Why Get Arrested?

At some point, my number, 38, was called. I stood before the law, which in this case was a heavy but translucent prison cell door, where you needed to shout to be heard by a rookie cop on the other side.

The recent shift toward antizionist mass organizing must be succeeding, given how much it unsettles people.

Ogilvie Station in 1981. Via Wikimedia.

The cops seemed to have been tipped off about the November 13 action at Chicago’s Ogilvie Transportation Center: they were seen setting up barricades even before it started. But the Chicago Police Department also seemed genuinely surprised by the size and nature of the action, and unprepared by the number of arrests that they’d need to make. In the almost three hours that it took CPD to muster personnel for a mass arrest event, organizers ran a loud, unpermitted demonstration in front of three long escalators, which had been stopped, occupied, then lavishly bannered. A wing of Ogilvie station—one of the busiest in the country—had effectively been shut down at the start of a Monday morning. (Socialists that they are, organizers were keen to find a spot in the station that did not prevent workers from reaching connections to their job sites. The perfect spot was found away from the trains, and, as luck would have it, right in front of a corridor leading to the Consulate General of Israel to the Midwest.) There was singing and chanting and speeches by local politicians, Palestinian activists, labor union figures, and a rabbi. It was, as the organizers billed it, the Biggest Jewish-led pro-Palestine Action Ever in the Midwest.

My team had first gathered in front of a downtown federal building, where one of the organizers was holding up a print-out that read “UChicago Sculpture Tour.” The group quickly grew large, and, not wanting to become conspicuous (Monday morning sculpture tourism presumably being a modest affair) we were told to take a tactical walk around the block. I returned just in time to witness my fellow actionists delivering fake lectures. In the universal cadence of the docent, one organizer gestured broadly behind her and declaimed, “Sculpture can be many things . . . to many people. To me, that one there is very, very tall, and, like, basically also sort of . . . pointy?”

When the laughter stopped, another person, an academic who seemed to possibly be an actual art historian, offered a fascinatingly informed take on this sculpture, situating it within the history of Chicago public art in the midcentury. Passersby eavesdropped with sincere interest in what was now becoming a very real fake sculpture tour.

But the action itself was real. Biggish news media was there. It would get national attention. The Chicago branches of Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) and IfNotNow (INN), not quite the size of their counterpart branches on the east coast, had come together quickly, with Never Again Action, to match big disruptive actions seen in DC and New York and Philly and LA, and similar ones in Europe. These protests had used major transportation hubs to demand a ceasefire, or, more specifically, an end to Israel’s current round of atrocities in Palestine, and to demand that the Democratic president we’d all been forced to vote for in 2020 pick up the phone and withdraw the political cover and the armaments without which Israel simply could not do the things it was doing in Gaza and the West Bank.

Jewish American pro-Palestine politics has shifted noticeably since the Second Intifada of 2000. Today’s JVP are intent on operating within, and accountable to a broader Palestinian-led movement, and have shaped their organizing strategies accordingly. Another way of putting it: they’re catching up to the politics of what Palestine liberation itself has been saying forever, most dramatically since the 1960s: that this is a struggle of an indigenous people against Israeli/US colonial domination, not a “conflict” between two effectively equal parties. This is a big shift from the liberal paradigm of the 1990s, in which many of us American Jews were raised: the two-state “peace” model, may it rest in peace, which routinely posited a movement led entirely by Jewish liberals in alliance with the Israeli labor left, and built on the premise of “liberal Zionism,” a still rather strident Israeli-nationalist political idea, and ultimately on terms most suited to it.

The recent shift toward antizionist mass organizing must be succeeding, given how much it unsettles people. Charges that JVP is aligned with Hamas have become common enough in the Beltway to be called a representative view of the US state. But these Jewish radicals are simply not of the same political camp as Hamas, whose rise, after all, has come largely at the cost of the Palestinian militant left. (“If you’re going to smear me with something,” one frustrated Marxist JVP member griped, “for fuck’s sake at least say I’m PFLP!”)

But even militant pacificists, as most JVP people are, are still militants. Just as the American radical left of the last century made no apology for the basic tenet of Cuban or Vietnamese armed resistance—or for that matter, the Kiowa and Cheyenne nations’ right to armed resistance against the US a century earlier—today’s nonviolent revolutionaries are quick to reject the colonialist demand that Palestinians renounce armed resistance, which is their right. So while the theory of a JVP-Hamas connection is bunk, it does reflect a real fear in the minds of Israel and its allies, as they witness very concrete and growing alliances between leftist Jews and Palestinians within a larger, international movement for a free Palestine. This alliance is most dramatically evident at the street level, where JVP speakers are often warmly invited to speak at Palestinian-led actions, and vice versa.

