Crossing Sixth Avenue

Image courtesy of newyorkdailyphoto.com.

On June 13, I became one of the more than 7,000 people who have been arrested as part of the Occupy movement. I was surprised to find myself part of this group: although I had been at a political march, I hadn’t intended to commit civil disobedience or otherwise risk arrest.

The march was a casserole, a style of protest recently seen in Chile and Canada, in which people make noise by banging on pots, pans, and other kitchen utensils. Casseroles had been occurring for about a month in New York in solidarity with the ongoing student strike in Montreal. The New York marches highlighted issues of educational access: student debt, tuition hikes, cuts to public funding of universities. As a teacher, those issues are important to me, and I was also drawn to the casseroles because I appreciate the gesture of converting the tools of domestic labor into the cacophonous instruments of protest. As someone who has cooked a lot for Occupy Wall Street, it felt appropriate. This was my third casserole, and the first time I took a friend.

Benin and I showed up at Washington Square Park a little after 8 PM. There were between 200 and 300 people milling around and listening to speeches. In addition to the usual culinary noisemakers, we had a couple of drums and a cowbell, and some young women were handing out snacks. Around 8:30, Benin and I moved with the crowd to leave the park at the northwest corner. Maybe a dozen protesters entered the street against traffic, which was stopped at the light. Benin and I crossed Sixth Avenue and turned south at the gutter. After about three steps, my legs were swept from under me. I was on the ground, my glasses knocked off, two buttons torn from my shirt, my knee hurting. I didn’t see who had done this, but I heard, “He’s on the ground” and “We’ve got one. We only need one.” Someone bent over me and shouted, “It’s over.” Another voice said, “Just take it easy.” Someone else said, “Put your hands behind your back.” I recovered my glasses from the ground with some trepidation, announcing that I was doing so. Although I was rattled, “It’s over” struck me as laughable. “You’ve got me in the wrong movie,” I wanted to say.

As I was handcuffed and guided into a van, people from the march asked for my name. I indicated that Benin would give out my information. A man yelled, “We love you, Greg!” I was thinking about the absurdity of being tackled by three cops for crossing a street. As a longtime activist, it always seemed possible that I might one day be arrested, but I had assumed it would be for something a little more heroic, or at least illegal. Benin trailed the van for a while as it circled Washington Square, and when I scooted over to look out the window, the officer in the back, named Antwi, asked me what I was doing. When I said I saw my friend, who would be calling my wife (who was home with our daughter), he treated me to a lecture on family duty and then, improbably, on Martin Luther King. “You’re not following the King route. You’re going the Malcolm X route. You’re engaging in violence,” he said. When I said that I didn’t see how I committed any violence, he responded, “You didn’t listen. You didn’t follow directions.”

The two police officers, who were usually stationed in the Bronx, got lost looking for the seventh precinct, on Pitt Street on the Lower East Side. When we finally arrived, it looked to me like a cross between an upstate pizza parlor and a strip mall office in the Midwest—maybe a tax return outfit. As I was checked in, Antwi said I probably would receive a DAT (Desk Appearance Ticket) and be able to leave in a couple of hours. He didn’t mention the charges, but I assumed (correctly, it turned out) that they were disorderly conduct, a convenient catch-all.

Over the next hour about twelve more protesters, maybe ten men and two women, were brought in. People had different ways of dealing with the stress. One young man did a lot of push-ups. He said people often think he’s an undercover cop because of his muscles and Oakley sunglasses. A man wearing a dress shirt and trousers immediately started meditating; he avoided eye contact and put his finger to his lips when someone addressed him. A young environmentalist from Texas talked about Guy Debord, and a Goth kid said he was really hoping for a DAT, to make an Occupy after-party.

