2600 Editor Emmanuel Goldstein was arrested along with 1200 others in the streets of New York on August 31. Like many, he wasn't a part of the demonstrations that were taking place but was filming and recording what was happening from a city sidewalk. This is his story of what happened that day along with audio, video, and pictures.
The shock of what happened on August 31 is still wearing off for those of us unfortunate enough to be caught up in what can only be described as a desperate act by law enforcement. It seems silly to say that these were traumatizing events when there's so much more going on in the world - and in our own backyards - that's far worse. We were lucky, after all. We had the whole world watching and we had our friends outside who never stopped trying to get us out. We had the National Lawyers Guild working around the clock. And of course, we had lots of company since there were so many of us stuck together in one place. But despite all of this - and I think I speak for the majority here - what we went through shook us to the core and will take quite a bit of time to get out of our systems. If you were there then you probably already understand this. If you weren't, then this is an opportunity to share one perspective of what happened.
Now when I say August 31, I refer to the date that 1200 or so people were swept off the streets of Manhattan by the police, myself included. There were many others who were snatched on other days (the total being 1821 at last count) but August 31 has come to represent the enormity of the operation so that's how I'll always refer to it.
This was two days after the massive march through the streets of New York where up to half a million people walked past Madison Square Garden in opposition to the Republican National Convention (or, more specifically, to George W. Bush). Oddly enough, the city had managed to turn what everyone had understood was to be a peaceful event into some sort of confrontation by refusing to allow a rally on the Great Lawn of Central Park. But it all worked out for the most part: The march was a great success and lots of people came to the park to rally anyway since that's one of those rights many people believe they still have. But the park turnout was nothing like the numbers that would have shown up if there wasn't the cloud of potential trouble hanging overhead.
There were all kinds of demonstrations, marches, and acts of civil disobedience in New York throughout the week. You would think that al Qaeda was behind them all with the heavy artillery and military presence that was brought into the city. This alone was enough to shake up a lot of people and make them seriously reconsider standing out in any way. Which I suppose was the purpose. After all, not one of the tens of thousands of armed cops and commandoes could have stopped a plane from flying into a building or prevented a hidden bomb from blowing up. What they could and did do was send a powerful message that this city was now an armed camp and that those with the arms would do as they pleased and the rest of us would just have to deal with it. For many New Yorkers, it was like living under occupation.
But the message didn't get through to everyone. Especially not down at Union Square Park, where people insisted on being themselves despite all the warnings not to. They held rallies, stood on boxes shouting out to whoever would listen, got into passionate arguments with others, meditated, played music, sold literature, signed people up to vote, and never stopped. This was the place where New Yorkers gathered after September 11 to remember the victims and pray for the future without all the rhetoric and flag waving. It was the place you didn't see on television. In moments of crisis, people just tend to gravitate here.
August 31 was one of those days. The park was full. I remember watching one really heated exchange between some right wing religious people (who seemed to be saying that George W. Bush was the son of God) and just about everybody else in the park. I had to give these religious types credit for speaking their minds, even though I was convinced they had left them behind somewhere. And what was striking here was that despite the passion and emotion, everyone was able to handle it. Nobody was chased away, nobody got physical. The cops, for some reason, stayed far away from the arguments. But they were everywhere else... watching, filming, planning something. It made everyone who was aware of them uneasy. Which again was probably the purpose.
I was there to document the history that was being made. I had a mini-DV video camera, a Marantz tape deck that was strapped around my neck, and a digital camera that could also make thirty second movies. I was getting some good stuff too, not counting all the arguing. There was a tension growing in the crowd as police started implementing strange policies, like lining one of the exits with dozens of cops and forcing everyone coming and going to walk between them and not around them. One man got into an argument with a captain who told him to get moving. When the man asked for the captain's shield number, he was arrested. Just like that. The uneasy truce was definitely beginning to crumble. And, as any decent reporter will tell you, that's a situation you don't walk away from.
The police continued with this tactic for a while longer, telling people they had to move in one direction or another for no reason in particular. One of the many musicians was threatened with arrest for being in a spot that was supposedly too close to the pathway that somebody might have to walk down to get to the subway (which is almost exactly how the officer phrased it). It was complete nonsense as that was the exact spot that people play in every day. But the musician defused the situation and packed up his stuff. He wasn't the only one. I saw a guy who was distributing anti-Bush literature quickly throwing it all into a box and scurrying away after being threatened with arrest. It was weird seeing this kind of thing right in front of you and not on a TV program about some distant land where freedom is merely a concept. And it also showed me that the people here were not in any way looking for trouble. Unfair as these "orders" were, they just kept on complying.
