The Franklin St. Mass Arrest of March 21, 2003

The right to peaceful protest is among the most sacred of our traditional American liberties. I ought to know; after all, I spent 4 years in the US Marine Corps supposedly defending these liberties. Forty years later, when the invasion of Iraq began, I went out in the street to exercise my right to protest, and that's how I wound up in jail.

It happened in San Francisco, on the evening of Friday, March 21, 2003. I joined a demonstration which assembled at the cable car turnaround at Powell & Market. There were several hundred of us, and after a short rally we set out along Market Street, marching southwest.

The police told us to stay on the sidewalk or we’d be arrested; we obeyed the police order till we left Market and turned onto Hayes, but at the Civic Auditorium the sidewalk was blocked by a delivery truck which had been backed up to a loading ramp. That forced us off the sidewalk and into the street.

Up ahead of us at the next cross street, which was Polk, the intersection appeared to be blocked off by police. Being in the midst of the crowd, it was hard to see what was happening; finally I saw banners and picket signs behind a line of police. Later I learned that at that time about 60 protesters had been surrounded and were being arrested, but at the moment I didn't understand what was going on. I couldn't imagine that they would grab 60 people in a mass arrest; after all, this was a peaceful demonstration. And supposedly lawful.

People up ahead of me started waving for us to turn back, which we did, turning north on Larkin and then traveling west for several blocks along Grove till we reached Franklin. There we turned north. The police seemed to have left us. However, as we continued up Franklin towards McAllister, people up ahead of me came to a stop, and when I got there, I could see a police blockade. The protesters at the front of our column waved at the rest of us to go back. So I and others around me turned back the way we’d come. But before we reached the intersection, we discovered that our retreat had also been cut off by the police.

Some 200 or more of us were packed tightly onto the sidewalk on the east side of Franklin. This sidewalk was 10 feet wide with an iron railing behind it; below the sidewalk was the sunken parking lot of the Veterans Building. A smaller number of protesters were on the sidewalk across the street from us; behind them was a large building with a sign which read: "San Francisco Unified School District Administrative Office."

It was about 6 o'clock. The days were getting longer at that time of year and darkness hadn't fallen yet. The evening was fairly warm and we were glad it wasn't raining. Making no further moves, nor saying anything to us, the police completely surrounded us, keeping us penned in. Someone began a chant, “Let us go!” and we all took it up.

“Let us go!” “Let us go!”
“Let us go!” “Let us go!”

But the police didn’t let us go, and an hour passed without them telling us what their intentions were. There were large numbers of SF city police as well as members of the California Highway Patrol. "There're three cops for every protester!" someone observed.

In the parking lot below us, I saw an elderly person being treated by medics. He must've been the person I read about later in the SF Bay Guardian; apparently the police had clubbed him. I suspected that he was an uninvolved passerby who simply got too close to the police; I never did find out for sure.

I talked with the people around me, and we speculated as to what the police had in mind. Even at this point, we didn’t believe they were actually going to simply arrest our whole demonstration en masse. Such extreme police-state methods weren’t normally used in this country--or so we thought.

Finally, after we’d been corralled there for an hour, a police officer with lieutenant’s bars on his collar told us over a bullhorn that all of us were under arrest. He said there were two misdemeanor charges, one was failure to obey the order of a police officer, and the other was obstructing traffic.

The lieutenant also told us that we'd be taken to jail, cited, and then released that night. However, anyone who'd been arrested during the previous day's demonstrations would be held for an extra day. "That's recidivism," the policeman explained.

"Good for recidivism!" said a tall, thin fellow, and all of us within hearing distance cheered and applauded.

Several hours passed till they actually hauled us off to jail. Nevertheless, the experience wasn’t all bad. During this time I had the opportunity to talk with people around me, mostly young people, and I was impressed by their spirit and self-discipline. I felt honored to be standing among them. Morale was high, and there was a strong sense of solidarity.

We discussed what we should do. Attempt a mass escape? We decided not to. There were too many cops, at least three for each one of us. Someone suggested a “die-in,” that we simply lie down on the sidewalk and let them carry us off. Nevertheless, in this situation there didn’t seem to be a point in that. The police had told us they were only going to cite us and release us that same night, so we decided to just submit to arrest.

It had certainly not been my intention to get arrested that evening, though I knew there was always some risk of that. I took part because I considered it important that older persons like myself should be there with the young people—not to give advice or "wisdom" or even suggestions, but simply to march in the ranks and thus show by my gray-haired presence that we who are old enough to be their parents and grandparents stand with them.

A cordon of police occupied the street in front of the sidewalk where we stood packed in. At one point, a fellow got in an altercation with several officers who began swinging their clubs, and, in trying to escape them, dove into our ranks right where I was standing. I tried to get out of the way, but on that tightly packed sidewalk, it was impossible. Suddenly I was flat on my back, looking up as the man fell on top of me, and 3 or 4 policemen piled on top of him. From the bottom of this heap, I saw a club swinging, and before I had time to even be afraid, it flashed though my mind that I was going to get some broken bones. But the police paused at that moment, and the other protesters pulled me out.

