A detainee in the Senator’s office

NOTE: Steve Jacobs was arrested January 11 for protesting the detention of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, by sitting in Sen. Kit Bond’s Columbia office while wearing an orange jumpsuit and hood. This is his reflection.

By Steve Jacobs

Sitting in a US Senators office in an orange jail jumpsuit with a bag over one’s head evokes a wide range of emotions. And feeling like a fool is one of them. Because only a fool might dare to think the idea of shutting down the notorious Guantanamo prison for detainees in the “war on terror” is possible when the President of the United States and a powerful Senator from the state of Missouri defend its existence and the use of torture during interrogations. Why would they listen to some schmuck from Missouri when they wouldn’t even listen to the Supreme Court when it ruled that Bush’s military tribunals were illegal and later ruled that detainees at Guantanamo must be given the rights outlined in the Geneva Conventions which authorizes habeas corpus rights to confront their accusers and see the evidence used against them? The conventional wisdom, after all, is that you can’t fight the government and win and you’re a fool to try.

The Senator wasn’t even there. How would he even know if a constituent dressed as a Guantanamo detainee showed up to sit-in at his office? Well, that’s what staff assistants do. They relate constituent letters and opinions to the Senator so that he can get a feel of how the home state folks really feel about issues.

So, when I entered the office and explained to his staff assistant that I was presenting a habeas corpus petition as a symbolic act in solidarity with other activists around the world, on behalf of those detainees who have been denied their basic human rights at Guantanamo; at that point he probably had no reason to think we might be spending the rest of the afternoon together. He promised to get the info to the Senators office in D.C. along with the letter to the Senator expressing shame on him for voting to allow torture of detainees. That usually concludes business with constituents who wish to complain about a Senators vote. Your chances of actually visiting with a Senator are remote unless you’re a wealthy lobbyist or entrepreneur. So, if you want to make a long lasting impression on a US Senator half a continent away you might have to do something more dramatic than writing a letter or signing a petition, in order to get his attention.

Now, I’ve never dressed up as a detainee in the war on terror before but the thought did occur to me that it might make for an awkward social situation; what with a man who has been the object of American cruelty and torture suddenly appearing in the office of Senator who often bloviates how America is a nation that champions liberty. So, I sensed a bit of awkwardness, though I must admit that Josh, one of the Senators staff assistants was very polite as was Derick who took the habeas corpus petition and the letter to the Senator and faxed it to the national office. I reassured Josh that I believe in non-violence and would not be doing anything to endanger him or the property in the office. I told him that I would be staying until I got a promise from Senator Bond that he would publicly renounce his vote against a torture ban and would promise to work to close Guantanamo and the other secret run CIA prisons. I told him of my intention to wait beyond the closing time of 5 pm and that I would only be leaving if arrested but that I would not resist arrest. I saw a nice chair next to an American flag and thought that would be an appropriate place to sit, hoping that my symbolic attire as a victim of American cruelty and incompetence would contrast nicely with the flag which, to many, still symbolizes fairness and liberty.

I sensed some tension in Josh because a reporter from the Tribune and a photographer followed me into the office and Josh asked them to leave. I was surprised when they held their ground. After all, a citizen has a right to address grievances to government officials and the press has a right to cover those citizens doing that. It says so, right in the 1st Amendment of the Constitution. I couldn’t see any tense body language because I had a bag over my head (actutually a pillow case). I imagine pillow cases are much easier to breathe through than those sandbags covering real detainees. So, I can only imagine the expressions of the office workers faces as they looked at a “detainee” sitting in the modern comfort of a Senators office lobby, far removed from the concrete and steel and barbed wire of Guantanamo with it’s unending sameness, day after day for five years going on eternity.

Josh asked me to sign in the office log and wanted to be sure to have my name to pass on. After I signed it and resumed my hooded attire he asked if I was in fact Steve Jacobs and I said, “Yes, but for the time being I’m Ali Abdullah Ahmed, or at least his ghost.” You see he was one of the three detainees who killed himself on June 10th, last year. A Navy admiral dismissed it as an act of “asymetrical warfare.” I always thought warfare was when you tried to kill the other guy; not yourself. Maybe the good admiral was using “asymetrical logic”; the kind that only makes sense to the good guys. If you don’t get it, you’re not on the team and probably a terrorist or a terrorist sympathizer. It’s from the “You’re-either-with-us-or-you’re-against-us” school of logic.

