by Karen Topakian
“Why are you all dressed alike?” asked a woman seated on the floor in the Washington DC lockup. Four of us shuffled past her, hampered by our ankle chains.
She was right. We were all dressed alike – wearing dark one-piece zip up fleece body suits – onesies. We stood out amidst a sea of women wearing jeans, baggy shorts, jackets and hoodies. But we didn’t have a choice. The police had taken away our clothes after arresting us for climbing up a construction crane a few blocks behind the White House to unfurl a banner that said RESIST.
The 12 women occupying the cell eyed us with quiet curiosity as we – two white women (Zeph and Karen), one African American woman (Pearl) and one Latina (Nancy) – searched for a place to sit on the dark linoleum floor or lean against the white cinder block walls. The bright lights didn’t provide a dark corner to hide in this 12’ by 15’ cell.
At 7:30 a.m., we all focused on one thing – Superior Court arraignment at 1 p.m. We all wore a DC Police issued plastic wristband identifying us by photo, name, birth date, gender and race. When we arrived at lockup, the DC Police handed us over to the U.S. Marshals who used a black sharpie to write a number on our bracelet corresponding to the order we arrived. I was #76. And they would refer to me as such all day.
A steady conversation hum filled the room. Two women who thought they lived in the same neighborhood, tried to figure out friends in common. Others explained in expletive-ridden detail how they innocently ended up in lockup. Four women slumped over four metal stools fixed to the floor in front of dark screen window where defendants could speak to lawyers or other court officials. The rest stayed quiet or dozed. Exhausted hungry and thirsty, we kept to ourselves.
Finally, one of us responded to the query, “Did you see that RESIST banner hanging above the White House? That was us.”
In a flash, a woman wearing dreadlocks and long baggy gym shorts, #23, jumped to her feet and high-fived us. Another young woman, in torn jeans and a red hoodie, #57, strutted around the packed cell exclaiming, “I need a selfie. I’m famous. I’m in-car-cer-ated with the crane people.” A young woman sporting a turquoise and cream streaked Afro wig, long pointy fingernails and over the knee boots stopped her conversation and exclaimed with a big bright smile, “That was you. I saw that.”
She was Sunshine. And this wasn’t her first time in jail. She too had been arrested for civil disobedience. When she lived in Los Angles, she joined a march to protest a Missouri Grand Jury’s failure to indict the police officer that shot Mike Brown. In response, Sunshine had occupied Rte. 110 and shut it down.
When she lived in Texas, she rushed to the jail where Sandra Bland died to see for herself what had happened. According to the police, Sandra had hanged herself using a standard issue trash bag in her cell. Sunshine rooted through the jail’s dumpster to find an identical bag. When she tied it to a fence to see if it could hold her 125 pounds, it broke. “There’s no way that bag held her,” declared Sunshine. “They fuckin’ murdered her.”
In July, she attended the Democratic Convention because Sunshine loved her Bernie. “I don’t like many white men but I love my Bernie.”
When Trump’s name came up, she stated unequivocally how much she hated him and Hillary Clinton. But never Bernie. She felt Hillary and her people had robbed him of his opportunity to lead and could never forgive her.
Sunshine sat on the floor next to her wife, often holding her hand. They had met five years earlier at a lesbian poetry reading, which Sunshine had helped produce. Now they lived in DC with their pit bull dog. Sunshine worked as a cosmetologist doing hair and make-up while her wife cooked at a senior center.
“Let me fix it,” cooed Sunshine to her wife who squirmed as she re-braided her hair. “I’m a professional and she never lets me touch her hair.”
“I bet I could use help with my hair,” I said, tugging on a hank of grey hair matted down by the ski hat and hardhat I had worn on the crane. “And certainly make up.”
Sunshine stared at me, nodded in agreement and said, “I am all about contours and shading.”
Suddenly the door opened, a hush fell over the cell. A male US Marshal half entered and yelled, “Number 36.”
“She’s not here,” responded my cellmates in unison.
Before the marshal left, a woman seated by the door, #43, called out, “I need something to eat, I’m starving. I’m pregnant and my baby’s eating the walls of my stomach.”
“I told you we don’t have any food,” responded the marshal exasperated.
The woman dropped her head.
“What time is it?” yelled several other women.
Before closing the door, he shouted, “8:45.”
After spending the night in lockup, these women anxiously awaited Superior Court arraignments beginning in four hours. Without a clock, everyone depended on a visitor to share a simple piece of information, the time.
Number 43, thin and on edge, told us her father had entered her home, where he didn’t live, pistol whipped her and threatened her. Then called the police on her.
Sunshine jumped in. “You need a restraining order against him.”
“How the fuck do I do that?” asked #43.
“I’ll tell you how,” responded Sunshine who walked the woman through the process step by step telling her where to go and what documentation she needed. “Then when your father comes back, you call the police because he’s violating the order. They will arrest him.”
“She knows her shit,” called out one of the other women.
Sunshine’s wife smiled proudly. “She filed a restraining order against our landlord. Now he can’t come near his own property.”
Number 43 appeared happy for the help but too distracted to absorb it all.
