Failure to Disperse

When I woke up that morning, I had no intention of getting arrested. I coaxed myself out of bed, drank a cup of tea, and drove to the hospital where I had spent most of the previous nine months as a family medicine resident. At work there was talk of the bombs dropped in Iraq the night before, and in every patient’s room the television was on and tuned to coverage of the war. Along with a few other residents, I left work at lunchtime to join in the peace rally that was gathering downtown.

When I arrived, I was surprised at the large number of people present (several hundred), and at how much noise they were able to make. Many carried signs that said “War Is Not the Answer,” with the Friends Committee on National Legislation logo in the bottom corner. The protest moved along Santa Rosa’s main drag and slowed down a few blocks later where the street ends at the entrance to a large shopping mall.

A young man with a bullhorn exhorted the crowd to sit down and asked the protesters where they wanted to go next—to the mall, to the army recruiters’ office, or to the headquarters of the local paper, whose coverage of peace activities has been scant and negatively slanted. The crowd favored the mall, but the first ones to reach the doors found them locked. Three teenagers in uniform stared out at us from the glass-walled taqueria just inside the mall’s entrance. I laughed in surprise that our peaceful protest was so threatening that the mall would risk business for the afternoon rather than let us inside.

I moved with the crowd down the street to the offices of the Press Democrat and then to the recruiters’ office, which had also locked its doors. I waved to the other residents I saw, a few of whom had babies in tow, and cried out peace chants with the other marchers:

Support our troops, bring them home—Alive!

What do we want? Peace! When do we want it? Now!

Health and education, Not war and devastation!

Looking around, I saw mohawks, tattoos, antique jewelry, backpacks, skateboards, and almost no one older than I. The scene reminded me of college, where many of my classmates were dedicated young activists—except that while the faces surrounding me had not aged, I had. Being in a crowd of joyfully shouting people was an experience I more or less gave up when I moved to the most conservative county in California five years ago to begin medical school. As a medical student in Orange County, I cringed at the ultraconservative views of many around me, but my hands seemed tied as far as making social change was concerned. Passing my classes and learning how to be a good doctor was just about all I could manage.

When I started residency, it was a relief to return to the liberal atmosphere of Northern California, but the demands on my time were even greater. The residency I am part of is quite humane compared to other programs, but the very nature of residency is to take away a person’s freedom in order to provide maximum exposure to the learning environment of the hospital. The work we do as physicians for the underserved is complex and challenging, but the hardest part of residency is the sheer amount of time it takes, almost double the hours of a normal workweek. The hardest part of taking call is not the tasks of call itself but the fact that, as a resident, you cannot leave the hospital for the 30 hours you are carrying the pager. For over a day, your time and attention belong to the patients, nurses, and other doctors who are counting on you to be there, no matter how tired or cranky you are, or how much you would rather be at home.

Throughout my medical training, I have been blessed by proud and supportive friends and family, but still, the training has taken its toll on my being. In high school and college, I was interested in a million things: learning to scuba dive, auditioning for rock bands, discovering feminism, and traveling the world. After four years of medical school, I was physically stiffer and slower and internally different as well. I became quieter about my political views, more reluctant to spend time at play, and more set in my views of right and wrong. Once in a while, at the market or on the street, I will see a young woman full of the best of young-woman energy—creative, gentle, strong, and excited—and I will notice that something inside me has been lost.

So I was surprised to find myself, after several hours of marching and chanting, heading not towards home but towards the circle of protesters in the middle of the downtown intersection waiting to be arrested. There were 40 or 50 men and women, mostly in their teens and twenties, sitting crosslegged in the middle of the street. The local police had been joined by the California Highway Patrol in surrounding the intersection. Six rows of police in riot gear marched forward with their black uniforms, facemasks, and shields. The sight of them made my gut clench, though I realized these men were just doing their jobs and the main purpose of riot gear is visual intimidation. I consulted with my co-workers on the sidewalk, who would be doing my work for me the next day if I were detained overnight.

They seemed surprised—”You want to get arrested?”—but enthusiastic about my idea to join the sit-in. One of them gave me a homemade sign reading Physicians for Peace, another gave me a jug of water, and a third tossed me his white coat after I was sitting in the circle, an action for which he was promptly surrounded by police.

We were taken away one by one, with seemingly endless delays between the arrests. The older protesters were removed first, and at the time I was arrested I was almost the only one over the age of 25. The two policemen came and asked me for my sign—”So we don’t get poked”—one of them explained. They put on plastic handcuffs and led me back down the street to the bus that would take us away.

“Hey, I know you!” I said to the man holding my left elbow. He gave me a skeptical look, and I described the prisoner he had brought into our prenatal clinic the week before, when we had held a ten-minute conversation in the hallway of the clinic. He gave a quick, furtive smile of recognition. The other policeman brought me to the desk where our names and photographs were taken.

“What’s your name?” he barked, still holding my elbow. “Doctor?” he added a moment later.

The entire process of the arrest and release took only a few hours. Waiting outside the jail was the director of the local peace and justice center, offering rides home, and a lawyer volunteering his services for the legal proceedings to follow. I arrived home just before dark, giddy with freedom. I had expected to spend the night in jail, so cooking dinner for myself and sleeping in my own bed seemed like marvelous luxuries. I was acutely aware of the doctors, nurses, soldiers, and journalists in Iraq who would not be guaranteed either food or rest that night. Pinning my citation to the kitchen wall, I saw the words neatly printed—”Failure to Disperse”—and felt joy and relief that in failing to obey the law I had succeeded in following my heart.

Melinda E. Glines

Melinda E. Glines is a member of Strawberry Creek Meeting in Berkeley, Calif.