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City Life: Virtue in a Can

I couldn't see them, but I heard other inmates ask if they were demonstrators. "Yes," they answered proudly, "praise Jesus, we were saving babies. Hallelujah."

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There were antiabortion demonstrations the day before Mother's Day, but I wasn't aware of them until I heard the commotion outside.

My time sense was off, but it was sometime Saturday afternoon. I was lying on the 15-inch-wide shelf that served as my bed, trying to sleep. I had spent the previous night on the cement floor, since both of the shelves in the cell had been commandeered by the time I got there, and I hadn't gotten much sleep.

What is that racket, I wondered, and why don't they shut up.

Suddenly the noise got very loud. It had moved indoors and was coming from the office area of the 11th-floor cell block where I was being held. Loud shouts, men talking, police yelling orders. Clearly a lot of people were being brought in. I could only guess--50? 100? 150?

They were gradually led into cells around mine. I couldn't see beyond the walls of my cell, but I could hear other detainees asking them if they were demonstrators.

"Yes," they replied proudly. "Praise Jesus. We were saving babies. Hallelujah."

Someone began singing a hymn, "The Old Rugged Cross" or something. I had been trying to use my down jacket as a pillow, but now I pulled it over my head. They sang lustily, vigorously, one verse. Then the second. They knew the third verse too.

Then someone yelled out "Number 46," and the men began singing "Holy, Holy, Holy." They knew all the verses of that one too. A few of them even sang harmony.

"You got a cigarette?" shouted my cellmate to the singers. No response. He shouted the same thing again. "Yeah," came a reply from the next cell over. The pro-lifer in the next cell passed over a freshly lit cigarette. My companion puffed happily away; it was his first cigarette in hours. I was surprised they had cigarettes, since all my own possessions had been taken from me. They wouldn't even let me keep my shoelaces.

"We sure saved them babies," yelled one loud-voiced demonstrator. "Hallelujah, yes we did," rejoined another. "Praise Jesus."

"Did you see the expression on some of those women's faces?"

"That was them lesbians."

I tried to imagine what these men looked like. One was fat. Another bearded. Mostly in their 30s and early 40s, I guessed.

They began singing a spiritual; there were maybe 40 voices. Maybe my earlier estimates were too high. "No, no, I don't know that one," someone tried to protest, but his cry was overridden by the song. My cellmate joined in, singing happily. Down may keep you warm, but it doesn't shut out much noise.

Time passed. They read the Bible to one another, calling out favorite passages by book and number. "What's that passage in Isaiah I like so much?" someone asked. One of the others actually knew and read it to him. It was something about tribulations and eventual victory. "That's great!" he said appreciatively when it was done.

My cellmate bummed another cigarette.

"You think they would have arrested us even if we hadn't tried to get inside?"

"Oh yeah, sure. But we sure saved some babies today."

"I feel real good about that. Praise Jesus!"

"Say, when are we getting out?" asked someone, in a really loud tone possibly meant for the police in the adjacent office.

"We got a lawyer, don't we?" came another voice.

"Yeah, I think so," said another. "Oh, yeah, well, we must!"

"Think we'll be out by dinnertime?"

"Oh sure."

Time dragged on. Talk turned to speed limits in other states (everyone slows down in Pennsylvania--the police there have a really bad reputation), short biographical sketches about how these people got involved in Operation Rescue, and the real meaning of various passages in the Bible. I squirmed on my wooden shelf, trying to get comfortable.

"Shouldn't we be out of here by now?"

"Yeah, I'm getting hungry."

Someone, perhaps the hungry man, banged on the bars: "Hey! When's dinner around here?" Raucous laughter. I hadn't eaten since dinner the evening before, so I wasn't sympathetic.

"We want out! We want out!" a few yelled. "OK, game's over."

"This isn't fun anymore," confessed one voice, a little softer.

"Brother, we're trying to pray over here," came a voice from a more distant cell. "We're going to pray over here, praise Jesus; could you be silent?" Silence followed.

"Father," came the voice, growing louder as it went on, "we sense that there is a delay in these proceedings, in getting us out, that this is not a priority in the hearts of some judge or administrator. We sense that they are resisting thy will. We pray you that you will enter the heart of that judge or those administrators and lead them to hasten the process, that we, your stewards, may return to our families and our children and continue to do your work. We pray that you will remember your servant Paul and lead these judges and these administrators to hasten in their appointed tasks that we may be with our loved ones. These things we pray in the name of our Lord. Amen."

This was followed by many hallelujahs and cheers and more banging on the bars.

"It's over," someone yelled. "Where's our lawyer?"

Was it five o'clock yet? Six? My watch was with my shoelaces.

Sure enough, the protesters' lawyer arrived, amid cheers and whistles.

"We're getting you out on your own recognizance" was met with more cheers. "All you have to do is give your name and promise that you'll turn up at court" evoked shouts of "Dinner!" and "Praise Jesus!"

The voices were gradually processed out and it was quiet again. They got out in time for dinner. I got a bologna sandwich at seven the next morning, standard fare at 11th and State.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Peter Hannan.

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