Getting Arrested – The Poor People’s Campaign

John MacDougall

I was one of 16 people arrested on May 29, 2018, for sitting in at Massachusetts Governor Baker’s office when the governor didn’t personally accept a list of demands.

All of this was part of the Poor People’s Campaign (PPC). This 40-day campaign took place in 30 states and Washington DC, to commemorate 50 years since Martin Luther King launched a similar campaign just before his death in 1968.

On May 29, the PPC highlighted how the war economy leads to millions of deaths overseas because of wars the United States is involved in, at the same time as budget cuts at home lead to gutting of social programs, which especially hurts the poor and people of color. The campaign also focuses on other key systemic problems in the US: poverty, racism, ecological devastation and the suppression of voting rights. The PPC brings together everyone—in faith communities and elsewhere—who insists on making fundamental changes to moral narratives in the US. 

On May 29, 16 of us were arrested, including four ministers; one of the lay people was Joseph Gerson of the American Friends Service Committee.

At 5 p.m. the state police outside the governor’s office said the building was closing and everyone had to leave. But we 16 said we weren’t leaving till the governor accepted our list of demands, so we were then arrested. The state police then took all of us to various barracks in different parts of Boston, to be booked and fingerprinted. The police were considerate to me, and as far as I can tell, to the others who were arrested, and none of us resisted arrest or (again, as far as I know) were confrontational to the state police. The officer who escorted me out of the State House said “watch your step” as he led me down to the police car, then when two of us were in the car he offered to turn on the air-conditioning for us. The three men who went with me to one barracks had to wait about half an hour till the bail official arrived, and there were two officers with us, so with time to kill we had a friendly conversation, comparing notes about our respective lives.

The next morning all 16 of us had to be at the Boston Municipal Court, and with us were volunteer lawyers from the National Lawyers Guild (who give free legal representation to pretty much anyone who does civil disobedience). We waited for about 2 hours in one courtroom while other cases were heard: most of the defendants seemed to be young Latino or black men, accused of (if I could correctly understand the district attorney) things like assault and minor disturbances. Most of the time the judge seemed strict but quite humane, and told these defendants the charges were dropped but they should stay out of trouble. Then we were told our case was transferred to another judge in another courtroom. Here, the district attorney said she wanted four of us (who had been arrested for previous acts of civil disobedience) to pay fines of $200, and the rest of us to pay $100. We caucused with our lawyers and said we wouldn’t accept unequal fines, and that if there were fines they had to be $100 for everyone. This was communicated by our lawyers to the judge, who then consulted the district attorney, and in the end told us that the charges against us were dismissed but that if we were arrested again in 6 months things could be difficult. Nothing was put in writing, but he seemed to mean that we could have to pay the fines and also may go to jail.

All those who risked arrest had to have two rounds of training beforehand: a half-day session a few weeks earlier, then two hours on May 29. This covered, among other things, a briefing by the National Lawyers Guild, details of the PPC, and our motives for risking arrest. In the second training we formed smaller groups of three to five: a) among those seeking arrest, to support each other as much as possible; b) among those not seeking arrest, to provide logistical and moral support to those who were arrested. I was impressed by the thoroughness of the training and the trainers.

In general, it was a powerful experience. I was very nervous up till the moment the state police put the handcuffs on me; after that I felt pretty calm—and very supported. My experience was very benign, compared to that of thousands who have been arrested on grounds of conscience over the centuries. I also feel I am a tiny player in a long and crucial history of nonviolence. I’m standing on the shoulders of giants like Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks and Dolores Huerta.

I have for decades believed that nonviolence is a key part of creating a more peaceful, sustainable and socially just world. So finally it was time for me to walk the talk—in other words, I think I was following a strong leading.

Three books I heartily recommend—maybe good beach reading this summer?

  • Mark and Paul Engler, This is an Uprising: how nonviolent revolt is shaping the twenty-first century (Nation Books, 2016). This also has a good deal of history and an excellent analysis of nonviolence dynamics.
  • Van Jones, Beyond the Messy Truth: how we came apart, how we come together (Random House, 2017).  This discusses how conservatives and liberals in the U.S. can and must respect and help each other.
  • The Dalai Lama & Archbishop Desmond Tutu, The Book of Joy (Penguin, 2016). Less directly concerned about politics than the other two books, but it has lots of wisdom about leading a joyful—and nonviolent—life. And these two guys are funny!

This article first appeared in the New England Yearly Meeting Newsletter

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