But then the marching band started to play. And when a marching band starts to play, you naturally gravitate over to it. And that's what many people did, myself included. They sounded great and festive. So I filmed them for a while and then went off to look for something else. After a few minutes I saw that the marching band had actually started to march! They were heading north at Union Square East and apparently the police hadn't stopped them. It was hard to imagine how they could have gotten through so many cops without simply being allowed through. People naturally began to join the march. I started filming, not knowing what this was all about but it most definitely had a positive vibe to it.
The march was then diverted onto 16th Street as police on scooters started driving through the crowd beeping wildly. 16th Street began to fill up with people, both on the street and sidewalk. Apart from police driving their scooters at high speeds down the sidewalk and one person running across a parked car, the mood remained calm. A woman was walking with her dog, who was as relaxed as the marching humans.
At the intersection of 16th and Irving Place, I saw what the police had done. They had cleverly parked all of their Vespas across the street so that nobody could get by. Of course, a rampaging mob would have had no trouble at all tossing those little Italian scooters to the ground and continuing on their way. But this was a slow moving, orderly procession. They simply turned around and started to head back towards the park. That's when the realization of what had just happened hit. The road had been blocked on both ends. Everyone was now trapped.
Apparently, somebody at the police department discovered this year that orange construction netting could be used to control crowds. They would pick a location and unravel this netting for the entire width of the street so nobody could get by. That's what they had done on 16th Street. (Never mind that in this case nobody was even trying to get past the scooters in the first place.) Right after they unrolled it on the Irving Place side, a cop announced to half a dozen of us within earshot that accredited press could get out if they left now. Then he immediately disappeared. Even if anybody had taken him up on that offer, they wouldn't have made it past the cop holding the orange netting who wasn't one of the people within earshot of that announcement. Not to mention the "accredited" thing which I was soon to find out all about.
The one thing you learn when you're part of the press is that you don't run away from a story. This was obviously something worth covering and, since I wasn't even in the street, there wasn't any law that I was breaking. I never thought that I was in any sort of danger. There was nothing to worry about as this was clearly not a violent crowd. Not to mention the fact that there was no order to disperse given to anybody, whether they were on the street or the sidewalk. So I continued to film and record, as did many others.
There were certainly people there who intended to get arrested or at least engage in some form of civil disobedience. The people in the very front of the march sat down in the middle of the street which seemed a bit pointless since the street was already being blocked by the cops. I counted about a dozen people who did this. But within a couple of minutes they all got up and went onto the sidewalk for some reason. Meanwhile there were several hundred others milling around on what was now a double dead end street.
The cops began screaming at people to stay on the sidewalk while they occupied the street. OK, whatever. It seemed to make them scream less so people obliged. I had no desire to move into the street but I did have a desire to capture as many images and as much sound as I could. This was riveting.
But then things started to go badly. I'd seen this happen before. Police would pick a person, either at total random or for a reason that only they could grasp, and charge at them, grabbing them off the sidewalk and throwing them face down onto the street. This didn't do much to ingratiate the crowd but people remarkably kept their cool, perhaps because they were transfixed with terror. I saw about three or four of these "grabs" before my video camera's battery died. I cursed my lack of preparedness but was able to catch a couple of other instances on my digital camera's thirty second movie mode. And throughout it all, I still had sound. Being in radio, that was what really mattered to me.
Things were starting to get pretty scary and I wanted to recharge my battery and head uptown to cover whatever was happening at the Garden. Another part of me wanted to stay and see how this all played out. Then I heard a cop nearby saying that press could leave. I decided to go for it. "Back in," he growled before I could even show him any press ID. "You're not press," he said conclusively. I wondered what gave it away - the recorder, the video camera, maybe the hair? I had all kinds of witty retorts in mind but I chose instead to go to someone who seemed a little less pissed off with the world. I said I was with the press and he asked who I worked for. I told him: WBAI and Indymedia, both of which I had identification from. "Do you have an NYPD press card?" he asked. "No," I said, incredulously. NYPD press cards are only given to corporate media types, full time reporters who have beats and retirement plans. You also have to have a proven need to get behind police lines, which I didn't have any interest in doing. And what I was covering here wasn't even behind a police line. It was in the middle of a police circle. "Sorry," he said. I was apparently out of luck because I wasn't a full time, paid reporter at a big media outlet. Since I was a part time volunteer with a non commercial station who could never qualify for that magic NYPD card, I was now going to be treated as a criminal. I filed my first report with WBAI.
