October 11, 2018 marked the thirtieth anniversary of the day I was arrested.
By 1988, AIDS diagnoses in the U.S. approached 100,000 and communities were devastated. The Republican government’s ignoring of the growing crisis led to the formation of Act Up, the direct action advocacy group that has had a profound impact in the battle against the AIDS pandemic by changing legislation, medical research, and policies.
Act Up’s effective use of public protest was one of its most powerful weapons in the fight against AIDS. October 11, 1988 was the date set for Act Up’s largest action to that date, which was to close down the Federal Drug Administration, or FDA.
I had a good friend, David, who was a significant player in Act Up. I decided to commit the crime for the cause and as a birthday gift for my friend. It was also a way of celebrating my own birthday, October 12. Also, this was particularly dark time in my life. Maybe I’d see what it was like to do something good for once.
I travelled down to Washington DC, where the action was to take place, by bus. The day before the protest, all of the participants, including those of us who planned on getting arrested, received civil disobedience training. We were walked through how the whole process was supposed to take place and how we were to behave. We were not to be incited to violence. Once arrested, we’d be given a summons and let go. Most importantly, we wanted media attention. If approached by the media we were all to give a singular answer, “It’s a lie, it’s a sham, it won’t work!” It was all wonderfully organized and I learned a great deal. But I also felt profoundly lonely. Just about everyone there were with affinity groups, finding strength and enthusiasm in the groups they were part of. I was there alone, one straight person in a LGBTQ crowd.
The morning of the eleventh we arrived at the FDA. The crowd was enormous and the energy was pumping. The police seemed nice enough and everything appeared to be deliberately choreographed. We were to lay down in front of the FDA to block people from entering. The police would drag me away I’d get my summons and then I’d go home.
Or so I thought.
The first part went according to plan. I laid down and was dragged away. But then the police put my hands behind my back and secured them with plastic cuffs. I’m not the most flexible person in the world and the position was particularly uncomfortable. But worse than the twisting of my arms was the fact that I was now restricted against my will. I suppose one could find a kinky pleasure in being consensually handcuffed knowing that you can always get out, but this was different. I’m not going to compare myself to an Iraqi prisoner in Abu Ghraib, but anyone who says that those poor souls weren’t tortured have never been put in handcuffs with no chance of freedom. That was enough to drive me crazy.
Some fierce force pulsed inside of me. I felt like one of those panthers caged at an old zoo where the desperate animals paced from one side of the cage to the other. All I could think of was wanting to get out of those damned plastic cuffs which dug painfully into my wrists.
But it was not to be. Along with my fellow arrestees, I was pushed onto a bus and left there.
We all began to worry. We got no information about what was going to happen next. There was a lot of anger in the air that day, and some of us on that bus were not happy at all.
As my body ached and my brain banged against the bars of my skull with the repeating mantra of I’ve gotta get out, I’ve gotta get out, I’ve gotta get out, the minutes ground through its gears. It then dawned on me that I had been arrested, and I had no control about what was going to happen now. I started to freak. Of course, I was just a little white boy who had been busted for disturbing the peace. How could I be this anxious compared to what a black guy must feel when pushed head first into a squad car or have a gun pointed at his chest? Nevertheless, my cortisol didn’t know the difference and I was sweating.
Who knew how much later, a porky state trooper in his big hat and belly stood at the front of the bus, wearing latex gloves. In his best “In the Heat of the Night” southern drawl he said, “If yure nahs to me, ah’ll be nahs to eeyew. But if you FUCK with me, ah’ll bust yure fuckin’ head wahd open.”
“Whaddya mean ‘fuck with you?’” somebody in the front of the bus demanded.
Porky responded with a clear edge in his voice, “If yew SPIT on me, I’ll crack fuckin’ head wide open!”
This was early enough in the AIDS crisis that there was a tremendous amount of ignorance and prejudice about the disease and this disgusting excuse for a human being believed you could get the infection by being spit on, and that anyone on the bus would think of doing that anyway.
I got it. To this cop, everyone on this bus was a faggot with AIDS. That included me. OK.
We asked when we’d be released. He reiterated what I had intuited. He looked at us with a perplexed, ironic, and sadistic grin. “You boys have been ARRESTED. You don’t decide when you get out. WE do. And we have no plans for letting you go.”
We asked what was going to happen next. “You’ll be taken to a holding facility.”
My panic exploded in my body. The cuffs felt like they were shrinking, squeezing my wrists tighter and tighter. My shoulders and back throbbed as I sat with my arms shoved behind my back in the narrow, plastic bus seat. “I gotta get out,” screamed relentlessly in my head like the vocals on a Black Metal record.
Conversation on the bus waxed and waned as the hours passed. Things got heated and political as I listened to the crimes committed by straight white people against this beleaguered community. I kept my mouth shut. My isolation and loneliness deepened.
In a lull, one of the guys on the bus, thinking he was making a joke said, “Tomorrow is National Coming Out Day. Anyone on the bus want to come out as straight? Everyone laughed. Now my heart started to pound even more and I could feel the red heat fill my face. This was a moment where I had to make a choice. Nobody else on the bus spoke. I raised my voice as much as I could, but all that came out was a pathetic squeak. “I’m straight,” I said.
The bus got quiet and all eyes turned to me. I could feel the hostility from some of the eyes around me.
“What are you doing here?” one person snarled.
I started to find some strength in the ridiculousness of the question. “What am I doing here? I’m getting arrested along with you – in solidarity. If every straight person was here with me, I’m sure it would help. This isn’t very easy, you know.”
“It isn’t easy?” another guy said. “Do you have any idea what it is like to live with this disease? Do you know what I suffer every day? And what I suffer because nobody gives a shit because I’m gay and this is the gay disease and they don’t give a shit if we all die? Do you know how many of my friends have died? And you sit here for a few hours and you’ll go back to your straight life when this is over and think you’ve done something? I don’t want you here!”
He was right. What right did I have to be here? What did I know of suffering? I was such a wimp. I couldn’t even stand to be handcuffed for a few hours. I was filled with shame. I wished I could disappear.
But that wasn’t the end of it. This roused the crowd. A woman spoke. “Wait, wait, hold on. He’s not the enemy. Who knows what brought him here. I think it’s great that he’s willing to come out in support! Welcome! I’m glad you are here!”
And so it went. The debate went on. There wasn’t much else to do. Finally, a consensus was reached that it was ok that I was on the bus. Not that any of us had much of a choice. Put enough people on a bus together with handcuffs on and you’ll bond. I made some friends.
At last, the bus moved to the holding area, a gym in a local school. We waited there for more hours while volunteer attorneys tried to figure out how to get us released. It was offered that some could go while others would stay. We all agreed that unless we were all released, we’d all stay. I didn’t like that decision at all. I would’ve happily left and not cared what happened to anyone else.
Miraculously, the moment came as capriciously as we’d been thrown into all this. We were told we could all go.
I ran out of that gym into the sunshine and kissed the ground. I’d never been so happy to see the sky and to have my arms free again. I was so grateful to be healthy and alive.
On that one day I was able to skim the waters of oppression and get a cold splash of what that felt like. In tiny ways I got to experience what it was like to be a minority, to be tortured, held against my will, to be threatened for being gay, to have AIDS, and to come out in an unsafe world. I know it’s not much compared to the real thing, but it was enough for me, and, I would think, it would be for anybody. No one should have to go through even that much and having to go through more, like most of my friends who I got arrested with that day, is unconscionable. I learned that in my bones that day.
So if you’re thinking of getting arrested for civil disobedience, I highly recommend it.