By Joel Viertel
(c) 2004 Joel Viertel
“Honey, can you hear me? I’m down at Ground Zero with Adam and Lee, the police have us penned in, I think we’re getting arrested.”
I was having trouble hearing my wife’s voice over the noise -- I was up at 48th Street and 6th Avenue in Manhattan, standing in the middle of the “Fox News Shut-up-a-thon” outside the Fox News Channel offices, where a crowd of three hundred or so was pelting the building with the angry chant “Shut Up!! Shut Up!! Shut Up!!” at the top of their lungs. Furthermore, a protest marching band had materialized on the far side of 6th Avenue, making for quite a noisy scene. The date was August 31st, 2004, and the Republican National Convention was in full swing -- as were the anti-RNC protests.
“What?” I yelled over the cacophony. “You’re kidding me!” Somehow the thought of my wife Mora -- a delicate-looking Eurasian woman in her late twenties -- being hauled off by the police seemed unimaginable.
“I’m not sure yet but I think so,” she responded.
Mora had gone down to Ground Zero earlier that day, where an Anti-Bush protest group was supposed to do a “Die-In”, strewing their bodies across the pavement and pretending to be dead. I had gone to Madison Square Garden, where I met up with Robert Pietri, an NYU classmate of Mora’s. We were planning on covering various mid-town protests throughout the day, while Mora, Adam and Lee covered the downtown groups, hopefully meeting up with us somewhere along the way. But we weren’t participating in the protests -- we were filming them.
My wife and I are both filmmakers, and we’d been working on a project she’s directing called Conventioneers, a non-fiction homage to Haskell Wechsler’s Medium Cool set against the backdrop of the contentious 2004 Republican National Convention. We’d been all over New York shooting for the past week, and we’d basically wrapped up the scripted scenes and were just floating around the city, shooting as many protests as possible for background. Adam and Lee, who were at Ground Zero with Mora, were both camera operators. We were getting as close to the protests as we safely could, but the thought of any of us getting arrested had seemed pretty remote. Until now.
Mora and I traded several more phone calls over the next few minutes. Each time she called, I would pass my camera to Pietri, and he would shoot the protests until I was off, then pass it back. The police started arresting people in front of us -- two, to be precise -- and we got some great footage of it. But it seemed a muted victory as it became clearer and clearer that Mora, Lee and Adam were indeed on their way into police custody.
Pietri and I broke away from the Shut-Up-a-Thon and headed downtown. We weren’t sure where we were going or what we should do -- we had planned on heading over to Grand Central, where a subversive protest group called “Billionaire’s for Bush” was going to do a mass shoe-shining, which I thought would be really funny to get on film. But instead, we walked briskly down 6th Avenue, making calls on our cell phones. I called the National Lawyer’s Guild hotline, where I gave them information about Mora, Lee and Adam. Pietri made a few calls. We did what we could to find out what was going on, and what we could do about it, but it sounded like the best we could do was wait until our friends were processed and released. A friend of mine at the People’s Law Collective told me that could take up to 12 hours but hopefully not more.
But Pietri and I also faced another dilemma -- what should we do? With Adam and Lee going into custody with their cameras, we were the only crew still on the streets, and anything that needed to be filmed fell to us. On the other hand, if we somehow got arrested, there would be no cameras left, and if anything momentous happened, we’d miss it entirely. So we wondered -- should we keep shooting and risk incarceration? Or stay out of the fray, just in case?
We decided to keep shooting, come what may.
Amazing things were happening all over Manhattan -- as we walked down 6th Avenue, veering on to Broadway on our way down to Union Square, there were groups gathering everywhere. We even passed a park where a lawyer was giving a flash seminar on what to do if you’re arrested while protesting. I didn’t bother to stop -- Mora and I had already been to more formal seminars hoping we could film them (they said no). The whole city seemed like a college campus before the big game. It was “A31”, as it had become known around the city, a day when New Yorkers had been called upon by protest groups to act up individually with civil disobedience. And everywhere you turned, they were gathering.
I tried to keep my focus, but most of my thoughts were with Mora. How would she fare? What would she go through? Mora is a remarkable person -- brilliant, radiantly beautiful and willful, a cum laude Princeton graduate with a magical way of winning people over. But, like anyone else, she also has her moments of need, and as her husband I do my best do be there for her when those moments arrive. I knew she would be strong enough to persevere -- her tone of voice had been even-handed -- but I also knew that deep down inside, she must be terrified. I knew I would be.
Pietri and I made it to Union Square, where countless police vans encircled the park. I was glad to have Pietri with me -- a short and stocky ex-marine, he was far more prepared to dive into any fray we encountered than I was. In fact, he was the one who pushed for us to keep shooting after Mora’s arrest, where most others would probably have chosen to hide out in a Starbucks until the dust had settled.
We went up to the third floor of Barnes & Nobles, where the café windows afford a spectacular view of the park, hoping we could film any protest activity from a safe vantage point. But we couldn’t see anything but police vans. Whatever was going on, it was probably happening at the south end of the park, beyond our field of vision. So we headed back downstairs and into the street.
As soon as we hit the pavement, we saw riot police deploying from the vans. “Follow them!” Pietri said, pointing. We followed the police, keeping a safe distance, until the trail led to 16th street. We stepped into the street and saw the scene:
On the south side of the street, a marching band was playing -- we quickly recognized them as the same band we’d seen up at Fox (we’d later learn that it was in fact two bands who had collided). Several people were dancing around them in a sort of moving swarm. People were dressed in costumes, some with masks and face paint. It was wild, but in a peaceful, good-spirited sort of way. A sort of anti-Bush halftime show.
The police were forming a barrier against them, pushing them East on 16th Street, away from Union Square. We followed a few steps in, staying on the North side of the street, rolling tape. There were dozens of other cameras around us, along with a crowd of spectators -- many of them just passers-by who had stopped to watch the spectacle.
The police formed a human barrier across the Eastern end of 16th street, then another down the middle of the street, and barked for us to “Get on the sidewalk!!” I had stepped off the curb to film from between two parked cars, but immediately complied. Several other cameramen did as well. We watched as the police moved in on the marching band swarm, boxing them in , forming another blockade across the Western end of 16th street. It took us a few minutes to realize that they hadn’t just boxed in the protesters on the South side of the street -- they’d boxed us in as well.
I kept my camera rolling. Explosions of activity started breaking out, as police wrestled individual protesters to the ground and arrested them. I was intrigued by how many police officers had cameras as well, filming the scene, presumably so it could be used later as evidence.
Again, Pietri and I passed the camera back and forth as my phone kept ringing. But none of the calls were from Mora, who had vanished an hour before, presumably into the belly of Central Booking down by City Hall.
The police blockades moved forward, crushing the crowd together. People asked if they could leave, if they could disperse, and were told that they couldn’t. Once the crowd was as compacted as possible, the police told us all to sit down on the sidewalk. We did. From everything Mora had told me about how she was arrested, it seemed pretty clear that the same thing was happening to us.
I would guess there were about a hundred of us there on the north side of the street, give or take. I tended to my camera, labeling my tapes carefully and putting them in cases. I made a few phone calls -- one to my best friend Alek, one to a producer who was working on the project with us, one to the NLG hotline, one to Mora’s mother uptown to tell her I was also getting arrested, and one to my own mother and sister, who were upstate. I didn’t call my father -- he was away in China at the time.
I took out two sandwiches that Mora’s mother had given me, handed one to Pietri and told him to eat it now, knowing they’d probably take all our stuff away soon. And so we sat there, on the pavement, eating sandwiches and waiting, while the police cleared the protesters away one at a time. Some part of me still hoped that they would let us go -- we certainly hadn’t broken any laws. But my understanding of what had happened down at Ground Zero was a sobering education in what was going on: they were simply arresting everybody.
I struck up a brief conversation with a girl sitting in front of me. She had been on her way to the bank to cash a check. Another guy behind me had been on his way home from the post office with his mail.
The police asked for anyone with press badges to make themselves known. Several people stepped forward, had their credentials checked, and ushered across the police lines back out onto the street. A few people had insufficient credentials, and were forced to stay.
