Sitting In, Getting Busted – Part I

Prison cell. Our holding cells had no windows, no toilet, no bedding.

1970 was a busy year for me. In addition to working on Come Out!, the Gay Liberation Front newspaper, and on RAT newspaper after we women took it over, I participated in numerous actions, including three building occupations.

The first of these was on April 13, 1970, when I and eight other women barricaded ourselves in the executive offices of Grove Press Barney Rosset, who owned the press, had gained an avante-garde reputation by publishing books that were censored for sexual content, including Lady Chatterley’s Lover and the writings of the Marquis de Sade, as well as radical treatises such as Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth, The Autobiography of Malcolm X, and New Left political literature.

However, this radical bent did not extend to supporting workers’ rights. When eight employees signed union cards, Rosset sacked them. At the same time as the occupation by our group, the union was holding a street protest outside. Our occupation was in response both to the firings and to the company’s sexism. As our lawyer Emily Goodman put it, “Grove Press won’t let women be anything but secretaries, scrubwomen, and sex symbols.”

Robin Morgan, who led us, was one of those fired by Rosset. The rest of us were members of various women’s liberation groups, and Morgan had called on us for support. The only other name I remember is that of Ti-Grace Atkinson, who had founded a group called The Feminists.

Once inside, we used a heavy desk to block the office door, hung a banner out the window, and called the press. Then we waited. I looked around at the fancy furniture, Rosset’s private shower room, and his liquor cabinet. Although I’m not a drinker, in the revolutionary spirit of Fanon I helped myself to a shot of Rosset’s whiskey.

Rosset called the police, of course. They shoved their way in and arrested us. Morgan refused to move and made them carry her downstairs. I didn’t want them to touch me so I walked. They drove us around town, from one station to another, not letting attorney Goodman know where we were, and finally fingerprinted and booked us.

We were put in a holding pen along with three or four streetwalkers. We were white, and they were Black. One of them was coming down from heroin. She lay on the bench in a fetal position, shivering uncontrollably. She was going cold turkey because if she admitted to using heroin and asked for help with the symptoms, they would put her in a treatment center for 30 days, and when she got out, her pimp would probably beat her. If all she had to face was a charge of prostitution, the judge would fine her and she’d be back working the streets in the morning. Ti-Grace Atkinson was obviously horrified by the woman’s situation. She held her in her lap, covered her with a jacket, and caressed her head.

Another prostitute, Peaches, was cheerful and philosophical. She saw all sex—at least with men—as transactional. “Jackie O. sells it, too,” she declared. Just to one rich man at a time.

Night had fallen and none of us had eaten. One of our group said she had stress diabetes and if she didn’t get food pretty soon she would pass out. Just about then a cop came in and announced that we’d all have to be strip-searched. After a quick caucus, we told him that we would submit peacefully to the search only if they brought our friend something to eat. They sent a nice young officer to the grocery, and he returned with a candy bar, which sufficed.

They separated us for the search. It was hateful, humiliating—the police matron stared at me like I was dirt. Atkinson refused to cooperate. The cops handcuffed her to cell bars and stripped her forcibly. I suspect that she, like many of us, had been sexually abused in her youth; if so, this would explain her refusal to submit, and the experience would have piled on additional trauma.

As it happened, most of us were on our periods at the time, and as a further humiliation the matrons took away our tampons. Then we were put into individual cells, to sleep if we could on hard wooden benches, without any bedding, oozing blood into our underpants. In the morning we were given bologna sandwiches on stale white bread, and a choice of either cold milk or dishwater coffee. (I don’t remember which I chose.)

We were taken to the judge, who let us go on our own recognizance. My friend Marion Youers, who had been jailed in Paris for sheltering Algerian women during the French-Algerian war, was there at the courthouse. She had taken off from work and brought all the cash she had on hand, intending to bail me out. Fortunately, that wasn’t necessary.

*          *          *

A few days after the occupation, a tall, stunningly gorgeous woman showed up at the RAT office. She told us that she had been working as a call girl and was hired by Rosset on one occasion. However, sadistic abuse was not part of the deal, and that was what he inflicted on her. Given Grove’s history of publishing sadomasochistic literature, and Rosset’s statement that he chose books because they turned him on, I wasn’t surprised.

In subsequent arbitration, Rosset rehired most of the fired union workers, but when a vote to actually establish a union failed, he fired half the staff again. He never did meet any of the feminist demands, which included child care for employees, profits from The Autobiography of Malcolm X to go to the Black community, and profits from his misogynist publications to go to programs that help victimized women. But the occupation changed the public discourse, at least in more liberal circles, from defending porn as free speech to questioning how it reinforced male domination and what we now call rape culture.

I was in a bloody rage for weeks. I knew perfectly well that because the nine of us who were arrested were white, with media connections, we had not been treated all that badly. Still, I also knew that I never wanted to be in the cops’ power again—to be put in a cage and have them decide when and what I ate, and whether I could have menstrual supplies. I have never been able to understand the conscientious objectors who, during the Vietnam War, chose to accept a prison term rather than fleeing to Canada.

Shortly after the Grove Press episode, I made a fiery speech denouncing the police and the government they serve. A young man from Phoenix heard that speech, and in 1972 he invited me to speak at the University of Arizona in Tempe. But that would be two years later, and there were other battles closer on the horizon. In September 1970 I helped organize the gay occupation of a freshman dorm at New York University.

To be continued…

One Response to Sitting In, Getting Busted – Part I

  1. Connie O Byrne November 8, 2020 at 9:40 pm #

    Another piece of history…thanks

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