I've covered a good number of demonstrations and acts of civil disobedience over the years and I'd never seen anything go down quite like this. It was, in a word, bizarre. All of these people had been led down a street only to be captured with orange nets like a school of fish. Reporters, legal observers, people coming home from work, delivery boys, tourists. It didn't matter at all. If you were on this street without a pass from the NYPD, you were going away. And even with this knowledge, the people managed to remained calm. Everyone tried to comfort one another. After a while, even the police seemed to relax a bit. The diving into the crowd stopped. They kept telling us to sit down, then to stand up, over and over. I made some phone calls and got an SMS or two out so that people would know what was happening to me. I expected to be jumped upon at any moment for daring to communicate but there comes a point where you just don't care, especially if you believe you have every right to do what you're doing. I carefully put both of my phones into silent mode and hid one in my sock in case the one they expected to find got taken. For me the most important thing was to remain in contact and to record whatever I could. My video camera was now useless but the two tapes I had already made weren't. I hid them in a hard to find section of my backpack.
We had been there for nearly two hours at this point and dusk had settled in. In fact, the police had even brought in portable spotlights so they could see us all. That seemed a little too planned out for my tastes. I was aware that people were slowly disappearing on the eastern half of the block as the cops slowly processed everyone and took them someplace. My tape recorder was still rolling but I knew that wasn't going to last if it was spotted hanging around my neck. So I quietly stuffed it into my backpack and stuck the microphone through a hole that had been developing. Since it was getting dark and all of my equipment along with the bag was black, this was almost not visible. I then hung my backpack around my neck with the microphone right in my face. I was cuffed about five minutes later, my bag untouched.
Strange as it may seem, this was the most pleasant part of the whole ordeal. The police were almost friendly as they tied our hands behind our backs with thick plastic tie wraps. I don't even think these guys had been around when the streets were first blocked. Not that it mattered; there wasn't a damn thing any of them could do for us. They had their orders.
We all got asked if we had any weapons on us and then they fished around in our pockets for ID. They insisted on putting everyone's belongings into a plastic bag. They did this to my backpack and then put it down on the ground. I spent the next couple of minutes struggling to cut a hole in the plastic over the microphone while my hands were tied behind my back. As my tape ran out in the remaining half hour or so of sitting on the street, I was able to capture the sounds of activist cheerleading songs and, disturbingly, the ignored pleas of a woman whose handcuffs were on way too tight. You could see that it was cutting off her circulation but the pleasant cops didn't let that detract them from their job.
We then got to pose for several Polaroid pictures standing next to our arresting officers. Apparently this is how they make sure bags get back to the rightful owners, by attaching a picture to each bag and comparing them to the faces of the people who claim them. In the 1950's, this probably would have been considered cutting edge technology. After this was done, we were led to the end of the block where I got two surprises. One was seeing a couple of my friends, waving and shouting my name. I felt a wave of happiness, fear, and intense sadness all at once. I also was frustrated because I couldn't wave back with my hands tied behind my back. The other surprise was the vehicle we were being led to. It was a city bus which had, instead of the route number and destination, the words "Emergency. Call Police." flashing on the front. They actually had commandeered city buses.
One thing that's always amazed me about city buses is the way that they're able to negotiate narrow turns despite their extra length. It's a skill that bus drivers develop. The guy driving us was not a bus driver. We kept having to back up and try things again when it didn't work out the first time. I realized later that this would pretty much be the theme of the entire ordeal. But at least we had a police escort and our bus was able to run red lights. I tried to hit the next stop button. That little familiar ding would have provided some much needed levity for my fellow passengers. But the button was disabled. And the mood remained grim. We knew where they were taking us.
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, we did 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.
We arrived at 100 Centre Street and once again had to pull in and back out several times before the driver could get it right. This time a bunch of us were flung around in the bus as he made short stops. I was beginning to think they really didn't care a whole lot about us.
They made us go up a bunch of stairs, telling us it was six flights but it seemed like much less. I became disoriented almost as soon as I got inside. We were ushered into a small cell with about forty people in it. Someone handed me a kid-sized box of Frosted Flakes. This cell was apparently a temporary one as the people in front of the circle we formed were continually being let out one by one and taken someplace else. I noticed there was a red phone receiver in the front corner that was being controlled by a cop on the outside. People were allowed to make a phone call but only if it was within New York City. Not very helpful for all of the people from out of town. The guy in charge of this was particularly nasty and would cut people off without warning. I noticed a distinct change in tone here. The cops at Pier 57 were somewhat nice while these guys were being real bastards. I wasn't sure if that was an essential part of their jobs or if they just enjoyed being total pricks. One of the cops apparently didn't like something one of my cellmates said upon being let in so he promised retribution for his having a "smart mouth." A few minutes later after someone was let out, this cop stepped in and told him to get to the very back of the line because of his earlier remark. The trouble was he didn't even pick the right guy, just someone else who had a similar hair style. The original guy apologized to the one taking the rap. "Hell, I don't care," the other guy said with a smile. There was something about that exchange that underlined the strength these detainees still had.
