My NYC Jail Story - The Life and Thoughts of Zach
Sep. 8th, 2004
09:48 am - My NYC Jail Story
UC-IMC and NYC Indymedia have a lot of additional stories and info about this and other events from the NYC Anti-RNC protests last week.</a>
Last Tuesday and Wednesday (August 31, September 1) I spent an unexpected 23 hours in jail without access to lawyers, limited access to a telephone, transferred between 9 different cells, put in handcuffs 4 times, rode on 2 prison buses, and ate nothing but 3 stale white bread sandwiches (2 with cheese and 1 with some foul green and purple splotchy bologna-like meat product). All because I was walking on a side walk. Not blocking the sidewalk mind you...me and 200 other people were taking up HALF of a sidewalk with a clear path for other pedestrians to use (I know the path was there because the police used it when they arrested us!). According to the police we were parading without a permit and conducting ourselves in a disorderly manner by impeding the flow of pedestrian and vehicular traffic. Frivolous charges that hundreds, including myself, were not guilty of.
A friend of mine was held for 50 hours without access to a lawyer. The 16-year-old girl who was in my temporary legal custody was held for 37 hours. arun251 was held for 24 hours. Another friend of ours was held for 30 hours. The city has been held in contempt of court and fined $1000 for each person held for more than 24 hours without an arraignment before a judge. Civil suits on the basis of false arrest, false imprisonment, and inhumane prison conditions are all being worked on.
We got to make phone calls only after having been in jail for about 16 hours. We all got to see a lawyer for about 1 minute before our trial started. After a day or so of sleep deprivation it is pretty hard to remember what you want to ask your lawyer and get it all said and figured out before you go before a judge a few minutes later. Luckily the National Lawyers Guild rocked the courthouse and most of us were released ACD (Adjourned Contemplating Dismissal) which means that the case was set aside, and if we didn't get arrested in the next 6 months it would be as if the case never even existed. If we did get arrested again in the next 6 months the case would simply come to trial and because we did nothing wrong we would almost certainly be found not guilty anyway. So there is no need to return to NYC for a trial (they certainly weren't going to be able to try 1500 people that same day so if we hadn't gotten ACD we'd have gotten a notice to appear just so we could come back and win our innocence).
The charges against us (Parading without a permit and disorderly conduct (impeding the flow of pedestrian and vehicular traffic)) were basically just ordinance violations. They weren't crimes. These were the sorts of things that on any regular day a cop would write you a ticket for and send you on your way. But in this case the New York City police department decided to use these laws as a pretext for rounding up 1500 protesters and getting us off the street before some theoretical subset of us did some actual crimes. The actual crimes that were expected were things like the 20 or so folks within the group of 200 that I was arrested with who planned to lay down in the street near Madison Square Garden staging a "die-in" to draw attention to the global deaths caused by the Bush administration. In order to prevent a few hundred people from blocking a few streets in one part of town, the New York City police arrested an order of magnitude more people from another part of town and held them in jail for one, two, or three days. They marked possessions like bandannas to use as evidence that some protesters were "anarchists", which of course means they are more dangerous and probably should get higher bail.
The arrest happened about 10 minutes after our march started. We stepped off onto the sidewalk, got stopped by the police, were told to keep moving by some other police, attempted to negotiate with some folks who seemed like leaders, and then all of a sudden another leader cop came running through yelling to his "troops" that "that's it. These people are all under arrest!" Officers brought out an orange net that they wrapped around the crowd and then over the course of an hour or two we were all searched, handcuffed, assigned arresting officers, mug shot, given arrest numbers, and put on buses. Our arresting officers were arbitrarily chosen. A pool of rookie cops was brought in and each one was assigned 5 protesters to be in charge of. I never saw my arresting officer among the assembled cops until after I was under arrest but in a trial it would be his testimony that the state would have to use to establish a case against me.
NYPD officials anticipated that they'd arrest and process 1000 protesters per night. On Sunday, August 28, the day that over 500,000 protesters marched, only 10 arrests were made. The total arrest count from August 26-August 30 was around 600. On Tuesday, 1,200 people were arrested. Someone somewhere had to justify the use of their newly acquired facility, their 18 months of training, their 36,000 cops on the job, the extensive and expensive overtime that would be paid, etc. So they just rounded us all up and put us in pens for the day to justify their own worth.
When we were first arrested, we were taken to the now infamous "Pier 57". This is a warehouse space that the NYPD rented out and converted into a temporary jail specifically for this protest. We were housed in cages made out of chain link fence. Each had 2 porta-potty bathrooms which vented into the under-ventilated warehouse. Each had a VERY expensive water cooler (with heated and refrigerated water options that were not functional in the jail installation) that I can only expect won a great commission for some enterprising water-cooler-salesperson. The tops of the 20 foot "cells" were ringed with razor wire. This facility was nicknamed by inmates "Gitmo by the Sea", "Guantanamo on the Hudson", "Little Gitmo", and other such things. The facility had formerly been a bus depot for decades and every surface, especially the floor was coated with a greasy grime. No one who stayed in this facility escaped without having breathed in enough of it to develop a temporary cough and touched enough of it to be filthy black and sooty all of their bodies. Several people developed rashes and scabs from sleeping on floors coated with this substance. I got an injury from a swinging jail cell door that stung painfully throughout the day when it got all filled up with the itchy grime. When I got out of jail I donated my clothes to the legal team who will be analyzing it to see just what kinds of toxic chemicals we were exposed to in our inhumane confinement.
