Occupying Jail

His name was Carmine, and he spoke very much as though he were from South Queens, which he was:

“What these guys are doing takes a lot of courage, not for nothing.”

The “guys” he was referring to were me and a couple of my friends. Carmine and the men he was talking to were the cops who had us cuffed in the back of the van in which they were transferring us from the holding cell at 1 Police Plaza to central booking, where Carmine confessed, “I'm on your side.”

The cops were from a precinct in Queens and none of them had ever been to these buildings before. The jokes they made about how difficult it was to find their way around stopped shy of the logical takeaway: American jails are labyrinthine dungeons, designed to confuse, their fluorescent lighting and clock-deficiency masking the time from prisoners whose daily steel-plank seats become their nightly steel-plank beds whenever it's bedtime, which is whenever the prisoners get tired. Roaches, filth, the pervasive odor of urine, surprisingly invulnerable to my plans to get used to it: these are the conditions to which America subjects people who have not been found guilty of – have not even been charged with – anything.

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It was around 9 o'clock when we first met Carmine and his buddies at the intersection of William and Pine, where they told a group of us sitting down that we would be arrested if we didn't move – then promptly beat and arrested anyone who tried to. One cop stepped on the face of the young woman next to me, and the rest of the officers pretended not to hear our calls for a medic or ice. The zip cuffs were strapped on and the paddy wagons assembled. Getting into ours, three protesters and I had the surreal experience of listening to 1010 WINS' reporting on us, which afforded a special mention of a woman who was arrested with us but let off with a ticket given the cops' lack of preparation for transporting a wheelchair-bound person to Police Plaza.

The plastic zip-tie cuffs dug deep into my skin, but none of the cops had ever used them before, nor did they have any way of cutting them off until we reached headquarters. All the officers did, however, admit that they were on much too tight, and they extended their sympathy my way (the raised marks lasted over 20 hours). I kept reminding myself that the people who offered themselves up for arrest every weekend for 12 years a generation ago faced killer dogs and bone-shattering fire hoses – a little wrist pain is endurable.

The holding cell at first accommodated 12 of us, then 20, then 40, then 75, with more coming in even after I was transferred. Each entrance generated huge applause, chants, songs (twice through “Bohemian Rhapsody,” if that can be believed, and gratifyingly only once through “Don't Stop Believing”). As women were brought in past our pen to their own, the men cheered in support, though one suspects it looked a bit testosterone-heavy at times. Men, men, men – most of the officers were men; all the prisoners in our cell were men. The judge, clerk, bailiff and the courtroom corrections officer? Men.

Among the Occupy prisoners, there was little in the way of ethnic diversity, very few of us showing more than a couple drips of melanin. Among the other prisoners, there was much more diversity, but not so much diversity that a single one of them was white. And the Occupy folks could all be reasonably sure they'd be let go in a day or so; one of the other prisoners told me upon arraignment: “They set my bail at $2,500. I'll just lay up 'til the 30th. I got no $2,500.”

Sitting on the bars were remnants of the only meal one gets in jail, a meal I received first in the holding cell for lunch and then in the jail cell for dinner: pieces of stale, awful bread between which sits the prisoner's choice of a small chunk of fake cheese or a small dollop of fake peanut butter. The heroic protesters and the National Lawyers Guild members who remained at 100 Center Street until the small hours of the morning doing jail support must know about the city's culinary prowess, because they await released prisoners with snacks (and medical supplies to nurse wounds, cell phones to borrow and legal consultations). I turned down the sandwiches, by and large, and not only for their quality, but for the dread that their consumption would portend having to avail myself of the jail's facilities.

Jail is a whole lot better than prison, and there are people who live in prison for a long time – people like Troy Davis, who lived in a prison for 20 years, until we killed him. No one talks about him anymore, but his execution was the occasion for the rally that included Tony Baloney's macing of those young women and the first time the nation paid attention to Occupy Wall Street. Davis' life and death are the perfect illustration of the moral depravity of a system that facilitates the astonishing wealth of the ownership class at the expense of the crushing of the underclass and the liberties everyone is promised – a system for whose disruption we were in jail.

Between booking and arraignment, corrections officers asked everyone's address. Occupier Ted Hall's response was at once humbly accurate and mischievously defiant: One Liberty Plaza.