It was what we had decided would be a great way to celebrate “World Breastfeeding Week”, 2005.
Birth Without Boundaries had just been founded several months earlier, and had been successful in our first “Nurse In” (the title that was used by the first wave of “Lactivists” – we since decided to change it to “breastfeeding awareness event”) that we held at a local Clear Channel Entertainment building after a news producer had stated on air that he would be uncomfortable if a woman were to breastfeed her baby publicly near him (this was on the heels of a Barbara Walters’ comment on “The View” which had provoked a Nurse In earlier that year at the ABC studios in NYC).
Shortly after we had arrived at the Clear Channel studio, they started interviewing us outside in the parking lot, and as we kept speaking to them, (while “publicly” breastfeeding our babies the whole time) – we found ourselves really connecting with each other.
They were intrigued and eventually asked us to come inside to do a 10 minute live on-air interview for the upcoming show with the producer who had made the comment.
They offered us coffee. We accepted.
The 10 minutes turned into 3 hours as the phone calls came pouring in….and well, that’s another story.
But it’s good to note here, that it was this previous experience that gave us the courage to take our message to a different and bigger venue, and after spending so much of my personal time either crying, or literally becoming sick over some of the practices at this local hospital that I saw during my work as a labor assistant, I knew that it would be our next “target”.
Pinnacle Health, Harrisburg Hospital, Harrisburg, PA.
We began planning our strategy in June to be carried out for the first week in August. Just a few brainstorming sessions by just a few of us, but the results were amazing.
Soon, we had a letter written that outlined why the hospital policies were not only harmful to the important initial breastfeeding relationship, but that they also clearly violated the professional guidelines from places like the American Academy of Pediatrics and the World Health Organization.
Mandatory separation of mother and baby for “evaluation” for a minimum of 4 hours shortly after the birth, discriminatory practices to mothers who refused the separation (many of them my past clients), as well as the unethical (and in violation of WHO) marketing of infant formula to new mothers (many of which were minorities) – were the specific practices that we were highlighting.
We composed the letter to the CEO of the hospital, attaching all relevant documents and then copied the whole package to the PA Dept. of Health, and JAYCO (the entity that certifies all U.S. hospitals). We waited until the day of the event to deliver the packages.
We weren’t sure how it would go down. The last event had turned out so nice, the whole thing went so well – but what would happen this time?
We had a feeling that they may not be offering us coffee.
We had spent the week prior printing flyers to pass out, constructing signs, fine tuning our documents to present, and drafting our press release. We met at my house and organized ourselves almost effortlessly while the kids played. We made delicious soups and ate them in the backyard. It was fun.
We had waited until 2 days before the event to send the press release out – and were contacted immediately by several members of the press. Most likely this is where the leak came from, as the next thing I knew, my husband received a call on his personal cell phone and was instructed by a menacing voice on the other end to give his wife a message…. cancel our plans for the coming Friday, or we all would get into “a lot of trouble”. He threatened to call the police if we showed up. The call came from the director of security from the hospital.
At that point, we knew that this was most likely not going to be like last time, and began preparing for it.
I talked to my new friend Jake Marcus, a savvy breastfeeding friendly lawyer living in Philadelphia, and she gave her advice from an activist standpoint, “don’t speak, don’t say anything – drop to the ground if they arrest you”. She went on…”it’s really not that big of a deal if they arrest you. They would be stupid to – as they will look like asses – but don’t worry. It’s a win-win.” She gave us the added confidence that we needed – and ended being right, too.
We then had a meeting with everyone in our group who was planning on attending, and did a count of how many kids, adults, cars and vans we all had. I asked each one if they were willing to be arrested. The ones that were not, would stay close by and be prepared to take kids if needed, with enough car seats, extra diaper bags, etc.
I also contacted the press again to let them in on the “update”. This, of course, peaked their interest and guaranteed we would have our event covered.
In our plans, we decided that we wanted a least one really good and large sign to act as a focal point that would convey the message simply and clearly.
I had thought of the idea during a camping trip earlier that summer – to use the collapsible tent poles fed through the casings of a large king sized sheet that had the message spray painted on it – held easily by 2 people on each side.
As the sheet and poles were easy to fold, the whole thing fit into a small backpack. I could carry it and the flyers to hand out, and still carry my 18 month old in a sling easily. And since I bought the sheet at a thrift store – it only cost me $3 – $2 for the sheet, $1 for the paint.
The message we decided on was “Pinnacles Policies Hurt Babies”. We also made smaller signs such as “Free Formula Hurts Babies”.
Friday morning came and we all met at a specific location and time within the hospital parking lot.
Someone first took the “package” to the office of the CEO and once that was delivered, the rest of us came out of the parking lot and made our way down to the main entrance of the hospital.
The press as well as the hospital security were there waiting for us.
It didn’t take long to get our signs out and start passing out the flyers when one of the security staff asked us to leave. When we told them that we were staying, he walked away making a phone call.
