Mea culpa kinda sorta
Plus, a really good section of the novel
So, Tuesday’s otherwise truly fine edition of this newsletter ended with a blunder. I was celebrating the wonderful news that Boston had divested from fossil fuels, but noted in passing how sad I was that the LA Times had just come out against divesting the state’s vast teachers pension fund.
Which was true, except for the “just” part. The LA Times had actually come out against divesting four years ago. (It’s possible I should check the dates on things before becoming outraged, though since outrage is now the currency of American life, that would be seriously limiting). Since then the newspaper has done quite wonderful work on the climate crisis (if you’re not reading Sammy Roth’s excellent weekly roundup of west coast climate news, you should be).
[Don’t forget to subscribe]
So, water under the bridge. Except that the mistake at the heart of the Times editorial has never been corrected, and continues to govern the investment strategy of the Golden State. Divesting, the paper said, would “blow a multibillion-dollar hole in the pension funds.” For a few years after we began the divestment campaign this was the attack on divestment. But pretty soon—in truth, long before that LA Times editorial—it became clear this was nonsense: people who divested from fossil fuels were actually saving huge sums of money, because fossil fuel companies were financial losers compared with every other part of the economy. In fact, Park Guthrie, a local activist who has followed the controversy closely, has done the work to show that following the advice in that editorial could have cost California as much $100 million. The paper’s mistake was considerably deeper than mine; they apparently concluded that selling the stock would have required simply tossing the money away, instead of investing it in something else.
The very good news is that California state teachers are mounting an inspired campaign to convince their leadership to divest—the CTA board will hold a forum on the issue in January. And they won’t just hear from teachers: the remarkable student group, Youth Vs. Apocalypse, has been mounting an equally inspired campaign to back up their teachers. Momentum seems to be on their side: just last month Sonoma county teachers, for instance, voted to back the divestment plan.
More climate notes next Friday, though only for people who bother to shell out for a subscription (my share of the subscription revenues goes to help fund Third Act, our progressive organizing push for people over the age of 60); for today, you’ll have to content with two more chapters of my epic nonviolent yarn. But they’re two of my favorite! You can catch up on the first 27 chapters of The Other Cheek by visiting the archive.
The little pulse sounded from Cass’s Skype chat, and she clicked off the documents she was scanning for the archive (“Arab Spring—Bahrain”) to see the message. It was from MK.
“Can you come out here? I’m scared.”
“Someone ransacked our apartment today.”
“Are you okay?”
There was a slight pause before the next message, which was longer. “Um, Perry. I was going to tell you just as soon as I was sure it was going to last a little while.”
“Perry!? I am definitely coming out.”
Twenty four hours later Cass was coming out of the BART at 19th Street, and searching Yelp directions for a restaurant called Spice Monkey on Webster St. She had an ‘alumni affairs’ fund which Maria had allowed her to use for a plane ticket, and Professor Vukovic had waved her out the door when she told him Perry needed help. “Alterson? The Vermont boy? Paradigmatic organizing. Please tell him we’ll need an oral history soon, and any documents he saved. Documents are crucial.” She’d asked Allie to fill in for her with Gloria again, and this time the Texan was pleased to go—in fact, she’d enjoyed it so much that this time she agreed to leave her pistol at SGI and no more than one Coke. Gloria was excited too, when Cass phoned to tell her the news. “I love Allie,” she said, which gave Cass’s heart just a little ping. “Say hi to MK,” Gloria had added. “She sent me a picture of a red bridge, and she says she has a boyfriend.”
Which was actually the part Cass was interested in too. So she was grateful when, five minutes after she found them in the back of the restaurant, MK sent Perry off to the apartment on an errand to fetch her cellphone.
“Okay, okay, I should have told you right away, but I was embarrassed,” said MK. “Last year I told you he was weird. But he’s not.”
“Well, maybe just a little,” said Cass. “And nice. And cute. Ever since we gave him that haircut.”
“The haircut helps, and so did like an entire day at Uniqlo finding clothes,” said MK. “Now he’s into it. Maybe too into it. Do not ask about pleated versus flat-front pants, please.”
