By Judy Solmonson
The sky was overcast that morning as I drove to attend my first civil disobedience training. So many troubling events are happening in today’s world that I felt compelled to stand up, be counted, and take action.
This training was for those who would increase public awareness of The Poor People’s Campaign, and if necessary, be arrested. The Poor People’s Campaign, which Martin Luther King started fifty years ago, has been resurrected to address the needs of today’s poor. The purpose of this demonstration was to raise awareness of the need to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour.
The union hall slowly filled with a motley crew of people, several of whom had previously been arrested. My plan was to be a witness; support those who would be arrested; and then leave at noon to prepare for my out-of-town guests.
As the training unfolded, the civil disobedience educator spoke with passion and knowledge about the value of this action. I was convinced that being willing to break a law and be arrested would bring attention to the injustice of a government policy of a minimum wage so low that people working full time are living in poverty. A well-organized backup team was ready to support those who would be arrested.
At the end of the training, the speaker asked who in the crowd was willing to be arrested. Immediately, ten hands went up, then two more. The leaders were hoping to have fifteen volunteers to symbolize the need for a $15 minimum wage. Two more hands went up. My mind was whirring when suddenly I watched my own hand rising as though it had a will of its own. I heard myself thinking, I can do this!
Our next step was to write down our personal information for our support team, then give up any personal belongings we did not want to leave at the jail. This included my cell phone. With a sharpie we each wrote the phone number of our support team on an arm. First, I called my daughter, who calmly accepted my action without judgement. Then, I sent a text to my evening guests to tell them I might not be home early that evening. I had made arrangements for my guests to stay in the guest room so they knew how to get the key.
Our physical training began after lunch. We practiced with a parachute-like tarp that had handles all around it. Someone placed it in a heap in the center of the parking lot. At the signal we all raced to find a handle and spread out the 20 foot wide tarp which had “Justice for All” written on it. By our fourth attempt, we had a rapid enough response time to feel prepared.
As we began our march, the rain began to fall. My body felt shaky and I began to feel uneasy about my spontaneous choice. As we headed to a St. Paul McDonalds, hundreds more joined the march. Now my courage was buoyed and I felt a kind of elation.
The movement for a $15 minimum wage is an important action that many are supporting. McDonalds and EcoLab were the two employers targeted on this march: we participated with chants, songs and speeches decrying the low salaries for their employees. Our final destination was Kellogg Boulevard and the Wabasha Bridge, where the signal was given for us to spread our tarp… and stop traffic at 4 p.m.
We held the tarp for two hours. I was glad I had practiced the mountain pose so often in yoga class. The crowd listened to more speeches about the need for all to have a living wage, along with chants and songs. Supporters marched along with us. At one time we were encircled by clergy holding hands surrounding us with their support.
The rain got heavier and our support team brought us plastic ponchos to keep us dry. After two hours, St. Paul Chief of Police Todd Axtell came to talk with us. Yes, he supported this minimum wage increase, but he did not want to arrest peaceful protesters. Would we please go home?
We told him that we had already decided that we would stay. Chief Acxtell left to confer with the mayor. Soon, St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter appeared.
He noted that a $15 minimum wage was part of his campaign platform and that he was working on this, but the poverty level in St. Paul continues to grow. We felt St. Paul officials needed more push to make the necessary changes, so we stood our ground. All the chanting and speeches had buoyed our spirits to hang on.
At 6 p.m. the police gave their first of three warnings asking us leave the area or we would be arrested. At the third warning fifteen squad cars began to queue up. An officer approached and asked me to let go of the tarp and answer her questions…mainly name and address; then she had me turn around with my hands behind my back and placed some very tight handcuffs on my wrists. She led me to her squad car and I climbed into the back seat. She was very polite, yet I doubted that everyone in this situation would receive such courtesy. White privilege seemed evident. Once at the Ramsey County Detention Center I was placed in a five-by-five holding cell. It was chilling to hear the door clank loudly shut and hear the key turn in the door as the officer left me. After a few minutes she returned with another officer who took a picture of her and me on his body camera. They left and then another of the fifteen was placed in my cell.
