassionate solidarity. I know what it feels like to be absolutely sure there is no other option but to let an outside force continue attacking you. I have practiced despair, and it is a self-perpetuating, destructive force that often wears a mask of “realism,” “being honest about things,” or “being practical.” 

I now attempt to practice something else: Nietzsche’s Amor fati. As I understand it, and I don't pretend a perfect understanding of Nietzsche, this is not love of “fate” as predetermined, but a love for the constant work of consciously creating beauty from the inescapable material reality of the world and the body. This is not a settling for making the best of what's around, this is a constant desire and effort to absolutely love what I believe in and what I'm doing RIGHT NOW, as if I were going to repeat this moment forever. Despair and hopelessness are important guests, and when they arrive I attend to them very carefully, but I'm going to die whether I feel hopeless or not, so my goal is always to create something meaningful from what is. In my experience there is no joy greater than the co-creation of beauty with loved ones, whether that beauty is a piece of art made in the safety of a home or a piece of political resistance born in full view of the danger posed by the state's violence, or the exquisite combination of both that I am attempting now. 

I feel the violence of the state in the same places I have felt the violence of individual bodies that attacked me in the past, but I am no longer in despair, and I am no longer silent in the face of systems that create despair in service to efficiency or profit. Trauma doesn’t turn me inward anymore. I hope I can model, even in miniature, the love and care I am taking in my refusal to just shut up and go home. 

I have been so inspired and comforted by others’ stories and by the history of those who did the near-impossible, those who kept pressing on when the momentum of the powerful class seemed too strong to meet. Here’s to all the people defying the oppressive silencing of a punitive and profit-driven dominant culture and state apparatus. Here’s to those lifting the veil on coercion and abuse, in all its forms. I’m proud to join them in whatever small way I can, and I’m grateful for your presence, comradeship, love, and support. I want to figure out how I have participated in these systems in my own actions, and keep learning how to live differently. 

In Solidarity and with Love, 

3 comments:

  1. Beautifully written. Thank you for not backing down, and for conveying your position so eloquently.

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  2. Activitists like to be a rebel and delight in this whole court thing so they can bash the Police Dept., the government, whomever. Never mind that laws were broken by you ... but that's okay. Enjoy your saga. Grow up!!!

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    1. Well said and beautifully articulated--on such a terrible thing. I need to go some place quiet and just cry. And be very glad your dad has raised someone like you to be in this mixed-up world. And be very glad you stand firm and know why and how you can. You're amazing, Vanessa. Take care of yourself.

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