We had probably been on 16th Street for two hours -- the sun had gone down -- by the time I was finally lined up and handcuffed with four other guys, including Pietri. Our arresting officer was a tall, quiet African-American man named Paul Porter, badge #18609. I have no idea where his normal station was, but it probably wasn’t in Manhattan -- Mayor Bloomberg had brought in scores of policemen from the outer boroughs for the convention, leaving some of New York’s most dangerous neighborhoods unprotected. I heard somewhere that security for the RNC alone cost $200 million. I wonder how the taxpayers of New York, 83% of which didn’t want to convention to be held there at all, feel about that one.
If you’ve never worn plastic handcuffs, you can’t imagine how uncomfortable they are. Unlike metal handcuffs, plastic cuffs can’t bend, and don’t in any way conform to the angle of your wrist. Instead, the plastic digs into your flesh. Many people who were brought in that night suffered from swelling and numbness in their hands and arms from the cuffs.
Officer Porter was not the officer who actually handcuffed me, so I felt I could safely complain that my left cuff was a little too tight. Pietri was also starting to lose feeling in his hands. To his credit, Officer Porter got another officer to loosen our cuffs with a knife. The gesture gave me hope that the police understood, at the very least, that they were arresting people who’d done nothing wrong, and that being civil was in everyone’s best interest. Mora wasn’t so fortunate -- she told me later that when one of the girls in her group complained that her cuffs were too tight, one of the officers tightened everyone’s cuffs as punishment.
Some women who had been arrested with us started hollering high-pitched protest chants. I wasn’t sure how to feel -- as a Democrat, I agreed with them politically, but in my already irritated state, the shrill sound of their voices made me wish the cops would take them away already. One woman -- a member of a group called the “Missile-Dick Chicks”, who wear giant missiles strapped to their pelvises while mock-cheerleading the Bush administration, started yelling that her handcuffs were too tight. The police ignored her. It was a further indication to me that asking nicely would go a lot further than yelling and screaming.
My four group-mates and I were finally ushered toward an awaiting bus. Along the way, we were stopped while a policewoman took three Polaroids of each of us standing next to Officer Porter. Pietri and I mused about the cost of the Polaroids -- the film industry has been trying to break away from the old habit of using Polaroids for continuity, as they cost a dollar or more per photo. How many people were being arrested? Several hundred down at Ground Zero, several hundred up here? Three Polaroids of each of us? That translated into thousands of dollars worth of Polaroids alone. Eat that, New York tax-payer.
We finally made it onto the bus, and waited while prisoners and “A.O.’s” --Arresting Officers -- filed in after us. Trying to sit in a bus seat with your hands cuffed behind your back -- in those dreadful plastic cuffs, no less -- wasn’t a whole lot of fun.
Finally the bus moved away from 16th Street, heading West across town, though to where we had no idea. Fellow protesters ran next to us, blowing kisses. People on the streets gave us the thumbs up, waving and smiling encouragement. We were going to jail, but all of New York seemed to be with us in spirit. I have to admit - it was touching.
One of the A.O.’s -- a pasty-white young man in his early twenties with a military haircut -- took off his policeman’s hat and held it at his waste. I noticed, with some consternation, that he kept a laminated postcard-sized painting of Jesus inside his hat. I have nothing against religion, but somehow under the given circumstances, I found the portrait disturbing. The symbolic insinuation could not be avoided: this was the Christian police, carting off a group of heathen anti-Bush protesters. I wondered how long it would be before the portrait of Jesus becomes an official part of the uniform.
We were lucky -- our bus trip was short. I talked to other prisoners later who said it took four hours to get from the site of their arrest to Pier 57 on the lower West side. It only took us a few minutes, perhaps because we were arrested so close by. The bus made it through various checkpoints, and finally stopped inside the warehouse-like space on the pier. The driver turned the bus off, and the A.O.’s filed out to surrender their firearms.
We waited as the bus got hotter and hotter, now without the benefit of air conditioning. To keep ourselves amused, we started the obligatory school bus sing-a-long with a rousing chorus of “Why Can’t We Be Friends”. It was an early sign of the kind of camaraderie that would permeate the prisoners throughout the ordeal, and I actually began to have some hope that this might not be so bad, and I might take some interesting lessons away from the experience.
We moved on to “Build Me Up Buttercup”, then unsuccessfully tried a few others. Most guys didn’t know the words. Whatever. We were having fun.
Finally the officers got back on the bus -- sans weapons -- and the bus restarted. Truly a relief at that point, as temperature had risen steadily over the 20 minutes we’d been sitting there and we were all sweating fairly profusely. The bus lurched into gear, moving slowly forward. Through the windows, we could see an endless line of handcuffed prisoners lined up along the northern wall of the pier.
The bus stopped again and we disembarked. We were led to the south side of the pier, then westward, single file, toward the far end. Along the way, we passed giant mesh-fence pens filled with prisoners. I looked up at the top of the pens, where rolling coils of barbed wire ensured that the rabble-rousers inside wouldn’t make a break for it.
A wall of noise hit me -- the prisoners in the pens were applauding us as we went by. It sounded like enough applause to rival a baseball stadium, echoing through the giant space. This became tradition, and I ended up applauding many times as subsequent busloads of prisoners were brought in.
We reached the pen at the far end of the pier, a much larger holding space than the ones along the sides. This pen was perhaps fifty feet or more in either direction, and could hold several hundred people. Here our possessions - which had been wrapped in individual plastic bags that we were carrying behind our backs -- were taken from us. Before sealing the plastic bag with my stuff in it, Officer Porter asked if I had anything valuable in my pockets. When I nodded, he removed my palm pilot, my wallet, my sunglasses, my keys, my phone and my tapes, and tossed them all in the bag. I should have just said no -- plenty of people smuggled things into the pens, including their phones. As of this writing, I am somehow the only person I know who was not allowed to keep his wallet.
Another Polaroid was taken of me, and attached to the bag by an Asian officer. “Are you going to give me a voucher?” I asked him. “No, we’ll give you a voucher later,” her replied.
Uh-oh, I thought. Having been to the People’s Law Collective seminar, I knew that this was dead wrong. The police are required to give you a voucher at the moment they take your property -- otherwise, items can disappear and you have no way of proving they were ever there.
“No,” I said, “That’s wrong. You’re supposed to give me one when you take my stuff.”
“Don’t worry, we’ll give you one later,” he replied. He wouldn’t even look me in the eye. I didn’t want to hold up the line, as there were lots of folks behind me, but I was legitimately worried. Aside from my personal effects, the camera in my bag was a rental.
“Okay,” I said, “but that’s wrong.”
The Asian officer ignored me as he tossed my bag amongst a giant pile of other bags. I moved on, into the big pen, hoping they’d take my cuffs off along the way. They didn’t.
Pietri and I kept an eye on our stuff through the mesh fence as the pen we were in filled with a growing crowd of handcuffed prisoners. We chatted with some others, made a couple of new friends. Everyone seemed fairly calm, just annoyed and bitter at the unfairness of what was going on. We all felt that our incarceration, while hardly on par with a third-world experience, was entirely un-American.
We could see pens on the north side of the pier as well, meaning that there were twice as many people as we had seen directly. Somewhere among the other pens, a group of people started chanting, “Let us go!! Let us go!! Let us go!!” It spread like a virus, thoughout the pier, until prisoners in all the pens were yelling it at a fever pitch. I joined in, amazed by the sheer volume of the sound. It was deafening.
“Listen to that,” I said to Pietri. “There’s gotta be thousands of people in here.”
I was slightly over the mark, but still, to think that they had arrested enough people to make such a noise was astonishing. It was so loud that the police had to temporarily suspend what they were doing because they couldn’t even hear each other from a foot away. Everything just stood still until the chant died out.
Pietri and I slowly figured out how the property system was working: our A.O.’s -- officer Porter in our case -- had to sift through the giant pile of bags and locate their prisoners’ possessions by the Polaroids attached to them. Fortunately, each A.O. was only responsible for five prisoners, but nonetheless, finding five bags amidst a pile of a few hundred was pointlessly time consuming.
Two possibilities occurred to me: either the system was intentionally slow in order to mire the process, or there simply was no system and they’d made this one up on the fly. Either way, the clear intention was to make things move at a snail’s pace, regardless of whether it was through an intentionally slow procedure, or none at all. It started to dawn on us that this might take a very long time, not because the process was inherently sluggish, but rather because the police were deliberately making it slower. Looking back on it now, dealing with our property was one of the quickest systems they had. As slow as the P.D. were moving, the Corrections officers who awaited us later down the road were only slower.
