When Capitol Hill protesters get arrested and detained, this is what they have to look forward to: a slice of bologna between two pieces of white bread and a cup of Kool-Aid.
Medea Benjamin, a co-founder of the anti-war group Code Pink, knows the routine well. The 57-year-old activist estimates U.S. Capitol Police have arrested her 10 times for protesting, with each experience following roughly the same script. First comes the background check, followed by the fingerprinting, and then what she describes as hours of sitting on a metal bench with her hands cuffed behind her back. If she’s still there by mealtime, she gets the processed meat and sugary drink.
Protesters have long gathered on Capitol Hill — home of the “people’s building” — to demonstrate on issues such as war, civil rights, big government and abortion. But when their passion bubbles over, Capitol Police haul them away, giving way to a much less romantic chapter of their activist life.
Some who have been arrested say the spotlight cast on their detainment is the greatest publicity they can get, while others say getting arrested would not aid their message and that they would be disappointed if it happened.
Benjamin said she and other members of her group, which has been around since 2002, have been arrested so often on the Hill that Capitol Police officers have come to know them. They’ve developed a peaceable, if not outright friendly, relationship, she said.
“They’re very nice,” she said. “It took us awhile to learn about each other, but since we’ve been in such close contact for a long time, I think we’ve come to appreciate each other. I think they recognize our sincerity, and we recognize their having to carry out a job, and … they know we’re not dangerous and we’re not out to hurt anybody.”
Some groups, however, come to Capitol Hill wanting to be arrested. In July, Capitol Police arrested 26 protesters who demanded Congress nullify a federal ban on syringe exchange, increase housing funding for people with AIDS and bolster international funding to fight AIDS.
Jose deMarco, a lifelong AIDS activist and member of the ACT UP Philadelphia group, was one of those arrested. He said the group had been planning the event for months. The protesters gathered in the Capitol Rotunda, carrying signs and chanting.
They were charged with unlawful assembly and disorderly conduct. The group had anticipated the arrest and had a designated moneyman, who provided each detainee with $50 to pay the fine to be released from custody.
The most widely publicized Capitol Hill protests in 2009 also resulted in a few arrests. The conservative Tea Party protests attracted thousands of people in favor of limited government and opposed to the Democratic healthcare overhaul. On one occasion, Capitol Police arrested 10 protesters who attempted to gain access to Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s (D-Calif.) district office in the Cannon House Office Building. They were charged with unlawful entry and unlawful conduct.
Benjamin said the cost of getting arrested — police fines, lawyer fees, court fines, travel costs and other expenditures — can add up to as much as $1,000 per person, though she said that sum was on the high end of the scale. And because Code Pink is a nonprofit group, it doesn’t have a collective fund that arrestees can draw from for such expenses. They pay out of their own pocket.
“I think [the Capitol Police] have come to understand that we really don’t want to get arrested because it’s a lot of time and effort and money and hardship for us,” said Benjamin, whose first arrest came when she interrupted then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld during a Senate committee hearing. Benjamin also shouted from the House Balcony in 2006, interrupting Iraq Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s address to a joint session of Congress.
Both times she was charged with unlawful conduct.
Organizers say next week’s 37th annual March for Life, a gathering of thousands of anti-abortion-rights protesters that coincides with the anniversary of the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision, is expected to take place without arrests.
“Our march is coordinated with all of the police jurisdictions,” said Nellie Gray, who founded the march, in a phone interview. “We don’t want to shake our fist at the president or the members of Congress. We’re trying to educate them. [Arrests are] just not going to happen in our march.”
But when arrests do take place, protesters must be processed. Small groups of arrested protesters are taken to Capitol Police headquarters, near the Senate office buildings. Larger groups are held at a processing center four blocks from the House office buildings.
In addition to conducting background checks and fingerprinting, police inventory “whatever property they may have on their person,” according to Capitol Police spokeswoman Sgt. Kimberly Schneider.
Schneider would not specify how many holding cells are under the Capitol Police’s jurisdiction, but said they can process “any number” of people arrested.
One police officer said booking protesters can take longer than usual if the protesters don’t have identification on them, a tactic they often carry out intentionally to complicate the process.
Not every disturbance results in an arrest. In a hearing, Capitol Police generally defer to the judgment of the committee chairman.
Both deMarco and Benjamin agreed that, as awful as the experience of getting arrested can be, the result can be worth it.
“A lot of times [the arrest is] done with great solemnness and intent, and can be very effective,” Benjamin said. “Other times it might not change the issue at all. You might be speaking out in a hearing that gets no coverage, and if you get no coverage for it, it’s almost as if it didn’t happen. But it tends to be effective if it’s done right.”