December 2011

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My Night in Jail

by Jonathan Wallace

I am 57 years old, a semi-retired lawyer, former business executive and emergency medical technician. I have published the Ethical Spectacle every month since January 1995. I am peaceful, law abiding and rather quiet, if opinionated. And I had never been arrested my entire life, until 2:30 a.m. on November 15, at the corner of Broadway and Cortland, a block from Zuccotti Park and the protestors being violently evicted by the riot police.

I am eager to tell you what happened, how I got arrested, but on the excellent advice of counsel will not do so until I have disposed of the legalities (I appear in court January 11 to answer a desk appearance ticket for "discon", disorderly conduct). So this will be the first of at least three essays on my experience, out of chronological order: what happened after my arrest; the arrest itself; and the court proceedings.

I was sitting on the sidewalk on Broadway, behind the line of cops busy beating other people, while the courteous officer who had taken charge and handcuffed me behind my back with a painful plastic tie, went to retrive my glasses from the sidewalk. The lenses were unsmashed but the frames had been stepped on and ruined. He put them in my pocket.

Another cop came over whom I couldn't see. I have the vague impression he was also a blue uniform, not a white shirted officer. He said: "He's one of them." I answered, in what seems to me now like a howl of rage: "One of whom?"

"A piece of shit," he said.

I yelled: "I am a retired emergency medical technician. I carried hurt cops to the hospital and helped rescue a shot cop. I had your back."

He said something sarcastic, along the lines of "That's great," and went away.

In the course of the night, I never told anyone I was a lawyer. I didn't want to be treated differently (and I didn't know if that treatment would be better or worse).

I did tell the cops I was an EMT because I weanted them to understand they had arrested someone like them, someone who had once been their valued co-worker.

After a little while, the courteous cop walked me to a van. "When you were an EMT," he said, "did you ever get dispatched on a job you didn't want to do?"

"Yes," I replied.

"That is my situation." He helped me climb into the back of a small, strange white van, with barely enough space for two prisoners in the back. I was puzzled that the police department would purchase vans that small. A few minutes later they brought another arrestee, a kid I will call Fred, and seated him next to me. Then we drove for a while, stopped, the driver got out, nobody told us anything and we sat for about an hour in the airless and increasingly hot van, until I was on the verge of banging and shouting to get some attention and information.

The plastic ties they use for mass arrests supposedly get tighter if you struggle against them. Mine hurt, but Fred's were much tighter. He asked me if his hands were blue. "They are bright red," I said.

I was worried about my wife and wanted to let her know where I was. I found I could reach around to my left side and retrieve my phone from my pocket. I decided not to try to dial it, partly because I couldn't see, partly because I was afraid the cops would intervene and damage it.

Fred and I, perhaps unwisely, told each other the stories of our arrests. "Do you think they're listening to us?" I asked. "That could be a camera, and that could be a mike," he said, pointing to features on the ceiling of the van. Later, when I asked an experienced criminal defense lawyer what the chances were we were monitored while talking in the van, he replied, "Zero".

Fred was a self employed twenty something, with a growing service business, and he worried about tending to his clients the next day. "I had an email ready to go to my girlfriend when I came down here, but I forgot to press send." Fred had been beaten, thrown to the ground and sat on by the cops. I wondered if my age and gray hair had spared me the same.

After an hour, cops opened the back door of the van and took Fred out. I was alone another ten minutes or so before I too was removed and taken to stand in a line ahead of two women. One was a working radio reporter with her press credentials around her neck. She was stunned but businesslike, asking the cops to call her employer--simply by hitting redial on her phone--so she could explain why she hadn't phoned in to a live broadcast. Nobody would help her. She told me she had been interviewing a riot cop, or trying to, when she was abruptly arrested without explanation. The other woman was very young, possibly a teenager, weeping from the pressure of the cuffs. The cops cut hers off a while before they removed ours.

Over the next twenty minutes, I was repeatedly photographed with ancient Polaroid cameras--possibly three or four times-- and asked for the same information--name, date of birth, address--over and over. (A few hours later, a cop came to one of the holes in the cell's plexiglass to ask for my "pedigree" yet again.) A cop patted me down very thoroughly, an experience which is personal and rude. Someone cut the cuffs off, and I was placed in a huge, double holding cell, almost empty except for Fred and a couple of sleeping men who had probably come in much earlier. I think Fred and I were actually the first two people to be arrested near Zuccotti that night. The people who had been in the park itself did not start arriving until three hours later. I had no watch--my cell phone, change and keys had been confiscated--but I think I was in the cell by about 3:30. I was released around 8 a.m. By the end of the night, that huge cell had about 80 men in it. There would be no room to sit, barely any to move, no air conditioning and for most of the night, no water.

Fred and I started talking again and he gave me a card. We friended each other on facebook so I now have three major groupings of friends: theater, document review, jail.