It got to be my turn to leave. "You're out," the cop who couldn't tell us apart said to me. (Yeah, if only.) I was brought to a desk and told to empty my pockets and searched from head to toe. Then I had to walk through a metal detector and was led to a new cell down the hall. This one actually had a payphone that took coins. I called a friend from here and was comforted by the sound of a familiar voice.
This cell was a little bigger than the last one but, except for the payphone, pretty much the same. Instead of having portable bathrooms here, there was a toilet in a corner with no doors, walls, or anything. Next to that was a water fountain. Unlike at the Pier we had benches although there was never enough room for everyone to sit down at once. We took turns standing in the front with our hands grasping the bars, looking mournfully outside like they do in every Western ever made. If only we could have gotten pictures.
From here you would have to wait for your name to be called. When mine was, I was once again brought outside. This time, though, I was chained to four other people and led down long corridors, and eventually to a stairwell where a window was opened a crack. And it was through that window that we heard the most beautiful sound in the world. People outside were singing, chanting, and beating on drums. They must have been there because of us. I don't think there was anyone present who wasn't deeply moved by this. Except of course for the cop leading us who tried in vain to shut the window.
We went down the stairs and into some part of this vast structure where there was, yes, another cell! This one had three separate sections: two narrow parts on the side with one long bench and a thicker one in the middle that had benches on either side. It can be a real challenge to get five people seated on a bench when they're all chained together and facing the wrong way. We eventually figured it out and waited some more.
A cop with the mentality of a drill sergeant came along and told everyone to listen because he was only going to say this once and if anyone screwed up they'd go all the way back to the end. He then shared the instructions with the people in the middle so none of us on the side were able to hear what he was telling them. They were led out somewhere and we were soon led into the middle section. (We never did hear what those vital instructions were.) A few minutes later, some female detainees were brought into the vacated side section. We had been segregated since the Pier so it was a small reunion of sorts. Unknown to us, it was also the last time we would be integrated. One of the female detainees was crying out for a pain killer and the rest of us tried to get the guard sitting in the front to pay attention. He kept reading his paper as if we didn't even exist. In retrospect, we probably should have refused to move until he began to treat us like human beings but I think we all just wanted to get this over with as quickly as possible.
It was very hard at this point to tell who was a guard and who was a cop. It seemed to be about half and half, based on uniforms. But they all seemed to have the same mentality. We were scum and not to be treated with any degree of respect. I would even hear them referring to us as they transported us from one cell to another. We weren't called people, individuals, or even detainees, perps, or suspects. They referred to us as "bodies" like we were the walking dead. "I've got five bodies down the hall to move into a cell," they would say. Perhaps that dehumanized the detainees to them but it made us feel more human than ever. At least it did at that point.
From here we were eventually led (still in chains) to two big state-of-the-art fingerprinting machines. After being unchained, I was told to not resist whatever they did to my fingers. They stuck all four fingers of my right hand onto a big screen. The machine said it was too light. The guy moved it around. Too dark. The cop started to cuss and moved my hand around to a new position. It worked, thank God. Then he put my thumb up there and it worked on the first attempt. Next, I had to stick each individual finger onto a smaller window and roll them from left to right - or actually, let the cop roll them. I have never seen anything become such a production. The machine had so many different kinds of errors, rolling too fast, too slow, not a clear image, multiple fingers detected (a nice trick since my other fingers weren't even on the screen), partial finger detected, and a bunch more I can't recall. For whatever reason, the pinky finger took about 25 tries before it worked. I was being entertained by the whole thing but the cop doing it was getting angrier by the second and his anger was being let out on me. I was doing everything I was told and not resisting in any way. I'm sure all the grime on my hand wasn't helping but I could hardly be blamed for that, could I? From what I could see around me, nobody knew how to work these machines and it was a real pain in the ass for all concerned. And after finally getting all of my fingers registered, we had to do it all again for my left hand. Later I would find out that many of these fingerprint records weren't submitted properly and would have to be done all over again, moving the affected people all the way back to the end of the line whenever that happened.
The next stop on our tour of the Tombs was a cell in a section called the "Male Search" area. Someone had written in "anal" between those two words and, since everyone going through there was either chained or cuffed, it obviously was an example of police humor coupled with a veiled threat. Our new cell was across the hall from a desk of corrections people who were loudly complaining about their jobs and not really hearing anyone's pleas for aspirin. It was now mid afternoon on September 1. I called WBAI from the cell's payphone to file a followup report. I couldn't tell it at the time but when I later listened to the two reports I had filed, it was obvious that the spirit was being drained right out of me. If it weren't for the company and strength of others, I might have really lost it.
This cell was also where we had our best meal: two kid-sized boxes of bran flakes and a carton of milk to pour onto them. I was amazed at how much abuse I had been able to withstand so far. It was nearly 24 hours of no real food, no decent facilities, and no sleep (actually far more than 24 hours on that one since I had already had a full day when this all started).
