OFFICER MARIO normally worked for Homeland Security. On this Friday night he’d been seconded to the Washington, D.C. Metro police, who had their hands full. Not only did they have the usual “drunk and disorderlies,” but now 54 people who looked like card-carrying members of the AARP were filling up their holding cells. Officer Mario, of retirement age himself, was feeling fortunate. He’d been assigned to the women’s side.
“Ladies, ladies, ladies!” Mario said, sauntering in with a mischievous smile. “This must be my lucky night.”
The evening before, we’d all been at St. Stephen and the Incarnation Episcopal Church running role plays on how to “flash mob” the corporate headquarters of Environmental Resources Management (ERM), the firm hired by the U.S. State Department to provide an environmental impact statement on the Keystone XL pipeline. To the disbelief and concern of climate scientists, ERM claimed that TransCanada’s Keystone pipeline would not significantly contribute to climate change. ERM was suspected of “misleading disclosures” regarding conflict of interest and material gain from the pipeline’s completion.
Our white-haired mob of mostly grandparents converged on ERM headquarters at noon to shine a light on such shady dealings. While six silver foxes blocked the elevators by chaining their arms together inside a PVC pipe, I watched two D.C. police lift Steve, age 70, and toss him into the crowd behind me. I knew this nonviolent civil disobedience wasn’t going as planned.
For the next hour the police threatened us with felony charges, and we chanted complicated ditties on Big Oil, Mother Earth, and the merits of transparency in a democracy. Then they slipped plastic cuffs over our wrists and charged us with “unlawful entry.”
By the time Officer Mario found us, we were exhilarated—and tired—after our righteous deed. How wonderful to be white, comparatively wealthy, and well-lawyered-up when entering the U.S. “justice” system. He told grandkid stories and apologized for having to ask our age and weight. The station was out of intake forms, so we wrote our information on scrap paper, sharing his single pen.
Then the computers went down. A handful of us were shipped to holding cells at D.C. Central Cell Block to finish processing. No singing there. After an invasive body search, we were put two each in small, steel cells with metal bunks and walls that clanged like thunder. A bologna sandwich and water arrived at 10 p.m. We tried to encourage each other—but eventually we drew inward, silent. A little edge of panic began to creep in. How long would we be in here? Was it worth it? Am I really this weak?
We were released after little more than 12 hours in custody.
Over the next several weeks, we had two court appearances. As we waited for our case in Judge Howze’s courtroom, we watched a dozen people go forward—most on charges of shoplifting from a grocery store or marijuana possession. They ranged in age from 17 to 70. None of them were white.
A few weeks later, in Judge Morin’s courtroom, we agreed to stay away from ERM headquarters, as well as to avoid arrest, for six months, and were spared further jail time.
The week after our arrests, the State Department’s Office of Inspector General confirmed that it was investigating alleged ERM and State Department mishandling of the Keystone XL contract.
Dorothy Day once said that “the ugliness of jail life” was “a fearful suspense, not one of normal hope and expectation.” Around 1 a.m. I asked my cellmate how she was doing. “If I had to stay in here very long,” she said, “I think I’d be a different person than the one I know I am.”
There are more than 200,000 women incarcerated in the U.S. tonight. This is not their story.
Rose Marie Berger, author of Who Killed Donte Manning? (available at store.sojo.net), is a Catholic peace activist and a Sojourners senior associate editor.