On March 18, 2010, 16 people participated in a Direct Action sit-in at Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi’s Washington D.C. office in collaboration with a simultaneous direct action occurring in San Francisco, California. Although seven faced the risk of arrest (in D.C.), ultimately four of us were arrested and taken to Capitol Police Department, Central Booking. Those arrested included Samantha Ames, Janine Carmona, Chastity Kirven, and me, Michelle Wright.
Six people were arrested and cited at the scene in San Francisco. We sat in Non-Violent Civil Disobedience protesting that the Employee Non Discrimination Act (ENDA) be brought to mark-up for a vote in the House by the end of the month. Simply stated, in over half the states in the U.S. you can get fired from your job based solely on your sexual orientation or gender identity. Through the passage of ENDA, individual states would lose the ability to discriminate against LGBT Americans in the workplace.
This was my first action since having come out of the closet in October 2009. I realize the importance, especially as a young woman of color, to have visibility in the LGBT movement. I have attended several conferences and camps, including a week at The Highlander Center, learning about Non-Violent Civil Disobedience and Direct Actions. Below is a brief summary of my experience and why I felt the need to answer the call to action and get involved.
My 17 years as a softball player has taught me at least one thing: the importance of “team dynamics.” Through the support of my teammates I was able to reach my full potential on the field, able to effectively achieve my goals and, at times, even surpass them because of unyielding support.
Reflecting back on March 18, as a senior staff member locked the door in front of us; I looked deeply into the eyes of the women to my left and right, feeling the magnitude of their collective strength. It was at that point that I truly understood what it meant to be part of a team. I learned a tremendous lesson while sitting in Speaker Pelosi’s D.C. office. These women would be the allies that were needed to fundamentally change the shape of what this movement looks like; and because of their courage and support, we were able to help re-ignite the hearts and minds of some members of the LGBT family that had lost hope. As we walked the length of the corridor in handcuffs, I felt the most pride that I have ever felt and knew that the women who were with me truly had my back.
There was a palpable fear as the seven of us made our way into the cramped office for our 4 p.m. appointment with a senior staff member, knowing that across the country in San Francisco there were seven of our teammates, sitting in solidarity at Speaker Pelosi’s San Francisco office. Our demands were simple: for Speaker Pelosi to publicly state that she would bring ENDA to mark-up before the end of the month. As we recited stories of workplace discrimination and the importance of a Trans- inclusive and Trans- positive ENDA, our words fell onto the deaf ears of a Pelosi staff member. Similarly, as it has fallen on the deaf ears of a society so overwhelmed by media images, countless money saving coupons, and numerous charities wanting…people are overloaded. We needed our voices to be heard. We stood in union with our brothers and sisters who, because of financial instability, fear of job loss or many other staggering circumstances, could not be in physical attendance. They had been silenced for far too long, finally they got the chance to speak. We were their voice.
As we chanted, read stories and poems, my mind went back to late January 2010 and the pristine mountains of East Tennessee. It was in the sacred space of The Highlander Center, sitting in old, wooden rocking chairs, that I learned strangers could become allies. Living in California, I don’t face the threat of workplace dismissal based on my orientation; however, I know that there are LGBT families that live in states where that threat is palpable. I realized how our stories began to intertwine.
As the minutes crept to hours, I began to search for an internal strength to propel me onward. It was then that I saw the faces of 45 amazing organizers and activists who had shared the experience in Tennessee with me. As I sat, replaying their individual stories, I felt an intense calm; the mere fact of knowing that I am part of something more complex, something that I still haven’t fully wrapped my mind around inspires me. I realized that whether it was at Highlander or in the office in D.C., our commonality is equality.
As afternoon turned to evening, the office closed down to the general public and we were presented with an ultimatum to leave or face arrest. We knew the decision that had to be made; no longer could we surrender in fear of consequence without acknowledgement from our political leaders. No longer could we conform to where society had conveniently placed us – in the background.
We stood firm in our convictions as the 10 officers filed in, filled the empty space and arrested the four of us. A senior officer commented before reading us our Miranda rights that the “fun” was over. I inquisitively wondered if he knew that this wasn’t a laughing matter. People were losing their ability to earn a living. It became clearer to me then, our point had been made, we were ready to fight back for our rights.
As we awaited our arraignment and placed our lives in the legal system that begrudgingly defended us, we continued to look for support from our community. Together, no matter age, race or gender, we stood together and allowed our voices to rise in unison, screaming, “I AM SOMEBODY, AND I DESERVE FULL EQUALITY.”
A brief follow up:
The four of us were charged with “Unlawful Entry- Remaining,” (a federal misdemeanor punishable by six months in jail). We faced an arraignment and trial by judge on April 6, 2010, at the D.C. Superior Courthouse. Through the support of our legal counsel, Claire Morris Clark, and former D.C. Attorney, General Robert Spagnoletti, we came to a “Stet” agreement. It states that we are to obey the law according to the U.S. Attorney General for a probationary period of six months.
Two D.C. residents, Samantha Ames and Janine Carmona, were given an additional charge requiring them to perform 60 hours of community service at a nonprofit organization to be determined. Chastity Kirven, a Dallas, Texas native and I were sparred community service because of geographic hardship. There is no word that Speaker Pelosi is making any forward movement on ENDA.