“But how did—“
“Because, first, do you know how much rent is out here? The Bomb Train Action Coalition pays me $2,000 a month as its West Coast coordinator, which is also how much it costs to rent any known apartment in the greater Bay Area. Which would work fine if you didn’t like to also eat, but I do. I mean, I’m from Zimbabwe and this is the first time in my life I ever felt poor. So I was staying on Chandrike’s couch, but that wasn’t so good. And Perry has—had—a tech job, which is the only kind of job there is here that actually pays anything. Like, pays a lot. And they helped him find this two bedroom apartment in downtown Oakland. Two bedrooms here is like having an airplane hangar in a normal place—it’s like the size of Oklahoma or something, compared to most apartments. Anyway Chandrike, I guess on Facebook, said I was living on her couch, and the next thing I knew he sent me a text message asking me if I wanted to move in.”
“Whoa,” said Cass.
“Yeah, not like that at all,” said MK. “Like, he was the perfect gentleman because I don’t think it ever occurred to him to be anything else. He just had extra space, and he wanted me to have it. He was happy to leave me alone—too happy. Like, when I decided he was cute and nice and fun it was, um, entirely up to me. The first time I hugged him he appeared not to have ever hugged another human being before. It was like he was trying to move a large cardboard box. But he’s gotten better. He applies himself diligently to, um, tasks.”
“Whoa,” said Cass.
“Whoa,” agreed MK. “So, everything was surprisingly excellent until Saturday afternoon. Which is when we came back from stuff to find the apartment ransacked. And I don’t just mean, like, some guy came in and took stuff. I mean, every drawer pulled out, the mattresses pulled off the beds, the pillows slit open. They were either looking for something, or they were sending a message, or both.”
“What did they take?”
“As far as we can tell, the only thing they took was his laptop. Which he hopes won’t do them much good—Perry says it’s got every possible security thing. Not just the security stuff they always tell you you should put on and then you don’t. Real stuff, like this program called Tor, that should make it hard to follow him; he says it will take them days just to get it to turn on, and meanwhile he’s deleting his email cache. They took my laptop too, but everything from work is on the desktop at the office. I just use the laptop for, like, Hulu. Thank God, because my password’s not very hard to crack. ‘Gloria.’”
“Mine too,” said Cass. “She sends her love, by the way. She’s hanging out with Allie today.”
“Allie the gun girl that you were all freaked about?” said MK.
“Yeah. She turns out not to be so bad, except for the gun. And the Ayn Rand stuff.”
“Ayn Rand?” said Perry, as he returned. “Here’s the phone,” he said to MK.
“Thank you, hon,” said MK, and he smiled and then blushed. “She knows,” MK added.
“Excellent look by the way,” said Cass. “The pleats are very nice.”
“Do you think?” he said. “I’m not sure—“
“Who’s this Ayn Rand?” MK asked quickly.
“Everyone in Silicon Valley seems to love her?” said Perry. “She’s like a philosopher? Who think it’s great if you make a lot of money and screw everyone else? She’s kind of the opposite of everyone at SGI.”
“So what’s it like in Silicon Valley?” asked Cass. “Do you enjoy your job?”
“Oh, that’s the part we didn’t get to,” said MK. “About an hour after we found the break-in, when the police were arriving, Perry got an email on his phone saying he’d been fired.”
“Not fired, exactly,” said Perry. “Severed? And they gave me a lot of money to do it.”
“$250,000,” said MK. “For a non-disclosure agreement, so he wouldn’t tell anyone what he’d done.”
“Which was weird, because I wasn’t going to tell anyone anyway. Because it was a secret?”
“Wait,” said Cass, looking confused. “You’ve lost your job already? Haven’t you only had it for like six weeks?”
“Eight weeks,” said Perry. “And it was kind of fun. I mean, not the foosball so much, though there were tables like every twenty feet. But the internet was so fast it was—like, bang? Like, immediate?”
“But what was your job?”
“Well, that was the thing. There wasn’t much of a job. Mothra is mostly in China, and I think they just wanted me because of the Vermont stuff, for like publicity? The communications team kept calling me their ‘cyber-commando’? But actually I mostly just played on the internet, until the thing with Professor Lee.”