There were no cots in Little Gitmo. I slept on the hard floor with my snot encrusted handkerchief as the only barrier between my head and the greasy concrete. It occurred to me that to just lay down and close ones eyes in the middle of New York City, surrounded by 60 or so strangers, in a jail cell, would make some people nervous. I was nervous and uncomfortable, I didn't get much sleep, but the company was entirely comfortable. I had not a fear in the world that any of these fellow arrestees would hassle me as I attempted to sleep.
Our group of 200 or so was one of the first to be arrested that night. Throughout the night groups of 20, 50, or 100 protesters were constantly being brought in and everyone at the Pier would start cheering and singing and chanting. Every time it would be louder and the population kept growing. It was pretty beautiful. When we weren't cheering we were having spirited political discussions about the pros and cons of direct action and civil disobedience, how to adapt to the changing police tactics, and about the differences and motivations for our different political orientations. This protest drew Deaniacs, Naderites, Greens, Anarchists, and regular every day rank and file Kerry/Democratic Party supporters. More of those arrested than not were "non-radicals". Most were in jail for their first time. Many had no intention of engaging in civil disobedience. I found this to be a great environment for education. These folks were all poised on the edge of radicalism. They were all intrigued to learn that I was an anarchist. I don't fit the profile. I hadn't been advocating for violence. How could I be a Green Politician, the picture of non-violent hippieness, arrested for my first time, and call my self an anarchist? And where in these cells full of priests and businesspeople and workers and hippies and bicyclists and journalists were all the pink haired freaks? Where in the peaceful march along the sidewalk were the Molotov throwing, paint-wielding, havoc wreaking anarchists? Oh, do you mean that they've been lying to us? That the police don't always play by the rules? That anarchists do have legitimate political ideas? That hordes of pink haired bandanna masked youths weren't coming to burn down the town? Oh, and getting arrested isn't an end in and of itself for these civilly disobedient rebels, that the civil lawsuits afterwards are part of the strategy to deepen and enhance first amendment freedoms through precedent? That the press exposure during and after our arrest is part of the strategy? Oh huh...and I'd never really thought of the whole system as working in the interests of profit and the powerful people who control it. And you're right, there are an awful lot of bad things that the Democrats have done on the world stage as well as the Republicans. I swear that hundreds of new radical activists were born that night and I hope that I had a part in spurring their thinking a bit.
After 12 hours at the Pier, around 4am or so some of us were transferred to Central Booking, known to locals as The Tombs. We saw nearly every one of the 25 or so floors of this building during our stay. We were searched, put in cells, transferred to other cells, searched again, fingerprinted, digital photographed, put in some other cells, handcuffed, interviewed by EMS workers about our medical state. We didn't actually see the doctors until we'd been in the tombs for about 8 hours, about 16 hours too late for the 60 year old man who suffered from chronic pain and didn't have enough meds, the heroin addict who was going through withdrawal and needed methadone, or countless others who were suffering without any help from their captors). We had access to phones in some cells but not others (where the phones were simply broken and we were not given the option of using working phones in other cells). We had to pay to use the phones in all but one of the cells that we passed through. All calls were monitored by nearby guards and on the free call the name and number of the person called was recorded.
We were interviewed by social workers from some unidentified government organization who asked about where we lived, where we worked, how much money we made, and who could confirm all of this. Supposedly, this information would be used to determine whether we could be released with or without bail but in the end bail was irrelevant because most of us didn't end up with court dates. Supposedly, the fingerprints that were taken were an inquiry against the fingerprint system and would not create a "record" for us. However upon further questioning of the officers in charge, we learned that the fingerprinting would create an ID entry in the FBI's fingerprint database system. No criminal record would be attached to it but for now and forever our fingerprints would be associated with our names, birthdays, and current addresses. I'm not sure what system the digital photographs ended up in but I'm sure they're not too hard to cross reference with the fingerprints either.
The only time that we were mixed in with non-RNC protest related inmates was just before we were arraigned. We were taken up to holding cells outside of the courtroom and had to wait for about 2 hours there as the judge had just called a long lunch recess when we arrived. There we met a kid who had been caught with some illegal firecrackers and a guy in his twenties that clearly didn't want to talk about why he was there but he was planning on being in the system for a while as he'd violated parole and didn't expect to be able to bond out after his arraignment.
My stuff is still all in New York City. My digital video camera, my digital camera, my cell phone, my MP3 recorder, my backpack, and numerous other small stuff. All told there's probably around $1000 worth of stuff in a plastic bag in a police trailer in Manhattan that belongs to me. I'll have to send a notarized letter to a friend in New York City in the next 120 days authorizing them to pick up my stuff. If I wanted to get my stuff directly I'd have had to sit in line for three to four hours and then I would have missed my plane to Denmark. I sat in that line for an hour or so before I got frustrated and left it. In that time the possessions of 2 or 3 people were returned to them. The police took the possessions of 2000 people. We watched through the curtains as the officers in charge would take a claim ticket and then sit around just shooting the shit with each other for 10-15 minutes before they'd amble over to the property and find the relevant bag. At the rate they were making progress it will take months before every arrested person is done with this ordeal. What do you want to bet that many people will simply never see their possessions again? Many arrestees were professional filmmakers and other independent (not indymedia) journalists whose livelihood depends on their seized electronic equipment. Some of them got DAT (desk appearance ticket) rather than ACD which means they have to come back to a second court date in order to be declared innocent. They can't get their property back until then because it has all been declared "evidence".
Now I'm in Denmark sitting on a bench waiting for the rest of the CU Wireless crew to fly in from Chicago so we can go to this weeklong conference about international applications of community wireless technology. Between the jetlag and the sleep deprivation and the adrenaline dump I'm really really feeling out of it. It'll be an interesting day.