Opinion

Not Guilty and Not Compliant

PHOTO BY TAMI RAMIREZ, NOVEMBER 2009

By Tami Ramirez
CONTRIBUTOR

On Saturday, Nov. 21, I was arrested by the Columbus Police at the School Of Americas Protest in Fort Benning, Ga. After 30 hours of incarceration and psychological harassment from unprofessional “deputies,” I was the only one found not guilty out of 25 other innocent people. I was released from Muscogee County Jail on Sunday, Nov. 22 around 11:00 p.m.

Even if I was the only one found not guilty from the charges we faced in court, the deed is done, and I am glad it happened because now I have this newfound anger that feeds my will to fight and defend every right that is denied to my people. Even if it is just by making students at Beloit College realize how insensitive it is of them to leave a filthy mess behind in the common areas so that the Latina/Mexican ladies clean it up for them; or fighting for a comprehensive immigration reform; or representing the underrepresented in the government. Either way, I will continue this fight and let my story be heard.

An unjust arrest

During my incarceration, I kept recalling the steps that I took in that street where, without telling me why, three officers forcefully put my hands behind my back, handcuffed me and dragged me to a Columbus city bus whose digital marquee read “Special-Have a Nice Day.” During this “free ride” to jail, as one of the officers said jokingly, I kept thinking that maybe if I had not lost my white friends I would not be in the bus. Maybe, if I had not separated from my white friends, the officer would have let me cross the street with them instead of commanding me to “keep walking; if not I will arrest you.” I kept thinking how ironic it was that out of all the Beloiters that went on the trip, I was the only brown girl and the only one that got arrested as well.

So many “maybes” were crowding my mind, but it never occurred to me then that the reason why I was arrested was because I represented a threat to them by physically being at the protest. I was there demanding the termination of a tax-funded government institution that has taught brown people to exterminate brown people in Latin America for decades. The School of the Americas (SOA) or the School of the Assassins (as I prefer to call it) has been educating Latin American soldiers with the art of torture and killing techniques and has been proudly certifying its graduates to terrorize Latin American communities. I now realize that I was not arrested for walking in the street filled with racist officers, but I was arrested because I am fighting for my people’s right to live a life with justice.

Incarceration treatment

The time I spent at the Muscogee County Jail made me aware of all the things I take for granted. It also made me ask myself why I have started to take things for granted in the first place. All the commodities and freedoms that I normally enjoy were taken away from me in jail. Having few or no choices at all was dehumanizing. I had to use the bathroom in a holding cell, where there was no door separating me from the others, or in a room with a camera monitoring me. I was not allowed to walk, talk or move without someone’s permission and supervision when outside my cell. I had to persistently ask for a cup of water when I was thirsty. When I did receive the cup of water, it was contained in an all-too-familiar Dixie cup, the same we college students use for Jell-O shots.

The officers were unprofessional and unable to follow through with simple tasks, such as getting information from detainees and providing basic assistance for medical emergencies. Their incompetence was epitomized in a conversation I had when they were entering my data into the system:

Officer: Are you a citizen of the United States?
Tami: I am a permanent resident.
Officer: Yes, I know, but I am asking you if you are a citizen of the United States.
Tami: Um … I am a permanent resident.
Officer: We got that covered, honey. I am now asking you if you are a citizen of the United States of America.
Tami: No, officer, I am not a citizen of the United States of America. I am a permanent resident of the United States of America.

I was allowed to make two phone calls. Yes, I had the “privilege” to make two phone calls instead of the one phone call you are allowed in jail. My accent told the deputy lady that I was not from here even if my state identification card said Washington, D.C. Far from privileged, I was force to make a call to immigration. I was asked familiar questions that I encounter every time I exit and re-enter the U.S. This time though, I was not at the airport but in jail … in Georgia. Thus, even if I did not “cross over,” there was a risk of getting deported.

As a consequence of the agitation that struck me after the call to immigration, the asthma attack that I tried to prevent caught up with my lungs. It took 10 minutes and all the ladies that I shared the cell with banging on the glass door with their closed fists and their rubber shoes to get the attention of one of the patrolling deputies. A deputy finally came and asked for my name. She left and came back two minutes later to ask the spelling of my last name. By this time I was kneeling down, silently crying, knowing just what type of asthma attack I was going to experience. Another two minutes passed and the deputy said she could not find my inhaler. By this time a medical team had to come to my help. I was panicking because my fingers and toes were cold and tingling, I was hyperventilating, and my heart rate read 170. They finally applied a nebulizer, and I was painfully able to breathe again. Shaking and terrorized, I was placed back in my cell.