I got in line to use the port-a-potty, which was situated in a smaller pen outside the big one we were in. Prisoners were let into the smaller pen in a trickle, to get a drink, use the bathroom, then return to the big pen. While waiting in line, one of the prisoners I’d made friends with was called over to the fence by a cop, who asked him if he had any matches. He didn’t. He returned to the line, wondering what the hell that was about. We never figured that one out.
As I reached the front of the line, the police decided to change the system -- this was now the women’s line only. So I had to walk across the pen and wait in another long line to use what was now officially the men’s port-a-potty. Whatever. Pietri returned from the port-a-potty, his hands free from the cuffs. “They’re taking them off,” he reported happily. But by the time I reached port-a-potties, word had come down that they weren’t supposed to be doing that. The cops on site, though, made a compromise -- they’d put our cuffs on loose enough for us to get out of, as long as we’d pretend we were still cuffed so a casual glance from a superior officer wouldn’t get them in any trouble. We agreed.
Then we waited. Time ticked by, slowly. Various chants emanated from various pens. Chit-chats among the prisoners. One group of hippie-types made a dance circle and danced around. I stayed away. The pen we were in had no chairs or benches of any kind, so if you wanted to sit, you had to sit on the ground. The ground was disgusting -- I’ve since learned that they clean city busses there or something, and I’m guessing they made no effort to clean the floor before stuffing us in there. One Corrections officer told me he thought they’d actually put dirt on the floor, to humiliate the prisoners by making them so filthy. White shirts started to turn dark gray on prisoners who had chosen to lay down. One prisoner advised me not to let my bare skin touch the floor for fear of chemicals.
Officer Porter asked me for some general information about myself and my possessions, which he wrote down on a folded blank piece of paper. After collecting information on all five of his charges, he sat with perhaps two dozen other officers at a long folding table, filling out forms. Either the forms were incredibly detailed, or officer Porter has a slow writing hand -- probably a combination of the two -- but the process seemed to take forever, well over an hour. Finally, paperwork completed, Officer Porter disappeared.
Pietri and I watched the property queue through the fence. We could see police officers opening up the plastic bags, going through each prisoner’s things, taking inventory. Eventually it was my turn, as Officer Porter appeared and escorted me out of the big pen and into the queue. As he led me there, he gripped my left arm in his right hand, as though I might try to bolt at any moment. I had been cutting officer Porter slack in my mind up to this point, but I found myself beginning to dislike him despite my best efforts not to.
I was brought to a desk where my bag was opened up by a bald-headed officer with no name-tag. Up to this point, none of the officers I’d encountered had been particularly obnoxious, but this guy was off the charts. He started going through the items that had been taken out of my pockets, assessing them as Officer Porter listed them on a voucher. Baldy opened my wallet and looked at how much cash I had -- I had a lot, as we were in the middle of production and petty cash needs tend to sneak up on you.
“You know you’ve got more than a hundred dollars in here,” he said, as though I’d somehow broken the rules by doing so.
“Yes, I know,” I said, uncertain how I was to be held accountable.
“I’m supposed to write you a voucher for anything more than a hundred,” he said, as though that would be a huge pain in the ass. I shrugged, having no idea what he wanted me to say. Instead, he handed me the cash, and went back to rummaging through my wallet.
I remembered, sheepishly, that I had a free guest pass to the Hustler Club in my wallet -- a girl on the street had handed it to me while we were shooting on 34th street, and I had taken it just out of sheer amusement. Baldy pulled it out and looked at it.
“You can keep that if you want,” I said, trying to make a guy-to-guy joke.
“I’m not keepin’ anything,” he snapped back, as if I were an I.A. officer who’d just tried to trap him into breaking the rules.
He gave me my driver’s license so I could reclaim my property later. “Can I keep one of my credit cards, just in case?” I asked.
I described my mastercard, and he pulled it out like this was some huge favor he was doing for me. Thanks, dude. I know that really crimped your style.
He moved on to my bag, opening it to reveal my Panasonic Camera. “Aha!” he exclaimed, “what were you plannin’ on doin’ with this??”
“What was I planning on doing?” I responded, utterly confounded. I was filming when the cops arrested me. I’d put the camera into the bag so it wouldn’t get damaged. I’d made no effort to conceal it. Now this guy was acting like he’d just pulled an assault rifle out of the bag. I began to wonder -- was filming in New York suddenly outlawed and nobody told me?
As it turns out, filming is still legal, and officer Baldy was just being a jerk because that’s the way tough bald cops are supposed to act, or something. I don’t know. All I know is that he reminded me of the principle from Back to the Future, the guy who’s just rotten and mean for it’s own sake. You never believe these people are real until they’re standing in front of you.
As he went through my bag, I asked him if I could possibly have a piece of gum from one of the pockets as my mouth was dry, he told me I was being “a real pain in the ass. I haven’t had a drink in twelve hours either.” I refrained from suggesting that he use his straight-time pay to go buy himself a drink (the cops still don’t have an overtime contract, so they’re not paid extra for working long hours). The earlier incident with the Hustler pass already told me that he had no sense of humor, so why bother.
Nonetheless, officer Baldy tried to find the gum in the bag. After ten seconds elapsed and he couldn’t find it, even though I told him where it was, I just told him to forget it.
As Porter finished logging all my possessions, Baldy tossed them into the camera bag -- except for my palm pilot, which he left free-floating in the plastic evidence bag. I presume he did this in the hopes that my palm pilot would break.
Boy, am I glad that guy wasn’t making overtime. I hope he never does. Everyone else can, but they should make a special exception for him.
I was then led, by Porter, to one of the pens on the South side of the pier. The officers at the gate were mystified when they saw that I could get out of my cuffs, and questioned officer Porter as though it were his fault. I didn’t care. Anyway, they took my cuffs off and put me into the pen.
The side pens were slightly better, as they had a few benches. The downside was that we were now separated by gender, and there were no women in the pen with us. It was now officially the kind of party you would leave in a heartbeat if you could.
I looked down at the voucher I’d been given, and noticed with some irritation that none of the writing had gone through. Mine was a carbon copy, and other than the a few faint pressure indentations, there was nothing on it. No list of possessions. No arrest number. Almost nothing that was legible at all. I’m sure it was unintentional -- Porter’s writing hand must have been light or something -- but I now had no solid record of my possessions. In the box where my pending charges should have been written, it was clear to see that nothing had been written at all. Officer Porter probably didn’t even know what I was being charged with.
I sat down in the back corner of my pen and chatted with a few other inmates. We talked about politics -- I talked with one guy who had had an argument in another pen with a Naderite, and was exasperated. I told him I felt his pain. I believe there’s a time and place to cast your vote symbolically for a guy who you believe in but you know can’t win, but this was not the time for it. More strange is the fact that a lot of Naderites love him for his environmental policies. You would think, at least on that count, that they would see the wisdom of voting for Kerry. But apparently not. We agreed that, if Bush won again in November, a large part of the blame would lay with the Left for not uniting.
I spoke with an older man who had come up from Georgia to protest, and was missing his flight home as we spoke. He seemed game, though, but told me with all certainty that -- other than returning for his court date -- he wouldn’t be coming back to New York City. Ever.
Finally, I fell asleep, leaning against the fence. I woke again when they opened the gate to offer us sandwiches, which we all took. The sandwiches turned out to be white bread and bologna, but not the Oscar Meyer bologna that comes to mind when you think about bologna. No, prison bologna is straight-up roadkill, scraped directly off the side of the road and into a sandwich. No human being would voluntarily eat it, unless it was the only thing they could get their hands on. As in our case.
Eons went by. Finally they started calling out prisoners’ names, and taking them out. The other prisoners would applaud each of their pen-mates as they were escorted away. After a long wait, my name was called, and I was brought -- back to the big pen in the back. And now the big pen was filled with all men. I waved to Pietri as I walked in -- I hadn’t seen him in several hours and it was nice to see a familiar face.
We were told to sit in rows and wait. Which we did, despite the filth on the floor. More sandwiches were distributed. The guy sitting next to me was apparently a vegan, and tossed the bologna out of his sandwich and onto the floor. One of the officers saw him do this, and barked, “Pick that up!!” He did. But the question was, what the hell was he supposed to do with it? There were no trashcans in the pen. So he put it on the ground next to him. Somehow that was better by police logic.