We became aware that there were also "real" prisoners here. They were in an adjoining cell and they just stared at us like we were from another planet. Some people tried to be friendly but got no response. It was unsettling, especially with the occasional hints from some of the cops that we would eventually be put in with dangerous inmates. I wondered if these scary looking people had been placed there to emphasize that point.
More hours passed. Slowly we were taken, chained in fives, down the hall. When I finally got to go, the cops in charge got into an argument with each other over who should be where and they wound up taking us back into another cell. (The one we had left was already occupied with a solitary inmate.) We waited in there for a while and then got lined up in the hallway one more time. We stood there for what seemed like ages. Occasionally other detainees would pass us going in the other direction. They were all in a good mood since they were in the home stretch. But they said we still had a few hours to go to get to where they were. It was tough dealing with what seemed like more bad news. As we took that in, we heard the voices of female prisoners coming from someplace, one in particular shouting that she wanted to talk to a lawyer.
We were in the hallway for such a long time that people needed to go to the bathroom or get pain killers for the headaches a number of them were experiencing. They were all ignored. One of my chainmates was screaming that he couldn't hold it in any longer. We all took up his cause and got a guard to notice us. "He's going to have to wait," the guard told us. "He can't," we protested, "It's an emergency." The guard got up close to the guy and said slowly, "You're going to have to wait." "OK," the guy said meekly. His spirit was broken and he remained in pain for the next half hour.
We got to the front of the line and were taken one by one to a room where a bored looking man sat behind a desk with a TV on in the background. This was the person in charge of taking mug shots. I always imagined if I ever had a mug shot taken that I would try to look fairly pleasant, maybe even flashing a toothy grin. But after enduring the many hours of cells and lines and lack of food and sleep, I wound up looking about as bad and as mean as anyone could expect to look in a mug shot. We were all being shaped quite nicely into their little system. Someone even told me they had Bush/Cheney stickers in the line of sight of where you were facing, ostensibly to make you look even more angry. I didn't see them as my eyes were glazing over at this point.
We all wondered what else they could possibly have in store for us. It made no sense that we had to go through what we had endured so far. Even if we were actually going to be charged with a crime, this whole business of being paraded through the entire system was completely unwarranted and unnecessary. In the past, this kind of a thing would be dealt with by issuing a ticket and making a court date. Imagine if everyone who got a traffic ticket was put through this sort of thing. That's pretty much what was happening here. And of course the system got backed up with the lousy equipment and lack of coordination. But anyone could have known that would happen if more than 1000 people were injected into it at one time. It seemed obvious to us all that the inefficiency of their system was being used as an excuse to keep us locked away for as long as they wanted. If only Kafka had been around to appreciate this.
There were two trains of thought circulating on what this was really all about that I was able to pick up on. One was that they wanted to keep everyone locked up until Bush left town, as if these people could pose any threat to him safely tucked away in the depths of Madison Square Garden. The other was that this was a way for the police to track down anyone who may have had unanswered warrants from the past and who tended to show up at demonstrations. It's a nifty concept - I'll bet if they arrested the entire city, they'd find enough wanted criminals to get some people to actually support the idea.
Our next adventure was to be "really" searched. They warned us not to leave anything inside our pockets or we would pay the price. The whole thing turned out to not be all that different from the other searches, except they yelled a lot more and took a bit longer. They threw out any gum or candy they found which only served to torture us that much more. They also went through everyone's shoes and wallets and examined everything in them. That's how they came to discover a small amount of marijuana in the wallet of the person next to me. They were obviously thrilled at this. "Well, what have we here?" they chortled in true redneck sheriff style. "Looks like you're not gonna be going home for a real long time." The poor guy was mortified and didn't even remember that he had this on him. "I want to know what kind of idiot plans on getting arrested and carries drugs on him?" The admonitions continued for a while. Of course, the obvious answer which no one dared speak was that most of us hadn't planned on getting arrested. That seemed to be a common misconception among the cops - that we all wanted to be there. Could they really not have known how the whole thing had actually played out?
The guy with the pot asked if he could contact his son who had also been arrested to let him know he wouldn't be going home with him. The cops didn't answer. The rest of us didn't know what to say to him except for things like, "Wow, that really sucks." I confess thinking what a moron this guy must have been for carrying this on him but I quickly caught myself. He could easily have just been walking across the street or exiting a restaurant like so many others had been. And I'm not about to call an otherwise law abiding citizen a moron just because they had a little pot on them. That's probably what I'm supposed to do but I'm simply not going to buy into that nonsense.
We had to move quickly down the hall and weren't given enough time to put our stuff back in order. They hustled us past the cells in the "Male Search" area and through one of those doors that only opened when it was buzzing. If we weren't in a secure zone before, we certainly were now.
