Dispatch from Cell 4, Coconino County Jail
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Jailed for civil disobedience in Arizona, Mary Sojourner reflects on being alone in a cell.
THE JAIL CELL DOOR CLANGS SHUT. I am in a tiny concrete room with a concrete bench and a concrete wall that shields the stainless steel toilet from a viewer’s eyes. The only viewers that will peer in through the thick window for the next long hours will be the detention officers of the Coconino County Jail. I am here on purpose. I am here alone.
The first thing I do is scan the room for something, anything I can write with. The officers have taken my jewelry, wallet, pens and notebook. They have left me my hearing aids and partial dentures. I’m grateful for that. At 71, my hearing is fading. I need to hear every sound and word that echo outside. And I might be able to use my dentures to scratch a message into the wall. Protect the Sacred Mountains. Stop Spiritual Genocide.
But the walls are flecked with brown spots and I am squeamish. I take notes in my mind. The choked howls coming from the cell next door. The thud of a body slamming against a thick door. The carving in my cell door, an Indian in a feathered head-dress and the letters NDN. My friend in a cell across the hall, tracing the words Protect the Peaks on his window; and the fact that he and I are the only white people I see in the tiny windows or being taken into a cell. Those not-so-subtle demographics are the same as the last time I was arrested twenty-five years ago to protest a breccia pipe uranium mine being drilled into sacred Havasupai land thirteen miles south of the Grand Canyon.
Ski resort excavator gouges pipeline trench. Photo by Dawn Dyer.
I am in this barren room because I’ve committed civil disobedience to protest a local ski resort’s plan to make snow with inadequately treated wastewater on the San Francisco Peaks, a high desert mountain sacred to thirteen tribes. Because I have friends from five of those tribes, I refused to step away from the huge excavator that was gouging a pipeline trench in the living rock.
I stood fast also because I am forty years older than the next oldest of my companions. Look, I wanted my action to say, you do not have to be young to be filled with passion. You do not have to be young to act.
The howls next door have faded. Hours stretch ahead. With no pen, no paper. There is nothing but the dirty walls and locked door—and the knowledge that outside this county jail, my friends are collecting bail. They know I am in here. I’ve never in my life felt less alone. In that, it is more than my white skin that makes me different from the others locked behind these heavy doors.
I trace words with a fingernail on my forearm. I am here. I will remember every detail. And I will write.