Several of the prisoners, now getting really agitated, got into yelling disputes with the officers. One officer insulted a prisoner, who started yelling “No respect!! No respect!!” and it spread until the whole pen was yelling it. A “White Shirt” -- a superior officer -- managed to quiet us, telling us that he was just trying to keep this organized so we could get out of here safely, and that he was “a humanitarian.” A lot of the prisoners guffawed. I myself think a humanitarian would have called in sick that day, or gone home early when they saw what was going on. I wonder if any did.
After a while, prisoners started to ignore the sitting rule, and we returned to standing and milling about. I chatted a bit with Pietri. One prisoner took several of the Dixie cups we’d been given for water and tore them up, making a rather beautiful tableau on the floor out of the pieces that read: “The Spirit Has No Cage”. Nobody, not even the patrolling officers, stepped on the words.
After another healthy wait during which the sun rose and illuminated the filthy factory windows high on the walls above us, they once again started calling out names, this time using a bullhorn. Prisoners were escorted out in small groups, to destinations unknown. Pietri and I waited and waited as the crowd slowly thinned out. The police had a moment of consternation when nobody responded to one of the names. I’m not sure what happened with that.
As the officer was calling out a name, the bullhorn suddenly malfunctioned, blaring out a noisy siren. Some of the prisoners laughed. He fiddled with the controls, and tried again. Again, a deafening siren. More laughter. Some prisoners imitated the noise -- “Eeeeeeooooohhhhhheeeeeeeoooohhhh!!!” The officer got flustered, and a white shirt stepped over to help him. They fiddled for a minute, then tried again: Siren. “Eeeeeeooooohhhhhheeeeeeeoooohhhh!!!” This time it was pretty much the whole group parroting the siren. The bizarre dialogue continued for a minute or two before they were able to fix the bullhorn
-- I believe the problem was that the cops didn’t actually have their own bullhorn, and were using the one they had confiscated from the marching band but didn’t really know how it worked.
Eventually my name was called and I was led, along with a few other prisoners, single file past the pens toward the front of the pier. As we went by a pen filled with women, two girls flashed us their bare chests, yelling, “See you on the streets, boys!!” Pietri later told me that as he was escorted out an hour later, a girl in the same pen mouthed the words “I love you” to him through the fence. There are some moments where you just gotta love the Left Wing.
We were stopped briefly while two cops had a lively argument, right in front of us, about how the system worked and who should be headed where. Finally we were stuffed into one of those little armored cars specifically for moving prisoners, exactly like the one Harrison Ford escapes from in The Fugitive. My seat was directly over the passenger side wheel, and I almost fell on my face tripping on the top of the wheel well. Having your hands cuffed behind your back makes you a little clumsy.
Cool though these transport vehicles may look on film, the truth is they’re really cramped and they have no suspension system whatsoever, so our ride over to Central Booking was extremely bumpy and hence rather painful. We eventually arrived -- sometime around 9:00am or so, I really don’t know -- and sat in the driveway, waiting. One of the prisoners complained that his cuffs were severely digging into his wrists, and our driver -- a very square-jawed African-American officer named Davis -- told us that they would take our cuffs off in two minutes, as soon as they’d brought us inside.
I feel I should stop at this point just to make a brief aside: it’s astonishing how much police officers lie to pacify prisoners. I cannot recall a single statement of fact I heard come out of a police officer’s mouth during the entire time I was in custody that turned out to be accurate. As someone once said of a notorious liar, if a cop told me it was raining outside, I would have to stand in it for several minutes before I believed him. Who would have thought that Hollywood agents and New York police officers would have so much in common?
Needless to say, when we were ushered inside, our cuffs were not removed for about another hour. We were brought into a holding room packed with guys -- fifty or so -- where we waited for the next step, whatever the hell that was. Apparently it was having the Corrections officers search us for “contraband,” as though one of us might have somehow snuck an AK-47 past all of the P.D. checkpoints but now Corrections was here to finally outsmart us.
After a lengthy wait where nothing appeared to be happening, one prisoner finally complained, yelling out to the officers outside, “hey, could we do some work here?” All the officer guffawed, and the ringleader said, “ooooh, now you’re gonna see what slow looks like. Guess it’s lunchtime now.” But it was an empty threat, as things actually did pick up after that.
After an intense amount of bitching from the prisoners, the Corrections officers finally agreed to cut our cuffs off, perhaps realizing that we were not really dangerous on the one hand, and that we were locked in a cell on the other. Once we were back in the cell, an officer came by with sandwiches -- for the first time, they had peanut butter and honey. I never thought I’d be so thrilled to find the world’s simplest sandwich, but under the circumstances, it was like finding water in the desert.
A few prisoners engaged in conversation with the Corrections officers outside, half-complaining, half just passing the time. One of the officers got himself into hot water, defending himself from criticism by saying, “You think I wanna be here? I don’t wanna be here any more than you do. But you had a choice.”
The cell erupted in a chorus of hissing rebuttals, catching the officer completely off guard. This guy had no idea what he was talking about, and it spoke volumes about the lack of communication going on between P.D. and Corrections -- he naturally assumed that we were all protestors (out of the fifty people in the holding cell, maybe twenty of them were protesters). I found it interesting, that the police were sending these prisoners over to Corrections without even admitting who they really were.
The officer quickly realized that his perception of the situation was completely wrong, and backed down. Shortly thereafter, a very handsome and verbose African-American man was brought in, yelling this thing or that just to be amusing and contentious. After starting several arguments with the other inmates about how we should form a line to the door (they were letting us pick our own order this time), he decided to pick on the cops instead.
“Hey, any of you guys have a job application for the Police Department? I wanna do your job,” he yelled. All the prisoners laughed.
“Why the hell would you wanna do that, this job sucks,” shot back one of the Corrections officers. In the swelling sea of machismo, ineffectiveness and straight up untruthfulness that I had witnessed since being taken into police custody, it was a stunning moment of honesty. I wondered why he’d said that. Was it the lousy pay? The long hours? The inhospitable physical environment? Or perhaps it was the endless days of dealing with people who hated and resented him. Or, even worse, perhaps seeing the lowest that humanity has to offer day in and day out had taken a piece of his soul. I wish I’d asked him why he felt that way, but I doubt I would have gotten a straight answer.
We were led, en masse, into a holding room next door so they could clean the one we’d been in, then back again. Then over to another one after we were searched for the aforementioned “contraband”. A group of P.D. were waiting outside this last cell, including Officer Porter, who I hadn’t seen in many hours. I guess they needed to identify us before we could move on, or something. It was the last time I saw him.
I spent the time making friends with a few of my cell mates, especially a large, light-skinned African-American named Sharif, who I’d ridden over with in the armored van. Sharif looked exactly like the genie from The Thief of Baghdad, and I kept wishing he could grant me at least one wish so I could get the hell out of here.
Once it had been determined that we’d waiting long enough in this room or that, we were taken out, five at a time, and handcuffed into chain gangs. Here I was, cuffed to a chain with four other guys -- which is really pretty awkward -- and all I could think of was Woody Allen’s routine about how he and his chain gang mates escaped from prison, “posing as an immense charm bracelet.” The whole chain gang thing seemed so hokey and old-fashioned that, I must confess, I sort of enjoyed the novelty.
The next stop was fingerprinting. We were brought into special cells where four or five refrigerator-sized fingerprinting machines awaited us. Our cuffs were removed long enough for us to put our fingers on a glass plate and roll them across, a giant version of our prints appearing on a computer screen in front of us as we did so. After all the stone-age procedures we’d been through -- the handwritten arrest records and vouchers, the Polaroid photos, the chain gang cuffs -- these machines were a refreshing indication that the 21st Century had at least poked the tip of its nose into the criminal justice system. From research I’d done for various film projects, I knew that fingerprinting was done digitally -- mainly so that prints could instantaneously be compared against various databases, but I had no idea what the actual machines might look like. I was impressed.
