Last Friday, the day the NATO 3 were arrested, approximately 35,948 people were arrested across the United States. On Sunday, when at least 45 protesters were arrested at Chicago's NATO summit protests, approximately 35,948 Americans - the number arrested on a daily basis in the US, according to FBI statistics - were handcuffed, read their Miranda rights (maybe), carted off to jail and booked. The plurality of those people were arrested for nonviolent drug crimes. Some of these people will be charged, convicted, prosecuted and jailed.
When bond is posted, some of these people will have relatives or friends who are able and willing to bail them out. Many will not. For most, there's no grassroots bail fund, no jail support team waiting on the other side of the razor wire fence.
Unlike the NATO 3 (or the Chicago Seven, or the Haymarket Eight), these people will go on to become part of a vast, near-voiceless crowd of 2.3 million incarcerated Americans, most of whom are visible only in the somber mugshots posted to their state's Department of Corrections web site. On this site, friends and relatives who know to look can view their loved ones' height, weight, race, tattoos, scars, offense, sentence length and inmate number. No phone number is listed, because these people - let's call them the US 2.3 Million - no longer have a phone number (or email address, or blog, or Facebook message box or Twitter account) that can be reached.
In stating these facts, I in no way aim to belittle the significant civil abuses that anti-NATO activists have experienced over the past week. Both the NATO 3 and the US 2.3 Million deserve civil liberties, human rights and fair treatment. And I cannot overstate my support and admiration for the veterans and peace groups that - in the face of Rahmian threats and media scare tactics - brought thousands of people into the streets to resist the NATO doctrine of endless war. Moreover, I know that civil disobedience and a willingness to strategically risk arrest are crucial tools for the success of nonviolent movements. (My consciousness as both a journalist and activist was formed through my involvement with the direct action group Voices for Creative Nonviolence.)
However, I wonder if these moments in the wake of mass activist arrests - specifically, when vocal activists (some of them white and middle class) are arrested by the dozen and thrust into the public eye - might be an apt time to spread awareness of the stark injustices perpetrated every minute, across the country, in the name of "criminal justice." When folks who aren't usually arrested (and whose friends, allies and civil liberties attorneys are enfranchised and outspoken) are subjected to civil liberties violations, institutionalized brutality, dehumanizing jail conditions and the sickening prevalence of moldy baloney sandwiches behind bars, a unique point of contact is sparked. It's an opportunity for true empathy and empathy is the mother - or, at least, the cousin - of action.