Every few minutes, more men came in, including one of the major figures of the night, whom I will call Tommy. He's something of a public figure and probably would not mind being identified, but I will leave it up to everyone I met to decide what they want to tell. Tommy is a professional activist, and also very funny; he kept up a running monolog to the cops, every time one opened the cell or came near the plastic: he knew which precincts were notorious for selling drugs or guns, or for raping intoxicated women, what salaries the officers made assigned to central booking. At one point, when a high ranking cop came by to get a look at us, Tommy yelled: "That's the worst suit I've ever seen! Where did you get that,Sears?" One of his themes was that the cops were just like us, ill paid, scrambling to get by, with those assigned to central booking the most hapless of all.

"Where are we?" I asked. "One Police Plaza," was the answer. Central booking, the one they use for normal criminals, was elsewhere. We were in a facility in the building's ground floor used only for mass arrests.

The huge double cell, with a sliding door which could cut it in two but was fastened open with the same plastic ties we had been handcuffed with, had scuffed wooden benches, and two toilets in the back barely blocked from sight by tile walls. Along the plexiglass walls on the right as you faced into the cell, there were a number of speaking holes, and cops sitting at tables outside kept calling individual people over to the window. They were inaudible inside the cell once it filled up, so people near the window would echo the names until the particular young man sought would emerge sheepishly from the back and amble over to the window. Meanwhile, Tommy would roar every time: "We're not finding them for you any more! Come in and get them yourself!"

As the cell filled up, I observed that about every third or fourth man had cuts or bruises--the police had used their batons freely, as riot police often seem to do. One of our cellmates was a city councilman from Washington Heights dressed in a suit, and bleeding from a cut to the head. They held him another twelve hours after they let me go, something I can't figure out. We also knew there was a New York Times blogger in the cell with us, but he seemed to want to keep a low profile, and I never met him. I talked to a freelance photographer who like so many, had been arrested merely for pointing a camera at the police.

Spirits in the cell were high, and only a few people seemed uncertain or frightened. At one point, hearing chanting outside, we responded: "All day! All week! Occupy Wall Street!" As the night progressed, there were numerous "mike checks", possibly too many, I heard someone admonishing someone else, "You should only 'mike check' when you have something to say." At one point when I stood on the bench and yelled "Mike check" myself, I saw several people looking at me with an expression which clearly said, "Isn't grandpa adorable!"

That was in connection with an effort to get every new arrival on the phone to the National Lawyers' Guild. There was a pay phone in the lefthand front corner of the cell that would not accept coins, but could be used by calling 1-800-COLLECT. As the first arrestees arrived from the park, I spoke to one who had the number for the Guild written on his forearm and thought there would be someone there all night to take our names. "In case you disappear into the system," Tommy said, "that way they know to look for you." I called, a lawyer answered, and after that, all night long, as new arrestees came in, we made the call again, and twenty people at a time lined up to check in with the lawyer.

There was also an office style water cooler right beside the one, normal sized door to the cell. For an hour or two after I got there, it was empty. A cop brought in the large bottle and upended it, and we drank up that water in about half an hour. After that it stayed empty the rest of the night.

At about five a.m., the cops brought in a huge bag of peanut butter sandwiches. I heard that they had been seized from the kitchen at Zuccotti-- we were eating our own food--but I don't know if that's true. I usually hate peanut butter, but it was delicious halfway through my hours in jail.

The night was very fragmented and I was running on adrenaline. One of the mysteries was that a cop had pushed or struck me hard enough for my hat (which I did not miss until the next day) and my glasses to fly away, but I never felt any pain or aftereffects. I kept moving around and talking to different folk, eager to hear their stories.

Three men came in with U-shaped bicycle locks around their necks. They had chained themselves together in the kitchen at Zuccotti, but the cops had cut away the chains with torches, leaving the locks. The first to arrive was a white haired man older than me. I admired his consummate courage.

The women were in another holding cell, but when they brought them in they walked them past us, and the cheering was immediate and loud. Most of the female arrestees were high spirited, and the ones still handcuffed flashed V-signs behind their backs, while the ones already uncuffed blew us kisses.

There were two men in our cell who were more or less innocent by-standers. One was a rowdy, friendly guy who had come out of a bar and come over to see what was going on--and then was swept up for jay-walking. He had been arrested before, "but mostly for DUI", he said.

The other was a young African American man who was very upset, wouldn't talk to us, and refused to get on the phone to the lawyer. He had also been picked up while crossing the street. Later in the night, they took him away handcuffed again--I assume he had an outstanding warrant and had just been in the wrong place at the wrong time.