They gave no indication of what was ahead, so we waited. In time, each of our officers asked us to come with them to a hallway where there were already seven of our group waiting in line to be frisked, each with their arresting officer facing them on the other side of the hall. We could watch our members being frisked through a glass window. An officer removed my tight handcuffs and asked me to turn to the wall and put my hands up. The frisking seemed similar to my experiences at the airport. They asked me to remove my Poor People’s Campaign t-shirt which was over another shirt and my shoes, then hold up my feet. Once the search was complete, I was given my shoes and sent into a larger holding cell. Several of the fifteen had arrived and were called out one by one.
At one desk I was asked why I was here. I responded that I was supporting the $15 minimum wage for St. Paul residents. The officer quickly corrected me, saying it was due to unlawful assembly. Then he asked who I wanted to notify. Having given up possession of my phone before the march started, I could not remember anyone’s phone number. My brain was a bit scrambled by then. I was grateful that the support team had us write their number on our arm.
That officer sent me to another one to be fingerprinted, first just my index fingers in a little sensor, then my full hand placed in black ink and then onto a white paper followed by a print of the side of my hand onto the paper as well. Then back to the same holding room. We shared our experiences as we returned, trying to figure out their system.
Soon I was sent to a much larger waiting room. Women were seated on one side and men on the other, with no fraternizing allowed. My eleven fellow female arrestees arrived one by one. Everyone seemed to be handling the experience with curiosity and calm. We did however need to use a rest room by then. The first person found it to be very dirty and then later by the time I arrived another, cleaner restroom was available. It had a sink and a stool with some toilet paper but nothing to dry your hands.
My next interview was with another officer asking the same information: name and address and whom I want them to contact. Since I still could not remember anyone’s number, I passed on answering that, was returned to the room, and waited.
Then my name was called to get my picture taken. I was instructed to look into this blinding light. An officer took the picture, which was soon on an orange ID bracelet around my wrist. At this same location another round of fingerprints were taken, this time by pressing my hand onto a printer. They rolled my hand on the printer and then each finger was rolled separately, which the printer usually rejected. My left pinky was rolled at least 20 times. Finally, they decided they had enough prints. Then I was given a ten-digit number that would allow me to make a phone call. It was only with assistance that I maneuvered the complex automated message system and was able to call the support team’s phone number that I had written on my arm. A friendly voice answered and verified that she would call the numbers I had given on my fact sheet before I left for the march. Then I was taken back to the large waiting room.
Each of us had our turn as our name was called. Some returned with a bit of information. The word was that we would be held for six to eight hours. Some of the staff quietly told us that they too supported a $15 minimum wage. It was a good hour and a half for this processing before we were led to another holding room at about 7:30 p.m., where the ten of us would remain until we were discharged. Of the 12 women and three men—we did not see the men again—two women who had been arrested before were placed in separate cells and ten of us were together in the holding cell.
One of the two women who had not been placed with us was discharged at the same time as the last two of us at 1:30 a.m. She had received a bologna sandwich after asking for something. When we had asked for some food, instead of receiving any, we were told that someone would look into it. Our conversations were subdued, but we learned a little more about each another.
The first two protesters were discharged at 10:30 p.m. Then, two by two, names were called at various intervals, until finally it was my turn. I had to sign a document confirming they had returned my t-shirt as I were discharged. A support team member greeted us in the waiting room and carried a welcome assortment of snacks. She drove me to my car. I was relieved to be in my own space again.
The next day I received three solicitations from criminal defense attorneys. The following day I received the court notice that confirmed the charge of unlawful assembly. The court is giving me the option of paying a $186 fine or appearing in court. I want my experience to have the greatest impact possible on other people’s lives. So with the support of the team and the “Fifteen for $15” fellow arrestees, I am weighing my options.
What would you do?
Click here to watch a short seven minute film documenting the demonstration.