I had heard rumors of this Pier 57 that was being reserved by the city for a potentially huge number of people being arrested. I had wanted to get a look at it. I guess I hadn't been too careful about what I wished for.
As we pulled into the garage, backed up, and pulled in again, the driver shut the engine off and waited. It quickly became very hot which meant that our prison bus had actually been air conditioned. The irony of being hauled off to jail in air conditioned comfort. I counted my blessings. This could, after all, have happened in the middle of a sweltering day. I finished counting rather quickly. The driver got out and was replaced by a new guy who turned the bus back on and moved forward about two feet and then turned it back off. I figured it was some form of job specialization that he was trained for. But apparently he hadn't been trained for using the driver cage because he somehow got stuck in it. He became very agitated and started beating on the metal bars. It was a very strange sight for all of us to see as we sat with our hands behind our backs, many of us now in a great deal of pain from the tightness.
As we continued to pull in further, I saw long lines of obviously overheated people, lines that didn't seem to be going anywhere. The whole thing had this refugee flavor to it. I saw a girl passed out on the ground, the people around her bending over to try and help. The police went about their business.
We were told to get off the bus and ordered to move towards the back of the complex. As we got off the bus a bunch of people in a fenced in area on the side began to cheer wildly, a noise that spread all throughout. Even the miserable people on line joined in. It's impossible to adequately explain what an impact that kind of reception has on people who don't know what to expect and who are scared to death either outwardly or deep inside. It injected some much needed life back into us. And it was something I know I'll never forget.
As we were led to the back area, our bags were taken from us and put in a huge pile. We were then told to get inside an enormous pen which was completely empty. It seemed way too big for us. The first thing I did after getting inside was to walk all the way to the back, just to check out the scenery and enjoy a taste of solitude. I expected to be yelled at for trying this but nobody seemed to care. I saw a sliver of the Hudson River through a door in the back and an office where police were doing some unending amount of paperwork.
The place was filling up - fast. And as I was getting my bearings, I noticed a young woman who had one of her arms free, at least for a moment. She had managed to get loose! I approached her and asked if she could do me a huge favor and surreptitiously snap some photos with my digital camera that still hadn't been seized. She agreed and while a number of the pictures came out blurry, we were able to get some good ones and capture the overall look of the place.
After a half hour or so, a line formed in the back for people to use the portable bathrooms. I saw this as an opportunity to get some phone calls out and also to get a temporary reprieve from the intense pain that the cuffs were now causing. After a twenty minute wait, the line was reclassified as female only and the rest of us had to wait on a new and longer line that had started in the front. But even worse, they had started to search people before going to the bathrooms. However, they hadn't yet figured out what they were supposed to do after they searched someone. It was like watching evolution play out in front of you. At first they would just let you in without searching at all. Then they would search but not take anything. Then they realized that there were certain things (like phones and cameras) that they should take. Fortunately I was able to get in before they reached that stage of development.
From the bathroom, I called a voicemail system and left myself a message that I could retrieve later and play on the radio. I also found a crevice in the bathroom that allowed me to look through the fence and into the front of the compound. I could see people lined up waiting to get in (probably the same people we saw from the bus who we had unfairly cut in front of). I then thought, what the hell, why not take a couple of thirty second movies of the same shot and try and capture any noise. As luck would have it, just when I started to do this, a chant began at the far end of the compound. Shouts of "Let us go! Let us go!" quickly spread until the walls were shaking with the noise of a thousand people demanding their freedom. The digital camera didn't have the best microphone in the world but I'm lucky to have gotten what I did. I'll be forever haunted by that sound.
After getting out of the bathroom, I noticed that the police evolution had taken a turn for the worse. Previously, everyone who went to the bathroom came back into the main pen uncuffed. Now they had decided that they needed to cuff us again. So I got recuffed even though there were lots of people now walking around without handcuffs. I was beginning to think our captors really didn't know what they were doing. They had also decided to search people leaving the bathroom (who knows what you could have smuggled out of there) and take anything they disapproved of. So that was it for my phones and camera. (I gave up the one in my sock when they specifically asked if I had any other phones. Lying to cops is never a good idea.)