There were (surprise) a bunch of cells here along with two people behind desks who looked like receptionists. We were ushered into a small cell where we waited for our names to be called out one by one. The receptionist types then asked us questions about our health, allergies, essential medications, etc. They were curious if any of us had tuberculosis. More than 24 hours now and they finally wanted to know if any of us were sick! Several people tried to get aspirin here. Not a chance.
We were then herded into another cell across the hall and then about five minutes later into the cell next to it for reasons unknown. This cell was unusual in that it had two phones, one on either end. I discovered that one of the phones cost 25 cents for a local call and the other one was 50 cents. If we weren't all such pacifists, I'm sure we could have established a class system inside the cell where the privileged few got the cheaper rate and the rest were screwed. If I'm ever locked up with a different crowd, perhaps I'll suggest it.
After getting quite attached to this place, we were once again uprooted and forced to transplant ourselves way down the hall to a bigger cell. This one also had two payphones and the standard toilet in the corner next to the water fountain. This would be our home for many hours to come. But it was also said to be the last stop on the journey, a rumor that kept giving us hope, despite the fact that we had almost never been told anything resembling the truth. Occasionally, cops would talk to us through the bars and say how this was standard procedure and that 72 hours was the normal period of time to be held. Another actually said they could hold us as long as they wanted. Maybe he thought we were "enemy combatants."
Names were being called out very, very slowly. The people who were selected got to go through another buzzing door (there was a woman there whose sole job was to push the button that made the door buzz) and presumably on to a judge. From the beginning, we were told that seeing a judge was the last part of the process. And we also heard all kinds of variations on how many judges there were - twenty, five, or none at all after a certain time. Names were called at the rate of three or four an hour for the entire hall of cells while in that same period we were getting more than that amount of newcomers in our cell alone. It now became apparent that we weren't going to be getting out on Wednesday night either.
As midnight approached, a rumor spread about a writ that the National Lawyers Guild was filing to force the release of anyone held for over 24 hours. Someone said it was set to take effect at 1 am. Someone else said it had been turned down. Nobody really knew anything. It got so bad that people started to ask the police for legal advice. We had been through this entire system and not one of us had been given the opportunity to see a lawyer. Now people were making decisions on how they would plead and if they would accept an ACD (Adjournment in Contemplation of Dismissal) based on what they were being told by the people who had locked them up in the first place! I'm no legal expert but I do know there's something seriously wrong with that scenario.
We then were visited by a couple of "oversight" people who wanted to know if we were satisfied with the way we had been treated and other such inane queries. Needless to say we had plenty to say to them. They basically smiled and nodded a lot, occasionally jotting a word or two down. We all knew we were being bullshitted. And a little later we were given apples again. Only this time they were nearly all rotten to the core and soft to the touch. It spoke volumes that we just put them in the trash can instead of flinging them down the hallway. But our anger and frustration were growing perceptibly.
Then a most disturbing thing happened. People who had left hours ago started to come back in and rejoin us! One said he was kept waiting for a couple of hours on the 13th floor while another said he had to go get his fingerprints done from scratch after making it all the way to court. I felt like screaming. In fact, some people actually were screaming.. Occasionally you would hear someone down the hall just lose it and start yelling at all the cops to stop this torture. I came pretty close to this point myself when they opened the door and told us we were "free to go." Only they meant we were free to go back down the hall and take another of the same soggy sandwiches that had been following us through the system since Pier 57. I took the walk without any intention of going near that garbage (in fact, many people were refusing to eat anything at this point). But there was one particularly hostile cop behind a desk who was shouting at all of us (what, if anything, had provoked him, I didn't know), "I don't give a fuck about any of you!" over and over. Without really thinking, I said in a voice loud enough for him and a few others to hear that there were a whole more of us who didn't give a fuck about him. "What?!" he exclaimed in that "you dare to speak to an officer of the law like that" tone of voice. I walked away fully expecting to be clubbed in the head. At least I had gotten some satisfaction out of that little journey down the hall. But what I said wasn't even true. In actuality, the people I was locked up with were constantly trying to establish a common ground with the cops, telling them that they weren't being treated fairly either and that it really sucked that they didn't have a contract. But none of the cops really seemed to want to make a connection with these people. It was bitterly ironic at one point overhearing them discuss having an unauthorized demonstration outside City Hall to "shut down the system" that was unfair to them.
Next we got visited by people who asked us very specific and personal questions. Things like the full names of everyone you lived with, exactly how much money you made every week, who exactly paid you and whether or not it was off the books, all of your phone numbers, etc. No one knew if these questions were legal but who wanted to risk being stuck in the system for even longer because they refused to answer them? Nobody, from what I could see.
I tried to go to sleep but the noise, the light, and the hardness of the floor made that impossible. But when I tried to stay alert, I felt like I was about to pass out. My system was horribly confused. I was starting to forget whether it was day or night and even what day it was in the first place. We were all still sticking together and taking care of each other as best we could. But the strain was definitely starting to show and I was really worried about what was going to happen.
And then I heard it. My name! I sprang to my feet, never more eager to be cuffed and led away. As was the case with everyone called, I got a nice round of cheering from my fellow inmates. I only hoped I would see them again on the outside. Soon.
I went through the buzzing door with several others and was told to stand still. A friendly cop told us we would all be free in twenty minutes. Nobody believed that but it was still the most encouraging thing we had heard in a while. He told us we would be getting a DAT which was a Desk Appearance Ticket. He advised us to take it so we could leave. Even though I realized I was taking legal advice from a cop, I agreed to do it since it meant I would have my day in court... somewhere down the line.
Other people had been offered an ACD which basically meant the charges would be dropped if they stayed out of trouble for six months. If they were arrested again, the case would be reopened. I knew this was something I couldn't accept, not because I couldn't stay out of trouble but because it seemed to be an admission of some type of wrongdoing. And the one thing that had remained in my head throughout the now 33-plus hours of this insanity was that I didn't do a damn thing wrong. Even if it meant going back inside, I wasn't going to concede this point in any way.
The other thing that getting a DAT told us was that there wasn't a judge on duty, since one wasn't needed for those. They were needed for the ACDs, however. I certainly wasn't surprised to find out that we had been lied to on that as well. And it sure explained why everything was moving at a dying snail's pace.
We emerged from behind the secure door next to the cells in the "Male Search" area that we had been in so long ago. Then we walked down the hallway in the footsteps of the people who had once told us we still had a few hours to go... half a day earlier.
As we moved down that hallway, I heard the hoarse voice of a female detainee from behind the wall crying out for a lawyer. I was sickened when I realized that it was the same voice I had heard there twelve hours before. They hadn't made any progress at all.
They led us to a courtroom where we sat on a bench still handcuffed. Two cops in the front of the room were muttering loudly about what idiots and hypocrites all the demonstrators were. "They go and sit on sidewalks, then they complain about dirty floors." "These people think they can just break the law and not pay the price." We all wanted to say something but we held our tongues. Freedom was so close.
For the next hour or so we stayed in there while they tried to find our records. You would think after all of this they might have figured out how to keep track of them but the inefficiency just kept smacking us in the face. While we waited, I noticed that the guy who had been caught with the pot was also in the courtroom. I asked him what had happened and he said the cops decided to throw the stuff out and give him a break. An honest act of mercy! I was really happy to hear this.
One by one our names were called. When it got to be my turn, my hands were uncuffed and I was told to sign a paper. I was handed a copy and led to the door. The door that led outside.
Across the street were the supporters (or their replacements) that we had heard through the window so long ago. They cheered as each of us staggered outside. I was amazed at the level of caring and professional treatment. There were legal representatives, medics, and people who would feed you. I was still too stunned to be able to eat or focus on much so I just kind of answered questions about my health and took the supplement they gave me. A number of people had broken out in rashes from the conditions at Pier 57. They checked me over and didn't find anything. I was amazed at how much trouble I was having just getting a sentence out.
It was starting to get light out and my ordeal wasn't entirely over. Everyone still had to get their stuff back. And even that procedure was made as complicated as humanly possible by forcing people to walk all the way down to Pearl Street and wait more than two hours outside a trailer. But I was so happy to be outside that it could have been six hours and I probably wouldn't have noticed. I didn't know what was keeping me going, I just knew I had to finish this.
Normally I would have known exactly where I was but I found myself rediscovering the neighborhood and figuring out I was right next to Chinatown. For some reason I decided that more than anything in the world I wanted a couple of egg rolls and a Coke from Wo Hops so I moved in that direction. I realize now that I must have been walking like a total zombie because it seemed like such a long time when it was only a couple of blocks. They must have seen it in my face at Wo Hops too because they insisted I sit down while waiting the two minutes for the takeout order. I felt so out of phase with everything. I seemed to be getting a free preview of what it's like to be old and insane.
So I made my way over to the trailer and met up with some of the people I had just seen on the inside. It was a real joyous occasion at that point tinged with a bit of ominous foreboding as there were no less than ten cops standing guard over the line that we were on. I tried not to make eye contact with any of them. I just wanted to get my stuff back and get out of there forever.
At long last it was my turn and they began searching for my stuff. How they could manage to take so long to track something down that was Right There was something that no longer interested me. It was what I expected and I wasn't complaining. In the end, it was all there and that was all that mattered.
I made my way back to the park where people were still waiting for others to emerge. I left messages for some friends using the phones I had just gotten back and was surprised when one of them immediately returned my call. I guess nobody was really getting much sleep that week. He came by and helped get me on a subway back to my place. It was probably the first time in my life anyone ever helped me find a subway. I don't even remember going to sleep. I only remember waking up twelve hours later.
This is the most difficult part. After all, I was only imprisoned for somewhere around 33 hours. I know so many people who have been through so much worse. And throughout the world, people suffer far greater injustices on a daily basis. These facts have been with me through every step of this thing. It's something I've felt a good deal of shame for and one of the reasons it's taken this long to put it all down into words.
I've been lucky enough to talk to a few people, both online and in person, who were also swept off the streets during the convention. We shared stories and experiences and it became obvious that we really needed to do this. A tale of injustice, even one that is dwarfed by others, needs to be told. And it wasn't until I started to do this that I began to feel the weight of the experience lifting. I only hope everyone affected manages to express themselves and not keep it bottled inside.
It took me quite some time to start feeling normal. A friend came over to see how I was when I woke up Thursday night. We had food brought in because I just couldn't deal with going outside. Normally I would have been at the Garden, getting more material as George W. Bush gave his speech. Instead I stayed home and watched it start on television.
I knew this wasn't healthy so I decided to try and handle going outside. But I didn't want to go anywhere near the convention. They say if you get picked up a second time, you go straight to Riker's Island. I realized what an effective job the cops did instilling fear into people. Usually I'm the one who stands up to that kind of intimidation and here I was going right along with the script. The sound of a helicopter sent a feeling of dread through me and I felt like bolting. I saw cops ahead and moved to the other side of the street, sculking like a rat. That's when I knew I wasn't just snapping out of this. I was fucked up from a day and a half in confinement. Imagine what would happen if they were serious?
Being with somebody definitely had a calming effect but my mind was still racing. Somehow we wound up gravitating back towards Union Square. I definitely wasn't ready to see 16th Street again so I just moved towards where all the people had gathered. The mood was very different from the last time I was there. It wasn't so much anger and rebellion but more recovery and comfort. I started to see some of the people I had spent time with at the Pier and in the Tombs. A tremendous feeling of relief began to come over me and I knew I wasn't going to be going anyplace else that night.
As we all stood around in a kind of a daze for a while, I noticed a quiet calm that seemed to be spreading on the outside of the park. Others seemed to notice it at the same time. We no longer heard the helicopters. And the police were starting up their cars, vans, and scooters and beginning to pull away. "Bush is gone," I heard someone say. Was that really the signal for everything to go back to normal? In the hours ahead it seemed as if the entire city was breathing a sigh of relief and that whatever invading forces had encircled us were now finally on the retreat. There was word of an "unpermitted" demonstration near the Garden that the police weren't taking any action against. Yes, it was really over.
But of course it wasn't over for me and I doubt for many of the others. Nearly everyone seems to have been physically sick in one way or another, from minor colds to rashes, fevers, and serious breathing problems. It took days of sleeping for twelve hours at a time before I even started to feel physically normal again. Everyone I've talked to has had nightmares. My initial timidness seems to have been replaced with an intense anger bordering on hatred for those who did this to innocent people. I had always respected police for the difficult job they had and for the dangers they faced. But after going through this, all I saw were mindless automatons who were simply pieces of a machine. They didn't care and they couldn't care about any of us. We were scum to them, "bodies" chained together being transported down endless corridors. Our pain and fear were to be ignored. And in the faces of our captors, and the faces of those even associated with them, I saw a smug self-righteousness that filled me with contempt. Somewhere inside of me I know that this isn't right. But I have yet to be able to flush these feelings and I wonder if I'll ever not experience a degree of fear whenever I see a cop. I don't even know where to start on that healing process.
What I do know is that the people around me matter a whole lot more than I ever imagined. My friends on the outside, the people I met on the inside. They are the ones who helped me get through this and if there's anything positive to come out of all this it's that realization. So much gets overlooked in the pettiness of our everyday lives and so much is forgotten as time goes on. I hope to be able to appreciate individuals more and never take any of them for granted.
I can only pray that what happened on August 31 was a mistake that will never be repeated. But I can't say I'm optimistic - with the mayor saying the police did an "A plus" job and the mass media beginning to mock the experiences we went through. If this is indeed the beginning of a trend, then this episode will represent a big step in the decline of our freedom. These sweeps will become commonplace in the name of security. People will be held without charges for days. The suspension of rights now used on "enemy combatants" will begin to be applied in other areas, whenever national security can be even peripherally invoked. We could all wind up paying a very heavy price for our complacency. That's why, if there's to be any hope at all, we have to care and we have to get through to others. That's the purpose of my telling this story and I hope it manages to open some eyes.
Again, much thanks and love to everyone who has shown support, shared their strength, and been an inspiration.