Back on the chain gang, down the hall and into a visitation room, where we thought for a brief and shining moment we might finally get to meet with some of the pro bono lawyers who we knew were waiting outside to represent us. But alas, they brought more prisoners into the room, on the other side of the fence -- they were just using this as a holding tank. Some of the prisoners were women, the first time we’d seen any in a long time. I guess there must have been two completely separate systems running side-by-side, one for the men and one for the women, and we’d reached a brief intersection. Like idiots, we didn’t use the time to talk to each other.
Instead, I got roped into a conversation with my chain-mates. One of them, a short, balding guy named Paul who actually reminded me a little bit of Woody Allen, was trying to convince two younger kids why they should vote for Kerry. They were sticking to the “Democrats and Republicans are too similar” stance that Nader fans tend to espouse when they have no idea what they’re talking about and no idea how to form an argument. Paul did his best, taking the environmental argument that we all know is a strong point for Kerry. I think these kids just wanted to be different, and they’d decided that going with the cool minority would somehow be more beneficial to them socially than helping the guy who could actually win. Perhaps I shouldn’t judge them, but I found it a little frustrating listening to them, adopting Bush’s arguments against Kerry but using them as a reason to vote for Nader. “Kerry voted for the war,” one of them said. I just sighed and shook my head as Paul tried to beat some sense into them. When the far left starts listening to the attack rhetoric of the far right -- which is primarily intended to sway the swing voters in the middle -- there may be nothing left to do but write them off.
We started moving once again, this time down some stairs, through some increasingly narrow corridors, and finally into another holding pen. This one was painted green -- a lot of other prisoners commented that it looked just like they’re high school. I wondered whether that was because prisons were designed to make you feel childish, or because high schools were designed to make you feel like a prisoner. Ultimately, I think the answer is neither. I think the answer is just that cinder blocks and lousy industrial paint are cheap.
This cell, for the first time, had a bar of soap on the sink. Every cell in the building had had a toilet and a water fountain, but this was the first soap sighting. I was thrilled, and immediately washed my hands. That nominal bout of excitement behind me, I sat down in the narrow room with my other cell mates and waited. I finally laid down on the steel bench and fell asleep for a little while.
I awoke when they were moving us again. Back on the chain gang -- with a slightly different assortment of guys this time -- through more corridors, and finally to the booth where the mug shots are taken. We were brought in, one at a time, and told to stand here, face this way, now turn, etc. For a moment, I was alone with the mug shot guy, and he struck up what would otherwise have been a perfectly normal conversation while we were waiting for the machine.
“You from New York?” he asked.
“I grew up here but I live in L.A. now,” I responded.
It was weird. We were just like two regular guys, chatting, waiting for the machine to gear up. We chatted for a few more minutes, until the machine was done taking photos, then he said thank you and another officer came back to lead me out. As I walked out, it occurred to me that we shouldn’t be so judgmental of all the mug shots we see of celebrities -- they may have been in police custody for any length of time by then. I’d already been there for about eighteen hours, and all I really wanted was a shower.
We were moved onto another hallway, where a long row of cells awaited. Each cell had a payphone -- the first we’d seen -- and held about thirty prisoners or so. I sat down in the first cell on the hall with a bunch of other guys and waited.
We were called out, one at a time, to give some medical information to a clerk, a very flirtatious African-American woman who seemed more like a sitcom character than a Corrections officer. As I was called up to see her, she took a moment to prepare my paperwork, and I glanced over at another officer -- a white Irishman -- standing behind her.
Up to this point, I’d been playing a fun game with myself ever since I’d arrived at Central Booking -- it was the “look-every-Corrections-officer-dead-in-the-eye” game, and I was pretty good at it. It was really fun, because it clearly frazzled the officers, who were unaccustomed to making any sort of eye contact with the prisoners. I guess most inmates don’t do it. And I don’t think any of these officers felt particularly good about what was going on. So I had decided to make them feel worse by looking them straight in the eye and reminding them that I was a human being, just like they were, and not their inferior in any way.
Almost invariably, the officers would glance away the second they realized you were looking at them, and it gave me a minor triumph over each of them when it happened. But not this guy. As soon as he realized I was staring at him, he stared back, and for a solid five seconds or so, we just stared straight at each other. His reaction was different, but clearly it made him just as uncomfortable. Finally he cracked, barking, “What? Why you staring at me?”
It was the “I’m a tough guy, dammit!!” approach. A part of me truly believes that Martin Scorsese just might be partially responsible for the rampant machismo to be found amidst the Caucasian rank and file of New York’s men in uniform, so closely do they mimic the De Niro/Keitel gangster paradigm.
I smiled, entirely amused, and pointed at the woman in front of me. “I’m waiting,” I said, feeling I owed him no further explanation. She smiled too -- she knew exactly what I was doing, and obviously saw the humor in how aggravated I had made this guy in five seconds, without saying a word, just by looking him in the eye.
She bailed me out, starting a brief Q&A about my medical history. No, I’d never smoked, nor was I in rehab for drugs or alcohol. I am highly allergic to Penicillin. No I am not on any medication.
Back to the cell, and more waiting. Among the guys in this cell was Joel, a young southern fellow with a shaved head, a matted red beard and a samurai pony tail, wearing a dirty wife-beater on which he’d written the priceless slogan, “John Kerry is a flake.” From the looks of him, he was an angry Republican, who’d been out taunting the protesters when he got caught up in the police sweeps. I sort of pitied him, in part because “John Kerry is a flake” is a really weak rebuttal to the ceaselessly creative anti-Bush slogans I’d seen around the city, and in part because almost none of the protesters were pro-Kerry to begin with, as I’d learned from my various conversations with them. They were all further to the left.
Finally fed up after nineteen hours of incarceration, Joel gazed out at the officers on the other side of the bars and yelled, “Hey, I’m not even supposed to be in here, I’m a Republican.”
Even he understood that we were political prisoners, locked up for no other reason than our political bent. I think it would have been really funny if the Corrections officers had actually let him out, but alas, they did not. Instead, they laughed as inconspicuously as they could and went back to ignoring him. I suspect that many of the Corrections officers were Democrats.
The prisoners chuckled as well, but did nothing more. We all had known he was a Republican. And though expectation might tell you that one angry Republican locked in a cage with thirty Liberals would be torn to shreds, nothing of the sort happened.
I was eventually moved down the hall, to the last cell on the right. As I entered, I took stock of who was with me, and who was in the cell across from me. Among the thirty or forty guys in the cell facing mine, I spotted Lee, our camera man, lying down on the bench.
“Lee!!” I yelled. “Lee!!”
He finally heard me, and got up. He looked tired, but okay. We chatted briefly through the bars -- Mora had already been released, as had Adam a bit later. Lee was the last of their group still incarcerated. I felt bad for him, being held so long -- after all, he’d been arrested four hours before I was -- but I was relieved that Mora was free. That also gave me hope, as it was the first I’d heard of any prisoners being released. All the chatter I’d heard filtering in from those with cell phones was that none of the prisoners they’d arrested on Tuesday had been let out yet.
Lee had known that I was arrested because he and Adam had been in one of the side pens at Pier 57 when I was brought in. They had yelled to me as I was ushered past, but I couldn’t hear them over the deafening applause.
Shortly after I arrived, Lee’s name was called, and he was taken out to go see the judge. I sighed with relief. After nineteen hours inside, I’d reached the end of the line, the last cell before the courtroom. The only step I could take after this would be into the courtroom, and out to freedom after that. I was nearing the end. I might be out in time to get home at a decent hour and get a good night’s sleep before the last day of the convention. Things were finally looking up.
I would be in that room for another twenty-one hours.
Twenty-one hours may not seem like a long time on the page, but when you’re stuck in a bright green cell, where the lights never go off and there’s nothing but hard surfaces, it can be a very long time. The mood would shift from jovial to angry to exhausted then back again, sometimes changing as new people were brought in and as others were escorted out. Somewhere in there, I lost count of how many dreadful whitebread sandwiches I had eaten. They came by with apples and oranges -- the oranges were the first legitimately edible food we’d had, but the apples were indedible.
Some of the guards were nice, others were jerks. One African-American guard won the prisoners over by yelling “Fuck Bush!” into the cells, which elicited thunderous applause. I got into an argument with another guard named Flack, where I repeatedly caught him talking out both sides of his mouth:
“You think you different?” he said. “Trust me, I work here, this happens every day,” he said.
