The seven of us sat together in a room, devoted to honoring Alabama’s war dead, singing, praying and bearing witness to urge Governor Robert Bentley to expand Medicaid coverage to 300,000 mostly working poor Alabamians who do not qualify, because their incomes are too low, for health insurance under the Affordable Care Act.
Our Governor is one of 24 governors who are resisting this extension of Medicaid to cover the poorest and sickest people in the state. Over 5 million low-income people mostly in the southern states are being denied this coverage by politically motivated Republican governors who do not want to support President Obama’s health care insurance program.
In Alabama, national medical studies indicate 500 to 700 people will die each year because they lack this basic health coverage, which is funded 100% by the Federal government for the first three years (2014 -2016). In the years thereafter, the Federal contribution declines gradually to 90% over four years (2017-2020). After 2020, The states will pay no more than 10% of this extended coverage.
The Governor’s failure to extend Medicaid will also place pressure on hospitals in the state, particularly smaller rural hospitals, which will lose ‘disproportionate share funds under Medicaid for serving low-income people’ which were planned to be replaced by this new insurance coverage.
As a longtime board member of the Greene County Hospital and Nursing Home, I am very aware of the negative impact of Governor Bentley’s decision on Medicaid expansion on the future financial solvency and operation of our twenty bed rural hospital.
Demonstration comes at the end of Jericho Walk
Our decision to hold a twenty-four hour vigil for Medicaid expansion in the State Capitol came at the end of a week of Moral Monday inspired action against the regressive policies of Bentley and the Republican controlled Alabama Legislature. For the week, from Friday, August 22 to Thursday August 28, 2014, the SOS Coalition for Justice and Democracy sponsored a daily ‘Jericho Walk’ around the State Capitol Building in Montgomery. SOS is a coalition of 40 social justice organizations in Alabama who are fighting for fair and equitable state policies and against some of the regressive policies instituted by the state in the past four years.
Each day there was a rally to protest policies and promote a better path forward for the people of the state. Rallies were held to promote immigration rights and against Alabama’s HB 56 and 658 repressive laws; to promote educational reforms and support teachers; for women’s rights and reproductive freedom; labor rights and raising the minimum wage; expansion of Medicaid and reducing racial disparities in the state; and criminal justice reforms.
The last day’s walk was to protest voter suppression, including the state’s new voter ID law, unfair redistricting and the problems of increasing rather than decreasing voter turnout and participation because voting is the key to resolving many of the other issues facing Alabama.
On the last day, August 28, which was also the 51st anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Justice, where Dr. King gave his historic “I Have A Dream” speech, the SOS marchers walked seven times around the Capitol starting at around 3:00 PM. A group of us, who had agreed to participate in the 24-hour vigil for Medicaid expansion, quietly went inside the State Capitol building.
At 4:45 PM, nine of us assembled in the main ground floor room of the Capitol and began singing and praying. We sang civil rights songs like “Keep Your Eyes on the Prize”, “We Been ‘Buked and Scorned”, “Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Us Around” and others. We could also hear about a hundred of the demonstrators outside singing and chanting.
About 5:00PM we were approached by a group of half a dozen Black state troopers who were part of the State Capitol patrol. They told us it was closing time and that we needed to leave. Other state police officials came over the next half hour advising us that we needed to leave or we would be arrested. We told the police we had come to stay for 24 hours to bear witness against the Governor for failing to extend Medicaid. Two persons in our group left at that time because they did not want to be arrested.
At about 5:45 PM, Spencer Collier, the Governor’s head of Homeland Security, came accompanied by State Troopers to give us a final warning that if we did not leave we would be arrested. We told him we planned to stay for 24 hours to respectfully urge the Governor to change his position on Medicaid expansion. Collier said that decision was not in the jurisdiction of his department.
At about 6:00 PM, a group of mostly Black state troopers came and took our driver’s licenses or other identification, as well as taking our cell phones. Up to that time some members of the group had been taking pictures and communicating with social media sites. The police then handcuffed each of us with yellow plastic handcuffs. The three women in the group were handcuffed in front and the four men were handcuffed in back.
The seven arrested were: Annie Pearl Avery of Selma, a former SNCC worker; Faya Rose Toure (Sanders), of Selma, a renowned civil rights attorney and activist; Alecha Irby, a student who recently transferred from Miles College to Alabama State University; Augustus (Gus) Townes, a retired state worker, who is active in SOS; Rev. Fred Hammond, a Unitarian minister from Tuscaloosa; Rev. Kenneth Glasgow of Dothan, Director of The Ordinary Peoples Society (TOPS), an organization dedicated to assisting ex-felons and persons currently incarcerated; and John Zippert, Co-Publisher of the Greene County Democrat and SOS member.
Faya Rose Toure, head of the SOS Direct Action Committee, continued leading songs after we were handcuffed and separated to different parts of the room. She also observed that it was interesting and a sign of progress that they sent mostly Black state troopers to arrest and guard us.
We spent the next two hours handcuffed waiting to be transported to jail. The police officials were confused as to exactly what to do with us. It was also clear that they were reluctant to take us out of the Capitol while our supporters and the press were outside and might impede our arrest. They told us that they were getting warrants for our arrest.
We learned later that the police told our supporters on the outside that they were taking us to the Montgomery City Jail, which was not true.
About 8:00 PM, it was almost dark; they led us through a tunnel connecting the State Capitol and the State House (where the Legislature now meets) and out a back service entrance into a waiting police van. Ms. Avery, who had been seated in a wheelchair, was driven in a police car, while the rest of us were transported in a standard police van with two benches. The van took us a short distance to the Montgomery County Detention Facilities.
Further Processing at the Jail
When we arrived at the County Detention facilities we were handed over to a new set of police officials, again mostly Black. These folks were not informed of the nature of our arrest for “civil disobedience in the State Capitol” and treated us as though we were common criminals.
I was one of the first to be processed. The arresting official told me to take my shoes off. I told him that that would not be possible while I was still handcuffed. They then cut off the handcuffs, which was a relief since the movement of our arms and hands had been constricted for over two hours.
I had to empty everything out of my pockets and the official began inventorying all of my belongings. He itemized all the credit cards, frequent flyer cards, health insurance cards and grandchildren’s photos in my wallet. He counted my four pens, computer jump drive, cell phone, keys, cash money - $168.08 and other papers in my pockets.
I was led to the next room, where the official handed me a plastic cup with an unidentified liquid and said that I had to take a shower using the de-lousing compound before I could enter the jail.
He apologized for the lack of hot water in the shower room and said I would have to take a mostly cold shower. After the shower, I traded my clothes for an orange prison jumpsuit and was placed in a locked holding cell.
Rev. Kenny Glasgow joined me in the holding cell, also in an orange jumpsuit. Rev. Glasgow who had spent 14 years in jail for drug related charges in the past, said “this is the first time I’ve been to jail for doing something right. In the past it was doing wrong. I feel proud to be locked up with fellow freedom-fighters this time.”
By this time Senator Hank Sanders, Representative Thad McClammy and Rep. John Knight had reached the County Jail with bail money to get us released. It took another three hours of paperwork, mug shots, fingerprinting (including the sides and palms of our hands) and slow processing before we were given our street clothes and belongings back. It was after Midnight before we were formally released back into the hands of about twenty of our supporters who were waiting on the outside.
This was not my first arrest and I do not think it will be the last for civil rights and civil disobedience against bad laws or to protest for better laws. I hope we go back again to the State Capitol with a larger group of people to sing, pray and bear witness for the need for Medicaid expansion and other public policy improvements in the state of Alabama!