PUPPETISTAS SEVER COURT'S STRINGS
By Dave Baily / RPM Puppet Collective
Last July the newly formed Chicago Direct Action Group held a Skill Share a class, of sorts, in which people with specific knowledge exchange ideas and tactics within the realm of what we call "Direct Action". Direct Action is an all-encompassing term ranging from civil disobedience to street theatre. I held a workshop on puppet making where we discussed how puppetry can be a valuable asset to protests. We talked about the need to have a visual representation to get through to a visual-media obsessed culture; the ability of puppets and street performance to de-escalate tense situations where the police might be more inclined to react violently and by injecting ridiculousness into reality and by making people laugh, perhaps to remember, if even for one brief moment, that we're all human. It was during this Skill Share where I had been trained to clench my wrists when being handcuffed; for doing so makes them slightly larger, so that when relaxed and unclenched, the circulation isn't completely cut off. As I attempted to utilize this tiny tactic, the officer who was dragging me towards the "Processing Room" responded by slamming my head into the telephone, then the wall. It was what must have been my third day in the Roundhouse - Philadelphia's detention unit. I still had one more day in there left to go.
"Let go!" he commanded of my wrists between expletives and proclamations of how much he loved hurting all 450 of us arrestees. "Goddamn, I love this shit! I could do this shit to you John-Doe-motherfuckers all day." And again: "Let go!" as he, a hulk of a man easily weighing-in at 250lbs., smashed my head into the wall, over and over.
For a brief second I did falter, letting my whole body relax and, consequently, my hand as well (I hadn't eaten in three days). He wrenched extremely hard on the flex-cuffs which are basically glorified, ultra heavy-duty plastic pull-tites. In less than one minute, I lost all sensation in my right hand. I was then dragged out of the cellblock and into the processing room. Yet, compared to some, I got it easy...
At 2:05 PM, Tuesday, August 1st, over 180 police officers and three helicopters lay siege to a warehouse on 41st and Haverford on Philadelphia's west side. When we looked through a mail slot to survey the situation, the police sprayed mace at us. They tried to barge in through a hole in the roof and, failing that, videotaped, tape recorded, and spit at us through a skylight. All 75 of us inside the warehouse were detained for over two hours before any search warrant showed up. We would become known as the "Haverford 70."
And why? What sort of crime had we committed that was so heinous as to qualify for such an egregious show of force?
We were making puppets. They were the props that would bear our messages of protest to the Republican National Convention (RNC). We had set out to demonstrate against the death penalty; the Criminal InJustice System; police brutality; corporate power in the two-party system; reproductive rights. We were fighting for the freedom of Mumia Abu-Jamal and all political prisoners, and equal health care for all. We were fighting for a voice for the marginalized, including ourselves. It is on these issues that the Republicans fail to represent the vast majority of people, and serve to further illustrate many of the flaws in the current and entire governmental structure.
Had the police arrived thirty minutes later we would all already have been gone to the rally. Infiltration was eventually discovered to have been pervasive and thorough. Virtually every move we had planned was thwarted in some way, except for many of the blockades in Center City. Street blockades by themselves, however, are not the best way to get a message out. And it was precisely that point which made the puppets so important. But State Troopers posing as Union carpenters who worked at our side for weeks, side-stepping a court-ordered injunction preventing Philly cops from executing any infiltrating maneuvers against any of the planned protests, did their part to ensure we would never get there. When we were told that a search warrant for weapons was on its way, we were flabbergasted. It spoke volumes about the lies the infiltrators must have furnished. The "evidence" from the search, and the search warrant itself were immediately sealed at the highly suspicious request of the City of Philadelphia. When the warrant was unsealed over a month later for public scrutiny, it exposed the string of lies the cops had spewed from the very beginning. It revealed the depths of the conspiracy that had been formulated against us in an effort to maintain a shiny, trouble-free image of a city during the Convention that, in reality, is rife with corruption and has earned a reputation for being excessively punitive. The unsealed warrant revealed the justification of the raid as having been suspicion of the warehouse containing communist and anarchist sympathizers.