“Yeah, the thing I’m not supposed to tell anyone about. It was her idea—that we use the installation instructions for the new phone as a way to get the Dalai Lama’s message into China. So I volunteered to write the code, and I think Tony got some artist to make a cartoon, and then—well, apparently a lot of people in China saw it the other day. Which I guess Mothra didn’t like too much, which is why I got severed.”
A waitress arrived with some nacho plantains, and a pitcher of Sticky Zipper IPA, which gave Cass a moment to work through her confusion.
“So what did the Dalai Lama say on the phone?”
“Oh—to meditate? Like 15 minutes a day? With a straight back?” said Perry.
“And that freaked out the Chinese?”
“Apparently. The Mothra people were out of their minds unhappy. But they really really didn’t want me talking about it, which is why the $250,000 I guess.”
“Which is why we’re freaking less than you’d think,” said MK.
“But what are you going to do?” asked Cass.
“Oh, I’ve already got a new job,” said Perry.
“Meet the new IT specialist for Bomb Trains Action Coalition,” said MK. “$1,000 a month.”
“Which is like what I used to make in a day?” said Perry. “But at least there’s stuff for me to do. And no foosball, which is a real plus.”
“So I still don’t get who broke into your apartment,” said Cass. “The Chinese?”
“Maybe,” said MK. “Probably. I mean, the timing.”
“But maybe the oil companies,” said Perry. “I mean, they actually have a lot of money at stake in this trains stuff. And MK is really good at it.”
“Or maybe just creeps,” said MK. “They took my diary, that was the other thing.”
“Your diary,” said Cass. “That’s not okay.”
“No, it’s not. Which is one reason you’re here. You’re in the diary a lot, so you should be careful. And you should tell Maria that someone who doesn’t like us knows a little about what goes on at SGI.”
“And could you tell Professor Lee that the Mothra thing went fine?” said Perry. “She probably knows already, but I don’t want to email her until I get a good secure system running again, which will take a couple of days. But she might be curious about the numbers—tell her it should have appeared in about 20 million downloads. And maybe don’t tell her about the severing thing? Because that might make her feel guilty, or sad?”
“Got it,” said Cass. “Happy to be your carrier pigeon. But is it really okay if I stay with you—I mean, if the apartment’s all messed up?”
“Girl,” said MK. “You’re forgetting Perry’s basic nature. The apartment’s not all messed up any more. I mean, even the food is in alphabetical order again. Whatever you want to eat, you just need to know how to spell.”
Thirty six hours later, Cass found herself stretched out on a stainless steel slat—top bunk in Cell 6, Block 2 of Alameda County’s Glenn Dyer Detention Facility. Her head was about eight inches below an unshaded lightbulb, which apparently planned to stay on all night, giving her plenty of waking hours to recall the day’s events.
She’d begun by accompanying Cass and MK to work, in a loft space they shared with a left-wing publishing company, one benefit of which was a large sheepdog named Noam Chomsky that drooled on her and moaned with pleasure when she brushed his hair. The office wall was covered with maps of train lines crossing the the U.S., and photos from the first big day of action the Bomb Trains Coalition had sponsored the previous spring. From Washington state to Washington DC, activists had brought trains carrying crude oil to a halt for a few hours by sitting on tracks: climate scientists had hauled a blackboard onto the tracks in Virginia to show their calculations about global warming; shrimpers on the Gulf Coast had halted a train in Mississippi, sharing a jambalaya made with shrimp they said were harder to find with every oil spill. There was also a huge picture of the explosion at Lac Megantic in Quebec, where an oil train had exploded in2013, killing 47 people.
“That’s why they call them bomb trains,” said MK. “And most of the coalition leaders are people who live close to the trains, or in the refinery towns. But an awful lot of the people working on this deal live on the right side of the tracks too; it’s people who care about climate and know it’s another way to slow down the oil industry. Here in the Bay we’ve got some of all. If you come this afternoon you’ll see.”
“What’s this afternoon?”
