Originally Published in
The Agenda (2008)
Providence Based Quarterly Newspaper
Label home to Prayers For Atheists
Off The Wookie (2009)
The official magazine of SXSW Festival (2009)
I opened my eyes the next morning not quite sure of where I was. A quick glance around confirmed that yesterday had not been a dream. Claustrophobia washed over me as I surveyed the walls of the tiny cell and the day got off to a sullen start but spirits improved dramatically by mid-morning when I was allowed to speak with an attorney.
The ACLU had taken all my info when I called them from the park. With diligence and a little luck they were able to locate me. The attorney explained details about my case and took down whatever family members’ phone numbers I could remember, as well as Slug from Atmosphere’s email. Slug lived in Minneapolis and was a longtime friend. I definitely didn’t want to bother him but things were serious and I knew he’d want to know what was going on. I was nearly shaking with happiness just to be outside of the cell and found myself trying to stretch out our meeting like a school kid stalling in the Nurse’s office, knowing full well that next class period was waiting as soon as the bell rang.
We were allowed to make phone calls at this point but only collect calls and even those seemed to hang up randomly in mid conversation. Sometimes it would hang up right in the middle of a call and then block you from calling the number you had just dialed saying “The person you just called has not yet set up a customer account with Ramsey County phone services. You must wait 30 minutes before calling again.” Being on 23hr a day lock down and only let out of our cells for half an hour at a time made it impossible to call anyone back in 30 minutes, and it was very difficult to contact people or get anything done.
Being an ACLU rep, my attorney wasn’t able to pay the bond for my bail but he was able to give me the numbers of a trustworthy Bail Bondsman’s office nearby. However, I couldn’t be bailed or bonded out because I hadn’t been arraigned yet. By law, Ramsey County could hold me for up to 48 hours without bringing me before a Judge, which meant I might be in here till Thursday morning or later. Our session ended with the attorney giving me his card and a handshake. He was very supportive and I felt a thousand times less alone knowing that he’d contact my family and start working things out. I’d also been able to take a few sheets of paper and a stubby prison pencil to make notes with.
Later that day, during my final 30 minute break from the cell, the attorney spoke with me on the phone telling me he’d gotten in touch with my sister as well as Slug. They were both working to find out everything they could and making plans to get me out as soon as possible. I spoke with them both for 45 seconds each before the phone cut out. My sister’s voice was the strongest thing I’d heard in years, it filled me with hope, like she was right there on the side of me. She explained to me that Sean had spoken with the lawyer first and then called her to ensure her that I wasn’t in any trouble and that things were on their way to being worked out. I thanked Sean for that before our phone connection was cut off and walked away feeling recharged.
The ball was rolling on the outside but inside Ramsey jail it was a decidedly mixed bag. Some folks were handling the situation really well and others were not. There was a guy who had the flu, which got worse over the course of the night. His cell was drafty and they wouldn’t give him more than the standard thread bare County sheets or medical attention. Another guy was in a cell all by himself and starting to get shaky about it. Under other circumstances it may have been better to have the space all to one’s self given the size of the rooms but we were on 23 hour a day lock down and his cell had ended up being nearly the equivalent of solitary confinement.
The correctional officers lovingly referred to our hall as “the pod” and the 1st floor corner of our pod was a room stuffed with people. Apparently they’d filled the other twenty or so rooms with two inmates each (except for the one guy in semi-solitary) and all the extra people had been put in that one corner room. During one of the breaks I was able to peek in. It looked like a Yoga class in Hell with prisoners lying on mats in columns and rows taking up nearly every inch of the floor. I suddenly felt unusually gratefull for my cell with stiff bunk and lidless toilet. As I passed, I made eye contact with the guys inside, held my fist high in support, and tried to look tough. I went back to my cell and worked on an outline of everything that happened thus far, making notes, trying to keep details fresh for my story and for my case.
The hours passed slowly. Sometimes we called to each other from the cracks beneath our cell doors checking to see what time it was or if anyone had heard any news. I had found a shitty Dean Koontz novel in a rack of old books they let us choose from. At a certain point in my life it would’ve been a real score, but now? Not so much. Cliche plot, simple characters, and a lot of rehashed pop culture concepts but it was enough to take my mind off things.