Terror in captivity

I was captive and I felt terrorized, in physical and emotional pain. The feeling was familiar not because I felt it before but because I read it in several books. I especially kept recalling quotes from a book I read over the summer called “Hear My Testimony: María Teresa Tula, Human Rights Activist of El Salvador,” where Maria narrates her life during the U.S.-sponsored civil war that made my country bleed for 15 years. I particularly remembered the chapters where Maria talks about her incarceration by the Salvadoran military and the torture and terror forced upon her by soldiers who were graduates of the School of Assassins and trainees of the graduates as well.

“They pushed my head next to the wall and began to hit my head against it. Then they hit my head on the floor. Then they grabbed me by my blouse and hit me on the head with their hands. I couldn’t hear anything. I was seeing colored lights. I couldn’t concentrate on what they were saying. Then they faced me to the wall so my chest was touching it. They would hit me from behind with their open hands so that the side where my heart was would slam against the wall. They were double blows from behind and from the wall in front of me. It was all a jumble in my head. They were telling me horrible things they would do to my children. … They sat me on the ground, put the handcuffs on tight, they blindfolded me again. Then they pressed on my spine as hard as they could with their knees to cut off my circulation from the large artery that runs through the back. They pressed so hard I felt my circulation being cut off. They beat my spine with their knees. Then they beat my legs as well…They each grabbed one of my arms and pushed me up and down in deep knee bends. After about 25, I felt like I couldn’t get off the ground. They pulled me up by the hair. Then they sat on my shoulders and made my chin touch my knees…I had to endure five days and nights of different tortures non-stop. They didn’t beat the baby inside me, but they beat me everywhere else.” (pg. 150-51)

I am not trying to compare my case to Maria’s. The things I experienced are nothing compared to what she experienced. What I am trying to say is that by remembering her testimony, I found comfort knowing that I was not in El Salvador and that the graduates of this “school” were not my arresting officers or the deputies patrolling my cell. Although I was terrorized every time I heard the door open, I knew that the only thing they could do to me was turn me in to immigration or deprive me of my inhaler or call me “Asthma Girl.” I am more than certain that every time Maria heard that door open, she knew that she was going to be brutally beaten and tortured. Such atrocities were done to her by the graduates of an institution that continues today to produce the same — if not worse — type of soldiers on U.S. soil, funded by my mother’s taxes, my taxes and your taxes as well.

Struggle to continue the fight

Most of you didn’t even know the existence of the School of the Americas/School of Assassins before reading this article. But is that really an excuse to avoid taking action against all the injustices in the world!? We are in a country where our representatives claim to promote democracy and “world peace.” But shouldn’t we, as individuals, also seek to promote democracy and “world peace”?  We think it is complicated; we think it is not in our power to make change happen. We place so many obstacles and barriers just so that we convince ourselves that there is nothing we can do about all the injustice we see and the injustice we don’t see. Or maybe, we simply don’t care. And it is all right if you don’t care; just don’t say you care to make yourself feel better. Don’t wear your peace sign T-shirts that were made in developing countries because it is not peace or justice what you want other than your own peace of mind. Just like a member of the Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlan (MEChA) said, “Before commodifying peace, fight for justice.”  If you care about justice, become conscious of the things that are happening in the world and commit to the fight for justice. Consciousness and commitment will lead to change.

The treatment I experienced during my incarceration was traumatizing even for a strong Latina like me. And although I did not intend to get arrested, I am glad it happened. The arrest, aside from reminding me that I take every commodity and liberty that this country offers for granted, reminded me that I am here in the U.S. to make justice happen for my brothers and sisters here in the U.S. and back in El Salvador. It reminded me of another quote spoken by MEChA: “We don’t need more activist tourism. We don’t need white leaders of indigenous movements. What we need is solidarity. What we need is our autonomy.” My experience taught me that I am not fighting strong enough, not screaming loud enough, not demanding firmly enough, and not organizing smart enough to make this much-needed justice happen. My community has suffered and still suffers discrimination, exploitation, and humiliation mainly from the white community, and it is time to say “ya basta!” and mean it.

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