Ahna is a current LVCer in Washington, DC, serving at the Government Accountability Project. This is her story of and reflections on her experiences related to the Kavanaugh hearing and accompanying protests. This is post 3 of 3; her first post is here; second is here.
On October 6th, 2018 I was arrested on the steps of the Capitol. I was protesting the imminent confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh to the U.S. Supreme Court. When people found out, they asked what being arrested is like. They asked with a gleam in their eyes, a smile forming on their lips, and a palpable anticipation for the badass protest story they expected. I suppose I’m grateful for this. I’m grateful to have people in my life that see protesting as a valid form of activism, but I was frustrated every time I was congratulated for my courage. Instead of telling some epic story of resistance, I answered the question honestly: “Being arrested was problematically comfortable.”
When I was arrested, I spent a lot of time waiting, but at every turn my comfort was prioritized. Waiting in line with the rest of the protesters, I felt the officers hand gently wrapped around my bicep. Waiting on the bus, I heard two women joking with the officer. Waiting outside the warehouse-like processing space, I saw rows of metal chairs for us to rest our feet. I spent hours waiting, but I was given water and multiple bathroom breaks. My experience was eerily similar to a women’s networking event, or a church lock-in.
There’s nothing wrong with this. What is wrong is that my experience was so different than the other millions of arrests made in the U.S. in this year. I didn’t feel my body slammed against the pavement or my arms yanked behind my back. I didn’t hear an officer yelling at me, see a gun pointed at me, or taste blood from being roughed-up a little bit. I certainly never feared for my life or worried about not being able to make bail.
Maybe my experience was different because I wasn’t arrested for something “serious”. Maybe my experience was rightfully comfortable because I was just protesting, exercising rights that people like me take for granted.
But I also didn’t feel the blow of a police baton. I didn’t hear the screams of a woman being run over by a car. I didn’t see a naked woman cowering in a cage like an animal, taste a plexiglass shield shoved against my face, or smell tear gas burning it’s way into my lungs. Those are all things that happen at protests.
So again, I ask you and I ask myself: Why didn’t I experience any of those things? My gut tells me it is because I am white.
I’ve thought about this for hours. I’ve typed and retyped this post over and over again. I know I’m not done reflecting on my experience, but writing this made me realize that I actually started to process it that night.
My roommate, and remarkable friend, Leora was released about an hour after me. We may have been arrested together, but we had very different experiences. When women were joking with the officer on the bus and while I was chatting with women about my future career prospects, Leora was sitting in silence. She had been silently protesting the comforts of our arrest.
Leora is the kind of friend who recognizes her privilege and forces you to do the same. She is the kind of friend that challenges you to be a better person. I had only known her for a month and a half, but I knew she had high standards for herself and convictions that she valued more than her own comfort. As we walked home that night, her observations about the problematic comfort of our arrest did not surprise me, but they did stick with me.
I responded to her comments with a story I’d heard from a fellow protester. A few of the women in our group had asked to have their arms zip-tied in front of their bodies instead of behind their backs. I don’t remember why. I think one had some risk of a stroke and the other had a joint problem. After the guards had switched their arms to the front of their bodies, another woman asked for the same accommodation. She had recently had surgery on her shoulder, but she was told no. With her arms restrained behind her back, the wound on her shoulder was forced opened and started to bleed. This woman was black and the other women were not. I could say this was a coincidence, but chances are it wasn’t. Even in comfy protest arrests, racism is alive and well.
Leora and I discussed our privilege as we walked; I asked her what she was thinking about as she sat in silence for close to 7 hours. She said she just kept thinking about what it would be like to be arrested alone. In that moment, I first imagined what my arrest might have been like if I was Leora, sitting in silence.
Then I thought about being alone. I was reminded of filling out my paperwork. I remember how my stomach dropped when the guard called my name, how my mouth was dry when I answered his questions, and how my hand was shaking when I signed papers I didn’t fully understand. I remembered feeling confused and scared like a lost child.
As we walked, my experience melded with my imagination. What if I’d actually been alone? What if I’d been a woman of color? Talking to Leora pushed me to think about the experience of another. It allowed me to empathize, and it made me want to tell this story.
Months later, people have stopped asking about my arrest, but every few weeks I tell someone. I “let it slip.” I casually mention it in conversation. Every time I do this, I feel a spark of pride and then a wave of guilt. While many activists and wear their arrest records as almost a badge of honor, I don’t think I deserve any credit for my actions.
I am still not done processing my experience. However, I am beginning to understand why my arrest was problematically comfortable. It was comfortable because I am white. It was problematic because comfort is not the norm.