“Monthly demonstration on the tracks. We’ve done them in Benicia, in downtown Oakland. Today’s is in Richmond. It’s actually kind of a ritual—people gather on the rails, the police come and take them away, they get released at the station. A few weeks later they pay like a $40 fine. The newspaper does a little story. You should definitely come watch.”
Cass had spent the morning helping. Not helping Perry, who was hunched over a laptop, typing fast. “A GIS system to automatically calculate blast zones around every train depot in America,” he explained. Instead Cass helped MK, who had handed her a list of people to text about the afternoon’s demonstration, and then a list of reporters to leave messages with. Cass had been glad to be back doing something—it felt like the months at Rutgers where she’d run the student organizing campaign for a living wage for university employees. And it made her remember that as much as she liked helping Professor Vukovic, studying protest was different than organizing it. Today’s action might show up in one of their historical folders someday, but for now the outcome was still up in the air. It depended, in part, on how many people she called.
“Who’s that?” she asked MK, pointing at a face that showed up in many of the photos.
“Janice Two Rivers,” said MK. “The boss. She’s . . . amazing. Formed B-TAC from the reservation where she lives in Montana. There’s tons of fracking there, which people are fighting, and also a train that carries crude from the Bakken in North Dakota towards Puget Sound. Anyway, if there’s a leader to all of this, it’s her. But she doesn’t really tell everyone what to do. It seems to work better if people are figuring it out in their local communities and then coordinating when necessary.”
“Did you know that our apartment is on the edge of the blast zone for Oakland?” Perry asked. “Not the official evacuation zone, but what the Department of Transportation calls the ‘impact area.’”
“Just our luck it will blow up now that we’ve got it organized again,” said MK. “Now that you’ve got it organized again, hon.”
“Do you call him ‘hon’ just to watch him blush every time?” said Cass.
“Pretty much,” said MK. “Also I like him.” He blushed again.
“Do you guys get arrested?” Cass asked.
“Not me,” said MK. “This Zimbabwean is not a citizen yet. It’s still a few weeks until the naturalization ceremony. I’m going to celebrate becoming an American by going to jail.”
“Not me either,” said Perry. “The FBI is still kind of upset about that Walmart? Like I’m on some kind of probation?”
“Anyway, someone has to do support,” said MK. “You can help us.” And so, in mid-afternoon, they’d headed out to a stretch of track near the Valero refinery in Richmond, which MK explained was perhaps the most diverse city in the Bay Area, and one of the poorest. “In 1993 a railcar exploded at the General Chemical plant, and 25,000 people had to go to the hospital,” said MK. “2012, there was an accident at the Chevron refinery. They texted people to seal the windows of their homes and stay inside. 15,000 went to the hospital. You can see why they might worry about bomb trains.”
The regional environmental group—run largely by representatives of the large Asian community—was in charge of the demonstration. MK read a short message from Janice Two Rivers, and Cass circulated in the crowd with a clipboard making sure they had contact numbers for everyone that was planning to risk arrest. One man, wearing an Uncle Sam hat, told her she was a government agent and he wouldn’t give her “any data just so you could sell it to the Vatican.” Everyone else, though, dutifully listed phone numbers for girlfriends or grandfathers that could be called in an emergency. Cass wrote them down carefully, and then with equal care she inked the number for the coalition’s lawyer on everyone’s forearm in case the police took away the slips of paper with the same information she gave them for their pockets.
Before she handed the clipboard back to MK, Cass carefully filled in her own details, and wrote the phone number on her own arm. And then, when the small band of protesters sat down on the tracks, she sat with them.
“What are you doing?” said MK, standing a few feet away. “You’ve got a plane tomorrow.”
“Well, we should be out tonight.”
“Probably, but you never know. And this isn’t—you don’t have to do this.”
“I want to,” said Cass, partly because the idea of the trains this close to everyone’s houses really did appall her—she knew Gloria and her mother and her sister lived near the train tracks in Colorado Springs. And partly because she’d spent the last year studying nonviolent protest, and the last three months cataloguing every known instance of it, and it really did just seem like time she actually did it.
