It was Saturday in the late afternoon and I was in the middle of ridding my apartment of dog hair when I heard my cell ringing over the hum of the vacuum. My iPhone screen indicated it was my mom calling. Ever since I successfully taught her how to text message a year and a half ago, the majority of our telecommunication has existed in written form, her messages nearly always signed “Love Mom” as if I wouldn’t be sure. I knew her actually calling me meant something was up.
“Hey, Mom,” I said, bringing the vacuum to a stop.
“Hi, hon,” my mom said. “Listen, I just wanted to let you know not to worry, but it looks like I’m about to be arrested.”
My mom — who moved to New York City a few years ago after my brother became the second of her two children to relocate to the Big Apple — told me she had participated in a march with thousands of other Occupy Wall Street protestors from Liberty Park in the Financial District to the Brooklyn Bridge. The march was planned in advance with the intention of crossing the bridge into Brooklyn; as a result, the NYPD was there along the entire route monitoring and directing the crowd and making sure everyone stayed relatively organized. When my mom’s portion of the crowd reached the bridge there was no where to go but ahead into the traffic lanes themselves.
“I was surprised, actually, that the police standing near me were allowing us to walk into the traffic lanes,” she said, “But they were nodding and not saying anything, so I assumed it was okay. I tried to stay as far over as I could, though, so cars could still pass.”
About a quarter of the way up the bridge, the crowd slowed to a halt and my mom and everyone in her vicinity wondered what was going on. Should they — could they — keep going or should they turn around? It became clear very quickly, however, that neither was an option. The police had moved in from both sides and were blocking either direction with orange mesh “fences.” My mom heard people murmuring around her.
“People were saying that a whole bunch of police vans and buses had arrived and that the police said they were going to arrest us,” she explained.
“Wait, arrest who?” I asked, still not quite getting it.
“All of us.”
I got off the phone with my mom and texted my brother to let him know what was going on and not to worry. My mom texted me and said she had to pee and I became momentarily irked that her notoriously tiny bladder would act up today of all days. I skimmed for news online about the march and arrests, but the only real information I could find was coming directly from people who were there, essentially liveblogging the events on Twitter. I started to see numbers: 200 people to be arrested … 300 … 400… My mom stopped responding to my texts and my phone call went to voicemail.
She must be in handcuffs now, in one of the buses, I thought. I hope she was able to pee. I looked outside and saw that it was raining and I felt grateful that my mom was the type of person who always wore one too many layers, like a fall jacket on a 75 degree day. I bet she wore her rain jacket, I thought.
For the next six hours, I occupied my time by:
1. Looking for more information about the march and arrests online (the number of people arrested eventually grew to 700, including one 13-year-old girl and a New York Times reporter), the vast majority of which I found through the #occupywallstreet Twitter hashtag.
2. Channel surfing from “news” channel to “news” channel and being incensed that not one — not even my beloved local station, NY1 — was even acknowledging that 700 peaceful demonstrators were taking up space in countless police precincts around the city, let alone asking, “Why?”
3. Tweeting funny jokes about how I had called dibs on my mom’s mugshot and that I was confident her training as an artist meant she could whittle a mean shiv in no time. I also spent about two minutes considering what her prison gang name might be. Lil’ C? And, as is typical when I am alone at home with my dog, I shifted into my Lucca voice from time to time, shouting out loud to no one in particular, “Free Grandma! Free Grandma!” (Lucca barked a lot. She loves her Grandma.)
4. Calling various precincts to find out if she had been booked. If I had found her — which I didn’t — my plan was to find out when she would be released so she could be picked up.
5. Making chili, of which I had three bowls. (If I wasn’t such a lady, #6 on this list would absolutely be “farting.”)
Beyond that, and much more than those things, the main thing I did during those hours when my mom was, as I later found out, sitting in a filthy cell (“There was s**t on the walls and the toilet hadn’t been cleaned in years, Amelia,” my mom, who cleans her toilet twice a week, later told me) with seven others in East New York was feel tremendously proud. Proud that at nearly 62, my mom was standing up for what she believes in. Proud that she could never hurt a fly, but would take more than a few swats standing up for her fellow man. Proud that ultimately she was standing up for me and for my brother and the children we might have. Proud that she was standing up for people she doesn’t know and will never know.
