I was one of more than 180 protesters in St. Charles at the Boeing Missile Plant main entrance on Tuesday, October 1st. I was also one of 36 people arrested for blocking the plant entrance. Our stated purpose: to stand between the bombs that Boeing is preparing for delivery and the people who will be killed if they are deployed.
Of course, this was before Congress authorized the President to attack Iraq, but already the military machine was mobilizing for war. Boeing recently boosted production of its Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAM), a.k.a smart bombs, to meet new contracts from the Pentagon. Employees at the St. Charles facility started working three shifts, 24 hours a day, to prepare stockpiles of smart bombs for use in the impending attack on Iraq.
When we arrived, the St. Charles police were waiting for us at Boeing's front gate. They knew in advance of our plans to demonstrate, and more than a dozen St. Charles city police officers dressed in riot gear stood shoulder to shoulder across two lanes of the vehicle entrance, leaving one lane open for traffic in and out of the facility. A police paddy wagon was parked inside the gate.
Demonstrators congregated in the Hardee's parking lot across the street from Boeing and read aloud a pledge of non-violence before proceeding to the plant entrance. A song leader led us across the intersection to Boeing's front gate, strumming his guitar and leading everyone in a moving rendition of "Peace is Flowing Like a River." It's fashionable among the new generation of peace activists to complain that the repertoire of protest songs is hopelessly outdated and overdone, but we sing along anyway, even if half-heartedly.
Similarly, there is a fashion debate over what to wear to an anti-war demonstration. Although sandals are popular with the peaceniks, if you are thinking of walking the path of peace, I suggest wearing a pair of shoes with strong arch supports. Peace work, I found, involves a lot of standing around. For over an hour no vehicles left or entered the Boeing plant, except for one comical moment when we realized that a truck was leaving by an unguarded back gate. Otherwise, the crowd milled around and sang protest songs and listened to speakers rant over a bullhorn.
Eventually, at about 2:40 p.m., a Boeing transport truck attempted to leave the plant through the main entrance and was blocked by 11 demonstrators who stood behind a banner which read, "The Weapons for War Stop Here." To no one's surprise, they were promptly arrested.
During the afternoon shift-change, workers were allowed to leave the plant, but trucks leaving or entering the plant were blocked by four successive groups of demonstrators standing behind or sitting in front of the "The Weapons for War Stop Here" banner. I was in the third wave of demonstrators.
Around 3:30 p.m., a semi-tractor-trailer was preparing to turn into the plant entrance, so a group of five or six of us quickly moved into position across the roadway holding the large cloth banner facing the approaching semi. Members of our group were still taking their places in the roadway when the police moved in for the arrest.
Standing there holding the corner of the banner, I heard a voice over my shoulder say, "Since you're right here, I'll arrest you first." A police officer took me by the back of the arm and led me away. Despite the best intentions to remain centered throughout the action, I did not remain centered. I was visibly pissed. "I sense a little anger," my arresting officer said to me. I wasn't angry with him. He was just doing his job. Besides, I knew I was going to get arrested for blocking the plant entrance. I was upset that my act of civil disobedience was so short-lived, disappointed that I was so easily apprehended. It was like being the first one caught in a game of tag.
There were more of us protesters than could fit in the police paddy wagon, so we were all loaded onto a yellow school bus. Each protester was welcomed onto the bus with cheering from those arrested previously. On the bus, you could see what a rag tag group of people peace activists are. College students, Catholic workers, Quaker, nurse, physician, teacher, social workers, Episcopal priest, former attorney, Green Party activist, Libertarian candidate for U.S. Senate, retreat director, radio commentator, computer programmer, glass blower, autoworker, musician, directors and coordinators from non-profits. Maybe it was the novelty of being on a school bus everyone was in a playful mood inconsistent with the fact that we were under arrest.
The flexible plastic handcuffs tightened around my wrists were like heavy-duty garbage bag ties. I wasn't on the bus long before I slipped out of my cuffs. Bruised my thumb pad wiggling out of my cuffs, but I got free. Not that the cuffs were uncomfortable, but even a coyote or wolf will chew off its leg if caught in a snap-trap, rather than remain fettered.
Once we arrived at the police station, we had to empty our pockets, give up any belts or eyeglasses; the guards instructed us to leave our shoes outside the doors of our cells. As when entering a Japanese home, removing our shoes inadvertently sacralized the profane space of the prison cell. The accommodations were modest: a 6'x10' cell for four to five people. It was L-shaped with a pair of cots bolted to the floor along the length of the L, and a toilet/water fountain around the corner in a small niche. Instead of bars, the cell had a thick plexi-glass window, which reminded me of the chimpanzee exhibit at the zoo. I kept entertained by imagining myself as a primate on display.
I cannot fail to mention the toilet, because it was highly unusual. I've never seen anything like it, even overseas in foreign countries, where you expect to see bizarre bathroom fixtures. It was a toilet/water fountain combo. It was in all ways a typical toilet except for (and this is a big exception) a water fountain on top of the toilet tank. There were two buttons next to each other one button for flushing the toilet and another for turning on the drinking water spigot. This push-button arrangement created problems for cellmate Tony, who was without his glasses (confiscated when he was booked). On several occasions, Tony accidentally flushed the toilet when he was trying to get a drink of water. Fortunately, I wasn't thirsty and didn't have the urge to go to the bathroom because (maybe it was just me) I was leery of taking a drink of water out of a fixture that doubled as a toilet. What would Foucault and Ziezek say? Enough toilet fixation.
Lessons learned from a day of civil disobedience
The nonviolent direct action at Boeing lasted maybe three hours. I sat in a holding cell at the City of St. Charles police station for more than eight hours, which gave me ample time to contemplate the implications of the protest. This was my first arrest, so it was an educational experience as well as a political act of resistance. Here's some of what I learned:
Bring plenty of water and wear sunscreen. Bring bail money.
Invite a friend who has all day to wait around for you to get out of jail.
SUVs and pick-up trucks are popular with Boeing employees.
Yoga comes in handy for exercise in a cramped prison cell.
That "Give Peace A Chance" song is so cliché.
The more a peace protest looks like a 1969 Summer of Love costume party, the less credibility the media will give to the message.
News cameras gravitate towards images of peace activists that reinforce the stereotypes held by their viewing audience.
Getting arrested generates a lot of paperwork.
Gandhi was onto something when he said, "You cannot simultaneously prepare for war and work for peace. "
Although I am willing to eat dried worms off the sidewalk, I refuse to drink water out of a spigot on the back of a toilet.
You meet the most interesting people in prison.
War does not bring security, but instability.
A disproportionate number of peace activists are also vegetarians.
Hardee's fries aren't that great to begin with, and cold Hardee's fries are even worse. Such are the deprivations of prison life.
A chorus of jailed peace activists singing "Amazing Grace," resonating throughout the prison, is a beautiful thing and worth the price of admission.
A cell phone and a cigarette are the first things many people want when they get out of jail.
Thoreau's essay on civil disobedience doesn't really make sense until you've spent some time in jail.
You are never acting alone. An act of civil disobedience puts you in solidarity with anyone who has ever cried for peace or shouted for freedom.
When there's a guard watching you through a plexi-glass window and a camera pointed at you from the corner of the room while you are waiting to be fingerprinted and photographed, suddenly the word "empire" comes to mind.
War is not inevitable. Peace is inevitable.
Patrick Landewe bakes organic bread at Black Bear Cooperative Bakery during
the week and brews fairtrade coffee at Soulard Farmers Market on Saturdays.
He also visualizes world peace in his free time.