Which didn’t make it any easier when the sheriff’s deputy with the bullhorn told them to leave. He gave them three warnings, and each time her stomach flipped a little. It wasn’t easy—at least it wasn’t for her—to do something police told you not to. She’d grown up in a calm suburb, thinking of police as generally helpful, and though she was aware plenty of other people who didn’t look like her had good reason to think otherwise, she couldn’t help it. Obedience was what had gotten her where she was—obedience to parents and teachers, even to Maria and Professor Vukovic. It took all she had to simply sit there and wait, not to get up and wander off, and she understood suddenly why big, powerful institutions usually won; it just seemed so contrary to challenge them. So exposed. She was sitting cross-legged on a railroad track in a gritty industrial town; it seemed utterly pointless, so unlikely to lead to anything. And yet it also felt right, as if she was putting her small weight firmly on the scale for the first time in her life. Still, there had been 22 years of law-abiding citizenship, and that was coming to an end. But if she didn’t do it, then who—
Too many thoughts. She was almost relieved when a deputy pulled her arms behind her back a little roughly, and cuffed them with plastic ties. She’d done her part, and now she no longer was an actor, just a prop. He led her a few steps to the paddywagon; she almost tripped crossing the railroad tracks, and then it was hard to climb the steps without the use of her hands, and to slide down the narrow bench along one side. Soon there were six women in the little van, three on each side, facing each other, their knees touching. The sheriff slammed the back door, and it was dark.
“Everyone okay?” the woman sitting next to Cass asked.
People murmured, in several different languages. “Lao, Tagalog, and Korean,” said the first woman. “Good work. Where you from,” she said, nudging Cass with her elbow.
“Um, New Jersey,” said Cass.
“Okay, that’s kind of exotic,” the woman said. “I don’t think I’ve ever met someone from New Jersey here. I’m Lydia.”
Enough light was filtering back from the mesh grille behind the driver that Cass could make our her companion, a tiny Latina.
The paddywagon lurched as it accelerated out of the parking lot, and the two women on her side of the van slid down the bench, pressing her into the wall. Then it turned sharply left, and she was almost thrown to the floor—with no seatbelt and hands to hold on with, she was suddenly aware of how much a vehicle in motion shimmied. This one in particular, almost as if the driver was trying to shake them up a bit. But before the next curve she felt Lydia’s right arm reaching across her torso, to brace the two of them.
“If you kind of twist your wrists to the inside when they’re putting them on, it leaves some extra space and you can usually get a hand out,” said Lydia. “Also, my wrists are seriously small.”
“But won’t you get in trouble?”
“Oh, I’ll just stick it back in when we get there. And actually we’re already in a little bit of trouble. You haven’t done this before, have you?”
“No,” said Cass softly.
“Don’t worry, just follow along and do what they say. Don’t tell them any more than they ask, just do what they tell you.”
The back of wagon was hot by the time they finally pulled to a halt, and Cass’s shoulder was sore from banging into the wall. The deputies left them sitting in the wagon for twenty minutes, and then opened the door and led them out blinking into the late afternoon light. They were standing outside what looked like the service entrance to a tall concrete building, and the walls of the small lot were topped with razor wire.
“That’s weird—they brought us to Oakland,” said Lydia.
“Contra Costa jail’s full. Welcome to Alameda,” said the guard, who led them into a windowless room painted a queasy yellow and told them to sit on a row of chairs that were bolted to the floor. There was a printed sign on the wall that said: “If you have information related to drug dealers, tell your interrogator. It will help your case.” After a few minutes the guard told them to stand in a line, and then a clerk, one by one, took their names and other information, and collected jewelry and wallets and phones in a plastic bag. When they’d been processed the guard cut off their zip-ties and stuck them in a small cell.
“This is weird too,” said Lydia. “Usually they’d just let us go at this point, with an appearance ticket for court.”
But nothing happened, not for several hours. There was a toilet in the middle of their holding cell, and they took turns using it, the others turning their backs. And then they sat on the floor. The adrenaline that had come with the arrest wore off, and the slight sense of nobility too, and Cass was just tired and hungry, and acutely aware that she knew no one. She talked quietly with Lydia for a while, and learned that she’d begun her life in Guatemala, and come to the States as household help; she’d gone on to organize a local union of domestic workers, which is why she was able to chat at least a little with the other woman in their languages, while Cass could only nod at them and smile.