During breaks from the book I thought about the Convention and how people out there were being treated. Today was Tuesday and my good friend B. Dolan was playing the big show on the Capitol lawn with Dead Prez and many other acts. Different stories were circulating amongst the arrestees, it was rumored that Rage Against the Machine might be playing a surprise set and also that many more people had been arrested over the course of the previous evening.
The RNC arrestees on the pod went out of their way to be support eachother, making jokes whenever we could, sharing stories, asking around to be sure everyone had spoken with a lawyer, and doing anything we could to keep spirits up. From speaking with our attorneys and family outside we learned that legally they were only supposed to be able to hold us for 48 hours without bringing us before a judge, but it was impossible to know when that 48 hours began according to the Sheriff of Ramsey County. Would they let us out whenever that 48 hours was up? Did they plann to keep us in longer? Would I be out in time to cover the next day’s events or the final day of the Convention?
We got an unexpected answer as to how the concert at the Capitol went later that day. A large crowd of resolute attendees and RNC protesters left the state house lawn after the show was shut down by police and began marching through the city picking up supporters as they went. The march passed Ramsey County Jail and hundreds of people stopped to cheer ferociously for those of us inside. We could hear them from our cells as sound bounced off the buildings on the street and everyone ran to their doors to get a better listen. The guards looked alert, as though maybe a siege of ghosts belonging to all the innocent people who’d ever spent a night in that foreboding place had suddenly risen and was now crashing down around them. The prisoners in our Pod cheered back, it felt like a rescue scene in a movie. Needless to say, this wasn’t Hollywood and no matter how much the people in that crowd wanted their friends, family, and fellow activists freed, no one would be let out that day. Nevertheless, it felt good to know that we weren’t forgotten and that so many had marched to support us. Was B. out there cheering with them? I forgot the cage around me for a moment and smiled to myself, thinking of all the events he and I have attended together through the years and hoping that the storm troopers outside hadn’t got their slimy mitts on him.
Day faded into night. My roommate was a photographer and one of the most friendly people I’ve ever met. We talked for a long time about the election in November and the dangerous ways in which things were changing for America. It was quite obvious to both of us that authorities are using more and more Riot Police in unnecessary situations all the time. That riot police seldom de-escalate any situation, but rather, are much more likely to create tension and often intentionally provoke a negative response from the crowd. All the gear, body armor, high tech weapons: the rubber bullet guns, helmets, visors, knee pads, shin guards, utility belts, batons, mase hoses, bean bag guns, tasers, hydration backpacks? The sound cannons, flash-bang grenades, riot vans, helicopters, video, photo, radio, and surveillance equipment, the intelligence, infrastructure, and administration of it all? All the over time pay? It costs MILLIONS.
Weapon making corporations employ an army of lobbyists in Washington. These advocates push for legislative changes that require the use of riot police in more and more situations. The more situations that occur where authorities successfully demand that the use of riot cops is necessary, then the more laws will continue to change in favor of mandating the use of paramilitary crowd control in nearly any instance they wish. At which point, more and more riot gear and equipment will be needed, the profit margin will continue to grown, and the circle repeats. Match this phenomenon with any number of Defense Department programs desperate to solve / create problems in order to justify their budgets and an Administration bending its will to convince America that there are terrorists around every corner, and you can bet we’ll all be seeing many more lines of heavily armored officers on our streets for a long time to come.
They’re already using riot police at anti-war protests and immigrant’s rights rallies. Riot police called in to “keep Boston safe” during the American League Championship Series in 2004 killed a 21 year old student at Emerson College named Victoria Snelgrove when she was shot in the face with a supposedly “non-lethal” projectile rifle. Should we expect para-military riot police at peaceful Labor rallies and Marriage Right’s press events next? Will we then see them called in for holiday parades or any public concert? College sporting events and Little League games too? We are on a very slippery slope and it isn’t difficult to imagine how things could go from bad to worse in a relatively short time.
