Dressed For Oppressed

February 10th, 2007 · 1 Comment
by Diane Lefer

Yesterday, guest blogger Diane Lefer set the stage for today’s post by telling us about symbols and their visceral impact on people. In today’s installment, she protests, goes to jail, wins a grant, doesn’t get the money, learns that key to surviving incarceration is knowing show tunes, deals with a cat who isn’t shy about her emotional problems, writes a book, sells a book, discovers that selling a book is a little like selling your soul, protests the war (or rather the fact that due process isn’t applied equally or fairly), and learns, yes, that sometimes the government comes through.

And you thought your life was busy!

There was a 40% chance of rain, but it held off, so as I knelt in front of the Federal Building in my Gitmo attire at lunchtime, I was cold but dry. I spent the first hour kneeling which was great since even several months ago, I would have had too much pain in my knees. I guess the glucosamine chondroitin actually works. When I couldn’t take it anymore, I stood. It seemed like more cell phone cameras came out when I was on my feet.

A few people stopped and said thank you. One man came back an hour later to say I’d inspired him and where could he get an orange jumpsuit, too? Many people said “God bless you,” which is a little disconcerting to an atheist. I appreciated the sentiment but preferred the woman who said, “As a citizen, I bless you.” One man stood over me and asked, “Where’s the gallows?” Another, with wild blue eyes and a blue windbreaker, asked if I thought people crossing the border illegally were committing a crime. I said immigration policy had nothing to do with people being imprisoned in Guantánamo for five years with no charges filed against them.

“I know what you are,” he said. “You’re a liberal. And a fucking Communist.”

I used to fuck a Maoist, but he voted for Reagan. (I wish I could say until he voted for Reagan.)

Three police officers came over and one asked me to remove the hood so he could get a look at my face “for safety reasons.”

I did. He asked what I was doing. I told him.

“And you’re what? Praying?”

“Yes,” I said. My hands were clasped, but I don’t pray. Was I pleading? Or petitioning—who or what? A God I don’t believe in or a government I don’t trust?

No, I don’t like the government.

I don’t like the government even when I’m a beneficiary. Back in April, I was informed by the City of Los Angeles that I’d been selected for a $10,000 individual artists grant in order to devote time to a novel. Wow! I promptly took a leave of absence from my $10,000 teaching job. I executed hundreds of pages of documents including an affidavit, in triplicate, attesting to the fact I’d never owned, sold, transported or insured slaves. (The document helpfully points out this refers to the Slavery Era that ended in 1865 so, presumably if I’m holding undocumented Thai workers behind barbed wire in a house in El Monte and raking in the dough from their sweatshop labor, I’m cool.) Maybe they did a past-life regression on me or something—this is, after all, LA—but month after month as I borrowed to cover the rent, where was the money!?!?! Maybe my file got tagged when I got arrested?

Sometimes I forget not everybody’s been to jail.

Look, I sat down in the middle of Century Boulevard in support of hotel workers. It’s not just that they deserve a living wage and health insurance—which they do—but it’s the working conditions. I never thought about how being a chambermaid is heavy labor but these days, it is. What with all these duvets and gargantuan mattresses and stuff I don’t even know the words for, besides your standard cleaning, vacuuming, and scrubbing, these women have to lift heavy weights and struggle with physical objects four times their own size and complete these tasks on half a zillion rooms or so every shift. I have a cat, OK? A wonderful little animal. I adore her. She adores me, but the problem with that is she develops urinary problems from stress any time I’m out of town. If I’m going to be away overnight, I’ve learned I have to cover the futon with a plastic mattress cover because I can’t afford to replace the frigging mattress every time I go away. I have a double futon. Not queen size. Not king size. Nothing like what these chambermaids have got to wrestle scores of times every shift, and I dislocate my shoulders, pull out my back, and fall on the hardwood floor short of breath every time I pee-proof the bed.

Hundreds of us got arrested. I have very small wrists. I always thought if I were ever handcuffed, I would slip right out. But see with plastic handcuffs, they get jerked tight to fit your form, and once they’re on, they can’t be adjusted till you’re booked and they’re cut off.

