Around midday, the Amnesty coordinator for the event came by to check on our progress.
“Any issues so far?”
“We’re sweaty, dehydrated, and surrounded by vomit,” I said.
“If vomit is your worst problem, consider yourselves lucky. I worked on a similar event in Texas. While I was at the table, this big, angry man started yelling at me about Amnesty and the death penalty. He got angrier and angrier as we talked. Suddenly he grabbed me and started shaking me, and his hands closed around my throat. I don’t know what happened next, because I blacked out and woke up in an ambulance on the way to the hospital.”
I remembered the only other unpleasant day I’d had at Amnesty. Answering calls was the worst job as an intern. We dreaded the chirp of the phone ringing, secretly hoping the caller had been routed to somebody else. Today it was my turn to stammer through a call.
“Hello, is this Amnesty International?” the caller asked.
“Yes, this is the Amnesty International southern regional office in Atlanta. How can I help you?” I used a practiced cadence taught to us.
“There’s a situation I need your help with. I’m friends with an illegal immigrant. He’s a good guy, very hardworking. He even has a wife and kids. He was driving on the highway and another car crashed into him, which caused him to crash into another car, which ended up killing the driver of that car. Now he’s been arrested for murder and they might deport him and separate him from his family.”
“Amnesty International doesn’t offer legal representation. I can give you the numbers of other organizations that might be able to help.”
This was our standard response.
During my first week as an intern, my primary project was to update a thick binder of organizations we could shunt callers to if they needed anything that couldn’t be solved by mailing them Amnesty’s informational pamphlets, stickers, and buttons. The referral binder, as it was called in Amnesty-speak.
During orientation, I and the other interns were given instructions based on the motives of the caller. Angry? Be polite, reiterate Amnesty’s official stance on any issues they talk about. Need Amnesty materials? When in doubt, ship them out. Want help? Gently but firmly push them to somebody else.
But our protocol didn’t mean callers were always receptive.
“What about that Troy Davis guy?” the caller said. “Don’t you guys have a whole campaign around him? Can’t you do the same for my friend? Start a campaign and get him a lot of media attention!”
I was at a loss. How did Troy even get Amnesty to notice him in the first place? Before Amnesty’s 2007 report, Troy was a nobody. What if this call had been Martina, desperately asking for somebody, anybody to help her brother?
“I’m sorry, sir. I don’t think we can help.”
“Okay, well maybe you can help me personally. I’m being stalked, man. I’m being followed and harassed no matter where I go. It happened in Montreal, so I left for New York. Happened there too, so I kept going south. But they kept finding me. I think the government might be in on it. I’m pretty sure government spies are after me, but I don’t know why.” The staff had warned that we often had mentally ill callers. Was this man one of them?
“It might be better if you go to the police.”
“Maybe I’ll do that. But I went to the police in Miami, and they strapped me to a chair in the detention room and beat me up. Then they let me go the next day without any explanation.”
We were veering off script. I cleared my throat and grabbed the binder, frantically shuffling through the pages. “There’s not much Amnesty International can do for you. I can give you the contact information for the ACLU. They might be able to help.”
“Yes, I’d like that. My civil rights have been violated.”
After I gave him the information, he thanked me and hung up. I vowed to make an even greater effort to avoid answering the phones.