By Raghav Sharma
I Got Arrested for Calling Michael Hayden a War Criminal
And I’d do it again.
On tour for his new book, the four-star general and former head of the NSA and CIA recently spoke at his alma mater of Duquesne University, a mere 20-minute bus ride from my own school. Having learned of the event just a few days prior and unwilling to let Hayden speak unchallenged, an anti-war friend of mine sought me out to help disrupt the event any way we could. There are multiple tactics small groups of activists can utilize to deny a speaker their unimpeachability: banner drops, storming the stage, silent sign-holding, Q&A session hijacking, chanting. It was these last two strategies our squad sought to employ.
Upon arriving in the ballroom, our hopes for the Q&A were dashed. Rather than employing the traditional process of providing microphones to raised hands through facilitators in the crowd after the speaker finished, Hayden’s session was conducted by having audience members write their questions on index cards before the event for his associates to filter through for objectionable content. This served to confirm what many activists — including Occupy co-founder Micah White in his new book The End of Protest — recognize: authority figures have managed to subvert nearly every form of dissent, whether as complex as a massive rally or as basic as a Q&A.
So we improvised. Rather than waiting for a readily co-optable opportunity to speak, we created a conflictual space within Hayden’s shameless recounting of his crimes to express our opposition to the man most responsible for the modern-day NSA. Surrounded as we were by hundreds of people who laughed at Hayden’s off-hand joke comparing CIA torture methods to his own treatment by nuns at a Catholic school, we sought not to convert our ideological opponents but rather to express and establish as a matter of record an attitude towards Hayden contrary to that held by his fans and admirers both in the audience and outside the hall. And for the high crime of shouting over a former government official, my associates and I were dragged out of the ballroom by men in suits who we later learned had been lurking in the back of the room.
We were taken outside the building, where I was cuffed to my friend by the assistant chief of Duquesne’s private police. We stood idly by as he and a uniformed officer discussed what they were going to charge us with. It was around the fourth or fifth time they referred to our supposed crime as “disrupting a meeting” that I realized they had nothing on us. Not for a moment did I regard what we had done as a moral crime, but the realization that I hadn’t violated the law emboldened me and instilled a degree of confidence that would prove immeasurably valuable for the interactions that were to come. Another uniformed cop joined his brother in blue and led us to the parking lot, where my friend and I were split up, handcuffed individually, and put into two separate police cars departing for the station.
I would be astonished if either man believed “disrupting a meeting” was an actual crime. The intention with which they bandied the phrase about was likely an attempt to make us fearful enough for our individual futures that we would comply with the questions they asked us about each other. Upon arriving at the station, my friend and I were led into an interrogation room. In an hour-plus conversation, the officers offered up such gems as “the Constitution is dead” and a lecture about my disrespect for the men and women who died defending my right to speech, the latter of which rang as hollow as the former did true while I sat handcuffed to a wooden bench for talking at the wrong time. After demanding ID and sitting down to fill out the necessary forms, the officers began their interrogation.
The nature of their questions followed an easily-recognizable pattern, coached in a game of good cop/bad cop so blatant I couldn’t help but grin. They would begin with abstract statements intended to get us talking. For the good cop, this meant asking us what our intentions were in disrupting Hayden. He even offered his own take on contemporary America in response to our critiques, giving rise to the aforementioned Constitutional obituary. The bad cop chose to deride us and our cause. We didn’t respect Hayden or his service, or the service of all soldiers, we didn’t respect the gravity of the War on Terror. I’ll admit: we took the bait the first few times. We engaged in conversation with the officers, who continued the discussion for a little while before lifting elements from our responses to transition into specific questions. Questions about our friends. Questions about activist groups we associated with. Questions we answered vaguely, if at all. Awkward silence. Rinse and repeat.
Before long this game grew stale for all involved. At one point a detective entered the room and asked the officers if we’d been read our Miranda rights. I urge anyone looking for a good laugh to request the video footage from the camera in the corner of the room and watch the look on the face of the officer who brought me in. After asking us in vain to submit written statements regarding our motivations, the detective told us we could go. No charges were filed but the case is being forwarded to my school’s disciplinary board and the Allegheny County District Attorney while my friend and I are now legally prohibited from setting foot on Duquesne’s campus. We were led to the door by the assistant chief of police, who pointed us towards the nearest bus stop and sent us on our way.
Having wondered my whole life what my first political arrest would be like, I left feeling an abrupt sense of negation. It was as though I had spent two hours of my life completing a closed loop. No crime so no charges, no changing the minds of any person on either side. But that was never the point. Subjectivity’s straitjacket leaves us all standing with our backs turned orbiting Truth. Can I call Michael Hayden a bad man, or Assistant Chief Sippey, or the audience applauding my arrest, when their entire lives had led them inevitably to our confrontation just as mine had?
Subjectivity also weighed heavily on me as I considered what might have happened had I dared to be daring in a black body, or had my gender identity not conformed to what was listed on the state ID I presented. Born with a level of privilege most of the world cannot imagine, I was relatively sheltered from the consequences of my actions before I even acted. I shudder to imagine the draconian punishments I would have suffered had I publicly decried as a war criminal the head of Turkish or North Korean intelligence.
But those men aren’t doing book tours. Officials of overt autocracies lack the means to subdue their populations through anything but fear and violence. The subtle strongman is a man of the people, and thus those who hide their hegemonic aspirations behind the banner of democracy must at times prostrate themselves before the public. So they give us a vote while conducting their business behind closed doors. They distort their crimes through the lens of patriotism and posit that everything is relative; that had we known what they know, we would have done the same. Loss of life and liberty becomes relative to the value of security, the moral inviolability of human rights relative to the motives of the terrorist.
Recourse to relativity cuts two ways, however, and jingoistic posturing is the only salve capable of soothing the wounds of cognitive dissonance. To deny America’s role in perpetuating some of the world’s most profound depravity is to dismiss en masse the perspectives of those whose lives are crushed under our eternal march to liberate the Earth. The emotional impact of violence remains the same whether its survivors curse suicide bombers or drone operators. On what grounds can we rationalize the fear of Afghan children gazing at a clear blue sky?
Freed from the grasp of nationalism, if we are to accept subjectivity as an objective element of the human experience, we have no choice but to combat the apocalyptic consequences of our lifestyle on the lives of so many around the world. Our struggle may very well be in vain. The opponents of liberty own the banks and the factories. They control the schools and have the press hanging at their every word. The guns and bombs and surveillance networks are on their side. But struggle is defined by seemingly insurmountable odds. To stand against ideological totality demands a competing absolute and an army willing to lay their lives on the line in service of this ideal. What the cops interrogating me feared most was that they had only arrested two of us. They fear a nonviolent coalition committed to rejecting the order police protect and making manifest a new order based not on violence and coercion but rather consensus and peace, human dignity and the potential of a species freed from deprivation and terror. And so long as the old order stands, it our duty as its opponents to stand firm, screaming at its face.