Cops are workers and they belong to a union and most of them were supportive and sympathetic (until we were in custody. Then we represented something much more terrible than crime. We represented paperwork). There were too many of us and they didn’t know what to do with us. There weren’t enough LAPD buses. Some of us got loaded on charters. Then there was some radio communication and the bus turned off the road and started driving through a deserted cargo area. Someone asked Where are you taking us? and someone else said “Obviously Guantánamo.”

We ended up at the 77th Street Station in South LA (which used to be South Central, but the city is working on the image), and there wasn’t room inside. We spent five hours on the bus, begging for bathrooms and moaning as our hands swelled. Finally I was led into a huge warehouse-like space with tables set up like a polling place. A rookie officer asked “Have you ever escaped from custody? Have you ever assaulted a police officer?” The officer filled out his own assessment whether I looked suicidal or mentally disturbed and also filled in race. (Some of my compañeros were mighty pissed when he guessed their race wrong.)

“So, who do you like?” he said.

“What? Like the Dodgers in three?”

He blushed. “Uh, men, women, or both?”

“Oh…you mean sexually?”

He turned redder than I thought even a white person could turn. For a moment
I couldn’t think of the right answer. If I say “men,” that doesn’t mean I like all men, does it? And why did they have to know? If I like men, did that mean they would house me with one?

“Men,” I said.

He sighed with relief, not at that particular answer, at least I don’t think so, but just at getting any answer to the question he hadn’t wanted to ask in the first place. He handed me my forms in a see-through folder and told me to go back to the bus. I asked if I could use the bathroom first. I was pushed into a holding cell. I didn’t realize at first that’s what it was. There were all these women standing and sitting on benches that lined the wall like in a sauna. Typical, I thought, a long line waiting for the toilet. Then I realized they were just waiting. The stainless steel toilet was in the middle of the room.

We finally got processed and then they moved us from one holding cell into another. Some of the younger women freaked. One student called a cop over to say, “You need to release me now because I have an eight o’clock class.” The holding cells are small and have glass windows filled in with chickenwire and they’re soundproof. So unless a cop opens the door, you kneel on the floor and shout through a slot if you need to be heard. One girl knelt down and started shouting “Help! Help us! We’re locked up in here!” Some cells had phones. There were all these rules but no one enforced them. It turned out you could just make any local call for free, but by 2:00 AM, who would you call? Some of us (not me!) started calling friends, saying “What are you doing? Oh, sleeping? I’m in jail.” A retired nurse tried to lead us in yoga, but she was willing to lie on the floor – which though the room didn’t smell bad and the floor didn’t look too filthy, it was very sticky, and no one wanted to do it. The fabulous Maria Elena Durazo of County Federation of Labor tried to keep everyone’s spirits up in traditional fashion by singing.

Shame on us: No one knew any union songs. Maria Elena is into Motown. We tried that. I tried some freedom songs. A young, pierced, tattooed, dreadlocked student wanted the score to The Sound of Music, and that turned out to be the number one choice. She led us in “Do a Deer,” the only song that almost everyone knew.

(Brush up on your show tunes. A wonderful actor/writer named Katherine Griffith says when walking late at night in Hells Kitchen, she used to sing “Some Enchanted Evening”—very very loud–and was always given a wide berth for her safe passage home.)

The charges were dropped. A couple of months later at the City Attorney’s Office, the hearing officer congratulated a group of us and commended us for what we’d done and told us we’d face six months in jail if we did it again.

Is that why I wasn’t getting paid?

I packed my Gitmo attire and traveled to Ft. Benning, Georgia to join the protest and vigil outside the School of the Americas (now renamed the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation) where the our Army trains Latin American military officers and where training manuals which eventually surfaced showed that torture techniques and assassination were part of the curriculum. I was quickly stopped by the police. The anti-masking ordinance in the State of Georgia was aimed at the Ku Klux Klan, but now would make me subject to arrest unless I removed the hood. I complied. I don’t plan to go back to jail till I know all the words to “My Favorite Things.”