Their apparent evidence: a tip from a right-wing watch-dog group called the Maldon Institute who proclaimed that we were being funded by the former Soviet-allied World Federation of Trade Unions. Stephen Presser of the ACLU denounced the raid as the largest scale example of preventative detention in modern history. After the search warrant came, we were left with two choices: stay inside or abandon the warehouse and with it, all our puppets. Nervous about being beaten and pepper-sprayed and totally concealed from any possible media attention if we stayed, we marched out, single-file, into the very arms of the same police we had aimed to protest against. The warehouse had a massive garage door through which we had driven an eighteen-wheeler for the creation of a float dubbed Corpzilla, the Corporate Monster, which was used earlier in the week for a large, permitted rally intentionally located by the city so as to be far from the ears of any possible Republican. We opened that garage door to let the media and the community know that we were only dangerous in terms of our unflinching conviction, that we were still okay and in high spirits no matter what the cops would try to do. The community around the warehouse consists mainly of poor and underprivileged minorities who opened their neighborhood to us, a primarily white, middle- or upper-class group. We held the best possible puppet rally possible at that door with as many of our puppets as we could hold. There were ten-foot tall skeletons, 138 strong, bearing the names of everyone Texas Governor George W. Bush had executed thus far in his five years in office (a number which continues to climb, rapidly). There were cockroaches "Cockroaches," read a wheat-pasted poster that made its way all over Philadelphia's open air wall space, "are not dirty, but exist only to clean up after messes. The Government hates cockroaches because they remind them how dirty they are." There were mice mice scare elephants, such as the GOP elephant, thereby justifying the mice's mantra: "Mice Are Nice!" Peanuts the food of the elephant thus bearing the names of corporate campaign contributors, such as, "United and U.S. Airways on the verge of merging... Donors to both parties... $2,000,000." And so much more.
People on their way out of the warehouse draped themselves in cardboard "chaingang" chain, painted their faces yellow, white, blue, trying as hard as possible to still get the message out. One man carried a small placard over his head that read, simply, "Resist."
After being searched, handcuffed (or flex-cuffed), and photographed, I was led onto a bus where I would sit for the next ten-and-a-half-hours. For the first six hours we were denied water. And even then we were only given 500 mL slightly larger than a can of soda to split between 32 people. This served to only whet our appetites for more water, reminding our bodies of how incredibly dehydrated we all actually were. An hour and a half later we were given four more 500 mL bottles. To listen to the police officers wax selfless about the water ("This is my own personal water that I'm giving to you...I'm only trying to help you out...") filled me with disgust and contempt. Our attempts to point out a hose with water streaming out of it fell on deaf ears.
For ten-and-a-half hours we were denied bathroom use. Those who had to urinate were told, "Too bad," and to "piss on the floor of the bus." I don't know whether anyone did or not, but the utter insanity of where we were and what was happening to use became increasingly poignant.
At some point, we learned that we were no longer being detained but had, in fact, been arrested. We were not told this by an arresting officer, nor were we ever read our rights. We were simply left to slowly roast in a bus with windows cracked a mere inch and a half in the scorching afternoon sun. Such treatment is far less than what is deemed humane for dogs.
On the bus, which was easily over 100 degrees, we sang songs of solidarity, of strength, of perseverance. We shouted for water and to be let off the bus. At one point, four busloads of activists were shouting for water for us. The police eventually drove us to the long-abandoned Holmsberg prison site of many a famous prison riot. It's lead-laden pipes and elevated level of airborne asbestos rendered the building and it's four-foot thick stone walls, uninhabitable. But apparently not so uninhabitable as to preclude it from being used for activists and protesters. In an uncanny display of solidarity, we refused to get off the bus. Why we weren't just dragged of the bus and tossed into that reproduction of the underworld will forever remain unclear. Beyond that incredible decision, we struggled with trying to reach consensus on almost everything. Mostly though, we just sweated, trying to relax our breathing.
As night began to creep over this unbelievably long day, we were driven to the Roundhouse. It started to rain after we had been given our first bottle of water. Desperately, people stuck their fingers out of the windows, attempting to channel a little stream of water off the roof of the bus and, hopefully, into their mouths.
The 450 arrested demonstrators, including the Haverford 70, the "Puppetistas," were divided among three cellblocks 2 for men, 1 for women and an overflow chamber. The overflow chamber held women, twenty or more on average, and was without bathroom facilities. It also overlooked the infamous processing room where much of the violence was to take place.
I had previously gone through a perfunctory yet still quite thorough training in nonviolent civil disobedience (also called CD Training). I knew a whole litany of tactics, both historical and new, designed to frustrate "The System." I hadn't, for example, brought any identification with me to the Haverford warehouse; I refused to give my name and address, thus becoming a "John Doe." I knew how to make group decisions by consensus. I was in Cell Block 2, where a consensus decision had been reached to refuse to cooperate for as long as possible and for as long as we were individually comfortable. For many, that meant hunger strike 150 throughout the cell blocks utilized that tactic. For Cell Block 2, it also meant nonviolent noncompliance with processing. As our cellmates were pointed out as the next target slated to be processed, we would announce our intentions of non-cooperation and "puppy pile" the targeted man. This meant we would put him in the farthest corner from the door and cover him with our bodies. The officers then had to attempt to extract the man they wanted, who, after wresting him away from our hold, would go limp, making it necessary for several officers to drag him. The otherwise quick and simple procedure of fingerprinting and taking mug shots became an excruciatingly long and difficult one. The intention of doing this is to slow down the system to a grinding halt, thus putting ourselves in a good position to bargain. We would then try and offer our cooperation in exchange for the city coming to the bargaining table to negotiate the conditions of our release, including dropping obviously bogus felony charges.