I don’t want to get too into the political ideology of the Occupy Wall Street/99 Percent movement; that’s not what this piece is really about. However, for those who are curious and may not know much about it, here is what you might call their “mission statement”:
Occupy Wall Street is leaderless resistance movement with people of many colors, genders and political persuasions. The one thing we all have in common is that We Are The 99% that will no longer tolerate the greed and corruption of the 1%. We are using the revolutionary Arab Spring tactic to achieve our ends and encourage the use of nonviolence to maximize the safety of all participants.
You can read more here, here, and here, if you so choose. The movement has been criticized for lacking a set list of demands, but I actually see this “vagueness” as its strength. As Edward Murray wrote over at The Huffington Post, “This protest cannot be boiled down to a simple soundbite because this protest is ambitiously seeking a complex, fundamental, philosophical change in the social, political, and economic infrastructure of our country.” I understand that there may be people reading this piece who don’t think protests, demonstrations, and marches are effective; I am not going to try and change your mind. This piece isn’t about persuading any of you to follow in my mom’s footsteps. It’s about how the most unlikely of scenarios — her arrest — made me appreciate how lucky I am to have them guiding me.
I am actually not entirely unfamiliar with the experience of seeing a parent get in trouble with the law. My father, on many occasions throughout my childhood and adulthood, has had his fair share of run-ins with the police and has spent more than a few nights in jail, sometimes unjustly, and sometimes because he’s exhibited a … how shall I put this … buoyant disregard for their authority. I can’t say that there have been many times in my lifetime where I remember feeling much beyond annoyance with his arrest record. At a certain point, I would even say I became somewhat desensitized to it.
My mom, on the other hand, has always served as the yin to his yang, both during their marriage and after their divorce. Infallible, trustworthy, strong in her beliefs, but diplomatic in how expressed them. I’ve never seen her speed, she very rarely swears, and she is by far the most compassionate person I know. I like to think I have a good deal of her in me, but the pride I felt in her actions this weekend, actions that far exceed any that I have taken in my nearly 32 years, was demonstrative of how much more I have to learn from her.
For the last 25+ years, my mom has been an English as a Second Language teacher, primarily working as a city/state employee teaching immigrants and refugees how to speak, write, and read English. Her abilities as a teacher are evident in that many of her prior students — students from as far back as 20 years — still regularly send her Christmas cards, telling her what a difference she made in their lives. With her help, they have been able to turn their American dream — usually a simple desire to provide a decent life for their families — into a reality in which language is not a barrier to success. It is a job she has loved, despite it not being a very lucrative one. But a few months ago, she lost her teaching position due to budget cuts. At 62, it has been extremely difficult for her to find a new one, as there are many people out of work and not that many jobs to go around, especially jobs that are as gratifying and would allow her to affect people’s lives. On her short list of job “requirements,” that is number one. If she could get a living wage to go along with it, that would be great too.
So when my mother was arrested, I saw it as just another example of her being who she had always been — honorable, passionate, engaged, idealistic, unfettered, and patriotic in the truest sense of the word. That even without a paycheck coming in, she was still finding a way to make a difference in the world; that her primary concern, as she waited to be handcuffed, was still a motherly one, making sure her adult children wouldn’t worry; and that after sitting in a filthy cell with only day old french fries to eat — “And a guy yelling ‘Suck my d**k, suck it all!’ in the next cell,” she told me in a hushed, semi-embarrassed voice — until she was finally released at 3 a.m. to make room for “real arrests,” as an officer told her, she was back down at Liberty Park the next day, showing that her spirit had only been further lifted and not broken.
I ask you, how could I be anything but proud?