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Personal Story

Why I Let D.C. Cops Drag My Body out of the Capitol

July 12, 2017

protesters

Credit: Tim Murphy


"Why don't you spend more money on health care instead of ugly, fake Colonial furniture for Senate offices!"

That's just one of the things I remember yelling on Thursday, July 10, as I sat on the floor outside the office of Lamar Alexander, Republican senator from Tennessee, in the District of Columbia's Dirksen Senate Office Building, waiting for the D.C. Capitol police, about a dozen of whom had assembled, to carry me away.

I yelled it because, for some reason, the hallway was filled not only with cops, reporters and my fellow health care activists from Tennessee and New York, but also with tons of that "governmental" furniture you see on shows like The West Wing and Veep -- the fake cherry and brass stuff that is supposed to look as if it belonged to George Washington.

But I was also yelling, "Kill the bill, don't kill us!" and, "Please, Senator Alexander" (who wasn't, as we predicted, in his office, which was run by baby-faced staffers) "I've lived with HIV for almost 20 years and I rely on the Affordable Care Act [ACA] for my health care, please don't take it away from me and 22 million others with nothing better in place!"

To be clear, I wasn't there alone. I'd gotten on a bus at 5 a.m. that morning from New York City with several dozen other activists to convene in D.C. at 10 a.m. with more than 100 people who drove, bused and flew in from states nationwide. All this travel and protest had been hastily coordinated by a few hardworking people at Housing Works and the Center for Popular Democracy.

And we had but one goal: to visit the offices of key GOP senators who, presumably in a matter of days or weeks, will decide the fate of the ACA. As you probably know, Trump and the GOP leadership (Paul Ryan in the House, Mitch McConnell in the Senate) are trying to kill the ACA. That would lead to more than 22 million Americans, including hundreds of thousands of people living with HIV, losing health coverage in the coming years, including through the gradual rollback of expanded Medicaid benefits made possible under the ACA.

Watch my Facebook Live stream of our protest:



Many of us were prepared to face arrest for sparking a demonstration in the usually hushed halls of congressional buildings and nonviolently refusing to leave once Capitol Police told us to. We'd been briefed that morning on some of the basics of civil disobedience and how to conduct ourselves once the cops closed in with their final warning before commencing arrests. If we merely went limp and let the cops cuff us and drag us away, for example, that would not be classified as "resisting arrest" and hopefully we would get off with what's called a "post and forfeit," where you agree to pay a $50 fine and then (usually after several uncomfortable hours in plastic cuffs) are released.

Technically, this would not be the first time I'd been arrested. That was in March on a minor trespassing charge in front of the White House as part of a protest of the House version of ACA repeal (which, devastatingly, passed). But in that scenario, police were alerted well in advance that 24 of us would resist arrest, and they were ready for us with a prefab processing tent. The whole thing from arrest to release took about two hours.

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This time around, we didn't give the Capitol cops advance notice, even though these days they must certainly be primed for mass arrests following health care protests. Nearly four-dozen arrests took place in late June.

People often talk of the exhilaration of civil disobedience, of the rush of power you feel from getting in the face of injustice and shutting down business as usual to make your point, especially when the media is there recording it. And it is exhilarating. It is an incredible right to exercise, especially because it is forbidden in so many countries, and even in our own country, GOP lawmakers in numerous states are trying to pass laws curbing the right to protest.

But I wouldn't exactly say it's fun. It's physically and emotionally exhausting, and you have to strike a balance between letting your anger show and staying within the bounds of what's agreed on in advance by your organizing group -- such as "nobody actively resist arrest." You will spend many tedious hours with your arms cuffed uncomfortably behind your back, suddenly realizing how much you take for granted the ability to scratch an itch on your nose.

And, most of all, if you are generally being treated respectfully by the police, it's hard not to think -- especially if you're white, as many but not all of us were -- of those who aren't treated so gently in police interactions. I don't think that getting arrested is something to brag about or do because it's "badass." Civil disobedience is a political strategy to be deployed with planning, judiciousness and legal and strategic backup -- not because it's fun.

However, I do think it's an important strategy. As we've seen in recent months with the Trump administration and the GOP-led Congress, sometimes all the tweets, calls, polite visits to your elected official's office and nondisruptive rallies are not enough to fully drive home a message of "NO." Especially in this moment when GOP lawmakers are avoiding in-person town halls like the plague because they know their constituents are furious about their silence on the health care bill. Something about constituents with illnesses and disabilities taking over offices vividly transmits raw anger and desperation: It is powerful.

And civil disobedience is not just for its targets; it's also for the media. Nothing creates a background drumbeat of people freaking out over their imminent loss of healthcare like witnessing screaming bodies being dragged out of the Capitol on the 6 p.m. TV news or your social media feed. It sends a message to fence-sitting GOP lawmakers that there will be consequences for their actions: That if they vote for the repeal and it passes, their constituents will continue to make their lives miserable and hound their every public appearance until they (hopefully) are voted out of office.

That's not to say civil disobedience is failsafe. It doesn't always get its desired results. And it's not enough to get those results. There have to be people on the "inside," either Democratic or Republican, who are trying to talk GOP lawmakers down from repeal and urging them to negotiate an ACA "repair" instead. But inside folks won't be pressured to act unless they see and hear that sustained uproar from the "outside" -- hence, civil disobedience.

So, there I was, moments later, being carried away by four cops as I shouted, "Kill the bill, not us!" You can watch video of my arrest here, as filmed by Molly Sandley. As soon as we were in the elevator, I quieted down and told the cops I'd walk, but I started chanting again in the hallways, surrounded by congressional staffers. Soon enough, I was being put into a cop minibus with about a dozen of my fellow arrested and cuffed protesters -- everyone from a young woman in a wheelchair to doctors and nurses wearing their white smocks. We were brought to a large cop garage where, with our fellow 80 arrestees, we were held and processed, some of us for up to eight hours.


protesters

Credit: Ivy Arce


Every time someone was released, a cheer would go up and that person would walk into the open air, onto a grassy park nearby where we re-congregated, bit by bit. Pizza was delivered to the corner, and we watched the extensive media coverage of our protests on our smartphones while we waited -- until 1 a.m. -- for everyone to be released. Then we hugged sometimes-tearful goodbyes and promised to stay in touch. We in the New York contingent all passed out cold on our bus and awoke to find the sun rising in Manhattan at 6 a.m.

The days and weeks ahead will reveal what happens with the ACA and Medicaid. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has said that he intends to delay Congress' traditional August recess by two weeks to try to ram through the ACA repeal. Sadly, just when many of us would be chilling out amid the dog days of summer, we might have much more fighting, yelling and organizing to do. Perhaps there will have to be more arrests. It ain't fun, especially in the D.C. summer heat, but it's necessary.

And, in such moments, you definitely feel yourself flexing the full muscle of your right to organize and protest. You also bond with some amazing people along the way.

Tim Murphy has been living with HIV since 2000 and writing about HIV activism, science and treatment since 1994. He writes for and has been a staffer at POZ, and writes for the New York Times, New York Magazine, Out Magazine, The Advocate, Details and many other publications. He is also the author of the NYC AIDS-era novel Christodora.


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