“Eighteen hundred people get arrested in Manhattan every day?” I responded, incredulously.
“Yes,” he responded.
I’m not even going to look that statistic up, it’s so wrong. And I don’t need to, as within one minute, he was hollering:
“You guys think you have it so bad, you have no idea. All those fingerprinting machines they got upstairs? They just put those in last week for you. How many you think were up there two weeks ago? One.” He was entirely oblivious to his own hypocrisy, telling us this happens every day and then immediately telling us they’d completely overhauled the system to accommodate for this one-time event. The entire argument was peppered with twists like this, where he would make an argument in one direction, and then a moment later would make an entirely contradictory argument in the other direction, oscillating between the “you’re not special” and the “you have no idea the special treatment you’re getting” positions.
“You think we always have food for you every four hours?” he asked rhetorically. Apparently, only special prisoners get white bread and roadkill with such frequency. Bloomberg was on the news bragging about the addition of soy sandwiches as an option for vegetarian prisoners. I snuck out a piece of this “soy”, so it could be tested. I’m skeptical.
Perhaps the most insightful argument I saw was between a young, light-skinned African-American officer and bunch of prisoners in the cell facing mine. The inmates were making the argument that the officer wasn’t doing his job appropriately by being party to what was going on. The officer defended himself:
“I’m just here to protect and to serve, that’s what I do. That’s what I’m doing.”
A prisoner shot back, “You’re supposed to protect and serve the citizens of New York, but this week, you’re protecting the Republicans from the citizens of New York. That’s not what you’re supposed to be doing.”
It was a dead-on argument, and the officer had no reply, because we all understood what the prisoner meant -- he didn’t mean, literally protecting the Republicans from harm at the hands of New Yorkers. He meant, protecting the Republicans from ever having to know how New Yorkers felt about the convention being held in their back yard.
Over the phones, we started hearing what was going on in the outside world. There was a vigil going on outside the building for us, including several state officials and Senator Chuck Schumer. Volunteers were waiting outside with food, water and metrocards for us. The National Lawyers Guild, meanwhile, had filed a writ of habeas corpus, demanding that anybody who had been held for over 24 hours be immediately released. Many of the prisoners had a moment of relief when we heard the judge had signed the writ, but not me.
“Look around, you think they’re just gonna open the gates and let all of us out?” I asked one prisoner.
“They have to,” he responded.
The appointed hour of our release -- 1:00am -- came and went without the slightest change. We later heard that Bloomberg’s attorneys had managed to get a stay put on the writ. The case was going back and forth in court somewhere, as Democratic judges tried to get us released and a Republican mayor fought them tooth in nail. Perhaps this is what Republicans mean when they call it the “Party of Lincoln” -- after all, as a friend of mine pointed out, Lincoln suspended the writ of habeas corpus during the Civil War.
At some point, an older prisoner named Lenny -- who I half suspected was an undercover officer, as his arrest story sounded fishy and he was a little too clean-cut -- bet me that we would be released within three hours. I instantly bet him $100, but he negotiated it down to $10, as he claimed he didn’t have $100. I agreed, only because I didn’t imagine I’d collect regardless of how much the bet was for. Indeed, I won the bet. Lenny didn’t have the $10 either.
Sometime later, Lenny got into a conversation with a White Shirt officer named Finn that yielded some interesting information. Finn was frustrated by the situation, and although I’m sure he appreciated the money he was making, he was clearly getting tired as his thirtieth hour on the clock rolled around. Apparently, Bloomberg had brought in every available police officer from the outer boroughs to arrest us, but hadn’t brought in a single additional D.A. to process us. Also, there were four courtrooms for processing, but only one of them was open, and they were seeing prisoners one at a time. Clearly, the system had been intentionally handicapped so we’d be in jail as long as possible.
“You know why they’re holding you guys so long?” Finn asked Lenny.
“Because they don’t want the rabble-rousers out on the street when Bush gives his speech,” Lenny responded.
“Exactly,” said Finn.
There it was, in no uncertain terms, from the mouths of our captors. We were being intentionally held as long as possible, so that Bush could give his speech unfettered and get out of town before the Left Wing activists could make any noise about it. In order to avoid the appearance of intent, however, the city kept a steady trickle of prisoners -- a handful per hour -- seeping out of the building and onto the streets.
Paul, the Woody Allen look-a-like, finally got called out, in part I suspect because he had gotten an attorney friend of his to come down to Central Booking and pull for him. We knew that a legion of NLG volunteer attorneys were waiting upstairs, but the Corrections department had steadfastedly refused to let them come down and talk to us -- while simultaneously telling us that there were no lawyers waiting upstairs to begin with. The fact that we had these phantom lawyers on the phone didn’t seem to gain us any ground in the argument.
Instead, we were called up to the front of our cells to give information to Criminal Justice employees, who told us they were gathering information so they could make lenient recommendations to the judge. Again, this was sheer nonsense. The judges were the ones trying to get us out the door, while these folks were actually gathering residence and employment information simply to assess who might be a flight risk.
In hindsight, the Corrections department mirrored the kind of socio-economic breakdown you might expect at a New York McDonald’s. Almost all of the rank and file officers were minorities. All the criminal justice questioners were minorities, and I doubt if any of these people made it out of high school with anything better than a G.E.D. The superior White Shirt officers were white. And the Assistant District Attorneys who came downstairs to smile at us like everything was jim-dandy weren’t just white, they were a shiny sort of lily-white. I kept expecting to see light glint off their teeth.
Watching the guards try to keep count of prisoners was a consistent source of entertainment. Each cell had a maximum capacity, and when the guards realized that the prisoners were keeping count, they decided it would be best to actually stick to the numbers. The African-American guard who’d won the crowd over with his “Fuck Bush” declaration counted the cell across from me -- there were 28 inmates. The maximum capacity was 39. So he rationalized that they could put another 9 prisoners into the cell. Two other officers -- one white, one black -- started making fun of his inability to add. As they wandered off, chuckling, he yelled at their backs in his deep voice, “Fuck y’all!!” He cursed a lot. I kinda liked him.
When the guards tried to count our cell, they all came up with different numbers -- 28, 30, 31. I counted it and came up with 29. I counted again -- 29. Clearly the number was 29.
“There’s 29,” I offered. They simply seemed to accept the fact that I was right and they were probably wrong, and went with 29. They’re lucky I wasn’t lying.
As night fell, the trickle of prisoners moving out to the courtroom dried up. Several hours went by without the sighting of a single guard. Eventually, the prisoners started to talk to one another from cell to cell, wondering what the hell was going on.
We surmised, from our experiences along the way, that making a lot of noise might actually have some effect. The guards weren’t used to an organized group of prisoners -- their ordinary charges wouldn’t know each other, or share any sort of common cause. So if we got our act together, we rationalized, we could frazzle them just enough to bargain for a chip or two. We decided it was time to get organized.
Each cell appointed a spokesman, usually someone slightly older with more gravitas. Ours was Lenny. Across the hall was a guy named Jim -- the guy who had been sitting on the pavement behind me on 16th street, who had been on his way home from the post office. Other cells appointed spokespeople as well, but I couldn’t really see them.
We collectively decided to make as much noise as possible until the guards came, and when they did, we would focus on a short list of demands: we wanted lawyers permitted into the cell blocks, and we wanted to send representatives upstairs to negotiated on our collective behalf.
Our plan in place, we started yelling, screaming, chanting, jumping up and down, banging shoes against the wall. It was pretty loud, I must say. We kept this up for quite a while, until finally, the guards did indeed show up. When they did, we quieted down so we could talk. They, of course, tried to pacify us with food. We took the food but kept pressing for lawyers and representatives. This back and forth went on for hours, with no result. The lawyers were never allowed in.
We’d later learn that things had gotten so quiet because the court was closed overnight. The guards told us that at least one courtroom was open 24 hours, but again, this was just a lie. NLG told us that they had lawyers sitting around upstairs, all night, waiting to represent clients but there was no functioning courtroom. Four courtrooms, over a thousand inmates held beyond the legal 24-hour limit, and literally nothing was happening. All night.
Some guys were able to sleep on the floor, despite the noise and the endless fluorescent light. I couldn’t fall asleep for more than about a half hour at a time, though it was hard to keep track as I didn’t have my watch, thanks to Officer Porter.