I got to my feet. Finally, gathering my wits, I looked around and asked who’d pulled me out from under. “Who rescued me?” I said, “I want to thank you, whoever you are.”

My rescuer, a young woman, spoke up; her name was Kristin. She and her companions, T.R. and Jen, were high school English teachers.

“English teachers?” I said, “Then I have a question for you.”

“About grammar?”

“Yes,” I said. “Should the word antiwar be hyphenated?”

The three exchanged glances and discussed it a bit. Their consensus was that antiwar did not require a hyphen.

There was plenty of time, and I made use of it to speak with a good many people there. One was Nathan, the tall, thin fellow who’d said "Good for recidivism." He'd recently returned from studying in Scotland. Another was María, a sociology student at SF State who came from Peru. One of her companions, Brigit, was studying methods of communicating with deaf people.

I spoke with a teenager who hoped to study drama. I could’ve told her she was in the right school tonight; she probably knew that. Chris was another fellow I met there; he was a businessman, president of his own company. Several of my companions were Hispanic, and one was a Pala Indian, who’d recently gotten his Ph.D. from Berkeley. Another fellow was a punk rocker from Missouri.

I even encountered a person I’d met during the previous day’s march, Karen, a student at Sonoma. “How did you get here?” she said on seeing me. “I was detained,” I told her.

People chatted, got to know one another, and sang songs: "This land is our land," "We shall overcome,” “How many roads must a man walk down?”

One woman sat perched on a railing by the sidewalk with a drum which she beat as she sang “We shall rise like a phoenix from the fire.” She had a beautiful voice. I later learned that her name was Hannah, and that she was from Fresno.

Other than the couple of incidents I’ve mentioned, the police were basically respectful of us. Being mass arrested seemed a bit unreal, almost something of a novelty.

Nevertheless, those four hours during which the police had us cornered on the sidewalk were far more intense than anything I had experienced during my time in the Marine Corps. Without bullets actually flying, this seemed about as close as you could get to battlefield conditions. It was a time and place where if anyone screwed up and lost his head, several people could’ve gotten seriously hurt—as almost happened to me when the altercation occurred in which I got knocked down. I was impressed at the way these people remained calm, literally turning this tense situation into a social event.

Nevertheless, this was a flagrant violation of our Constitutional rights. "Why are they putting all this manpower and all these resources into doing this to us?" we wondered. "Can we really be that important to them?" We discussed and commented on these things among ourselves.

Obviously the police had locked down our demonstration for the evening, but, “Do they think they can crush us with this?” said one woman.

“They must be idiots,” said another. “It just makes us stronger in the long run.”

Although the arrests were being carried out by local police, we suspected the hand of Ashcroft behind it all. And for us this was one more reason to question the legitimacy of the Bush regime. To begin with, despite media whitewash, Bush was known to us as “the man who stole the presidency” and it seemed that everything he did and said served to further diminish his credibility as an honest president.

We saw remarkable parallels between our situation and that of the American colonists, who suffered under the tyranny of King George two and a quarter centuries before. Even coincidence, or perhaps synchronicity, seemed to underline the similarities—such as that of being tyrannized over now as then by an unelected ruler whose name happened to be George.

“George the Second,” someone remarked.

“Not the second,” said another. “His father called himself George Bush Jr., and so that George would’ve been the second, and that makes this one another George the Third.”

“If the Founding Fathers were alive, they’d be out here with us."

“Sam Adams wouldn’t have missed it for anything.”

Nor was it forgotten that France had been the traditional ally of Americans oppressed by unelected rulers named George. Among our banners was a French Tricolor. Bush’s unjustified remarks about France was another thing that had seemed almost calculated to offend many Americans as much as the French—and anybody with a minimal knowledge of American history should’ve understood that.

And of course our conversations had touches of jailhouse humor. The police had commandeered Muni buses for use as paddy wagons, and someone told of an incident on a previous day, in which a group of protesters, being hauled off in one, had pulled the “stop request” cord.

We peacefully submitted to arrest. They took our names, put us in a bus and took us to jail. It was about 10 p.m., after we’d been on the sidewalk some four hours, when my turn came.

An officer with a clipboard asked my name, and I gave him not only my name, but also my branch of the military, plus my rank and service number—according to the Geneva Convention.

The officer looked at me for a moment, then said, “Semper fi?”

“You’re a Marine too?” I said.

He was.

They took us to Bryant Street, and released us at about 2 a.m. When we got out, we were met outside the jail by a protesters’ support group who’d brought us hot tea and donuts. The National Lawyers Guild was also there and said they would help us in court.

And a protester stood by the curb, displaying a “No Blood for Oil” sign to passing motorists.