Home in LA, people kept congratulating me about the grant. I don’t want to seem ungrateful. I’m not a complainer. OK, yes, I am a complainer. But why is it that when you’re a writer, or at least when I’m a writer, good news is never quite as good as it’s supposed to be? Like when my first book was published. Shouldn’t I be grateful? Thrilled? I was, really I was. The phone rang. This editor-in-chief starts telling me how much he loves my book.

“But,” I said.

Until that moment, there had always been a “but.” I’d had these calls before. “I love your book [dramatic pause], but I can’t publish it.” And me, always thinking, What do you mean, you can’t? Aren’t you a fuckin’ publisher?

“But what?” asks my hero.

“But you can’t publish it,” said I.

“Oh, has it been taken?”

And I suddenly get it. I can hardly breathe. I manage to say, “You mean you want to? And you’re going to?”

So this was great. And I’m easy. Really. I take direction. I listen to editors. I’m not a brat. But this guy turns out to have…quirks. There are words he can’t abide. One of these words is “little.” So he goes through my whole manuscript and wherever it says “little” he changes it to “small.” Courteously, self-effacingly, cheerfully, cooperatively, insistently, I point out that a little girl and a small girl just are not the same thing. My first sin.

I was (as usual) living hand-to-mouth as, apparently, was the publisher. The staff was not allowed to make long distance calls. So every week or so, I’d receive a postcard asking me to phone the marketing director or the assistant or somebody. At daytime rates, no less! Tightening my belt and fighting back tears, I’d make the call only to learn in due course that the editor-in-chief was furious at me for phoning constantly and wasting the time of his staff. Just a small bit unfair.

My wonderful brother-in-law gave me his car. I sublet my apartment and used the proceeds to set off cross-country on the book tour my publisher wanted but couldn’t pay for. In Tucson, I waited in an empty bookstore hoping my aunt and uncle would show up while the owners explained to me they’d made the mistake of locating in a part of town occupied only by snowbirds who were gone most of the year. The store was about to go out of business. They also explained to me that my sales figures –non-existent —were all available via computer and would determine whether any publisher would ever again consider my manuscripts and whether any bookstore would stock my work ever again. The next day, I received a phone call from someone at the publishing house, or rather, someone who had been there. The editor-in-chief had fired everyone, turned on the answering machine, walked out the front door and locked it. He would not return for six months. So much for the Fall list and all the books (mine! mine!) on it.

I got an agent! She died of Alzheimers after calling up a magazine that had commissioned work from me to complain they were paying me too much and negotiating the compensation downward.

I managed to place my second book with a university press where if the editor’s behavior wasn’t exactly and technically criminal, it at least approached the border thereof. I’m just a paralegal, so I have no license to practice law and it would take a jury to decide this one. (Someone who actually knows the editor told me later she’s not really evil, just mentally ill.)

I’m not a whiner, but I’m a complainer, yes. Listen, I go with I think it was Muriel Rukeyser who said offer your work to publishers. A writer must never submit. Never never never submit.

After complaining up and down the chain of command for months, my check from the City came on January 4!!!!!!!! and now I am grateful.

And I’m still walking around in orange. The other day, a patrol car pulled up and an officer got out. He said it was OK to keep my wrists bound but ordered me to remove the hood. “People will think you’re a hostage.”


I’ll be in orange jumpsuit at UC-Santa Barbara on Thursday, February 22 for a program on Torture and the Arts. It’s free and open to the public, in the McCone Conference Room, Humanities and Social Sciences Building, 6th floor. The event begins at 4:00 with a panel discussion. At 5:30, there’s a performance of “Nightwind,” my collaboration with exiled Colombian theatre artist Hector Aristizábal about his arrest and torture by the US-supported military, with live music by Enzo Fina. Followed by a brief Theatre of the Oppressed workshop and Q&A.

File Under: Square Pegs

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