By David Mixner -
The arrests this week of GetEQUAL activists in Washington got my memory juices flowing about my past arrests. Getting arrested is never pleasant especially if you are claustrophobic like me. Hell, I can't even sit in the back seat of a two-door car let alone rest comfortably in a room consisting of a toilet, bars and about twenty other people. Now, those of us who have been repeat offenders (three strikes?) and long term practitioners of Gandhian civil disobedience tend to know jail house etiquette! These acquired skills always come in handy to assist 'newcomers' who love the handcuffs in public but aren't quite prepared for the reality of even a day behind bars.
Going to jail can be a very effective strategy in raising public awareness in an epic struggle for freedom. The arrests advance an issue forward and the sacrifice is rewarded with progress in a number of different ways. Other times I have gone to jail to simply 'give witness against a great evil.' The concept is that you are not likely to change minds but the evil is so powerful you 'give witness' against it. For example, after the start of the Iraq War getting arrested was not going to end the war but enabled me to 'give witness' against it by my sacrifice.
There is not a time that I have wanted to go to jail, been comfortable in jail or wanted to stay in jail. The experience is not a picnic and the accommodations are certainly not Four Seasons level. Despite my dark memories of some of my experiences as a member of the jail population (and trust me there were dark ones), I usually am reminded of those moments that still make me smile or laugh.
When Nixon invaded Cambodia at the end of April in 1970, there was a storm of protests around the country with over 400 universities having to shut their doors due to massive demonstrations. A group of us who had been active in organizing the national protests against the war and a large number of the clergy decided to get arrested in front of the White House. Everything went as planned but the cops were a little rough because tensions were high in the nation. However, what was unique, coming down to the jail to bail us out was Betty Anne Ottinger, then wife of Congressman Richard Ottinger. Watching the process of Betty Anne negotiate with the police was very funny.
When the International AIDS Conference was held in Washington, DC, sixty-four LGBT leaders and HIV/AIDS activists decided to get arrested in front of the White House. Among those arrested were Leonard Matlovich (photograph), Ginny Apuzzo, Rev.Troy Perry, Jim Foster, Dan Bradley, Jean O'Leary and Sean Strub. At that time Pennsylvania Avenue (the nation's main street) was still open to traffic in front of the President's residence. Blocking the street, we awaited our arrests. Pouring out of the police transports were literally over a hundred cops in riot gear and most importantly long, up to the biceps yellow gloves to protect them from even touching us for fear of HIV/AIDS. Never to be trumped by the cops, we all started chanting "Your gloves don't match your shoes." In the process, we drew the attention of the press to this insult and the gloves quickly disappeared in the future.
When Clinton decided to hide behind "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" in 1993, a number of people got arrested to protest the policy (photograph bottom). About twenty to thirty of us (about 2/3 from Los Angeles) decided to get arrested in front of the White House. Because of my friendship with the President Clinton we drew a little more press than normal. The arrests protesting this policy was a huge story back then. As we got arrested, they removed our belts and shoelaces before loading us into the 'wagon'. As this momentous event was taking place all I could think was that my pants were going to fall down to my ankles and I was commando (photograph right)! How stupid of me! As he placed me into the wagon, the arresting officer apologized for arresting me and pointed out that his brother was gay. I asked him if he could run the siren when we left to remind the people in the White House we were out here. He said it wasn't allowed. Nevertheless, as we pulled away from the White House, the siren blared loud and clear for freedom!
Taken to the jail, the men were put in one cell and the women in another down the hall. We figured out that if we stood on a bench and yelled into a vent we could send messages back and forth between the two cells. We used every bad movie line about being in the lockup you can imagine. We were laughing until tears filled our eyes. In the process, I figured a way to get out of my cuffs and realized that in the men's cell I was suddenly cell block boss. Ah, the sweet smell of power and helpless fellow inmates! This was the arrest where current West Hollywood Mayor John Duran - when being booked, finger printed and having a mug shot taken - was asked by the booking Sergeant if John went by any other alias. Without missing a beat the future mayor looked the Sergeant in the eyes and said in a masculine voice, "Yeah, I sometimes go by 'Mary'." We were rolling with laughter in the cell at the strickened look on the officer's face as he said, "Oh God, it is going to be a very long day isn't it?"
Despite the good humor, it has really been a very long seventeen years since then in the fight to overturn the ban that sent us to jail in 1993. Since those arrests over 14,000 LGBT soldiers have been drummed out of the military in one massive witch hunt. My hat is off to those who bravely got arrested this week, to the courage of all those within the military who have courageously faced their oppressors and to a LGBT community that refuses to give up.
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