By the time I was escorted to the paddy wagon, my right hand was already numb. Years ago, I was a correctional officer for a short time, so I know how these cuffs are supposed to be applied. I told my arresting officer they were too tight. The right sleeve of my shirt was sticking to my elbow where my blood, from when the police officer unnecessarily threw me on the ground, was soaking into the cloth. But he didn’t seem to care. Once locked in with eight other arrestees, we drove off. In the back of the police wagon, we tried to predict how long it would be before we were released. We agreed they were definitely not letting us out in time to make the night actions, which meant we were likely being held overnight. We told some stories and got to know each other a bit. The two small, caged windows blocked out most of the light and the large ragged spare tire on the floor left us little floor space for our feet. I guess it’s not supposed to be a comfortable ride to jail. Officers in the front were complaining about all the miscommunications going on. They seem to have been told the wrong place to take us and were turned away. When they started complaining fervently about the condition of their beat-up and broken vehicle, we laughed, and shouted comments like “that’s why you need to join us make the one percent give up money for NYPD equipment!” From then on, the driver was kind enough to slam on the breaks at every stop and turn corners without slowing down so the nine seatbelt-less prisoners would slide, bounce, and bang around in the back cage.
Walking into the courtyard outside prison was like a reunion of sorts. Activists found familiar faces and offered each other comforting smiles. Standing there, officers seemed incredibly laidback. Out of the fifteen or more officers checking us in, only one seemed to be consistently rude to us. Many were even nice to us. Finally, the same officers who an hour earlier threw us to the cement and piled on top of us, took the time to cut the overly tight cuffs and apply new, appropriately tightened cuffs to our wrists.
We moved through the check-in process and officers took and filed our property, then brought us to the holding cell. While in holding, the 99 percent activists were in full form. Every time a new male comrade was brought through the door or a female comrade passed our cell on the way to the female holding cell, we hugged, slapped hands, pounded on the walls, stamped our feet, chanted, sang, and danced. “WE! ARE! The 99 Percent!” It was wild. We shared our stale cheese sandwiches, stories, ideas, and poetry. The strong solidarity can be summed up by one prisoner who mic checked “I just want to say, you all have given me hope again.”
When I was taken from the holding cell to process, one officer courteously applied my fingers to the fingerprint-scanning computer, another officer in the room serenely stated, “We really appreciate the work you all are doing.” The scene was a bit surreal. After the mass police violence against protesters, all the standoffs, and being arrested violently that same morning, to hear an officer of the NYPD openly thank me as if he had nothing to hide was quite shocking.
I have always taken the position that the NYPD institution is made up of many individual people that include supporters and adversaries of Occupy Wall Street. Looking at the officers that surround the park or marches, it is easy to see that some sympathize and refrain from judgment while others are marked by disdain for the activists. However, when the lines of robotic looking riot-police approach non-violent protesters in strict formations and execute violent crowd-control tactics and arrest indiscriminately, it is easy to forget the human element of the NYPD and only see the institution. At these times, it appears that any and every officer just follows orders to dehumanize and unjustly beat American citizens. It is impossible to see any internal conflict or restraint on behalf of individual officers; rather it is one force, massively and violently oppressing people.
Back at the holding cell , the verbal support from officers continued into the next day where several of them approached us in central booking and engaged in hours of conversations that are indistinguishable from Liberty Square debates, aside from the huge metal bars bars between us of course. Conversations with the officers spanned across topics of the economic and political structures we are confronting. According to their words, they are supportive of the cause. Some disagreed with the tactics of our protests, some did not. Police are like working class folks, they just have badges, guns, power, and privilege. That said, as individuals, they are still victimized by the political and economic institutions that oppress our society. Of course some of them agree with us. But if that’s the case, why the violence?
During the conversations, I condemned them for the institutional violence. I think people that break the law should be arrested, even if it is in protest, but police power and authority must be in check. For example, protesters should not be moved from a sidewalk just because police say so. They have just as much right to use the sidewalk as any pedestrian. I also think that police have a responsibility to protect citizens and property and also have the right to defend themselves in violent situations. However, the reality of the police violence at Occupy Wall Street does not fit this analysis. First, the mass police presence escalates tensions because they are preventing peaceful protest, not deterring possible violence or property damage. If the goal was to serve and protect, the NYPD would seek an appropriate balance. Secondly, a cowardice act of violence from a protester in a crowd of peaceful protesters cannot be an excuse to attack the whole crowd indiscriminately. It certainly cannot be used to justify attacking a different peaceful crowd the next day or week when there is no act of aggression from protesters what so ever. But this is the justification we are given/used as an excuse. NYPD officers should refrain from using violence as a way of forcing compliance from nonviolent protesters. There are plenty of nonviolent methods the officers could implement. Instead, they have been using violence in hopes of preventing protester violence, which is not necessary or effective. Finally, it is not acceptable that officers beat crowds of peaceful protesters indiscriminately to “protect themselves.” We are not talking about mass riots here. If a handful of people break a law or become aggressive, arrest them and maintain control peacefully. Instead, officers are drawing batons and pepper spray and wielding their institutional power.
One officer told me that most cops are just doing their jobs and following orders. That doesn’t justify their actions. He said. “We are all individuals and make individual choices.” I pressed him, saying, “I have been at these front lines. I am telling you your colleagues are beating innocent people for exercising their freedom of speech. I was tackled and arrested violently for marching peacefully on the sidewalk.” He replied, “If I was given that order, I wouldn’t do it.” I would like to believe him. I would like to believe that individual people that make up the NYPD are not the same as the institution, but it is increasingly difficult to do so. We don’t see these types of officers surrounding us on a regular basis. It is time for brave officers, who know what is right, to follow their hearts and say “no!” It is time for the real heroes to be human, stand up as conscientious objectors, and really protect and serve.
Colb – your story is inspiring; just imagine how the NYPD would act if they did not fear possible video of their acts (as was done so many times in our history). It is encouraging to hear about those who were kind and supportive – at least they seemed willing to engage in dialogue. With all their training, one would think they could handle a few who WERE violating laws, without resorting to the “mob” mentality themselves.
I loved the singing of our national anthem while you awaiting transport.
Be encouraged by the small victories across the country as the “people” fight back against injustice. Above all, stay safe and always think first before you act.
It’s difficult to separate the individual’s from the institution. And even when the officers are being nice, you can’t trust that it is genuine without putting yourself at more risk. It’s complicated. I don’t understand how so many people can actively participate in this type of oppression of citizens and not seem to care.
During the Occupy Times Square protest on October 15th, I met a political refugee from Poland. He was part of the revolution in 1989 that ultimately led to the end of Communist dictatorship. He was arrested, beaten and spent significant time in jail before he was released and fled to the US.
One of the things that he explained to me was that getting arrested is actually a valuable tool in enacting governmental change. The trick he said is to have massive groups participate in non-violent civil disobedience and be arrested at once. If the number of people is small and spread out over a long period of time and in many different places, the positive effect of the arrests will lose its power. He also suggested that we pick a song which we should sing over and over all across the country during our protests, occupations, and marches. All in all, he was a pretty cool guy with some interesting thoughts.
Colby, I sincerely enjoyed this piece. Thanks for taking the time to write it; I could imagine myself being in that jail cell with mic checks and our chants. I wonder, when were you arrested?
Oops, read part 2 before part 1. I was marching that day too with my mother. My father elected not to come as he was arrested on the Brooklyn Bridge march and held in a jail cell overnight and was shaken up.
Thank you for tanking the time to read it. And for being part of the struggle.