As Thursday morning rolled around, I finally threw in the towel and decided to start pulling a few strings. Fortunately, one of the prisoners had a phone credit card that he claimed was free, and I -- having an excellent memory for phone numbers -- had memorized it. So I could now make unlimited calls out. I had refrained, thus far, from making any attempt to get my own lawyer because, on the one hand, I didn’t feel like paying for it, and on the other hand, I felt it wouldn’t be fair to the other guys who were inside with me.
But Thursday was upon us, and I knew from Lee that both of our other cameras had been tagged as arrest evidence, leaving only my camera tagged as simply property. If anything were to happen on Thursday night during Bush’s speech, the only camera we had that could possibly film it was mine. And the only way to get that camera back was for me to get out of jail.
I’d also begun to grow concerned, as every other guy around me got called out and replaced with new guys while I stayed behind. Clearly, I’d been skipped. They were calling out guys who’d come in hours after me, and none of the guys I had arrived with were in my cell anymore. I had been in this cell for several hours longer than anyone else. I really began to lose faith after Greg Griffiths, a very handsome African-American who was participating as a legal observer for the National Lawyers Guild, was called out. I’d been with Greg pretty much the whole time -- we’d shared a bunch of oranges and such. Somehow, being with one of the Legal Observers made me feel better, as we knew that anything the police did would be directly funneled back to the NLG. We all thought it was kind of amusing, though, that the Legal Observers -- identifiable by their neon green baseball caps -- had been arrested in the first place. Obviously, they weren’t protesters. So when Greg left, I start to feel increasingly alone in the cell, even surrounded by 30 other guys.
When the last guy I’d come in with, a protester named Tom Kennedy, was called out, he turned to me and said reassuringly, “you’re right behind me.” I was probably in the cell for another five or six hours after that.
Knowing that Paul had managed to get his release expedited with the help of an attorney, I made a very non-alarmist call to my father’s assistant Tania. I assumed that she would know some criminal attorneys, or at least some attorneys who knew some criminal attorneys. It was too early in the morning for her to be in the office, but I figured I’d get the process started by leaving her a message. I also told her to get the word out about what was going on through any media connections she thought might be useful. My father works in the entertainment industry, so his company has a lot of high-end media contacts, albeit in the wrong arena. Message completed, I hung up and went back to waiting. There was nothing else I could do.
A pair of uber-protesters were brought into the cell across from mine. They’d both been arrested inside the convention, where they’d stood up holding posters singling out Bush’s lack of attention to the AIDS epidemic. There were both wearing blue gowns, as their shirts -- which had some Anti-Bush slogan or other on them -- had been confiscated as evidence.
The leader of the two, a fellow named Mike Milano, started giving a seminar on what to expect upstairs. He told us that the city was offering ACD’s -- wherein the prisoner accepts the charges, fines are waved, and the charges vanish off the prisoner’s record after six months if no other charges are filed in that time. The catch, Mike told us, was that if you accepted the ACD, you were essentially pleading guilty, and therefore waving some of your rights to sue the city. The city, of course, doesn’t tell you this. Mike’s advice was to decline the ACD.
With this revelation, the grand scheme started to come into focus:
Bloomberg decides that he doesn’t want any protesters getting anywhere near Madison Square Garden during the days of the convention. So he allows one big protest march the day before the convention on August 29th, then brings in every cop he can find and preemptively arrests every potential protester on the streets on Tuesday the 31st. He then has the prisoners moved from place to place for no particular reason, just to keep them hopeful that release is just around the corner, while the system churns as slowly as possible. He brings in no D.A.’s to help process the hordes, he closes all four possible courtrooms overnight, he fights repeated judicial orders to release the prisoners -- whatever he has to do to keep these people incarcerated for as long as humanly possible, legally or illegally. Then, as these emotionally exhausted and physically drained prisoners are finally brought before a judge, they are rapid-fire offered a settlement that they don’t understand but believe will get them out the door more quickly, and possibly incur less legal expense down the road. Only after they’ve made it out to freedom do they realize that they just unwittingly waived their rights to sue the city for the many injustices they’ve suffered. Case closed.
As the morning dragged on, I decided to try my father’s assistant again. She answered the phone, harried --
“Joel,” she said. “I’ve got your father on a conference call with Rick Fischbein talking about you. Do you want to get on the call?”
“You’ve got my dad on the line from China?” I responded, somewhat amazed. I had assumed she might know a lawyer who could help, but it had never really crossed my mind to bother my father, half-way around the world. “Sure.”
I hopped on the call. It was a little hard to hear my father, but there he was nonetheless, with his longtime friend Rick Fischbein, who I had known since I was a little kid. Rick is the senior partner at his own lawfirm, though I couldn’t tell you what kind of law he practices most of the time.
We chatted for a few minutes. I tried to exude an air of calm, not wanting anyone to feel alarmed. Things were fine, other than the twin extremes of injustice and boredom through which I was suffering. Rick told me they were going to send one of their guys down to Central Booking to represent me. I thanked him, and made a joke about how I wasn’t going anywhere, so he should be able to find me. My father asked if I really was okay, just to double-check. I assured him I was fine. It meant a lot to me that he asked, though -- nobody had earnestly asked how I was doing in a long time.
Back to waiting. Some prisoners started clowning around, just trying to stave off the endless boredom. A charismatic young kid named Danny Dwyer, in the cell diagonally across from mine, decided to start a dance-off with the cell facing his. I couldn’t see what was happening in the rival cell, but from the hoots and hollers of those who could, it sounded pretty spectacular, eliciting a lot of laughing and hooting. Danny conceded defeat gracefully:
“You know,” he said with a mocking storybook tone, “if I had to be illegally incarcerated for forty hours with anybody, it’d be you guys.” He was poking fun at the situation, but I think he was also expressing the true feeling of camaraderie he’d developed with the rest of us. For my part, I felt that he had perfectly captured something, about the spirit of the guys inside, about the unspoken bond that our shared ordeal had built between us. I didn’t expect to stay friends with any of these guys after I got out, but for the moment, we were like best buddies, just hanging out.
“Awww,” muttered the crowd, playing along.
I have since traded emails with Danny’s brother Chris Dwyer, who was in my cell. Chris told me he and Danny were chased down the street and tackled by several police officers after they filmed a Secret Service agent open-hand punching a woman in the face and knocking her unconscious outside Noche, a Manhattan restaurant that was hosting a luncheon with Laura Bush. The woman -- who was a pedestrian, not a protester -- was apparently walking past the restaurant with her young child, and wandered into what turned out to be a restricted area. So this Secret Service agent knocked her lights out, then went off to secure the perimeter while the woman’s child sat on the pavement next to her, confused and crying hysterically. The cops noticed that the boys had caught the incident on tape, chased them down, arrested them and took their camera.
I suspect that when Chris gets that tape out of evidence, it will be blank.
Finally I was called out, and taken to a cell just outside the courtroom. Sharif, the genie, was there, along with the other uber-protester in the blue gown. His lawyer arrived just before mine, and they took quite a while discussing his case (which was no doubt quite complicated). But, because there was only one visitation booth in the back of our cell, my lawyer and I just had to wait. By the time we sat down, we were able to have about a two-minute conversation before my name was called and I had to go into the courtroom. My lawyer, a young fellow named Brian Bloom, advised me to take the ACD. I said that I was absolutely not going to do that.
We ran out into the courtroom, and I waited until the giant-sized bailiff called my name. The judge, a woman in her fifties or so, rattled through the charges as quickly as possible. It was the first time I’dever heard what I’d been charged with. Parading without a permit, disorderly conduct, violating a police order to disperse. She asked the public prosecutor if the city had an offer, and the prosecutor hollered out, “ACD, your honor.” The judge asked if the defendant accepted the offer.
Brian turned to me, hoping I would change my mind. “No,” I said, loud enough for the judge to hear.
Brian informed the judge that his client had declined the offer. She asked if motions would be filed. He wasn’t sure of the answer -- I guess she was asking if I was going to sue the city. When he faltered, she asked again, quickly and forcefully, if motions would be filed. “Uh, yes, your honor, I believe motions will be filed,” Brian said, referring to the class action lawsuit that I planned on being a part of. In fact, the NLG had already filed it while I was still in my cell.
