I've been arrested just once in my life. I wasn't charged, and I was released after a couple of hours. So this wasn't a life-changing experience. It just means that when filling out forms for employment and security clearances (I worked in the defense industry for several years), I have to pause and write a bit when I come to the box that asks, "Have you ever been arrested?"
The pattern of my arrest followed a model that had been established a short time earlier, in November, 1984, when a group of activists gathered at the South African Embassy in Washington, D.C., to protest against apartheid. Randall Robinson (TransAfrica), Walter Fauntroy (D.C. congressional delegate), and Mary Frances Berry (U.S. Civil Rights Commissioner) were arrested. Half a dozen members of Congress were arrested during later protests.
Have you ever thought about an important historical movement during your life and asked yourself, "Why didn't I get involved?" For me it's the opposite--I don't remember exactly why I did get involved. All I recall is a series of vignettes:
My girlfriend and I meet with a small group of students on the campus of my university. We're told what to expect and how to behave. (Peacefully. This is civil disobedience.) The leader of the group passes out new $50 bills, which we'll need to get out of custody.
I'm on the sidewalk, chanting a slogan, standing among dozens of other protesters. It's cold and rainy.
A police officer holds me by the shoulders and tells me to put my hands together. Handcuffs? No, big plastic zip ties.
Off the police bus, we're in a classroom of some kind. I'm sitting in a too-small desk near a Catholic priest who's also been arrested. We talk about South Africa and then about American culture. I like a new TV show called Miami Vice but the priest does not.
Paperwork finished, we're released.
It's strange for me to realize that I joined a movement that drew in thousands of people across the world. (Newspapers at that time reported that hundreds of arrests had taken place at the South African Embassy by February.) It eventually did produce change; my university ended up divesting $3.9 million of its South African holdings later that year, and of course apartheid is now a thing of the past. I'm glad I was a part of it all, even as just a warm body at a distance, on the outskirts.