At about 9 that night a guard finally let them out into the main room, one by one, to make a phone call apiece. Cass—whose first thought was that she hadn’t used a phone with a curly cord attached to the side for a very long time—called MK, and felt her mood spring the instant her friend answered.
“Girl,” said MK, speaking quickly. “We’re proud of you. Really proud of you. Here’s what you need to know, in case they cut us off. You’re in the Alameda jail, in Oakland. It’s only a few blocks away from the apartment, really. You’re charged with ‘failure to yield.’ The lawyers think they’re holding you—31 people in all, six women—because they’re tired of the protests and they want to send a message. They say you’ll be out tomorrow, next day at the latest. Your folks know where you are; they’re concerned, but okay. Maria knows, sends her love. Professor Vukovic reminds you to take good notes. Perry has been playing Aretha Franklin loud on the turntable all evening—he’s proud of you too. So how are you doing?”
“I’m doing okay,” said Cass, and she suddenly felt as if she was.
“Time’s up,” said the guard, reaching for the phone.
“Love you,” said Cass.
“Love you too girl,” said MK.
And that was the last she talked with anyone for quite a while. The guard had next led her to a holding cell, and cuffed her ankle to an eye-bolt in the floor while he’d taken her fingerprints on some kind of electronic scanner; after that he took her to a cell with two bunks and a toilet. One of the other women—the Filipina, Cass thought—was already there, sitting on the bottom bunk. Cass smiled at her, and gave her a thumbs up, and then climbed up on to her metal shelf, directly under the light bulb. There were no blankets and no pillows, and no matter which way she turned it only took about ten minutes before her bones felt like they were bruising against the metal. She made a headrest out of her sneakers, and lay on her back, and listened to the mild chaos as other women were led into the cells. She could hear Lydia shout out to the protest crew, making sure everyone was accounted for and okay— she guessed she was six or seven cells away. Other women, drunk or angry and often shouting obscenities, landed in cells up and down the hall every few minutes. The light never went off, and the sound never really died, and sleep never really came, though Cass thought she might have drifted off once or twice.
In a waking moment she could hear Lydia ask the guard what time it was.
“What happened to your watch?” the guard asked back.
“You guys took it.”
“Well then, you shouldn’t be out doing crimes, should you?”
It wasn’t too long after that when another guard walked up and down the rows with a stick, running it across the bars. “Feeding time at the zoo,” she yelled. “Come and get it.”
Cass watched the other inmates stumble out of their bunks and hold their hands through the bars. She and her cellmate did the same, and in a minute a guard handed each of them a paper bag with their breakfast. It contained, Cass found, a bologna sandwich—in fact, the poetic ideal of a bologna sandwich. There were two pieces of white bread, and between them one slice of meat so thin it was almost translucent. She ate it slowly, rolling each bite around in her mouth. It tasted like—nothing. It had literally no taste. And she had a plastic cup of orange juice to go with it, with a little foil top; the juice was sour, chemical.
And then more waiting. Finally a guard yelled, “9 a.m., time for the courthouse.” The woman stood by the cell doors, and as they were opened, each was shackled at the ankle to a growing line. When a group reached eight, a guard would shuffle the line off down the hall, each woman holding the shoulder of the one in front to keep from tripping. Her cellmate was in front of Cass; behind her was a woman with a firm grip, who said her name was Yvonne.
“They don’t bring too many white girls here,” she said. “What are you in for?”
“Um, failure to yield?” said Cass.
“Hell, that’s not even a misdemeanor,” she said. “That’s, like, a traffic.”
Cass didn’t know whether it was polite to ask in return or not, but before she could decide, Yvonne said, “Battery. Which he one hundred percent deserved. One hundred percent.”
They eventually shuffled into a large holding cell, with fifty or sixty women, where they were unshackled. It was, Cass thought, exactly like a cage at the zoo—no benches or chairs, and a steady flow of guards and lawyers and court officials walking by outside. On occasion a lawyer would come to the bars, shuffle through some papers, and yell out a name. “McClendon.” A woman would walk over, and they’d confer for a moment, loudly enough for everyone else to hear their business.