Within minutes, several police cars with sirens blaring loudly, rushed into the parking lot as if there were a major crime happening. The police officers approached us telling us that we HAD to leave. We told them that we were staying (those that had agreed with being arrested – the others left the area and blended in with the crowd that was watching).
As the police officers approached me, they angrily asked if I had someone to take my baby “right now” – otherwise he would be taken by them and placed in foster care. My sister immediately stepped forward, and as they started to put the handcuffs on me, she took Trey out of the sling and held him close as he was reaching for me, crying. I dropped to the ground, where they finished handcuffing me.
“You want to do this like a lady?” the officer asked me. I kept quiet, watching my baby cry, defiantly sitting on the ground not giving two shits about being a lady. Her and her partner literally picked me up off the ground, dragged me to the police car, lifted me up again and threw me into the back seat.
The press was all within feet of this happening, and were able to capture it all clearly.
The car door slammed and with my face pressed into the hot seat, with no ventilation, I felt like I was being suffocated. I moved my body to breathe, but it was difficult and I began noticing how fast my heart was racing. I realized how scared I was. And in that moment I thought “what the hell have I done?”…and as I laid there trying to breathe, it wasn’t long before I had a clear vision of how necessary this was. It needed to be done. I was scared and crying – but realized the tears were tears of happiness and accomplishment, not fear.
After a few moments, I glanced to the side briefly to see 2 security guards give each other a high five with big smiles on their faces. As one looked down at me, he mocked me asking if I wished I had some air back there. I wanted to smile at him and tell him I was fine but I couldn’t move and I couldn’t talk because my face was smashed into the burning hot seat – which he knew and clearly delighted in. He walked past me laughing.
Finally, the police officer who had arrested me, got into the car, and opened a window to let some air in and I was then able to move and sit up on the seat. She saw how hot it was in the car, and opened the back window a bit for me too.
Once we had driven out of the parking lot, she lowered my window all the way, to let more air in, asking me if I was ok. I told her I was and was happy to see that she was smiling at me through the rear view mirror.
I heard my name outside the window to my right and there was Tracey, driving one of the vans with some of the moms and kids.They were waving, giving me thumbs up signals and took this photo…
A few minutes later, arriving at the police station, we were fingerprinted, and “booked”.
While getting our “pictures taken” (mug shots), the officer who was taking the pictures started making jokes, teasing us, making us laugh. He thought the whole thing was hilarious.
Once all the technicalities were out of the way, they gave us each a ticket for $100 for private trespassing (on the same level as a minor traffic ticket) and told us we were free to go. As we prepared to leave, more and more officers started coming into the room, asking us what we had been doing, what was the deal?
When we told them what it was – they started laughing. Every time a breastfeeding reference was made, there would be another roar of laughter. They loved it – “made their day” they told us. One guy straight out says “they totally deserve it too…”. One beautiful officer gave me his card, “call me if you ever need anything. Breastfeeding is important”.
Once “released” and out in the lobby of the police station, I immediately scooped up Trey who was there with my sister waiting for me and hugged and kissed him telling him that mama was totally fine – sitting down on the plastic bench to gave him some “ninny” – there were several of us all breastfeeding our babies. We thought that was funny too. Afterwards, we all went to our favorite mexican restaurant for lunch.
That evening, when we turned the 5:00 news on, we discovered that it was the leading story. The signs, the chaos – being handcuffed with Trey screaming for me…the whole thing up close.
Jake was right. The hospital was clearly coming across as a villain.
The story would be repeated every subsequent news hour. It got so much attention from the public that an online poll asking viewers to weigh in on the issue was posted. The results were impressive – with over 80 percent of those taking the poll – agreeing that the hospital needed to make changes in how they treated and respected birthing women and their infants.
I got a call the next morning from one news station and they wanted to do a follow up story on what we were protesting, wanting to know the issue deeper – and apparently there were some women at the station that had a hard time watching Trey cry while being torn from his mother – they wanted to know that he was ok.
As I did the interview from my living room, breastfeeding Trey the whole time, I explained the deal, showed them copies of the documentation sent to the hospital administration and educated them on the importance of a positive initial breastfeeding relationship, while at the same time addressing the ruthless and unethical practices of the formula companies and how they collude with these hospitals to sell their products to vulnerable women.
At the end they closed with a shot of Trey happily playing in his sandbox. And we were the leading story again that night on the news. Everyone was good.
The following day, the front page of the local paper carried the story…(bottom right corner, Tracey with Ivan in the backpack).
As the news reports grew over the weekend, I received a call from one of the hospital administrators. They wanted to know if we would be willing to meet with them Monday morning? “What time?” I asked. “As soon as you can” was their answer.
I laughed as I hung up. It was on.
(that time we were arrested by a big hospital and it was totally worth it…part 2 is in the works…stay tuned…)