Deep in the heart of downtown Los Angeles, a crowd of angry citizens pumped their fists in the air and chanted in unison while drummers beat a rolling thunder into the halls of the Anthem Blue Cross building. This was not just another rally—the signs, the banners, the drums, the chants, all the fanfare served to emphasize the more radical tactic being deployed. Twelve of us would publicly defy the law to point out the grave injustice of our country’s healthcare system. As the crowd rallied, we gathered together and removed layers to reveal bright, orange tee shirts, adorned with the words “patients not profits.” We were ready to go in.
Our demand was simple; cover payments for doctor-recommended treatments for all Blue Cross patients with life-threatening conditions. We would not move until they met our demands or until we were removed by the police.
While all this was happening in L.A. on October 15, 2009, eight other cities across the country were holding similar demonstrations in the lobbies of different insurance buildings.
Led by my friend Sam Pullen, a 31 year old former Blue Cross patient, we approached the doors of the building where security was waiting for us. As the delegation moved closer in, the demonstrators turned up the volume. According to security we were trespassing, and would not be let inside. Pullen and the group stood ground. “We are Blue Cross patients and we demand a meeting. We’re not moving until we get one,” he insisted. We held hands and sat in a circle, right in front of the entrance. We waited until the LAPD closed in. Dressed in riot gear and present in huge numbers, the police surrounded us. They issued an order to disperse immediately, “or we will remove you, and you will be placed under arrest.” As the officer recited the consequences of our failure to comply, I had to fight the instinct that pleaded with me to do what this heavily armed man is saying. I had to fight the instinct that is so ingrained in us, the one that pushes us to run away in the face of danger, that urge to submit.
But then I looked at the others, and saw the fierceness in their eyes. We looked at each other for support while we sang through our list of tried and true protest songs. I sensed the adrenaline pulsing through each of us. Though we were frightened, we would not move. Even if we were attacked, we were ready to remain peaceful and non-violent. We were in control; the crowd knew it, the police knew it, and we knew it.
With our bodies gone limp, the police carried us out, one by one, and took us in for processing. The crowd chanted things like “Blue Cross is the real death panel!” until they finished arresting all twelve of us. While we were being held, the officers overseeing our custody mostly joked around with us and fed us burritos. A few of them really supported what we were doing or, at least, admired the organization of it all. Before they released us on our own recognizance, one of them admitted, “You guys really know what you’re doing.”
The LAPD knew that we were not amateurs. The arrestees were among over 70 people nationwide who had been given training on non-violent resistance and the powers that come with it. Just a day earlier Sam Pullen led a training on the demonstration, during which he invoked Gandhi’s teachings on Satyagraha or “firmness of truth.” The tradition of Satyagraha holds that the true conversion of an opponent comes not from violence, but from the sharing of one’s soul, through compassion and personal sacrifice. When we show our compassion and sacrifice in the face of injustice, when we fight with our very souls, others can become moved to take action themselves, including the oppressors.
By showing publicly that Blue Cross would rather have us arrested than even meet with us we drew attention to the problem at hand, the failure of insurance companies to serve their patients. To risk arrest is the highest form of organized demonstration, and it scares companies. To make things more embarrassing for the insurance company, though 11 of us were released within a matter of hours, Sam Pullen elected to stay in jail and he has resolved to remain in jail until he knows every American will be able to afford quality healthcare.
Right now, the healthcare debate is the most important civil rights issue that we face as a country. We are in a strategic position to get a solid public option to compete with the insurance industry and to improve our overall healthcare legislation, but we cannot wait for change to be handed down from Washington. We must take drastic measures to ensure that they do not ignore what is at stake. The success of non-violent resistance depends on the wave of supporters that follow each demonstration. Imagine if people were holding these kinds of demonstrations in the lobbies of insurance companies every week. Would the insurance industry really continue to pressure the anti-reform campaign while burdened with so much negative attention?
My work on this non-violence campaign and in the larger progressive movement has empowered me as a citizen. Part of the challenge of being in this country is figuring out how to connect with our opposing cultural identities. The teachings of Satyagraha have helped me connect with a part of my culture that rarely gets expressed by Indian-Americans. It was an Indian who wrote the model that inspired the techniques of non-violent resistance that we use today. To take part in that tradition here in America gives me a kind of harmony with those Indians who stood their ground against far more terrifying foes who had far less restraint. When so many of us are torn between the conflicting forces of two homes which are spread very far apart, it is essential to take part in the fight for the homes where we live, eat, pray, make money, get sick, raise families. By fighting against injustice in America, we ritualize ourselves into a process that transcends geography and politics. Along the way we may just end up protecting future generations from suffering some of the pain and injustice that the current healthcare system engenders.
There are only a few opportunities in life where we get the chance to prove to ourselves that we are honest in our devotion to God, family, country, or whatever else makes us whole. This is one of those chances, a way to fight for a better world, a chance to test-drive our better selves.
To get involved with the fight for healthcare reform, check out Mobilization for Healthcare for All, a grassroots campaign to end private health insurance abuse. (http://mobilizeforhealthcare.org). Sign up on the website and an organizer will call you about the nearest protest event.
Dev Das is a freelance writer and script consultant for UTV Motion Pictures.