Some of us had more experience with arrest. Julian had been an antiglobalization activist for over a decade, and Jack Boyle had been arrested on December 17 on criminal trespass charges for entering, with other protesters, including clergy, an empty lot owned by Trinity Church. Jack, who is HIV positive, had been on a hunger and medication strike for three weeks to shame Trinity into dropping the charges. Tom, a 20-year-old who lives with his parents in Westchester, was also up for more serious charges, his from May Day. He was furious to have been charged with resisting arrest now. “This time I didn’t resist!” (I have changed the names of the protesters and prisoners, except Jack, who is publicly identified with the movement.)

After a while, a hipster in coke-bottle glasses came into the cell. People asked if he was with the protest, and he made the universal gesture for smoking pot. Nevertheless, after learning about our situation, he launched into a discussion of Occupy and Adbusters, frustrating several protesters by insisting, good-naturedly, that Occupy is a brand, and that parodies cannot separate themselves from the media they criticize.

I found the hours sharing a cell with ten other protesters challenging. There was a lot of anger and taunting of cops, which mostly seemed counterproductive, and occasionally heated arguments broke out, once over whether someone who got beat up should ask for medical attention or forego it to expedite his release.

At 1:30 AM I was told that because I have an out-of-state driver’s license, I would have to go through processing at Central Booking, known as the Tombs. Jack got very angry on my behalf, and Julian explained that I should expect a trip to Central Booking to last twelve to twenty-four hours, though it could possibly stretch into a second day.

There were about a dozen protesters waiting outside the jail when I came out to be transferred. They started applauding. Throughout the whole process I was very aware of Occupy’s support as well as the help of the National Lawyer’s Guild, which offers pro bono representation to people arrested while protesting. Knowing they had my back made the whole process much easier.

Three officers drove me in a squad car to the Tombs. After learning that I was a fellow New York City employee, they became oddly jocular as they racked up overtime on my behalf. Waiting for an elevator to take us inside, I watched as they emptied the bullets from their guns. “Don’t worry,” Officer Best deadpanned. “This isn’t the execution wall. That comes later.”

The Tombs lives up to its Gothic name. I was taken down several flights of stairs and through winding, empty passages. There was a lot of standing around at checkpoints. I had a retinal scan and another set of mug shots taken. I also had a perfunctory interview with an EMT: I stood at the top of a flight of stairs while he sat twenty feet away, behind a desk, while a zombie show played on a small TV.

I got to my cell around 4 AM, where fourteen men were sprawled out, thirteen black men and one Latino. This was an older group, mostly in their thirties and forties. (Later, I saw a lot of near-adolescents.) I sat down next to Will, a guy in sunglasses. When I told him I was in for protesting, he said he spent a couple of days at Zuccotti, but couldn’t handle sleeping outside. The dominant personality in the cell was the Raconteur, who told a series of fantastic tales (snowboarding off a cliff in Tahoe, being with three naked girls from Dallas but too stoned to make the most of it). Unfortunately, the Raconteur took me into his act. “Those are expensive shoes—he’s got some money at home.” “He looks like Bernie Goetz.” “His hoodie is Nike too—I always know when people have money.” I sank into myself and practiced an abstracted stare, which came surprisingly naturally. The Raconteur’s last taunt was, “Man this dude is too cool—doesn’t he know we’re monsters in here?”

It turned out that the offenses of my cellmates included: riding a bike on the sidewalk; riding a bike against traffic; public urination; transporting fireworks for personal use from Pennsylvania; smoking a joint or carrying a small amount of pot; one case of dealing. There was a strong sense that being black was an aggravating circumstance in these arrests. I did meet a couple of parolees—not sure for what—and one guy in my cell was up for armed robbery, but on this occasion he had been arrested for possessing pot, and shared his scorn for the detectives who had wasted their time on him.

The dynamic in the cell changed for me after about an hour. The Raconteur and an older man named Taylor were talking about Harlem. Asked where in Harlem he lived, the Raconteur replied “All of it!” Taylor said he lived at 140th and Eighth Ave, at which point I broke in to say I teach a couple of blocks away from there, at City College. Taylor said, “See, this guy is cool. Why are you giving him a hard time?” The Raconteur changed my nickname from “Player” to “Teach.” He suggested I tell my students about him.