Someone once said that the first obligation of any prisoner is to escape. Over the next twelve or so hours, that's what we all tried to do in that huge pen. Of course, physical escape was out of the question - there seemed to be as many cops as prisoners at times. But we could escape by making this as pleasant an experience as we could. So we sang and we chanted and we tried to act like we were in some massive cocktail party without the cocktails. I met so many interesting and intelligent people that night. We talked and debated about world events, politics, art, space exploration, you name it. All the while people were looking out for anyone in trouble, those who were freaking out at the confinement, those who were hungry or sick. We had to because our captors sure as hell weren't going to. They were busy doing their incessant paperwork, stapling bits of paper to each other, writing things down in triplicate. Forget computers, forget typewriters even. These guys were still trying to master the concept of carbon copies. I believe that through our efforts, wedid manage to escape in a sense. And I think our captors were the ones who were truly trapped in a world of orders and inefficient time-wasting that they couldn't understand, much less question.
The people there had been captured in a variety of locations. There were those who found themselves on 16th Street at the wrong time. There was another group who had been at Herald Square when the netting went up. Another from Fifth Avenue somewhere. More from the area of the Garden and also from 42nd Street. But the ones that moved me the most were those who were captured near Ground Zero.
Earlier that day, I had been filming and recording the beginnings of a march down by the World Trade Center PATH station. A number of demonstrators had gathered for a march organized by the War Resisters League. It was a weird scene with equal numbers of demonstrators, media filming the demonstrators, and cops watching the whole thing. Nobody was really doing anything; people were just standing around with their signs waiting for something to happen. I wondered at the time what all the fuss was. So a couple of hundred people had gathered in front of a train station to voice opposition to the war and to the current government. Big deal. The police presence was so out of proportion as to be comical. Scooters, vans, buses, semiautomatic weapons, helicopters, and that fucking Fuji spy blimp monitoring what everyone was doing. Not to mention the number of cops who were filming everyone's faces. It made me uneasy as the police presence throughout the city had already done.
I'm not one of these people who believe we live in a fascist regime. I think that's an insult to the many millions who have suffered under true oppression and horrors that we can only imagine. That said, the technology and mindset that I was witnessing being implemented all around us would be such an asset to any society where freedom was the enemy. What the Stalinists or Nazis could have done with all of those digital camcorders! Or the regimes of Pinochet and Ceausescu that were obsessed with knowing which among the populace were the "traitors." I tried to understand why such meticulous record keeping would be a boon to a society that wasn't trying to monitor its citizens for signs of dissent.
But none of that was what made the Ground Zero event so disturbing. As the march was preparing to leave, I asked one of the coordinators if they would be passing Union Square. They said they would so I decided to take the subway up there and meet them as they approached. That way I would get more material from the park before their arrival. After all, this was basically just a bunch of people walking uptown (on the sidewalk, not even the street) so I figured there would be plenty of time to film them. Throughout the afternoon I had been wondering in the back of my mind why I hadn't run into them after that. And it was at Pier 57 that I found out what had happened. Shortly after the march began, the police guided them onto a side street. They then did the orange netting maneuver and arrested nearly everyone I had seen earlier. These people had never even tried to march down the middle of a street! They were walking in rows of two uptown on the sidewalks. It was unbelievable and the clearest evidence yet that individuals were being targeted just for expressing a point of view. These were some of the people I had seen standing in line when we arrived. Apparently they had been forced to do that for the entire day.
The conditions at Pier 57 were squalid, to use a polite term. There were signs near the ceiling that listed all kinds of chemicals and oils that apparently had been stored there. I was told the place used to be a bus terminal and apparently these had been rather leaky buses. The floor had all kinds of crap on it. My pants had black stains on them after sitting down for a few minutes and I made the mistake of putting my hands on the ground while sitting so now they were almost solid black on the palms. As the hours went by, it became more difficult to remain standing so more and more of us took on a grimy appearance from our contact with the floor. When, towards morning, they finally allowed us two apples each, we had a difficult choice: starvation or ingesting a bit of filth from our stained hands. I didn't see anybody refuse the apples.
As the process dragged on, we would occasionally get to communicate with our arresting officer through the chain link fence we were all stuck behind. We would be asked for information like our current address, height, weight, etc. You got the feeling that this meant something was about to happen. But of course it didn't. Not for a while.
