Why I Got Arrested in Washington, D.C.: A Love Story

In police custody Monday, July 10

Monday, July 10, I was arrested for the first time. I went to jail to save lives.

I am not and do not aspire to be a hero or a savior. On Monday, I was one of over 80 dedicated citizens who went to jail for exercising our constitutional rights and our civic responsibility to protect health care. We made the decision not to disband our protest in the desperate hope of calling attention to and bringing pressure to bear on the Republican members of Congress who literally hold in their hands the fate of tens of millions of Americans, including the very most vulnerable — children with disabilities, seniors in nursing homes, millions of people with life-threatening preexisting conditions. With a single vote, they could throw these lives away — apparently just to bestow more tax cuts on billionaires.

I know I can’t stop them from doing this on my own. But I also know that together, we can.

In eight years of activism and organizing, I have participated in more protests, rallies, marches and other forms of direct action than I could hope to count, and for numerous causes. Yet my first arrest was for the very same issue that propelled me from a passive observer of politics to an in-the-streets, in-your-face activist: health care.

There is simply no cause quite as personal and fundamental as health care. Simply put, health care is life. Any of us, at any moment in time, could confront an illness or injury that, in a country like the U.S. that does not guarantee health care to its residents, could result in bankruptcy, an end to independent life as we know it — or even death. Even with insurance, an unexpected diagnosis or accident can be financially devastating. But without adequate insurance, illnesses can go undiagnosed, untreated and lead to needless death.

A study published by the American Journal of Public Health in 2009 found that 45,000 people died annually from lack of insurance, and that uninsured working age people had a 40% higher death risk than their privately insured counterparts. In the richest country in the world, these statistics were stark, and the need for immediate, drastic change was so clear. Lack of access to health care touched so many people from all walks of life. After all, in a system where most insurance was dependent upon employment, how many of us were merely a layoff away from finding ourselves without it? I first hit the streets and town halls that year to demand single-payer health care, then a public option and finally the passage of the Affordable Care Act (ACA).

The ACA was never perfect. Its biggest flaw was, and continues to be, its reliance on the private insurance industry as gatekeepers to health care for the vast majority of Americans. Keeping people with chronic conditions or disabilities alive is not profitable; most of us will agree nonetheless that that does not mean it is not worth doing. The profit motive will always interfere with the quality and affordability of care. Still, the ACA opened the door to coverage for millions of Americans, including those with preexisting conditions whom private insurance had previously excluded, and those of limited means for whom Medicaid expansion has literally been a lifesaver. For all its shortcomings, the ACA helped insure 20 million people.

The GOP’s “Better Care Reconciliation Act” (BCRA) would undo that progress, and then some. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that 22 million more people would be uninsured by 2026 and even more by 2036, since it would cut Medicaid spending by 35% within 20 years.

The dominant narrative on the right says that “individual responsibility” and “freedom of choice” should take precedence over public health and the common good. To translate the first: Your health conditions are nobody’s problem but your own; if you are too poor or too unfortunate to have adequate health insurance, that’s your own problem, too. To translate the second: You should have the choice of buying insurance that will do next to nothing to help you in any number of devastating contexts, or of having no coverage at all, so that every day you wake up is a game of Russian roulette.

These narratives build on the individualist “bootstraps” trope that conservatives have promoted for decades. Their utopia is a world where nobody need care about or do anything for anyone but themselves — where it is acceptable for tens of thousands to die easily preventable deaths each year while those with the very most may hoard more of their millions and turn their backs. Where those who receive a diagnosis of cancer, endure a crippling injury or are born with a disability deserve to die, because they have committed the cardinal sin of not being rich.

Worse, the narrative encourages adherents to resent their neighbors who may have had the misfortune of falling ill or of losing their insurance coverage along with their job. “Why should I have to pay for your problems?” In other words: Why do you deserve to live?

Yet the health care debates have demonstrated clearly that most people, regardless of political party, do not actually want to live in a world where nobody cares about anybody else. We all know and love someone who has needed more health care than they could independently afford. That is why the BCRA is the most unpopular piece of legislation in modern history, with only 12% of Americans (and only 26% of Republicans) supporting it according to a recent Suffolk University-USA Today poll.

Indeed, what has struck me consistently as I have listened to countless stories at rallies, marches and town halls, back in 2009 and again in 2017, is how often the stories are not about the speakers at all. They are not stories of self-pity. They are stories of love.

One of the women I was arrested with on Monday, Erica Behr of Tampa, FL, gave her husband her left kidney to save his life. This set off a chain of autoimmune reactions in her that require constant, expensive treatment to keep at bay. Their care is still unthinkably expensive under their ACA policy; but without its protections, her husband couldn’t afford the medication that prevents his body from rejecting the kidney she gave him, and she would be bedridden. The heat of the police van nearly gave her a heat stroke due to her thyroid condition that prevents her body from regulating its temperature properly. Having her hands cuffed behind her back for hours aggravated her severe arthritis and gave her back spasms. But she endured this courageously, out of love.

Hers is just one of many stories of love and sacrifice I have heard and witnessed throughout this struggle. Middle-class parents who have bankrupted themselves to pay for care for children with congenital heart defects or leukemia. Doctors in tears over the patients they could not save because they did not have insurance that would pay for their treatment. I work with women living with HIV whose medication — which they must take to survive — costs a minimum of $3,000 a month, not counting any other health conditions they need to treat. Yet when you hear their stories, as often as not, their biggest fear is not what will happen to them, but what will happen to their children, to their grandchildren, to their aging parents, if they lose access to care and fall sick or even die.

This is why I chose to be arrested on Capitol Hill on Monday. Love. Because people I love will die if this bill passes. Because people I will never know will die needlessly — and their lives matter as much as my own. Because, as someone who benefits from the interconnected privileges of good health, financial stability and consistent insurance, it is the very least I could do. Alongside me were dozens of activists for whom having their hands cuffed behind their backs for hours and sitting in a stiflingly hot, unventilated police van caused real pain; for me, it was relatively minor discomfort and inconvenience. If they could do it, why would I do any less?

Health care is life, and it is also love. I hope our Senators will recognize and remember this when voting on the BCRA.