Once the size and scope of the Ogilvie action had become clear, the cops issued an unexpected “shelter in place” order, complete with dramatic PA announcement and alarm signal. Flashing lights around the area stayed on for the duration of the speeches and singing. All shops in the area immediately shuttered and remained so for three hours. A police perimeter was established. Arrests began around shortly before noon, as actionists were individually read their rights, then cuffed and hauled off one by one, a hundred and six people, each escorted by teams of two CPD members.

For a while the vibe inside CPD van #6920 reminded me of the locker room of an underdog basketball team that had just pulled off a win. Each time the door swung open, and a new arrestee stepped inside over the bumper, a small cheer went up from the men (and, in my van, everyone was indeed masc-identified, courtesy of CPD’s gender segregation regime—we could already hear the cops referring to us over their radios as “the males” and “the females”). When more of the group’s song-leaders arrived in the van, the singing and chanting picked up in earnest.

Fifteen minutes in, longer pauses began to assert themselves. At one point the van door opened, bringing in a sweet infusion of air from the not-too-distant lake, and a quiet person, an older man in a newsie cap who hadn’t said a word, now spoke. He was barely audible.

“I need to be near the door,” he said, “I’m feeling a panic attack.”

He’d said it so quietly that it almost didn’t register. But it did register. And the group, which had gotten loud in cross-conversation, immediately went silent. The next time the door cracked open to let a new person in, one of the group’s leaders addressed the cop at the door, a certain Sgt. Dahl.

“We’ve got a person in here with a medical condition,” said the organizer to the cop. “Let’s keep it open.”

The cop eyed the older man, who was sitting quietly, and looking down at the floor. Dahl nodded and let the door stay open a crack. Less than ten seconds later, he sealed it shut again.

The cops were packing the van to capacity, three rows of benches: two along the walls and another, double-sided, middle row. The space between these rows was non-existent, your knees meeting the thighs of the person facing you. An existing injury to my right shoulder, sustained while hoisting my 4-year-old, was beginning to throb mightily. My fingers, in zipties behind my back, had grown alarmingly numb (weeks later, the numbness continues to grip my thumbs). With the doors closed, all of us breathing heavily in the small space, arms lashed tightly behind our backs, were beginning to have a hard time breathing, and thus taking even deeper breaths, and, with those, more precious air. Each time the van door swung open, and Sgt. Dahl began to upload a new person, there were more and more insistent calls for him to keep it open. But it mostly stayed shut.

After nearly an hour came the long-awaited revving of the engine and then a bumpy drive to the station. We arrived at the first district of the CPD, located at 17th and State. Sgt. Dahl made a robotic announcement that his body camera was on and recording (had it been off earlier?). Behind him, on the inside of a closed garage door, we could clearly read the stenciled signage: REMEMBER YOUR WEAPON.

One of the rambunctious IfNotNow guys, scraggly-bearded and knit-yarmulked, recited the words on the sign, then merrily added his own interpretive gloss: “Remember! Our weapon is nonviolence.”

Sgt. Dahl, amused by this comment, dropped the mask of impassive day-shifter, smirked and stepped up onto the bumper. “Gotta ask you guys, though,” he said. “Why get arrested? Why not just take the ticket and walk?”

For a moment, nobody spoke. The group had been trained not to engage such conversations with cops, and to simply answer that they won’t talk without a lawyer present. But others sized up Dahl’s question as harmless enough—or maybe just couldn’t resist the chance to tangle with a cop.

“They didn’t offer us tickets!” yelled E., one of the action’s leaders, from the back of the van. E. sang almost constantly and had been one of the action’s main bullhornists. Now, with no bullhorn, he still boomed impressively.

“They said they offered you tickets,” Dahl said to E.

“Nobody offered us tickets!”

It hardly mattered. The tactical consensus in this action had been in favor of arrests. On the other hand, we’d already made our statement and gotten the desired coverage. The staff of the Israeli Consul General to the Midwest, Yinam Cohen, were, even at that moment, crafting its statement accusing us of being Hamas operatives who “rip down American flags.” We’d gotten our win here. The difficult van ride seemed more than sufficient punishment for our misdemeanor charge of “criminal trespass.” We were ready to call it a day.

“Are you saying we can have tickets?” E. was now saying. “Cause we’ll take ’em!”

The cop dropped the chummy tone. “Too late, pal. You’re getting processed.”

Sgt. Dahl gestured to the first person in the van to step down and confirm their ID. One by one we slowly emerged, passed from officer to officer: from a tall cop, who mercifully cut off our zipties, to a shorter cop who searched us (again), to an even shorter cop who sharpied a number on the back of our hands. Mine was 38. Later, when a group of us had reconvened in a large cell, one of the INN people put his hand up, pointed to his number, and said “Well now this isn’t triggering at all, is it?”