At one point, Josh offered me some water which I politely declined. I thought to myself, “Nice try Josh. And when I develop the urge to urinate I’d have to leave the building because you won’t let me use the office bathroom will you? And as soon as I left to go you’d simply lock the door which you had to unlock to let me inside in the first place.” I remember feeling pleased that I had limited myself to one cup of tea that morning so I wouldn’t have to abandon my strategic position and leave the contest in order to go pee. As it was, I was not so sure I would be able to remain continent beyond closing time. It’s foolish enough to sit in an orange jumpsuit with a bag over your head but one would imagine the compounded foolishness of doing so with a urine soaked jumpsuit. “None of us wants that,” I thought.

Derick came out of his office and shook my hand, announced that he would fax my letter and info to the D.C. office. I thanked him for doing so. Then I sat alone under my head bag trying to imagine what reactions the Senators aides in D.C. would have. I felt good that at least someone in Bond’s office would come to grapple with the fact that this little melodrama might turn out badly for their team should the press note Bond’s pro-torture vote. It made me smile to think of it. After all, embarrassment is a great teacher. It’s certainly taught me a thing or two.

And Columbia’s mayor just happened to come in for a meeting that afternoon too. What serendipitous fortune. Mayor Hindman was greeted by Derick and was ushered in to a meeting in the inner sanctum after passing the picket signs held by supporters near the office entrance, decrying “Shame on Bond; Missouri’s pro-torture Senator” and “Close Down Guantanamo.” I didn’t get to see the expression on the mayor’s face, nor any shrugging gestures by Derick as if to say, “Oh, that guy over there? We get these detainees all the time at the office.” I only heard Derick say, “Come on in,” as they closed the door behind them. I would have loved to have been a fly on the wall in there but being a garrish symbol of oppression in bright orange under an American flag was just as good. It was like being the elephant in the room that everyone was trying to ignore. The more I thought about what others were thinking of me, the less foolish I felt. In fact, I felt serenity. I felt that this was were I was meant to be at that particular moment in time. I live for moments like that.

At ten minutes till 5, Derick came out and informed me again that he had sent on my information to Bond in D.C. and that they would be closing at 5 pm and I’d have to leave. I again told him I intended to stay until I got public renunciation of the torture vote etc and it was all very polite. He went back in the office and called the police. Two officers arrived right at 5 pm and asked me to leave and I explained that I would only if arrested but would not resist arrest. I took off my hood to speak to them. They told me I was arrested and as I was leaving in handcuffs and I thanked the office staff for their patience as I was led out the door.

Officer Casteel took me to the police station and he seemed genuinely interested in why I was willing to go to jail for the issue. I explained about Guantanamo and he told me that he understood Arab sensibilities because his family is from Egypt. What a surprise. We had a very convivial talk throughout the booking process. He even asked me about last springs pre-emptive invasion and occupation of our local recruiting station and when I blocked President Clinton’s motorcade to protest the deadly sanctions against Iraq that ended up killing about a million innocent civilians.

Then it was off to the county jail where ironicly, I was booked in by Carol Parker a fellow St. Francis Catholic Worker who works there. She mentioned it was a little awkward to be in the position of booking a fellow Catholic Worker, but I reassured her that it was all a part of God’s Cosmic plan; or maybe God was watching it as another episode of God’s Cosmic Sit-Com. Sometimes it’s a comedy and sometimes a tragedy. Sometimes it’s both.

Anyway, I was released after about 24 hours and have been summoned to appear in court January 26 at 1:30 pm. I’m thinking of pleading guilty of wanting torture to end so badly that I felt I must commit a small crime in order to bring attention to a greater crime.


1 Comment »

  1. Steve, thank you for a humorous and inspiring story! I will be praying for you at 1:30 pm today….I’m sure they won’t sentence you!
    You have inspired me to participate in the sit-ins being planned now until our Senators and Reps refuse to fund the Invasion (I refuse to call it a War).
    You are a true Catholic Worker, and a good writer like Dorothy Day.
    Barbara J.
    A former CW Kansas City

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