"If you're innocent, why are you in jail?"
I had an argument with a co-worker some time back, about Proposition 8, a hideous (Mormon-backed) demonstration of systematic bigotry against gay couples simply wanting to wed. Like most Angelinos, he wasn't against gay marriage in theory or practice—but he played the devil's advocate anyway.
I railed in soliloquy against the fatuous arguments put forth by the worthless talking heads both within our government, and extending from that degraded sock puppet of corporate special interests: our media. "It's a slippery slope," they'd say, and that it was only a matter of degrees away from condoning marriage to children. "You mean like in the bible?" I'd say, to no one in particular, since it wasn't my co-worker's argument in the first place. They'd continue over the top—and into the pandering, benighted and disingenuous depths—posing hypotheticals about marriage to turtles, alpacas, armchairs, Volkswagens. "Marriage," they'd say, citing nothing in particular, "is between a man and a woman." That in itself was a slippery slope (by their own standards), I'd reply; condoning marriage between a man and woman would only lead to condoning it between other things.
I said it was hard to reconcile myself to the fact that in this time and place, we'd deigning to even acknowledge the patent oppression of the basic rights of LGBT people. I said that such denial and oppression was a veiled condemnation of their entire existence; one which can only find its justification in the creeping religious fundamentalism social conservatives have prudently learned to couch in less literal language. The message was clear enough though, in its total lack of secular arguments. Their habit of invoking "tradition" couldn't mask that it was their personal hatreds which fueled this interpretation of religious and secular law.
"Tradition," or precedent, could serve as the justification or any resistance to social change/progress. Segregation, slavery, serfdom, obedience to god-kings, the murder of heretics; anything that had been in practice long enough could be defended in such a way.
But where did those traditions start? Did they not break some other tradition themselves? That's why deities, and other arbiters claimed to supersede our reasoning must be brandished.
My co-worker said, "But, technically, they do have the same right to marry as everyone else." I was paralyzed by confusion at the remark. "Under the law, they can marry someone of the opposite sex—like anyone else can."
My eye started to twitch. "That's not an argument, it's just stating the letter of the law—which we are trying to change!" I was becoming irritated, and drifted into incoherence, fast talking, and moderately abusive language. Not proud of it, but there it is.
"This is jail!" the guards told arrestees who'd complained about conditions. The absence of soap by the toilets, and the limiting of access to showers and toothbrushes to every other day (a stark rebuttal to Mayor Villaraigosa's hand wringing about public health as a reason for his politically and commercially-motivated assault on rights and dignity). The prolonged transports, and denial of restroom breaks to the point where some arrestees soiled themselves. The refusal to loosen plastic handcuffs, causing such agony over the course of hours to some that they passed out (my hand is still partly numb, though it's probably not permanent). The holding times, which simultaneously stretched the stays of prisoners and the law itself. The denial of visitors or access to lawyers. The confiscation of materials containing legal numbers. A number was provided to a bail bondsman; it didn't work. Phones that could only make collect calls to a minute segment of modern phone lines; phones offered to people in an era where few even know phone numbers by heart (and of course, the denial of access to our mobile phones and the contacts therein), amounting to a communications blackout. Lost and misdirected paperwork, and families and friends given incorrect and contradicting information about their loved ones.
"This is jail!"
And you would be treated like shit, regardless of the circumstances of your arrest. There was no distinction between the rights of lifelong offenders, domestic abusers, drunk drivers, thieves, murderers and rapists, and those yanked from the ground, during an act of peaceful civil disobedience. Beyond being—to my knowledge—spared transfer to general population, should we have anticipated special treatment? Not really. Corrections officers aren't known for their humanity. Nor are jails and prisons celebrated for their consideration of political prisoners (and yes, as grandiose as it sounds, that's what we were).
It was jail. A place to be forgotten and silent. A chronologically neutral waiting room, where one whiles away the hours until visits, release, or death. An institution of petty authority lorded over a constrained populace, where there is no winning the argument, no gaining leverage against your oppressors, and negotiations will more often than not result in further punishment—legal or otherwise. It's a jungle, a bad neighborhood, where your fate rests on the whims of largely unaccountable overseers, choosing to intervene or turn a blind eye to despair, sickness, violence, and sexual assault, according to their fancy.
Because, "This is jail!"
And that is where you belong for speaking up, rocking the boat, hurting the bottom line, or threatening to incite an awareness of their own plights in the majority of your fellow commoners. Why else, but this sudden upsurge in activism, would a (nominally, anyway) Democratic president, his fellow Democrats in a "small government" Republican dominated House, suddenly align, abandon their squabbling and defining lackadaisical pace, to rush forward in parallel with the Occupy movement's growth and populist approval?
Why else would they seek to—under the specious canard that record and movie companies are losing money due to piracy—turn the last bastion of free speech and citizen journalism, the internet, into the sort of micromanaged repository of fuzzball propaganda available in Communist China?
Why else would they like to declare the US a war zone, holding all citizens under suspicion of the vague affinity for domestic terrorism? Why else would the Pentagon label protest a form of "low-level terrorism?" Why, when the likelihood of dying from a terrorist attack in the US lies far beneath that of being struck by lightning or being mauled by a tiger shark, would terrorism become such an immediate concern? Why, when the Patriot Act has been used only 15 times to investigate suspected terrorists, would we need to widen our search for suspected or potential terrorists to encompass the entire population of the United States?
Cutting off your communications, revoking your Constitutional rights, classifying you a terrorist to justify arrest without evidence, and empowering themselves to execute indefinite detainment without trial (making you "disappear") are just some of the ways this rash of totalitarian legislation threatens the average American.
It'd be a country where complaints aren't answered with change, but with punishment. Where dissenters are hidden from view, at the whims of an unaccountable authority. Of such a country you could rightly say,
"This is jail!'
And then they'd throw your ass in a bus.