Around 6 AM, there was a call for morning court appearance, and six people went upstairs. Thirty minutes later, two more protesters arrived in the cell, the Westchester kid and Jack Boyle. We started talking, and soon other prisoners joined in our conversation about the protests and police violence. I could see how jail works as a place for consciousness-raising. You have shared conditions, a common enemy, and ready examples of how the system works. There was a lot of cooperation among us, too. People shared food and legal advice (some of it dubious), negotiated cramped sitting and sleeping space, tried to get the guards’ attention if someone had a problem, and helped each other clean up.

There was a free phone in the cell, and I called my wife a couple of times. Overhearing other prisoners’ conversations was a window onto how the damage of arrest spills outward. The man up for armed robbery, which carries seven to fifteen years in prison, yelled at a significant other about the triviality of the new offense. Tom’s father kicked him out of the house after hearing he had been arrested again while still awaiting trial. Tom hung up on his mom when she told him he needs to be more conscientious. “Have more conscience—I wish I didn’t think so much!”

I talked more with Jack in Central than I could at Precinct. He described his four previous arrests, over the past fifteen years; his first was at a Matthew Shepherd protest in the late nineties. Jack also made a point of asking how I was feeling. After we spoke about how arrests are an intimidation tactic, he said, “Not to offend, but are you intimidated?” I responded that I was, on two different levels. Not only had I seen how easy it is for the police to detain people who are simply at a protest, but the experience was giving me a concrete sense of a landscape filled with prisons, each as sturdy as the Tombs, that I’d only vaguely imagined before.

After the 6 AM call for bail hearings, no one got to go upstairs for a long time. It was 4 PM when I heard my name called, right after Jack’s, and I felt like Bob Barker had just chosen me on The Price is Right. I walked in a chain gang of four other prisoners, following a second gang of six up several flights of stairs. The guards repeatedly told me to move faster, but I couldn’t because by this point my knee was hurting pretty badly.

Upstairs, there were twenty people waiting, some of whom had been there since morning. I talked to an older man, probably in his fifties, who said the average wait time was about three hours, but no matter what, we should be out by night. He started talking to three young men, and a disagreement swirled around whether he should have run when caught with a joint in Central Park. “That’s youth talking,” he shrugged. “This way, I know it ends here.” His Legal Aid attorney reported back that the prosecutor’s offer was three months in jail. I felt angry for him, but he was stoical and ironic. He explained that he had a decade-old felony conviction for selling marijuana. He was glad the prosecutor didn’t ask for six months, thought he would likely get a month, and said he would be OK with that.

Pretty soon I met with a National Lawyer’s Guild Attorney, who heard my side of the arrest and explained that I would almost certainly be offered an ACD (adjournment contemplating dismissal), which meant the charges would be dropped if I wasn’t arrested again within the next six months. He said whether to accept it was my call, and that fighting the charge would not expose me to much—maybe a little community service. Although I felt confident the allegation that I was blocking traffic would not stand up in court, I was tired and wanted to avoid the hassle of a court date, and told him I would take the ACD. As I was called to the courtroom and said goodbye, one of the kids up for dealing called out, “This dude is our protester. Don’t fuck with him!” It hardly seemed necessary, but I appreciated it.

Entering the courtroom was passing into a world of civility and decorum, with mahogany pews, men and women in suits, and lots of natural light. The waiting bench for prisoners was made from the same wood, signaling, I supposed, our equal participation in the affair. But on the inside of the squat, elegant barrier that separated our bench from the rest of the court, prisoners had scratched notes from the Tombs, reminders of what structure this space sits above, what it depends upon and reinforces.

That night, over Chinese takeout with my in-laws, I battled two incongruous feelings. One was something akin to euphoria, a sense that the police overreaction suggested that the movement’s moment of possibility hasn’t ended. The other was survivor’s guilt, for the poor souls in the Tombs for another night and for the people this system has its hooks into deeper.

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