I recently marched toward the front of a rolling piece of political theater in Harrisburg. A parade of sorts that could have easily lead me and baker's dozen of other characters to jail.
Our supporting cast, about 100-strong, came from all over Philadelphia. They looked as cheery as a holiday crowd, even though these folks were shopping for answers. They wanted all the charts, graphs and studies that the Gaming Control Board had collected about what would happen to Philadelphia after the advent of a couple of casinos.
The board's data demonstrates how casinos might benefit us, with lowered property taxes and more tourism employment. But their data also depicts the downside of the gaming industry, with lowered property values, and more crime, car traffic, sewage overflows and pollution.
A coalition called Casino-Free Philadelphia had previously and formally asked the Gaming Control Board for more information. But after a score of Freedom of Information requests and months of dodges and denials, time was running out on a Dec. 20 deadline to decide where the casinos would be built.
So we decided to play out our frustration through a piece of street theater called "Operation Transparency."
We tried to have fun. Some in the crowd wore cardboard hats that looked like giant dice. Others carried signs shaped like chicken squawking "Fowl Play." The theme from Mission Impossible filled the air. Our mission was to search the Gaming Control Board's offices.
The singing crowd carried two huge, papier-mache magnifying glasses, with which they'd promised to scour the board's files. We made our friendly intent clear to officials, media and the spectators gathered outside the state Capitol. The police had to know that we did not consider them the enemy.
Fourteen of us volunteered to walk in front to play the part of the "Arrestables." Which meant in addition to other festive regalia, we all wore green armbands that signified our willingness to be taken into custody.
Among those risking jail was a fine arts painter, a minister, a computer programmer, and a newspaper columnist me. A retired Teamster, a couple of teachers and older people, whose kids are out of the house. And finally a pair of young women both strapped into wheelchairs, one unable to speak who seemed to have no fear at all.
Many of the 14 arrestables were already exhausted by the time we reached the board's offices. But we committed to stand at the head of the crowd and politely keep asking until we either got what we sought, or were taken away.
Pushing us forward, the crowd cheered as the first warrant was read. We had agreed to keep coming forward, one after the other, and keep reading until they either let us upstairs or took us away.
I was second. "We are asking you," I said to the police, "to do your duty to join with us and help retrieve the gaming board's plans for our neighborhoods. My name is Bruce Schimmel. I am here to exercise my right as a citizen. Please let me through." I was excited and terrified. I smiled with all the calm I could muster.
Harrisburg Police Lt. Briana Woodring, standing eye to eye, said that that couldn't happen.
"OK, ma'am," I replied softly. "We want to do this with civility and respect for each other as fellow Americans."
"With civility and respect," repeated the lieutenant.
And throughout handcuffing, transporting and booking us for disorderly conduct, the police played their role with distinction. Some even appeared sympathetic.
My wire-tie handcuffs were so loose, I had to hold my hands together behind my back. Sitting next to me, also locked in the paddy wagon, organizer Daniel Hunter could still pretzel around to make phone calls from his cell phone.
Within 30 minutes, we were free. By the end of the day, as the arrest of what's been called the "Philadelphia Phourteen" spread through wire services and video networks, word came back that a coalition of politicos was scrambling to arrange a six-month delay. I think we've at least gotten a reprieve.
But beyond that, something special happened at this very civil disobedience: The government's door was pushed open wider, even while we had a little fun.