“If you plead guilty, the d.a. says three months.”
“Three months? It wasn’t even my stuff. I was just in the car.”
“If you want a trial, he’s going to ask for ten years.”
“God damn it. Who is going to take care of my baby for three months.”
“What do you want me to do?”
“Plead, god damn it. What freaking choice do I have?”
And a few minutes later a bailiff arrived, to lead McClendon out of the cage and into the court and from there to prison. And then another lawyer would come and shout another name and the cycle would begin again. “Holloway.”
Cass watched it all with a kind of horrified fascination. Clearly these women had no chance—every part of the experience seemed designed to drive home their powerlessness. The lack of sleep, the overwhelmed attorneys carrying satchels bulging with files, the shackles around the ankles. They were like actors following a script; she’d always thought there were jails because there were criminals, but now she understood suddenly there couldn’t be jails unless there were criminals. They were fundamental to the process. The whole enterprise required that everyone stick to the lines as written, day after day and year after year. Cass knew she wasn’t in this play—she’d wandered in from an adjoining stage, where an entirely different and much tamer drama was being acted out. When a lawyer showed up for her, Cass knew that she’d be capable and determined, even though Cass was facing nothing worse than a fine.
“It’s sad, no?” said Lydia, who’d been watching.
“Who’s—who’s trying to change this?”
“Oh, we all are,” said Lydia. “And we’re making progress. But it’s tough. You know who the biggest players in California politics are? The Corrections Officers union. Give more campaign money than anyone. They were the ones that got the three strikes law passed. Because the more prisoners you got, the more guards you need. You know California spends six times more on prison inmates than college students? You know we built 20 new prisons in the last 30 years and one new college campus?”
The six women from the paddywagon were sitting on the floor on one edge of the increasingly empty cage. Lydia kept making sure everyone’s spirits were up, like a counselor at a good camp. Eventually Cass relaxed enough that she actually fell asleep stretched out on the concrete, and she stayed that way till someone gave her shoulder a little shake.
“Ladies,” a bailiff was saying. “You will be arraigned in courtroom 3, Judge Sanderson presiding.” He let them out the door of the cage, and walked them a few yards to a door that that…opened back into the real world. Cass was still groggy, and the abrupt transition from the bare-bulb brutalism of the holding pens to the muted civility of the courtroom felt like crossing a border. All of a sudden there was a chair to sit on, and all of a sudden she was conscious that she smelled like disinfectant and sweat. She heard her name whispered, and turned to see MK—she recognized too a dozen other folks who’d been helping at the demonstration yesterday. MK blew her a kiss.
A young woman was crouched in front of them, holding a yellow pad of paper. “If you’re willing, I’m your attorney—Sandra Shields from the National Lawyers Guild,” she said. “Normally I’d consult with you all individually, but the judge has asked for an expedited hearing,” she said. “I’m not expecting trouble, but if anything goes wrong, I’ll slow it all down. Okay?” Cass and Lydia nodded, and so did the other women after a pair of interpreters relayed the message.
“All rise,” someone called. “Alameda County Court, Judge Sanderson presiding.” An older black man walked to the bench from a side door and sat down, scanning the papers in front of him. After a minute he looked up, and said in a surprisingly deep and rumbling voice, “who is here for the state.”
“Assistant county attorney Arthur Austin,” said a young African American man in a blue suit.
“And for the defendants?”
“Sandra Shields, your honor,” the woman said, handing her appearance ticket to the court clerk.
“Mr. Austin, I see that these women have been charged with ‘failure to yield,’ is that correct?”
“Yes, your honor.”
“Refresh my memory, Mr. Austin—what is the maximum penalty for failure to yield, first offense.”
“I believe it is a fifty dollar fine, your honor.”
“Can you present the court with other examples of defendants so charged who spent the night in the jail?”
“Um, not off the top of my head, your honor.”
“Can you explain why that was necessary in this case?”
“Um, it appears to have been a police decision, your honor. Our office was not contacted until they were already in cells for the night.”