The culmination of my night in jail was when I became aware of a young man more badly injured than the others, who had a lump on his forehead the size of an egg and who had been fruitlessly asking for medical attention for several hours since they brought him in. Tommy and I began shouting at the cops, who made placating noises--"In due time"--and did nothing. Then another white shirt opened the door and asked if we wanted any more peanut butter sandwiches.

I said, "This kid has possible head trauma and requires immediate medical attention." He said, "We'll take care of that in good time. What about those peanut butter sandwiches?" I lost it and shouted, "I am a retired EMT and when I worked in the 911 system, I ran many calls into Central Booking. If you had called an ambulance for him it would be here in minutes."

A few moments later, they took the injured kid out of the cell and out of our sight. During a break between calls to the Lawyers' Guild, I called my wife and asked her to phone 911 and request an ambulance to the holding cells in Police Plaza, which she courageously did. I figured that once a call to 911 was on record, the city would have no choice but to dispatch an ambulance. I failed to tell my wife she was not legally required to give her name or mine (not that I minded), and after she reported the medical emergency, they transferred her to police who grilled her, referring to me as "the prisoner". But minutes later, we saw the first Fire Department EMT's of the entire night, some six or seven hours afer Fred and I arrived.

The cell contained at least twenty men who had been hit over the head with batons, thrown to the pavement, stepped on, and injured in other ways. Not one of them had been evaluated at the scene by ambulance people, and not one of them was examined during our hours in jail, until we started yelling at the cops.

Early on, I put my badly bent glasses back on my face, and everyone looked like figures in a Modigliani painting all night, making the experience especially surreal. A friendly man wanted to bend the frames back into shape, but I thanked him and declined. I wanted to keep them exactly as they are, for when I saw a judge.

One young man who had been arrested for what seemed to be the same conduct as me, was informed he would have to face the judge on a misdemeanor charge in the morning. I had heard the cops tell the radio reporter that she would be let go in about ninety minutes with a desk appearance ticket, and I thought most of us would receive the same.

Tommy was released a few minutes later, and as he was led away he gesticulated at me--"keep up the phone calls." I organized one more call as the older man who had come in with the bike lock was also released. They were getting rid of the old guys, apparently, because they called me out a few minutes after that.

I was led to a desk where a female cop handed me a desk appearance ticket for disorderly conduct and asked for the voucher I had been given for my property.

I said, "I don't have my stuff back."

She got exasperated and said, "OK, you want to walk all the way back here after they give you your things?"

I wouldn't hand her the voucher and the cop who was conducting me took me outside to an officer who sat with a huge pile of backpacks and handbags. And who said,"I don't have the small stuff here."

We were directed over to another officer who sat at a table outdoors, but he didn't have the property envelopes either.

"I'm not leaving without my phone and keys," I said.

The polite cop took me back inside, where he asked a white shirt: "Frank, you usually know what's going on."

"The small property is in the locker over there," said this man, gesturing. We went over to the locker, and a moment later I had my things, and the officer walked me to the gate.

There occurred the second remarkable conversation I had with a very human cop that night. He wanted to make sure that I knew he had not been at Zuccotti that night, had not arrested me. I assured him he had been decent: he had gone an extra mile to help me find my things, when the irritated cop at the table wanted to take the voucher and push me out the door.

He walked me to the guardpost and said goodbye. I nearsightedly started to walk the wrong way, but the cop inside the post directed me. When I got out to the street, there was no sign of the OWS "arrest support" volunteers I had been told to expect, but I gave an interview, wearing my bent glasses, to a New York 1 reporter and cameraman, describing the events of the night before as a "police riot". I have no idea if it ran.

My cell phone battery had died. I found a payphone, called my wife, then went into a McDonald's on Canal for an egg sandwich--comfort food after my night in jail.

What did I learn? Not very much I didn't already know. I had more evidence in support of a lifelong belief (also confirmed by my years as an EMT) \ that most cops are good people, and a few are crazy and cruel. I observed that the cops--some at least--are painfully aware they are being made the tools of people who are nothing like them, who don't care about them, who will even crush their union if possible--and who are using them against people who have the same problems, mortgages, student loans, healthcare, employment worries, they and their families do. But the most important thing I took away: there is a new law enforcement machine, being designed by someone in the background, and taught to the cops, that has as its sole purpose, the crushing of peaceful dissent: controlling marchers by forcing them to flow, like water, into pens made of barricades; the press being arrested, or herded away to another pen, merely for reporting; the selective snatching of protestors like myself, out of the crowd, on directions of a white shirt; the uses of pepper spray against the nonviolent; and, finally and inevitably, whether part of the methodology or evidence it broke down, the indiscriminate use of batons. The existence of a cell at 1 Police Plaza, used only when eighty people are brought in at one time. The strategy of issuing desk appearance tickets for disorderly conduct, like the one I received, to people who committed none of the seven categories of acts the law covers.

I'll keep you posted on further developments. And I look forward to writing about the arrest itself.