Saturday, January 27, 2007

Taking a Stand

I come from a tradition that encourages civil disobedience. While no one in my immediate family has yet been arrested for protesting an unjust law, I probably wouldn't have to go too far back the family tree to find someone who worked on the underground railroad, or was sent to prison for protesting a war. As a consequence, I have always more or less assumed someday I would at least be arrested, if not actually imprisoned.

So, you can imagine my chagrin when the first time I was arrested, it wasn't for protesting a war, not for protecting someone else's embattled civil rights, not to draw attention to some government sponsored atrocity... no I got arrested for lewd conduct. Or, if I preferred, public indecency. That was the charge.

I could live with this charge too, if there were at least a good story behind it, but it's really mostly embarrassing. It occurred in Seattle on a Sunday night in the Summer, what was in fact one of the hottest nights of the year (1990). I and four friends had all just auditioned for a play at the theatre where we all worked, and elected to go skinny dipping in Lake Washington, in a local park. I'm sure it comes as no surprise to most of my friends that my arrest somehow involved public nudity. Well, now you know how it all got started.

It was somewhere around 11pm when we arrived. We had the place to ourselves, no one on the beach, no one in the water. Unfortunately this was due to the fact that the park was closed, no one was supposed to be there, so somebody, presumably living in one of the nearby residences, alerted the cops.

They dutifully showed up, ordered us out of the water, and when some of our group dawdled a bit in response, the cops got mad and chose to charge us, rather than send us on our way. We were all annoyed, embarrassed, outraged, chagrined, but at this point there seemed to be nothing to do but accept the ticket, and go home. Weeks later when we went in for our arraignments, we assumed ahead of time that we would simply plead guilty (I mean, we were naked, let's not get cute), pay our fines, and be done with it. Oh, not so fast. Turns out that pleading guilty to a charge of public lewdness/indecency came with a minimum penalty of a hefty fine (I don't recall the number now, let's say $10,000) AND a minimum of 90 days in jail. The presiding judge, who seemed like a decent sort, encouraged us to plead not guilty, because if we didn't do so, he'd be forced to give us the minimum sentence.

The next step was the discovery that despite the fact that I was unemployed at the time, due to the fact that I had a savings account AT ALL, I was not eligible for a public defense attorney. None of us were, it turns out. So, we were on our own (one guy got a friend of his lawyer Mother to represent him, more on that later).

When the time came for the actual trials, four of the five of us got a judge who couldn't believe the ridiculousness of the charge. He did lecture each of us on how living in society means one doesn't get to do whatever he or she feels like, and it did make me feel about ten years old, but his true ire was for the arresting officers. I was one of the last to be dealt with, so I didn't see any of the real annoyance, but apparently he sternly lectured them for wasting everyone's time. Those of us who saw this judge had the charges dropped, no marks on our record whatsoever. The one guy who retained a lawyer saw a different judge, and ended up paying a fine of $125. As I left the courtroom the one officer who had come for our case approached me (I imagine by this point she and her partner were just wishing it would all go away). "If you guys had just put your clothes on right away, we would have just sent you home." I was simply relieved to have it all behind me, so I didn't grill her as I now wish I had. The officer then told me and my co-defendant Christina that the real big mouth/trouble-maker was the one who had been forced to pay the fine.

I had several problems with this statement, that surfaced for me only later. First off, what exactly was she saying? That they had somehow seen to it that he had been sent to more of a hanging judge, in order to assure he suffered at least some punishment for his mouthing off? The other four of us all saw this judge, was he known for being a lighter touch with these sorts of cases, since the officers felt the rest of us had 'learned our lesson'? Did they somehow stack the deck that way? Do they have that much control? And should she really be telling us about it, if they do? Second problem: if they did in fact make a concerted effort to punish the guy who had been the most belligerent (and if you ask me, juvenile) that night, they got the wrong guy. Both guys were named David, but the twit ("What, do you guys have to fill a quota or something?") got off scot-free like me, the one who got nailed was no more disrespectful than I had been. He had, however, been the only one who managed to retain a lawyer. So if the cops were basically seeing to it that 'we learned to respect their authority' or whatever the game was here, what they mostly taught us was, cops will happily use the system to gratify their egos, they know the system MUCH better than we do, so don't take on this fight lightly.

When I called to tell my family it was happening, I was able to draw on family tradition a bit, albeit not in the way I had always hoped. As a young woman my grandmother Lacey had also once been arrested for indecent exposure. She had made the grave error of going to the beach in a bathing suit that exposed her knees. I don't happen to know what price she had to pay for this egregious assault on society, but I don't think it included jail-time. God, I hope they had more sense back then even.

What's my reason for telling this story? I've been thinking recently that it looks like a time is approaching (or has been here for a while) when civil disobedience has become a necessity again, if principles of democracy, justice, and civil liberties are to be protected. This federal goverment is shameless in its contempt for the rule of law, it seems to me, and I wonder if it's going to get worse before we get the bastards out. My glancing blow with the judicial system helped me understand just how powerless and angry one can feel when in the midst of the machinery, and unlike dealing with customer service representatives, one doesn't have the option of giving up and going home in a huff. You get to go when THEY say you're done. So... I just hope the next time I'm arrested, it's because of something that matters, a stand I feel strongly about, and proud of. I can't have it be for something silly again.

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