Protesting For Gaza: A Day in Gaol

Earlier today, during the course of a peaceful civil disobedience action–at the Israeli mission to the UN, on Manhattan’s East Side–protesting the humanitarian catastrophe currently underway in the Gaza Strip, twenty-six protesters, including moi, were arrested and taken in custody. The protesters included Norman Finkelstein, my Brooklyn College colleague Corey Robin, and my cellmate for the day, the writer Benjamin Kunkel.

Finkelstein had sent out a call last night–via social media–for the protest to take place this afternoon. I was not sure whether I would be able to take part as I had spent most of Monday feeling distinctly unwell thanks to a cold, cough and slight fever. But I awoke this morning feeling rested, went for a run, and decided on my return that I would join Norman Finkelstein (and others) at the protest. I called my wife and told her of my plans, asked her to pick up our daughter from daycare, and headed out. (My wife, bless her heart, was fully supportive, perhaps entirely unsurprising for someone who had spent many of her university days working with a student group called Committee for Justice in Palestine.)

I arrived at the Israeli mission to find our small group clustered across the street. We waited for about forty-five minutes, during which time our numbers grew, all the while chanting slogans. At noon, after a small discussion, Norman announced that the civil disobedience action would involve blocking traffic on Second Avenue.  Which is what we did. At half-past noon, approximately hundred protesters marched out into the middle of Second Avenue, linked hands, and lay down. The police asked us to move; some protesters did, others did not. I continued to lie down.

A few minutes later, I was hauled to my feet and handcuffed. I did not resist arrest by going ‘boneless.’ The plastic handcuffs used by the New York City Police Department are never pleasant on the wrists, and this occasion was no exception. After standing around for a little while, continuing to chant, I was put into a police paddy wagon and taken to Manhattan’s 7th precinct.  Eight others accompanied me.

Getting arrested and booked is a tedious business. The paddy wagon was hot and stuffy, and we had to wait outside the precinct–mercifully, with the door opened for us by the driver–to be called in. Once we were let in, our handcuffs were cut off–again, mercifully, because my fingers were starting to go numb by this time. We were then searched, some forms were filled out, and we were ushered into a filthy holding cell. There were nine of us in it. The remaining protesters were put into two other cells (the arrested women had one to themselves.)  We were not allowed to make any phone calls; we were asked to take off our shoelaces; we could not take food or water into the cell.

The waiting now began. My companions included two grizzled Vietnam veterans and two very young students. We chatted among ourselves, engaged in some friendly verbal jousting with the police, and engaged in a great deal of passionate political discussion. (Kunkel and I also chatted about many other topics on the side.) One of the Vietnam vets told us harrowing tales of his time in that war, and about the experiences that convinced him  it was unjust and immoral. Our partners in the cell adjoining were also engaged in similar discussions and at one point, as they burst into song, we joined them for Solidarity Forever. There was no water to drink and we were given none. (Apparently, there were vending machines in the precinct lobby, but we could not use them.)  At  four pm, we were told our wait was almost over, but it dragged on a for a little while longer.

Finally at around seven or so, we were released one by one. My call came at a quarter after. I was given a desk appearance ticket and told to appear in court on September 9th. I had been charged with disorderly conduct. I collected my belongings, called my wife to let her know I had been released, and walked outside to be greeted by members of the National Lawyers Guild and other folks come to show support. I waited for my cell companions to join me outside. We briefly chatted, took a few photos, and then I left with Kunkel and Robin for a much-needed dinner. (Dumplings and soup in Chinatown.) Two hours later, I was back home in Brooklyn. My daughter was fast asleep so I missed kissing her goodnight. My wife was still awake, and we chatted for a bit about the day’s happenings.

My actions today are insignificant in the extreme. They will not stop the Israeli government from attacking Gaza; they will not bring the carnage ensuing there to a halt. But I’m still glad I went, got arrested, and inconvenienced myself for a day. It was a small price to pay. I often write politically tinged posts here, I express political opinions in person to my friends and family. I have felt strongly about the terrible carnage taking place in Gaza, but have not managed to do anything concrete about it. I wanted to indicate American support for Israel is not unanimous, to let those know who protest for Palestine and Gaza that they are not alone. I wanted, somehow, to do something about a feeling that surges within me, from time to time, that no policy which entails–as an almost inevitable side-effect–eighty percent civilian casualties, can ever be morally or politically justified.

I’ve never been arrested before at a protest, and I have certainly never deliberately courted arrest. Today, when the moment came, it felt like an easy decision. My friend Corey Robin lay down next to me, ready to be hauled away in handcuffs, and lying there, preparing to do the same felt, for many reasons, the right thing to do. In the course of an eternally indecisive life, marked by all too much cognitive dissonance, that is a rare feeling, one to be treasured.

Addendum, July 30th: Here is a follow-up post defending the use of civil disobedience actions as a form of political protest and action.

Addendum, July 31st: A follow-up critiquing Bernard-Henri Lévy’s claim that pro-Palestine protesters are guilty of ‘selective outrage.’

Addendum, August 1st: Some brief notes on my interactions above with the police and the penal system.

10 comments on “Protesting For Gaza: A Day in Gaol

  1. noah b. says:

    Glad you were able to find a concrete and personally meaningful way to engage. I hope your example inspires some of your students and others in your various circles to physically stand up for what they believe in; whether it be an end to the oppression of Palestinians or any other heartfelt cause. Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to go hunt for a protest to join!

  2. […] A Facebook friend of mine asked in response to my posts and photos about yesterday’s protest at the Israeli mission to the UN: […]

  3. Shahab says:

    Super stuff – well done Samir

  4. sharon mufa says:

    well done,
    Here is an idea, quit working at Brooklyn College and join the fight in Gaza. Why don’t you use civil disobedience in Gaza to use the humanitarian funding provided for food and shelter and instead used to make/purchase rockets while the regular Palestinian is hungry.
    Isn’t it great to be an activist when you know you’ll be having a nice dinner at night after your “civil disobedience” while the people you are fighting for can go to hell.

  5. Miguel G. says:

    Why don’t you protest the carnage and terror that Hamas is inflicting on Israeli society? For Hamas, every civilian death is a victory and intended. For Israel, every civilian death is a tragedy. The fact that Hamas uses hospitals, schools and mosques as hubs for warfare and storage places for rockets, and admits to using women and children as human shields speaks for itself. (http://youtu.be/R7WAoczRV_k?t=12s)

  6. Miguel G. says:

    I anticipate your response will be something like “opposing Israel’s operation doesn’t equate to supporting Hamas.” This response overlooks the key fact that the sole reason the IDF is currently in Gaza — and the only reason any restrictions whatsoever remained after Israel unilaterally withdrew from Gaza in 2006 — is because of the existential threat posed by Hamas, who in their very charter (http://www.palestine-studies.org/files/pdf/jps/1734.pdf) calls for the death and destruction of Israel. There is nothing most Israelis want more than peace with their neighbors.

  7. […] Spending a day in jail has some social scientific value for the temporarily detained; it enables a closer, albeit short-lived, look at the systems of policing and criminal justice. And because I often expend much time on this blog railing against the excesses of the New York City Police Department, it makes especial sense for me to offer a few observations on my interactions with them on Tuesday last. […]

  8. […] the Israeli mission to the UN on July 29th. My half-day in court was not as tedious and onerous as my day of imprisonment. It couldn’t possibly be, but it had its moments all the […]

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