Credit: Robert Willett/News and Observer, http://bit.ly/xKBTN0
On Friday, August 17, two Occupy Raleigh protestors were acquitted on all charges. The judge ruled that they had a constitutional right to remain seated peacefully on the edge of the sidewalk, as part of their demonstration against economic injustice and, more specifically, to defend an older disabled woman who was being harassed by State Capitol police to give up her chair. Unfortunately, the North Carolina judges who ruled on other protestors’ cases were not so clear-headed, as some have been found guilty and are engaged in a lengthy appeal.
**Shaun Ridgway was among those arrested on Oct. 27, and was one of the two acquitted on Friday. Here is her story, in her own words:
Before stepping on the Capitol grounds that day in October, I wept openly in my car. My knuckles were bone white from gripping the steering wheel so tightly. They were arresting a disabled woman for sitting during a protest. I felt the arrest coming. I knew it was coming. I knew the moment I stepped out of my office towards the car, something was coming. I played out every scenario possible on the drive there. And every scenario led to the same conclusion. Handcuffs.
They told me I was brave. Nothing about what I did really felt brave. The only thing I felt was that my moral compass wouldn’t shift in any other direction. And I hated myself for it. I wanted so badly to step away. To stay quiet. To fall in line. My inner dialogue was a persistent whine that’s stuck with me from childhood. The bitter echo “Why can’t you just be normal?” from a lifetime previous stung like ice water to an exposed cavity.
I sat down quietly next to Margaret Schucker. I held her hand as we waited for the inevitable. I felt the failure of the justice system disintegrate around me. I grew up thinking that police were here to protect us, to save us. Who were you protecting? How did sitting with a disabled woman pose a threat to my fellow citizens? That small, nagging voice inside told me this was my punishment for my abnormality.
I tried to drown out my inner monologue by repeating to myself that dissent is not disloyalty, that the right choice is not always the easy choice. They arrested Margaret and I sat wide-eyed and waiting for my time to come. “If you don’t move, we will arrest you for trespass,” the officer told me. I nodded, attempting desperately to change some sort of ethical polarity so I could force my moral compass to switch directions. Two steps right. Move, Shaun. Just give in. Just get out of the way. Just this once. Defeated with myself, I held my wrists out and they placed me in cuffs.
The next few hours were a culture shock. The magistrate set my bail as another inmate boldly told him that my arrest was bullshit and the justice system is a lie. His words rang true the moment I was placed into holding. I sat in a cell with girls who were barely of age and booked for petty crimes that only white privileged teenagers get away with. A mother sobbed because she was an undocumented worker and she was being shipped away. Her English was broken, but I can still hear her crying for her child’s future when my mind wanders into dark places.
Seasons passed. The fires that Occupy had started were reduced to a smoldering disappointment and my political activism largely consisted of court date after court date of continuances. I watched as those arrested with me finished up their court dates and moved on to community service or appeals. Clinton Ebati and I were the only two cases left. Finally, ten months and eight continuances later, it was our turn to sit in front of the judge.
Today was that day. I wrote last night that I had nothing left in me to give. I walked into the courthouse with the full intention of being convicted. All I felt was this vague existential discomfort as I squirmed like child sitting at funeral. The defense and the State went back and forth on the gritty details of sidewalk schematics, the flow of pedestrian traffic, and our specific locations when they arrested us. The state’s main evidence were videos taken of our arrests that day. Ten months. Eight continuances. Our memories were faulty and I couldn’t help but feel like exhaustion from our long journey was no excuse to lie under oath. I wondered if forgetting the details of the case constituted actual perjury. About midway through, the weight lifted. Our judge actually wanted to hear the constitutional argument our lawyer had prepared. And like a light switch… Hope.
Our lawyer, Scott Holmes, spoke with such quiet passion that I couldn’t help buy admire the way his argument formed. The pieces were undeniably falling into place. Finally, Scott moved to dismiss on carefully crafted defense based on constitutionality, permit-less protesting, the enforcement of unwritten Capitol “rules and regulations”, and the State Capitol police’s abuse of power. The judge reviewed his notes. We waited. And in the meantime, I had reached a new level of anxiety as time dilation destroyed any sense of temporal reality. Suddenly, the judge granted the motion to dismiss. The district attorney shook my hand. Ten months. Eight continuances. It was over.
I still don’t feel much relief. Others arrested weren’t so lucky. Guilt still eats at me for getting my case dismissed as we wait for the outcome of their appeals. If I listen carefully enough, I can still hear the undocumented mother’s cries for her child. Today was just one small drop of victory in an ocean of failed promises. I head to bed malcontent and wondering if I can fix this world. At least for tonight, my moral compass directs me to keep going, to keep fighting. At least for tonight, I have some small shred of hope.
Read another first-hand account of a protestor arrested that same day here.