Clearly, this judge wanted to get me out of the courtroom as fast as she could. She wasn’t part of the problem, and she was doing the best she could to move prisoners through quickly. Within about thirty seconds, I had a court date and was out the door to freedom. It had been just about forty hours since my arrest.
I bypassed the group of volunteers waiting for prisoners and went straight over to get my stuff. It was bright -- incredibly bright -- and my sunglasses had been confiscated. I put my hand over my eyes as a visor, trying to fend off a headache.
I had been given directions to the property return office along with my disturbingly blank voucher. I followed them, and ended up at a police checkpoint that didn’t seem to be where I was supposed to be.
“I have a voucher, am I supposed to go this way?” I asked the police officer standing guard. As soon as the words left my lips, I realized I recognized him -- it was officer Baldy, the guy who’d gone through my stuff and told me I was a “pain in the ass.” He was in uniform, wearing a hat now.
“No, you gotta go across the street and around,” he said.
I started to cross the street, then looked back at him, amused. It was like The Wizard of Oz or something, where you wake up from your bad dream and all the same damned people are there.
Baldy winked at me. “I remember you,” he said, assuring me that it wasn’t all a dream.
I pointed back at him, straight at his face, and smiled defiantly. “Yeah,” I said. I hope he read into the subtext.
I never did look at his nametag.
The police were holding our things in a temporary office they’d set up just for the occasion. I say temporary because it was a trailer, and the directions explicitly said it would only be open until Thursday. Just a further indication that everything we were going through had been planned out in advance.
The line outside the trailer was about fifty people long, and it was like a small reunion of sorts. I said hello to various people I’d been inside with, while volunteers passed around a box of fruit. Once again, though, the police had found a way to screw us -- the line moved at a glacial pace, and it took me about two hours to get to the front of it. Mora fared even worse -- it took her seven hours. I heard that one guy, exasperated at waiting so long, pounded on the trailer’s window with his fist and inadvertently broke it. He then ran away, as a horde of cops chased him down and arrested him again. Sucks to be that guy.
Mora appeared, having been alerted by my lawyer that I was out. I was very happy and relieved to see her. She had a sandwich for me, which I only ate part of, as I was feeling a little queasy. She asked why I hadn’t called -- I reminded her that the police still had my phone. Pietri materialized, having been released about an hour after me, and we pulled him into the line with us, sparing him a long wait.
As we reached the front of the line, Sharif arrived and told me that he’d heard the police were getting people to sign their stuff out before they were able to survey their possessions, only to find things missing. But by then, they’d already signed for it, essentially negating their ability to make any claim that items were missing. I, of course, had nothing legibly written on my voucher anyway, so it wouldn’t have taken much for them to take something with impunity. I was just hoping I’d get my camera back, as it was the only one we could get our hands on. And it was a rental anyway.
I finally reached the front, where indeed they asked me to sign for my possessions before I could look at them.
“How do I know all of my stuff is in there?”
“I can’t give it to you until you sign,” the officer told me.
“But I don’t know what I’m signing for,” I told him.
“Everything was written on your voucher, though, right?”
“Well, there’s really nothing on it,” I told him.
“But it’s on our copy.” A beat. “Look, if they wrote it down, it should be in there.”
The cops were leery of all the accusations flying around, and he obviously knew exactly what I was worrying about. But he wasn’t giving me any other options. So I signed for it. Fortunately, nothing was missing or broken. Not even my palm pilot was damaged, despite Baldy’s best efforts.
Mora and I took the camera and headed immediately up to Madison Square Garden to see if anything was going on. I was filthy, and exhausted, but it was Thursday afternoon and Bush would be speaking soon. I had heard from some of the guys inside that Anarchists were planning on hurling Molotov Cocktails at the barricades during his speech. Wouldn’t want to miss that.
We camped out in the second floor of Nathan’s Hot Dogs, which has a great view of MSG’s 7th Avenue façade. But after just a few minutes, we realized that it was the two of us and a room full of cops. There were two other regular guys there, but from our brief conversation with them, we instantly ascertained that they were undercover agents, as one of them kicked off a conversation with me by asking, “hey man, do you know where any protest groups are gathering tonight?” Real slick, 5-0.
One cop came over to look out the window, standing right next to my chair. I decided just to ask his advice.
“Hey man. Are we cool here, or are we gonna be in the wrong place at the wrong time?” I asked.
He looked down at me, happy that I obviously wasn’t gonna be any trouble. “If I were you, I wouldn’t be here,” he said.
It was all I needed to hear. After forty hours in jail, there was just no way I was going back that quickly. At least not without a shower and a change of clothes. Mora and I packed up our gear and left as quickly as possible. From what I hear, we didn’t miss anything anyway.
No part of the experience was particularly traumatic in any specific way. I don’t fancy myself a cry-baby, and I would never say that I was the victim of any sort of police brutality, or that I was ever afraid for my life or my physical well-being. On a microscopic level, there was nothing remarkable or scary about it.
On a macro level, however, everything changes, and the experience becomes a far more terrifying glimpse into the state of affairs in our country.
In essence, the Republican Party threw a bash at New York’s expense (I heard the city lost millions on the convention), and arrested anyone who might rain on their parade in any way. They even arrested people standing near people who might rain on their parade. Then they illegally held those people as long as possible, to make sure the party was over before the trouble-makers got out. They tricked their victims into accepting a bogus deal on the way out, and then, somehow, got the media to misrepresent what had happened or ignore it altogether.
We have seen societies where leaders simply arrested anyone with a dissenting voice, without any regard for written laws or judicial sensibility. As the world’s prominent human right’s activist, America has always pointed its moral finger at these societies. On the other hand, we have collectively accepted that America sometimes has to break its own rules for the common good. At last check, Manuel Noriega has been held a lot more than forty hours without a trial. We all regret the Japanese internment camps of the 1940’s, but the nation as a whole survived, chalking the event up to bad judgment at the time.
But there have to be limits on what we should accept, and the tipping point comes when the “common good” itself is redefined. In the case of A31, the “common good” was not America, but rather the Right Wing contingent of America, who represent slightly less than half the voting population. And if the definition of the common good can be halved that easily, who is to say that it cannot be quartered, or worse, just as quickly?
When dictatorships are destroyed, it usually happens through direct -- and often bloody -- opposition. So it would only stand to reason that the demise of democracy would be the opposite: a slow and quiet decay from the inside. The crumble of American democracy probably won’t come with a bloody battle or a military coup. But it will may well come with a quiet yet consistent reframing of the rules, an endless remapping the lines in the sand, pushing democracy further and further back, one law at a time, until it simply isn’t a democracy anymore. If you throw a frog into boiling water, it will jump around in angry protest, but if you put a frog in cool water and slowly heat it up, the frog will die without complaint. Politicians understand this.
What we saw on August 31st was a small redrawing of the lines in the sand. It went from the common acceptance that a few individuals -- terrorists, enemies of the state, etc. -- can be detained without the privilege of civil rights, to a new era in which thousands of law-abiding Americans can be similarly detained if those in power feel it’s beneficial to their political interests.
If I were a Republican, I wouldn’t be ashamed to hear about what happened in New York on August 31st. I wouldn’t change my political views, or start going to Democratic Meet-ups. But I would be enraged.
I’d be enraged to hear that my party -- the Party of Lincoln -- was responsible for this kind of un-American behavior. I would be enraged at Mayor Bloomberg, for disgracing himself with his flagrant disregard for the Bill of Rights. I would be enraged to know that every time a speaker got up at the convention and talked about defending our freedom, they were just a few short blocks away from nearly two thousand needlessly imprisoned Americans. And I would be enraged at the media for not telling me about it at all.
As a Democrat, I appreciate that Chuck Schumer came down to Central Booking, if in fact he did. But where is the follow-up? Surely, a man with as much clout as Senator Schumer could get a press conference together, to tell the world what happened in New York. But he didn’t. He came down, held a candle, and went home to deal with other issues. I still love ya, Chuck. But that didn’t’ help.
I’m sure that there are those who would call me un-American -- one of the ‘Hate America First-ers’ -- for criticizing our police and our Corrections officers. Unless they themselves have been to prison, I don’t want to hear it. Because the truth is, I love America. What I hate is un-American behavior inside our borders. What I saw on August 31st was distinctly un-American. And that scares me.
(c) 2004 Joel Viertel