Hours later we got to wait in a line, each of us along with our arresting officer, to have our bags and pockets searched. I realized then that each cop had to wait in this line for every person they had taken into custody. I know there were at least five of us that had been taken by the same guy at 16th Street. It's possible he could have arrested more there or someplace else. It seemed such an amazing waste of time to have all of these guys waiting in line over and over again and you could see in many of their faces that they were about as frustrated as we were with this insane system they had set up. But I stopped short of feeling sorry for them.
We met up with a woman behind a desk who had my officer fill out a form indicating what was in my bag as well as how much money I had on me. This is where I found out that you're allowed to keep up to $100 on your person but no more. I tried to find out what the logic behind this was since you couldn't really buy anything while behind bars anyway. Nobody had any idea, that was just the way it was. Par for the course.
They then moved us into the smaller side pens that we had first seen upon entering, the ones where people cheered the new arrivals. They kept the males on one side and the females on the other. I observed the pen getting more and more full until it was almost unbearable. There was no room to sit or lie down and people were starting to lose their patience. All kinds of chants were started and people began to bang on the gates. The noise obviously began to get to the cops who said they would cuff us all again if it didn't stop. After everyone yet again subdued their frustration, they started to let us use the section that the portable bathrooms were in which gave us a little more space. At some point, we were given sandwiches in plastic bags. In actuality, these were two slices of soggy white bread with a tiny square of cheese food in the middle. Despite being on the verge of starvation, I could barely down one of the two I was given. There were also sandwiches that had a single slice of what I was later told was rancid bologna - it made me sick even looking at them. There were two "soy" sandwiches for our entire group. Later I heard that people who asked for soy were given bologna instead. Anyone who was vegetarian or vegan really didn't make out too well.
After this went on for a while, we were all marched back to the big pen. This was pretty weird since we had to march in between two long rows of police, almost like we were being honored. It was already well into dawn and I happened to notice a copy of the Daily News under a cop's arm. "1,000 Arrested," it said. They were the first words from the outside world we had seen on what had happened to us. This really was going to be history.
They ordered us all to sit in rows and we lined the entire pen up. I never did find out what that was supposed to be all about. After a half hour of this, people started to get impatient and uncomfortable and eventually everyone was just standing around like before. Waiting. Eventually some of us tried to lie on the floor. I saw more than a few using the disgusting sandwiches as pillows.
More time passed and names started to be called. Since we had never been told what to expect, we all figured this was the final step of the ordeal. When someone's name was called, they were escorted out and everyone applauded. I began to plan my sleep schedule for Wednesday so I could still cover something later in the day. This all really sucked but at least there were two days of the RNC I could still report on.
My name was called and I made my exit and said some goodbyes. The rule was that everyone leaving had to be cuffed again. I was hoping this would be the last time. I was led with four others down the corridor towards where the bus had dropped us off. We were waiting for another bus now. I asked where we were going to be headed next. "You're going to the Tombs," one of the cops standing around said. "And you're going to be there for a long time."
Well, that was a bit unsettling. Of course, we hadn't really been given a single bit of accurate information since we were taken into custody so I took it with a grain of salt at the time. I was more interested in the amazing scene that was right in front of me. Dozens and dozens of cops were sitting at rows of desks and nearly every one of them was asleep. What exactly were they doing to these people? How long were they forcing them to work? What kind of bizarre paperwork triathlons were they being made to endure? And how were any of these uniformed cops helping to make the city safe in this condition, as we had been continuously reminded in the weeks leading up to the convention? Again, I stopped short of feeling sorry for them. But it seemed like such a waste on so many levels.
Our bus arrived. It was one of those blue and orange corrections buses that you sometimes see driving through the city. I always wondered what the phrase "New York's Boldest" painted on each of them was referring to. Were the prisoners the bold ones? Or the bus drivers? I talked with my four fellow detainees about this and was happy to see that we all still had some of our senses of humor intact.
I had the good fortune of sitting right above the tire which left me with hardly any space at all. It's also especially hard to get into a comfortable position with your hands cuffed behind your back. But I did the best I could, as we all did. Some were lucky enough to get "Hannibal Lecter" seats that were enclosed within cages in the front of the bus. Scary as it was, we were still in this together and we had a bit of strength because of that.
As the bus pulled away from Pier 57, I saw a number of demonstrators across the street who had signs and were waving. Throughout it all, people had come to this spot to show support and let the detainees know that they weren't forgotten. It may not seem like much from the outside but from our perspective it was the best thing we had seen since the nightmare began.