When they came for me they came in a ravenous fervor, kicking a cellmate before he even had a chance to get up and cover me. He was subsequently stood upon, kicked in the groin, punched, and otherwise targeted as the recipient of heavy amounts of violence. I was brought out in shock over what I had just witnessed, was slammed into the phone and wall headfirst and so forth.
The officer who proclaimed to be able to beat up protesters all day immediately disqualified his bold proclamations of physical prowess as I was dragged into the processing room, where he admitted he hadn't the strength left to drag any more of us out. I was halfway through being processed when they mistakenly sat me down. My targeted cellmate was then dragged out in front of me, naked. Disrobing oneself is another useful tactic, as some officers will prove either too confused or too insecure to touch a naked prisoner. This tactic works especially well in avoiding, or postponing court arraignment hearings. Judges can be quite particular about dress code.
My cellmate was picked up off the ground and held by his throat in front of the camera for just shy of two minutes before being let go. He immediately collapsed to the floor. The large officer then stood upon his head while other officers viciously tore back his fingers for printing. He was never given the option to cooperate. A fellow protestor sitting next to me passed out from having been on hunger strike for the last 72 hours. He was given a little orange juice and was verbally assaulted. After processing, I was switched from one single-person cell with six people in it to another. The women averaged eight to a cell. All the cells measured 5' x 8' just a hair larger than a single sheet of plywood. Our attempts at sleeping (a losing proposition) left at least one person wrapped around the toilet. The walls around the toilet were sticky with urine and filth. Some people turned yellow and were suspected of having contracted Hepatitis A.
Accounts of torture inflicted onto other nonviolent demonstrators only grew progressively worse. One woman was dragged, naked and bleeding, through the halls. As many as ten officers together would beat single prisoners. Many prisoners were beaten unconscious. One man's genitals were pulled and twisted. An HIV positive man was denied essential medications. The list goes on and on, ad infinitum, ad nauseum.
I was held on bizarre, contradictory charges for twelve days before being bailed out on $10,000, which was the lowest of the bails anyone got. Anyone who could be traced to any groups being scrutinized by larger governmental entities typically got $1 million to $500,000 bail. I never saw my lawyer and was denied phone use for the long side of nine days. The men were transferred from the Roundhouse into a maximum-security prison, locked into two-person cells for 23-hours a day. In five days, though, I was only let out twice for one hour each time. I stayed on hunger strike, although even if I had wanted to eat, the food was foul and wholly unhealthy. It was flatly admitted that people's special food needs (such as allergies, or lactose-intolerance) would not be accommodated.
As we were moved from prison to prison it became inevitable that we came in contact with the General Population (GP). Flying in the face of the Correctional Officers' (COs) threats and warnings of how bad the GP was, we were roundly applauded and otherwise treated like rockstars. Some of the protestors collaborated on a list of prisoners' demands and released it into the mainstream media. On many occasions, COs would take me aside and tell me that it wouldn't last, that the GP would turn against us and I should get a jar of Vaseline, that our being in jail was pointless and we could be doing so much more on the outside. I say, what better tactic is there than to send hundreds of people opposed to the Prison Industrial Complex to prison? And how many times do prisoners see on the news and subsequently meet the same hundreds of people who are fighting for their rights? It was safer in jail for us than it would have been anywhere else in the world, probably.
I was sitting in the hospital block, in quarantine with about forty other prisoners, reading a newspaper when I read that George W. Bush had just sent two more people to death in one day, bringing his count up to 140. It occurred to me that we would have to make two more skeletons when the Puppetistas reunited. Later that night, we got word that all our puppets, our personal art and statement, had been destroyed in compacting dump trucks. In fact, the Haverford warehouse was completely cleared of everything: our bicycles, bags, tools, puppets, flags, paint, material. Everything. Philadelphia's Police Commissioner John Timoney publicly stated that there were no puppets in that warehouse... There were over three hundred puppets in that warehouse. I know. I had intended on puppeteering with one of them all that day, Tuesday, August 1st. The day they stole free speech.
It's all over now. As of December 12th, 2000, over five months later, all the cases against the Puppetistas have been dropped. The infilth-traitors were unable to identify any of us except one woman whom they had repeatedly propositioned for sex. Their evidence against us included such detailed information as "a man wearing an orange jacket" and "four youths dressed in grunge style clothing". Their expense receipts included "$30 for beer for selves..."
If protesting against perceived injustices warrants arrest, if just the very act of saying "no" to any status quo you feel doesn't represent the people is criminal behavior, if making art (be it blatantly political or inherently so) in a privately owned building is cause for punishment, if nonviolent civil disobedience justifies an ever-escalating level of brutality at the very hands of those trusted with upholding the laws to prevent such brutality, if the police can buy beer with tax dollars, get drunk on the clock and still provide nonsensical testimony against innocent people they cannot identify, then this country has gone in a seriously skewed direction that needs to be changed right now. And, of course, that is exactly what happened, and that change is exactly what needs to continue to happen if we ever hope to live in a place that espouses freedom and justice yet can't allow either to actually exist with a straight face.