“Do you think it’s possible the police were trying to . . . send a message?”
“Your honor, I—“
“Don’t worry, Mr. Austin. I don’t want to get you in trouble with your colleagues. It was a rhetorical question in any event.” He hunched over his papers for a few moments, and then swiveled to face Cass and the others.
“Ladies,” he said. “I’d like to send a message of my own. The first thing I have to offer is an apology. It was unnecessary, uncustomary, and in my opinion wrong to confine you. The police were well within their rights to arrest you, but the subsequent actions of the county fall well outside the bounds of normal jurisprudence. Therefore I am ordering all charges dropped immediately.
“Let me add something—something that I normally say when dismissing a jury after a difficult trial. I would like to thank you for service—for your contribution to our democracy. I am told several of you are relatively new citizens, and I would commend your example of political participation to many who take for granted the democracy we have been given. You are now free to go, with the blessings of this court.”
The small throng of spectators in the audience started to applaud, but the judge silenced them with a quick bang of the gavel. As he stood to head for the exit, the bailiff cried “All rise.” And with that MK was leaning over the low fence that separated the defendants from the audience and giving her a hug. Cass hugged each of the other five women, and wrote out her email address for Lydia; after thanking the lawyer she headed for the exit, trailing MK who had a little bag of granola bars and fruit. They climbed into a cab, and as MK gave directions to the apartment, Cass used her friend’s cellphone to call her parents. “No charges,” she said. “I’m fine.”
And she was. The cab stopped outside a police precinct where she signed for the plastic bag of her possessions, and then took them back to the apartment where Perry was waiting with dinner. Food had to wait till she’d taken a shower and brushed her teeth, over and over, but after that she was ravenous. In between mouthfuls of kung pao chicken she told them her story, and after dinner she checked her email and her Instagram, and that task seemed to slide her fully back into regular life. Some part of her resisted the return. She’d been absent for a day—only a day, but she felt as if she’d learned some large truths that she didn’t want to erode with steady flow of daily life. Some things about power she wanted to hold on to, though she could already feel them slipping away.
She could feel herself slipping away too, almost as soon as she lay down on her bed in the second bedroom. A bed had never felt softer. Just as she was drifting off, MK came in and sat down on the foot of the bed.
“We really are proud of you, Cass,” she said.
“M, there were women in there no older than me and you who had absolutely given up. No light in their eyes at all. Maybe younger than us. And I’ve got no idea what to do.”
“You’re not in charge of fixing every problem on earth, girl. There’s lots of us working on lots of different things—you should know that better than anyone, watching the old man’s emails come in from every place on earth.”
“Which I get. But if you’re not going to work on problems, it may be better not to see them.”
“What’d you think of Lydia?”
“Lydia’s like my new hero,” said Cass. “Lydia and you—you’re out in the real world getting it done.”
“A small part of something large. And while I’m getting it done I’m having, you know, a life. Which you need to do as well. Guess who texted me today about you?”
“Who,” said Cass.
“Matti,” said MK.
“That . . . jerknozzle,” said Cass.
“Oh my, one day behind bars and suddenly the language,” MK said with a grin. “Anyway, he saw on my Facebook that you were in jail, and he texted me a sweet note. It turns out he’s in the Bay Area too, doing some tech thing, and he wanted to figure out how to get together with you for a meal.”
“As if,” said Cass.
“That’s what I figured you’d say,” said MK. “I mean, he was an asshole to you, and he also fed chocolate to that dog. But still, I made you guys a lunch date for tomorrow.”
“The first flight we could rebook you on back to Denver doesn’t go till 3, which means that an early lunch in San Francisco should work out, so he took the liberty of suggesting an upscale place in the Mission about which I want a full report. You don’t have to tell me a thing about Matti if you don’t want, but I want in-depth analysis of the burrata. And anyway, he is cute, and there’s no one at SGI for you to date because you’re faculty now, and feel free to hate me.”
“I hate you,” said Cass, but in fact she was too sleepy to do anything but drift off to sleep. MK watched her a few minutes, and pulled up the duvet around her shoulders before turning off the light and slipping out.