I’d never been properly arrested before—just a close call once, when Elif Batuman handed me her beer as we walked in Midtown Manhattan, three seconds before a NYPD detail came swooping down to detain and briefly interrogate me on the street corner, before letting me off with a warning. I’d worked almost two years in Boston’s Sheriff Department as a prison librarian, an experience that had given me enough foresight that day to wear shoes without laces. But I’d forgotten that drawstrings on pants and hoodies would also get clipped and impounded. With my drawstring pants suddenly looser than I’d bargained for, I shuffled over to a large cell, where we were told we’d wait “for a bit before being released.” We ended up staying in that cell for the next eight hours before being fully booked, and then shunted into another, smaller cell, where we’d again wait “for a bit before being released,” which ended up being an additional ten hours, for a total of eighteen jail hours.

I would get, all told, about thirty minutes of sleep, and would emerge around 7:30 AM into the police station lobby and into another, more local world-historical crisis: for over a year, police stations across Chicago had become shelters to waves of asylum seekers, mostly from Venezuela,  twenty thousand in all. As I received my impounded property, I could see entire families asleep on the floor. When I got home, I sliced up some apples for my kid’s lunch, and, with my walking papers still in my jacket, took her to Pre-K. It had been hard to be away from her for the night. As we walked to school, she regaled me with her dreams, all of which concerned various outlandish physical feats undertaken by our cat Junie, and also her plans for yet another doll’s birthday party that evening. Her little husky, intensely sincere muppet voice, which always touches me so deeply, had been touching me even more of late, as I witnessed, hour by hour, the terrible suffering of the children between the river and the sea, especially those in Gaza. I thought about all her little counterparts over there, and their families, and it weighed heavily.

In the cell, without phones or any ability to go anywhere, we got to know each other intimately. There was intense conversation on the state of radical politics, and the kind of jailhouse networking one would expect among organizers. People told stories, recited Shakespeare and fragments of remembered poems, prayed, and sang many songs together—earnest movement songs at first, and then, as the night wore into morning, showtunes from Chicago and Joseph and the Technicolor Dreamcoat. Among the tactical purposes of getting arrested for the cause has always been to bond the group for the coming battles, to further radicalize them by making the stakes personal.

The Christian pastor among us, dressed in his minster’s collar, led theater games. Everyone closed their eyes. All were invited to call out a letter of the alphabet in order, with the goal of reaching Z. The single rule was this: only one person could speak at a time. If two people both said R at the same time, the whole group would have to start again from A. It’s a game that requires a group to listen attentively to each other, to read the room’s collective emotional rhythms, and to speak only with deliberation. On its first run, the group reached V together, and then, after a second, hasty elimination on G, tried again and made it all the way through, from A to Z, an impressive feat of group coordination.

At some later hour, when people were feeling more confessional, a trans man told the group that he’d never really had a friendship with a cis-het man, much less felt comfortable in spaces dominated by them. Going to jail, and especially dealing with the police, had been a particularly stressful thought. But this experience had turned out to be unexpectedly “healing, to feel so trusting with all of you, to able to be here with you, in these conditions.”

I recalled that the ADL, and others, including members of the Democratic Party that week, had tagged JVP a “hate group.” That poisonous bit of incitement usually angered me. But at this moment, watching a group of anti-war activists teach each other meditation exercises and cry together, it just seemed kind of funny.

The idea of these Jewish-led actions is that Jews have a specific role to play within Palestinian liberation. One: to counter the old chestnut of Zionist propaganda, an equation that has received increasingly McCarthyite support in the US government even though (or possibly because) it is losing currency among everyone else, namely, that antizionism equals antisemitism. As state repression of antizionists, including Jewish antizionists, grows, so does the need for Jews to move to the front of the movement and directly combat this lie.

Another reason why Jewish-led actions are critical: somebody needs to put bodies out front, to draw the fire. Palestinian activists, already surveilled and harassed by the state, face additional risks. As with the BLM protests, where there was a call for allies to absorb police violence directed especially at Black people, Jews, especially white Jews, are called upon to stick their necks out. “We need to be the ones willing to get arrested in these actions,” one of the organizers put it to me.

Which is why I’d been a bit surprised to meet R. while we were both handcuffed in the police van. He’d introduced himself as a person born and raised in Gaza, who had been moved to hear about this action, and made the trip from his home in Michigan to join us. The group was immediately concerned for him—was it unwise for him to get arrested?—but R. himself seemed unbothered. He was mostly interested in discussing some Chomsky. At one later point, in our shared cell, he said to the whole group, “I’m curious . . . does anyone here identify as Zionist?”

A bunch of people burst out laughing. Someone said, “If it means I could get out of here right now and pee in privacy, I might be willing to.”

