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Commentary: Protest turned out to be a great American civics lesson

If you missed anything in your social studies classes, getting arrested can be a good way to make up those lessons. Monday I was one of 44 people who - thoughtfully and on purpose - were arrested for trepassing. We were in peaceful protest against Duke Power's continuing to build the big Cliffside coal-burning power plant. We hadn't even been arrested yet, when the social-studies lessons startedwhen we marched by construction guys eating lunch and wondered how we were seen through the many Latino eyes. Wherever they were from, how did they compare our police-protected march with the truth of their native countries? We were not talking about American values to them; we were being American values. Those of us willing to risk arrest moved ahead of the march to the crucial hot-pink, spraypaint line. To cross it meant arrest. I was aware of scores of dark-uniformed Charlotte police spread across the front of Duke's customer-service building. If you remembered the '60s and '70s, inner images flashed of over-eager cops with riot gear, clubs and big-fanged dogs, police who would be angrily lumped together as "Pigs." Some of the marchers actually had experienced that police brutality elsewhere, and feared it here. But here's a civics lesson about our police: Some of them are downright dear. Some are by-the-book-ma'am. Some a little disorganized. Most are kind, if no-nonsense kind. These are not pigs. It actually went too far for me. I had been handed over to "my" officer, who firmly headed for the "paddy wagon" vans. I mentioned I couldn't walk too fast because of knee surgery, and he became so solicitous. He didn't even handcuff me like everybody else. "Do I look that benign," I protested. He just chuckled. Other things you learn in the pokey: - It doesn't take ink to make fingerprints anymore; it's all computerized. - You get fed, rumpled brown-bag dinners passed out by a jail trustee. I thought the bologna was fabulous. I pointed out to my cellmates, "Ladies, you'd have to pay for this on an airplane." - Finally, the deeper you get in the long booking process, the gruffer and less congenial deputies become. Everybody's tired and impatient now. The lady in holding cell 2 is bellowing rapid-fire and loud obscenities. There's the guy who is careening off walls and doors. In this area, you want to nip anything in the bud. I got thrown in a hot holding cell for talking. It turned out that, while I was being booked, my college-age daughter - who had seemed unenthusiastic about all this - was in government class discussing, hmm, civil disobedience and non-violent protest. We talked by phone Monday night. "So you really got arrested and went to jail," she asked. Yes, I did. Pause. "Well, cooool, Mom!" she said. Sometimes it takes more than a class in school to get the most important things across. Beth Resler Walters is an executive speech writer in Charlotte.