If you've never heard of Diane Wilson, you've probably heard about the environmentalist who poured Karo syrup on herself on the steps of the Capitol Building in Washington, D.C., to protest the BP oil spill. (That was Wilson.)
Or about the one who chained herself to the Dow Chemical tower in 2002, serving four months in jail for trespassing. (Also Wilson.)
Or maybe you've heard the latest one, about the woman who went on a hunger strike and chained herself to the gates of the White House to try and shut down Guantanamo Bay prison. (You guessed it -- Wilson again.)
Wilson started a hunger strike on May 1, only accepting water and a pinch of salt and potassium to keep her body going. "I wasn't taking potassium during one fast, and my potassium levels dropped out from under me and I just felt awful, so I always take it now," she said.
Wilson heard about the push to get Guantanamo Bay prison shut down at the Bush Library protest in Dallas -- go figure -- and hearing about the prisoners and their hunger strike made her sit down and start reading up on the issue.
"I'd heard about the orange jumpsuits they were wearing and I'd seen the photographs of the prisoners, but I'd never sat down and read about it," Wilson said. "When I did, it sickened me what we're doing to the men, and it sickened me what we're allowing as a country."
Wilson started out as a barefoot shrimper from a family of shrimpers who had run boats for generations out of Seadrift, down on the South Texas coast. In 1989, during a bad shrimping season, Wilson found out that some of the biggest industrial polluters were in her area dumping waste into the bays she and the other shrimpers relied on to make a living. Wilson started working to get Taiwan-based Formosa Plastics to agree to zero-discharge systems from their Point Comfort plant. Then she protested over Dow Chemical's refusal to pay damages to the victims of the Bhopal disaster (which became Dow's problem when they bought Union Carbide).
In one fell swoop (or maybe two), the fourth-generation shrimper became an environmentalist and then an activist. Since then she's done work all over the world, protesting with Cindy Sheehan to end the Iraq War and popping up all over the place to push for her many different causes.
Basically, you know how when someone asks Marlon Brando what he's protesting in The Wild Bunch, he asks, in ultra-cool Brando fashion, "What have ya got?" In the years since her first protests, Wilson has become decidedly Brando-esque, or at least that's how it would appear to the casual observer (or, you know, until Casual Observer actually asks her what's up with all of these different movements she joins up with).
Inspired by Gandhi -- the nonviolence and the hunger strikes and all that -- Wilson said she only gets involved in an issue if she feels drawn to it, if it feels like something she's supposed to do.
"Gandhi said that when a door opened, he walked through it. He trusted that it was open for a reason. When a door comes to me, when something touches me, I walk through the door. And I really think all of these issues are connected," she said. "I guess being a shrimper has made me a little more holistic. When something flows me that way, I go there."
Now she's turned her attention to Guantanamo Bay, and her protest at the White House resulted -- she put a bike lock around her neck and locked it around the White House gate -- in police clipping the German-made lock she'd used to tether herself to the presidential gate and arresting her on Friday.
Wilson and a group of fellow protesters dressed in orange jumpsuits and gathered outside the White House for a protest. The police were so used to seeing people in orange jumpsuits setting up to protest (which is kind of hilarious when you think about it) that they didn't blink an eye. The group performed a re-enactment of life at the island prison, playing the roles of prisoners and prison guards.
As with any good protest, there was a statue of President Obama and they quoted the president saying that Guantanamo was expensive, inefficient and should be shut down, she said. In the middle of all that orange jumpsuit-ness, a protester playing the part of prison guard shoved Wilson against the actual bars of the fence and Wilson wrapped her fancy German-made bike lock around her neck and clicked it closed around the metal bars.
"Sometimes the Secret Service kind of freaks out when you get too close to the gate, but nobody really said anything," Wilson said.
The police told her she needed to get away from the gate. Wilson explained she couldn't because she was locked to the metal bars. By the neck.
"Did they ever get perturbed when they realized that," she said.
The police, the SWAT team, emergency services and law enforcement of all shapes and kinds turned out to deal with the situation. This definitely wasn't Wilson's first rodeo, and she watched gleefully as officers examined the lock around her neck and groaned.
The general consensus was that a German lock was pretty much just this side of mythical, because it was really hard to bust, Wilson heard the policemen say. (They mostly just looked at the lock and huffed a bit and muttered, "German," shaking their heads.)
At one point, six different cops were playing six different versions of good cop/bad cop to try and get Wilson to tell them where she had hid the key, she said. An officer told her she was facing federal charges, and noted that the tool they were going to have to use to cut the chain off her neck would probably hurt a lot.
When she still didn't produce the key, they drenched her in water -- to protect her from flying sparks when they cut the chain -- and gave her a protective hat, and cut it off. Then, unsurprisingly, Wilson was arrested.
"The officer that arrested me was a really nice woman, and she treated me so well," Wilson said.
She'd been expecting a real Washington D.C. Jail (she's spent time in them, and they're not exactly the Ritz of incarceration situations), but landed in a jail run by the park police, she said. Then, in what seemed like no time at all, the nice officer told her she had to pay a $70 fine for protesting without a permit. No order to stay away from the area in front of the White House, nothing but the fine.
Wilson was back in front of the White House in no time. The guards -- they weren't feeling so laid-back about people in orange jumpsuits now -- seemed almost as surprised as she was that she hadn't been banned from the area, she said. When Wilson showed up in front of the White House on Monday, one of the officers just asked her warily if she had any handcuffs or, you know, German-made bike locks that she was planning on using.
Wilson is still in D.C., sipping her water/sodium/potassium drink and feeling feisty (as Brando-y? As Gandhi-ish?) as ever. After all, this is the lady who's been arrested so often she knows where the good prisons are, and we're pretty sure the part where you have to pee in public doesn't even faze her.
"When I do these things, it's open-ended. I begin the action and then I kind of surrender to what's going to happen," she said. (So there may be more German bike locks in her future, but who knows when.) Wilson said she'll keep her hunger strike going until her body gives out.
On a completely unrelated note, if you're looking for a solid bike lock, it seems German ones are the way to go. Activists, the Secret Service and a whole bunch of officers over in Washington can attest to it.
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