“I need a restraining order against my husband’s fuckin’ ex-wife,” announced an older woman with short close-cropped hair, #50. “She and I got into it when she came by for money. She’s an addict. I’m clean. I won’t give her any fuckin’ money.”
Everyone nodded in agreement.
“The cops shot my brother on Christmas day and I’m the one in here,” announced #23 as she attempted to pace but couldn’t get past women sprawled out on the floor. “I didn’t even know they had a bench warrant for me.”
“My brother was wrapping up his kids Christmas presents. He wasn’t threatening no fucking cop. They said he had a fucking knife. Why’d they have to fuckin’ shoot him?” she searched our faces for an answer, then stood quietly.
No one spoke for a few minutes.
“How many tasers did you have in your car?” asked #57 to # 38, the only white woman of the 12 in lockup.
“Two. But they were both broken,” answered #38 as she ran her hand through her blonde hair.
“Then they were toys,” announced #23.
“When they asked to look in your car, you should have said no,” declared Sunshine. “Remember next time.”
Sunshine’s wife smiled in agreement.
As the morning wore on, the cell door opened again. This time a female marshal entered and called, “Number 36?”
Again the women yelled back, “She’s not here.”
Before the marshal closed the door, the pregnant woman, # 43, asked for water.
“Drink out of the sink,” instructed the marshal, pointing to the partitioned off bathroom, which included a metal toilet and sink.
“That water’s like Flint,” declared Sunshine. “Don’t drink it.”
“What time is it?” shouted another prisoner.
A collective sigh followed.
Exhausted, I lay down on the dusty floor to rest my eyes and my brain. The last 24 hours’ events bubbled up inside me, from the many hours chained and safety harnessed to the crane ladder, to conducting media interviews, to tweeting and posting on Facebook, to the arrests at 10 p.m., to a night on the DC jail cell floor and now to this lockup.
I thought back to our first ride in the police van, where we sat shoulder-to-shoulder, thigh-to-thigh on a long metal bench, our hands cuffed behind us. The men sat on one side of the van and the women in identical formation on the other side, separated by a metal partition. The officer instructed us to hold on to the blue fabric ribbon attached to the seat behind us as he lowered a big heavy metal bar across our chest to hold us into place on the ride to the police station. As our driver drove fast, cut corners and slammed the breaks, I instantly thought about Freddie Gray, the man who died in Baltimore police custody of injuries to his spinal cord after riding unsecured in a police van. A subsequent police officer confirmed my thoughts about Freddie Gray when he referred to the heavy metal bar as a “Baltimore seat belt.”
Some law enforcement members applauded our actions or even suggested we scale the Capitol building next. But one incident stood out in my mind, which had only occurred a few hours earlier. A gruff female staff person at lockup ordered me to face the wall and stand with my legs apart and my arms out stretched. As she patted down my arms, she leaned in to whisper in my left ear, “I’m only going to say this once, Congratulations.” Then she stepped back and barked aloud, “Now spread your legs.”
Despite thoughts and emotions swirling through me, sleep finally overtook me until I heard someone call out my name. “Karen, is that you? It’s Tom,” announced a voice from behind the mesh screen. There sat Tom Wetterer, Greenpeace’s General Counsel.
A woman seated on the stool in front of him moved so I could sit across from him.
He and I both put our hands up to the screen though they couldn’t touch. I fought back the tears as he asked about our well-being and shared the news about our story. The press remained interested in our plight, had filmed us leaving the jail for Superior Court and was waiting for our arraignment. Supporters and staff also waited for our release. My three fellow activists and I crowded into the space to listen to Tom describe the charges, explain the process and answer our questions.
Before he left, I asked him the most important question to which he responded, “12:50.”
Turning my head to face my fellow prisoners, I repeated the time. Whoops of joy followed. We could almost taste 1 p.m.
After Tom left, Sunshine offered her advice, “Don’t worry, they’ll let you go. I’ve never seen DC keep anyone.”
One p.m. came and went but no one came for us. Later we found out that the court arraigns the men first and on this day lockup held 80 men. Eventually, a marshal opened the door and yelled out a number of someone actually in the cell. Slowly, the cell emptied. With each departure, everyone said good luck and no one talked smack once they left.
When they called for Sunshine and her wife, the cell turned cold and gloomy.
Eventually, all who remained were #57, #23 and the four of us. With extra room in the cell, my fellow activist Nancy led us in a few yoga poses and Pearl commanded us to do three sets of 10 squats. We felt our energy return, briefly, then succumbed to lying on the floor and dozing.
The marshal opened the door to hold a headcount. We rattled off our numbers, which he checked off on a small yellow Post-it, then asked, “Number 36?”
“She’s not here,” we groaned.
After the marshals called #57 and #23 to court, female marshals returned, called us by number into the hallway and attached belly chains and handcuffs. Before she directed us back into our cell, I spotted the time on her watch 5:50.
And so we waited again for our turn to walk into Superior court for our arraignment
At 6:45, when they called us, we shuffled in wearing ankle chains, belly chain and handcuffs to proclaim our innocence. After pleading not guilty, they removed our chains and we emerged from the courthouse by 7:30 p.m.