In July, I was arrested protesting outside the home of Jamie Dimon, CEO of JPMorgan Chase. The arrest, technically for blocking traffic on Park Avenue, was part of a protest involved in a strategy to push JPMorgan Chase to stop financing GEO Group and CoreCivic, the private prison companies imprisoning parents who had been separated from their children.
I have long been unsure about how to best talk about my arrest. It was a risk, of course, but a small one: I am a petite white woman, I have the financial means to pay fines I could have incurred and I was supported by my community and the justice organizations who put on the demonstration. I had access to a lawyer and the ability and time to travel to court for my appearance. Even so –– I was terrified.
This fear was largely irrational. People of color in America, black people in particular, are often in mortal danger from police. As a white woman, I went into the protest confident that I would be physically safe. I knew that when I went before a judge, they were likely to be sympathetic to me not only because of my race but because of my class and my identity as a Yale student. And that was part of why I did it. This unearned safety should be leveraged to protect the more vulnerable and to dismantle systems of injustice.
Emotion, though, isn’t shaped by rationality. When I stood in Park Avenue, arms extended, in the rain, I was trembling. I am, by nature, a fearful person. I am anxious to drive, to make phone calls, to meet new people. Risks of all kinds set me on edge. To stand in the street, break the law, be yelled at by police and then sit in jail would have seemed, earlier in my life, an experience too terrifying for me for it to even exist in the realm of possibility.
The world we live in, in America and more broadly, has become an increasingly scary place. A politics of fear motivates hatred on the right — “Immigrants will take your jobs!” being among the most mild of the toxic tropes being peddled — while the administration creates real danger, through law and by incitement, for people of color, for immigrants, for trans people, for women. How can we muddle through this fear? How do we get out of what can feel like a miasma of terror?
Late October is a particularly apt time to contemplate this question. It is the time of year when fear is ever-present. As Halloween nears, our colleges offer screenings of horror movies and trips to haunted houses, Twitter users change their names to joking puns about death and skeletons (a meme this year is Twitter handles in the format “sexy [greatest fear],” a joke about the increasing absurdity of options for hypersexualized costumes.) Though I don’t celebrate Halloween, it is impossible to escape the Halloween spirit.
What makes fear fun on Halloween, then, and not during the rest of the year? Fear on Halloween is shared and is talked about. No one goes through a haunted house alone.
Fear can also feed exhilaration, can fuel the delight and the power of an experience. The thrill of anticipation of the jump-scare is part of the experience of a horror movie. The rest of the year, we forget this.
I have never felt the power of my own body as much as I did when I stood in the street and watched the cars stop for blocks and blocks. I did not stand in that street alone; I was there with seven others who were arrested. I had the support of friends and members of the activist organizations involved in the protest. I didn’t take this action because I was unafraid, but neither was my fear irrelevant. My heart beat quickly from nervousness, but equally from the relief of finally feeling like I was no longer standing on the sidelines, that I was taking a step in front of the machinery of cruelty that is destroying families. It was a scary experience because it mattered.
After October, terror will again cease to be tantalizing. It will become mundane again, for us all: the phone-shy, the nervous drivers, those who are fearful in ways I don’t and can’t understand. But we can use that fear to feel our own power and to point us to what is important. I don’t stand in front of traffic every day, but I make canvassing calls even as I hope the recipient doesn’t pick up. Fear need not stop us: It can push us forward.
Avigayil Halpern is a senior in Silliman College and a staff columnist at-large. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .