A journalist recounts his violent arrest by the NYPD – apparently for listening to the “People’s Gong” during the Occupy anniversary celebrations – and his subsequent experience in custody.
[All names of those arrested have been either omitted or changed to protect those with open cases.]
The first time I was arrested as a journalist covering Occupy Wall Street was a long and nightmarish journey through the intake procedure of what is mistakenly referred to as our criminal justice system.
The second time I was arrested – on September 17th, 2012, the one-year anniversary of Occupy – my time in custody was significantly shorter, but that was due to dumb luck, not a sudden respect for the press from the NYPD. My friend Jesse Myerson, also a journalist, often says that the fundamental question regarding the NYPD is whether they are driven more by stupidity or cruelty. Regardless of the specific proportions in my interactions with them, there has often been a healthy mix of both.
Shortly after 3:30 p.m., a march departed from the red cube across from Liberty Square with the goal of reading the People’s Gong – a passionate declaration of resistance to the supremacy of capital – at or around the intersection of William and Wall Street, close to the New York Stock Exchange.
After a lively march that I characterized on Twitter at the time as possibly the most festive I had ever seen for Occupy Wall Street, the protesters ended up at the corner of Nassau and Pine. The “ringing” of the People’s Gong commenced, and shortly afterwards I was on the ground with an officer telling me, “it’s all right, it’s over now.”
At 0:37, you can see an officer grab John, who is clearly standing on the sidewalk, and pull him into the street. His sister Molly is standing directly behind him when he’s grabbed.
My attorney has advised me not to describe the specifics of the arrest until my case has concluded, but I can safely say I was standing on the sidewalk at the time of my state-sponsored assault. The force with which I was thrown to the ground slid my glasses down the bridge of my nose, giving me the appearance of some sort of cartoonish professor. After being raised to my feet, a giant officer, softer around the edges than on the eyes, didn’t simply push my glasses back up my nose for the nerd-assist; he took them off and put them in my pocket. He meant it as a kind gesture, I think, which only serves to show the complete submission the police expect from people they’re charged with protecting. You’re with us now; your sight is unnecessary.
Two of the seven protesters in the arrest van had blood covering on their faces. I don’t know the specifics of either arrest, but one, a traveler named Todd, had a nasty-looking cut above his left eye, and possibly a bruised eye as well. He works handing out Metro or AM New York newspapers in the subway in the morning.
“If I have to stay over night, I’m gonna lose my fucking job,” he said as leaned his head back. Martina, a young Chilean woman, had also bled profusely from a cut above her eye. She had a makeshift bandage on her head such as you might see in an amateur Civil War re-enactment. Her flex-cuffs were on so tight, her hands were turning purple.
“You gotta fix this woman’s cuffs,” yelled Derick, a member of the legal support group Mutant Legal. “Her hands are turning purple man.”
A cop sat in the back corner of the van, taking down our names. “We’ll get to it,” he said. Derick told Martina to lean forward to help blood circulation, which she did.
“Hey, someone out there got a cutter so we can re-cuff this one?” the cop asked, nodding at Martina.
An officer standing outside said yeah, then walked away. A protester who had never been arrested before briefly joked about singing songs, as he’d heard that’s what people do in this situation.
The cop suggested against it. “Your morale depends on my morale,” he said, his voice empty of sarcasm, humor or empathy.
An officer standing outside slammed the door shut, and we proceeded to One Police Plaza for processing, with Martina, covered in blood, trying to keep quiet despite the pain in her hands.
When we got to 1PP, as it’s called, the police there looked over Martina and determined she had to go to the hospital because of the injuries sustained during her arrest. Martina might have weighed 115 pounds, and has a somewhat bird-like quality about her.
When they got to me, a thuggish bully named Czark looked at the non-NYPD-issued media pass hanging from a lanyard around my neck. He was a White Shirt, or high ranking officer, with between 15 and 20 years on the force, signified by the three arrows on his sleeve.
“I’m a journalist.”
“You’re wearing this around your neck, like a press pass though, right?”
I informed him that I was a journalist and that I wasn’t going to say anything else until I spoke with my attorney. He took the press pass off from around my neck.
“This is some bullshit, right? I mean, what, you make this yourself?”
I said nothing, although the pass had been issued by [radio station] WBAI.
He took the pass, which has my photo on it, told me to get back in the van, and said he was going to check with their press department to see if I was a “real” journalist. He returned shortly after to inform me that, “No, you’re not in the database.” He looked at the gentle young cop who would be referred to as my arresting officer and said, “Take him to that pen over there.”
While a protester who had had several buttons popped from his shirt in his arrest and I were processed in our outdoor pen, a cop taking down Todd’s information stopped, and looked around.
“Wait, we can’t take this guy’s picture,” which they were doing on our intake. The cop pointed at Todd’s bloodied face and gave a what-do-we-do-about-this shrug. I think Todd ended up going to the hospital, as I don’t recall seeing him in the group cell later on, though I could be wrong.
The police had reserved a large group cell exclusively for Occupiers, as near as I could tell. The cell was actually two rooms, each about 20 by 25 feet, bisected with an open cell door and with a pair of disgusting toilets in the far corner. The cell was filled with about 40 protesters when I arrived.
Each person who entered was greeted with uproarious applause and hugs, and hey-they-got-you-too?s from friends who had missed the afternoon action. I saw a friend who had been arrested with me on December 12th and we hugged and shared a back-here-goddammit moment.
The criminal justice system relies on its victims having a lack of information about their rights. Because of my previous experience I knew that the iris scans the police tell you to take are optional.
The iris scans – which, I know, sounds creepy – are a two-step process, the stated purpose of which is to make sure you’re the same person going to see the judge who was brought in initially. They scan your eyes on intake, and then again at arraignment.
Their real purpose is to gain bio-metric data about you for their database, same as fingerprints. The first time I was arrested, several of us didn’t consent to the first round of the eye scan. So, when it came time for the second round of the eye scan, right before we were set to see the arraignment judge, there was no first scan to compare it to. Despite this, we were threatened with an extra night in jail if we declined the second eye scan, even though its stated purpose – to match it with the first scan – was impossible.
I mic-checked this information to my cellmates, some of whom were familiar with it and some of whom weren’t. Derick, the guy from Mutant Legal, added some other helpful information, and then went back to sleep. You can tell the old-hats because they don’t get mad or shout or anything; they go to sleep.
I talked to Juan, from Puerto Rico, who was in the van with me. He and Martina kissed in the van in a few beautiful stolen moments – the only things stolen that day by activists – and I would’ve killed to get that shot.
“Martina’s your girlfriend?” I asked.
“For how long?”
I burst out laughing and hugged and congratulated him, and told him I hoped Martina was okay.
“Yeah, I’m pretty worried about her.”
I also talked to Jim, who told me that after crossing the street with the light and returning to the sidewalk, a White Shirt pointed him out to a rank and file cop, and said, “That guy.”
At one point, a 17-year-old kid named Clay jumped up onto a bench to address us.
“When they took my information in the other room,” he said loudly and clearly, “they told me I should be ashamed of myself. That my father isn’t proud of me. But being in here with you guys, I just feel so much love and solidarity and it’s really great.”
Amid the applause, an old activist yelled, “Kid, your father’s proud of you, I guarantee it.”
Most of the Occupiers hung out in the front of the cell, near the door, so they could hear their name if it got called. One guy in the back, though, saw a TV on the other side of the cage.
“Hey, look!” he yelled. “We’re on the news!” Several people rushed back to see a Chyron that read, “Over 100 arrested on Occupy Wall Street’s Anniversary,” and everyone burst into cheers like New Years Eve.
I was only held for a few hours, given a Desk Appearance ticket, and allowed to leave. Thankfully I had an amazing group of friends, including my sister and co-host on Radio Dispatch, waiting for me at jail support. Being released to a torrent of well wishes in person and online certainly makes the whole experience more bearable.
When you’re the ward of the system, it strikes you that at every opportunity, every touch point, the person dealing with you just wants to be done dealing with you. Both times I’ve been arrested, it’s been White Shirts who have grabbed me and thrown me to the ground, but they pass the paperwork off to some low level officer (both of whom have been quite nice in my cases) who, despite being identified as my “arresting officer,” had nothing to do with my arrest.
Then, if they transfer you to the tombs, you become the Department of Corrections problem. The DOC doesn’t care what you did or who you are, they just want to get rid of you. The arraigning judge spends less than five seconds, literally, on you. It goes on and on like that.
Our entire justice system resembles nothing so much as a factory farm. Instead of chickens in cages, we put black and brown people in cages. The product isn’t chicken nuggets, it’s politicians who run on Tough On Crime, or the contracts businesses get to sell prison supplies, or the money made in the private prison industry, an industry whose incentives are so evil that they very nearly defy description.
The byproducts – the pink slime – is disenfranchisement, cheap labor and a culture that continues to treat black men as inherently dangerous, as one step away from being rightly locked up.
This is to say nothing of the Muslims who have been kidnapped and killed by the United States. Adnan Latif, whom I wrote about for AlterNet, had been repeatedly cleared for transfer back to Yemen, but he died in Guantanamo Bay because the despicable Obama justice department intervened. Will any establishment journalists ask Obama about the death of Adnan Latif, or the hundreds of others murdered while detained by US forces?
A form of authoritarianism has arrived in the US. I don’t say this because I was arrested, but because to look over the past 11 years and arrive at any other conclusion is delusional. Police routinely pre-arrest activists before planned actions. Innocent men are held in cages with no hope of freedom. Elites are not only free from prosecution for their crimes, but are actively protected by the justice system and use the law as a weapon against those not in their class.
Trevor, who had been snatched up while taking pictures as a bystander, not a protester or journalist, is moving to California soon for undergrad.
“I had read about [Occupy] and the police and stuff, but I didn’t really realize how bad it was until I saw it,” he said, nervous like a young man who didn’t expect to go to jail that day. “I mean, it’s really, really bad.”