R. clarified that Chomsky had sometimes spoken about being raised Zionist, and he was curious if that resonated with us.

The question was apt. Though it was of a different vintage, more territorialist than the Chomsky family’s 1920s-era “cultural Zionism,” a number of us, especially the INN people, had, either by household or formal education or both, a Zionist background. Few Jews raised within mainstream American Jewish institutions don’t. That is, indeed, one of the reasons these groups exist to begin with, and also why it’s taken so long for them to emerge. During our formative years we were deeply imprinted by Zionism—and not just its vulgar indoctrinations, but also its powerfully sentimental and religious appeals to Jewish narrative, modern and ancient. For the radical Jews in this jail cell, the mission of supporting the Palestinian project to decolonize and liberate their land inevitably involved an effort to decolonize and liberate our own consciousness from Zionism.

Everyone in jail was eager to hear from the older activists, among whom were some notable Chicago labor organizers, including the former president of one of the city’s most powerful unions, the Chicago Teachers Union. CTU is currently at the height of its influence, having raised one of their own, Brandon Johnson, into office as mayor of Chicago—a major coup for the left in a union town long ruled by reactionary forces. The former union president spent decades in the trenches of Chicago politics, and provided our group with a seminar on the subject. Now, however, he wanted to know what we, pro-Palestine activists, saw as the practical way to build a free one-state reality between the river and sea.

“As an organizer, I’m always into the details of things on the ground,” he said. “I’m curious how it would actually come together.”

People offered plans, studies they’d read, theories they’d heard. The union guy wasn’t totally convinced.

“Unfortunately,” someone said, “it actually doesn’t really matter right now. What matters is stopping this war and halting the blank-check military investments in the occupation of Palestine. That’s all we need to be focusing on. We’re not there with a new state yet. We need to just stop the killing and expose the war machine. We need to be escalating pressure to end America’s unconditional support of Israel’s military. It’s a bare minimum but it has to be the starting point.”

The old union organizer sighed and considered this position for a moment. Then he nodded and said, “Yeah, that actually sounds right.”

Everyone in the room had plans for other actions, big and small. I mentioned that I’d considered officially renouncing my Israeli citizenship, maybe organizing other dual citizens to join me. But I also had some doubts about this idea, tactically and even ideologically. Even though I wanted to do it for my own personal reasons, I wasn’t sure if it was the way, politically. So I put the question to my fellow detainees.

“No, man, no!” R. said. “You can’t do that, my friend.”

A sudden hush dropped, as everyone in the group looked with interest at the sight before them: in a shared jail cell, a Palestinian, born and raised in Gaza, trying to convince an Israeli, an alum of a West Bank settler yeshiva, to keep his citizenship.

I explained that my doubts were mostly pragmatic. As a journalist, who always wants access to the belly of the beast, giving up papers was tactically unwise. And a descendent of refugees, my instincts are always in favor of holding fast to any citizenship papers.

“Look, I know all about that,” R. said. “But I don’t even mean that. I mean, you were born there, man. That’s where you’re from.”

I was born at a Hadassah hospital in Ayn Karim, a Palestinian village, west of the old city of Jerusalem, that was ethnically cleansed by Israelis in July 1948, a mere twenty-three years before my family arrived. My family settled in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Talbieh, which was ethnically cleansed in February 1948. Upon arrival, my parents were granted citizenship under these dubious terms, under the so-called “Law of Return,” then granted full rights in direct displacement of a native population that has since grown to millions, who are today granted no right of return. Even those who live in Palestine can barely see their own lands. Palestinians in the West Bank, who live as close as ten miles from the Mediterranean beaches—who could, on a clear day, see the azure water on the horizon—have never sunk their feet in their ancestral sands or sea. Gazans never see Jerusalem. My new friend, R., had dreamed in vain of attending the very same university in which my father had been seamlessly enrolled. My family had directly displaced him in his own land. There was, in my view, no legitimate basis for me to have been granted these rights to begin with.

“Yes there is!” R. said. “Every person has that right, man. That’s the whole thing. Anyone who wants to live there should be able to live there, or anywhere on earth. That’s what we believe here, isn’t it?”

At some point, my number, 38, was called. I stood before the law, which in this case was a heavy but translucent prison cell door, where you needed to shout to be heard by a rookie cop on the other side.

“Date’a’Birth,” the cop said, his eyes fixed on the document he was scribbling on.

Then: “In what state?”

I replied, “Jerusalem.”

He lifted his pen from the paper, but did not lift his eyes.

“Uh, country?” he said.

When R. had been asked this question by this cop, he’d winced for a quick moment. Then he said, “Palestine.” The word rung like a bell inside our cell. R.’s official documents have never not been garbled—he’s even had one that said he was born in “Israel,” even though Gaza has never, not for a minute, been Israeli annexed territory. For my reply, I’d decided to simply fall back on my own bureaucratic status.

“That’s what it says on my US documents,” I replied to the cop. “Just, ‘born in Jerusalem,’ with no country listed.”

The cop could not care less. He moved on to the next question.

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