a memoir


Another sweltering August day in Kentucky’s Derby City. It felt like the air conditioning had been turned-off. Squeezed into a small, windowless administrative office, we had been sitting on the industrial carpeted floor for most of the day. Hoarse from chanting demands and singing protest songs, we were hungry, sweaty, and tired.

In the doorway stood the solemn-looking, Louisville, police chief. In a clearly contained low voice, the partially bald man began to read the arrest warrant held tightly in his right hand. As he spoke, the chief's wire rimmed glasses slipped midway down the bridge of his nose. The officer paused for a moment, pushed them up with his middle finger, and continued to read. For the third time in as many hours, he told us that we could still get up and leave the building without an arrest. For the third time, we locked arms and refused to vacate the office.

"Louisville police last night arrested 22 persons representing the Louisville Welfare Rights Organization on disorderly conduct charges after they had occupied the office of a state public assistance administrator for almost eight hours," disclosed newspaper reporter Bill Peterson. "Police Chief C. J. Hyde made the arrests at 7 p.m. with state police standing by after city and state officials had debated for three hours over the correctness of an arrest warrant."¹

Peterson’s article did not explain that the city officials had conferred in earnest how best to carry out the arrests. At all costs, they wanted to prevent riots from breaking out in the half dozen public housing projects scattered throughout the city. Most of the demonstrators lived in those projects. City and state officials had good reason to be concerned. A mere two years before, in late May, Louisville had erupted into street fires and looting, as did many cities throughout the country after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. Hundreds of Kentucky National Guardsman had poured into the city to quell the disturbances.

Included in the arrest list, Donna Johnson and I were Volunteers in Service to America, a domestic Peace Corps. The arrest felt liberating. I had embraced my guaranteed right to participate in nonviolent disobedience. It would be my first of many such arrests in the decades to come. "Protest beyond the law is not a departure from democracy: it is absolutely essential to it," proclaimed American historian and social activist Howard Zinn. "It’s disruptive and troublesome, but it is a necessary disruption, healthy troublesomeness."²

Throughout 1970, Donna and I worked as community organizers in the city’s housing projects. We helped create an advocacy organization that addressed issues faced by men, women, and children on public assistance. The culmination of our efforts had been the demonstration at the welfare office. Months later, police officers arrested Donna and me again for refusing to vacate a dilapidated rental home in the dead of winter; we stood in solidarity with a destitute family scheduled for eviction by their slumlord. That was only the beginning.