Twenty years ago, when I was the coordinator of a city program for the homeless, I spent an afternoon in jail, with an aching head from being put in a headlock and slammed against a wall by a rogue Los Angeles County Sheriff who hated the homeless and the people who served them. It was a very strange experience for someone who had never been in any kind of trouble before, and who always had a book in hand to ward off boredom.
For several hours following my arrest, I sat on a steel bench in a vacant holding cell. There was nothing to look at; nothing to read, not even graffiti. After a little while, I was desperate for anything; even a newspaper sports page would have been welcome. Outside, a city councilman argued with the chief of the Los Angeles County Sheriffs. In the meantime, I had no contact with anyone; they did not let me call anyone; they did not even book me until a couple of long hours later. Charlie, the policeman who booked me, was a nice guy with whom I had gone on a ride-along. Ride-alongs for the city's social workers were encouraged, in part, to help us understand the role of the police on the street.
Charlie looked embarrassed as he took my fingerprints. He did not want me there any more than I wanted to be there. I went back to the cell to wait. I started to sing everything I could think of: children's songs (my daughter was in first grade at that time); synagogue melodies, many of which had no words, just the nonsense syllables: di, dee dee di, dee dee di, di; songs I learned in grade school, "This land is your land," "Oh beautiful for spacious skies," "Amazing Grace.." I do not know if my singing persuaded them to let me go but after what seemed like an eternity, the city councilman and the chief of the County Sheriffs finally came to an agreement: I would be released on a warrant something like a moving violation, but I had to appear in court to answer the misdemeanor charges. The charges were very funny to anyone who knew me: assault on a police officer, interference with an officer in the course of his duties; interfering in an arrest; comic, downright comic: As if I, a short, stout, peace-loving middle-aged woman, would have the nerve or the inclination to assault the meanest deputy in the departmentmy 5'4" vs. his 6'4". As if.
The jury arrived at a verdict in record time: I was acquitted of all charges. They gathered around me after the trial to tell me that they could tell that the deputy sheriff was a liar. Of course, in accordance with the judicial practice in Los Angeles, no perjury charges were brought against the deputy. In fact, he was honored with an award by the sheriff's department for his "work with the homeless." Even though I continued to suffer for several years from the physical and psychological effects of the beating, I had won the moral victory.
I was thinking about this incident because it has been six years since the first prisoners were taken in orange jump suits, chains, and disorienting hoods pulled over their faces to our prison for enemy combatants at our naval air station in Guantanamo, Cuba. Having had that slim sliver of experience of being unjustly jailed, I have a tiny glimmer of understanding of what those prisoners must be experiencing.
Even so, I cannot imagine the mental condition of a prisoner like Jose Padilla, the American citizen and Chicago gang member imprisoned there. After having been kept in isolation for 3-1/2 years and subjected to "harsh interrogation tactics," that is, torture, how can he function? He was not allowed to have a lawyer or to hear charges against him until court rulings turned against the administration. The court came to a verdict against him and two others last August in an amazingly short time. Yet I don't know how they could have brought him to trial. A prisoner must be competent to stand trial. How could Jose Padilla been sane after that ordeal and isolation? What if he had been found innocent and released? How could he live a productive life after all that has been done to him? Is he sane? Will he ever be able to sleep without night terrors after what our government has done to him?
Natan (Anatoly) Sharansky, was a Russian dissident and Soviet Jew who was imprisoned by the Soviets. In his autobiography, Fear No Evil, he describes his survival through the isolation and torture by the Soviets in part by falling back on his training as a mathematician, working equations in his head, and playing chess mentally, against himself; his self-discipline enabled him to survive the horror. He must have an extraordinary intellect and self-discipline to have been able to live to tell the tale with his sanity intact. After his release, he emigrated to Israel and even served in the Knesset, the Israeli legislature. I doubt that Padilla, a barely-educated gang member, could do the same; I know I could not have done so. When I left the jail that afternoon, my life was utterly changed; I realized I did not have the grit to face imprisonment as my heroes Cesar Chavez and the Rev. Martin Luther King had. The experience was so traumatic that I could never bring myself to do that kind of work again.
Those of us who oppose the detention center in Guantanamo consider it to be a disgrace; a blight on the character of the country. But honestly, I think it is too late for that. We lost our innocence long ago, if we ever had it. The fact is that our country does what it wants; it does not answer to international courts or accept the jurisdiction of a world court or similar body. The power that we have in the world allows us to behave with impunity and we do.
The only way we can right this shameful situation is to repudiate, not only with words but by our actions and policies, our country's invasions and war-mongering, and the disregard of our own values as they are in our Constitution and its amendments. Some of us have consciences. It is time for the United States government to act is if it had one.Rosa Maria Pegueros
is an associate professor of Latin American History and Women's Studies at the University of Rhode Island. @uri.edu>