My room mate and I eventually fell asleep but were woken up promptly at 3:30 a.m. which is when they serve breakfast in County Jail; all part of the program to keep prisoners disoriented, dispirited, and obedient. To the best of my knowledge, the logic is that if you startle people out of a deep sleep to eat at 3:30am then they’ll do it quickly and go back to bed. Then they wake up hungry and looking forward to lunch around 11pm, have dinner at 5pm, and are docile and ready for bed around 9pm. Eating breakfast 2 hours before dawn is early, even by a farmer’s standards, but there wasn’t much of a choice so we ate.
A new guy who had been picked up by RNC security forces days before us was moved unto our pod during the night. He seemed scared and said that he had been arrested by RNC security forces on Saturday afternoon, which meant he had already been in custody for over 4 days and still hadn’t been arraigned. The rest of us had spent two nights in jail already and had all been counting on being released soon. After listening to him everyone we now understood that we might actually be staying for longer than anyone had originally feared. The news spread from cell to cell like a dirty secret and before lunch all the arrestees on our pod agreed to collectively refuse food until we were allowed to see a judge or be let go. Lawyers and family members were alerted on phone breaks that we would be hunger striking. This was done in order to make our intentions clear and also to indicate that additional medical attention might be needed.
As morning crawled along and the late summer sun touched down on the outer pane of my glazed window I tried to put the prospect of skipping dinner out of mind. It was low quality lunchroom food (under cooked rice, white bread, canned apple sauce, and maybe a packet of high fructose peanut butter) but I had foolishly missed breakfast on the day of the arrest. That, matched with 2 days of these prison meals, had me feeling thin and weak. Suddenly there was a clamoring in the cells and my roomy and I flew to the door quickly pressing our noses against the small window. There were now guards walking in with paper work and voices coming from arrestees out of door slots. They seemed to be taking us out one cell at a time. Finally, almost exactly 48 hours after we’d been taken from the park, we would be brought before an actual judge.
We all cheered and the guards bellowed for us to shut up. But after two days on 23 hour-a-day cell lockdown the excitement was not containable. Visions of stretching my legs, breathing fresh air, getting a real meal, and holding Rheanna’s hand were all I could think of; Rheanna is one of the people I was listening the concert with when we all got arrested. I hadn’t seen her since Monday and had know way of knowing if she was alright. Excitement was high at first, but it eventually leveled and crashed. We realized getting off the pod didn’t really mean much for the immediate present and that this process would also take a long slow time. We were moved from room to room, again, and then finally wound up in a big holding cell next to meeting rooms where a bunch of ACLU affiliated attorneys and Public Defenders were waiting.
Slowly but surely they packed the holding cell with nearly 50 people and one by one we were allowed to speak with a lawyer. The attorney I’d been working with called me out and explained that this was basically just a bail hearing and it would be very fast. He said that my friends were waiting to bond me out but that I might not actually be released till later on that night. It all depended on how quickly they processed me and whether or not the cops had specific plans to stall our release. I was so ready to go home I could almost taste it. Three days of eating peanut butter and jelly on the lowest quality white bread known to man, suspect looking fruit, and that thick, dry rice… my mind went wild thinking of all the things I’d eat when I got out.
After I was done speaking with him they brought me back to the holding cell to wait again. Shortly after a guard led me toward the courtroom. He opened a door, push-steered me through it, and then very quickly closed it behind me. I soon realized that I was in a small prisoner’s alcove sectioned off by a high wooden wall and thick clear plastic above.The whole courtroom turned and stared at me in my orange Ramsey County prisoner’s jumpsuit. The prosecutor wanted bail set at $4,000. My lawyer got it down to $2,000 and the judge ordered me back to court on September 30th. The whole thing might’ve taken 90 seconds and I didn’t even get to speak. After all that time in the cell and all that emotion, I felt like I was owed some sort of expression, but it was just a bail hearing and they weren’t even accepting pleas. I felt disenfranchised, humiliated, and enraged all at the same time.
Back in the holding cell everyone was talking and sharing details, trying to figure out what was going on. A few local people had gotten really low bail but most of ours had been set up around $2,000. There were a bunch of younger guys in there with us. One of them was really shaken and on the verge of tears. He was white trashy like me, reminded me a lot of my neighborhood growing up, and it seemed he had misunderstood what the public defender had said to him. He was anxious and shivering, said that he wouldn’t have the money for bail and would have to stay in County Jail after all of us had already gotten out. Said that his parents didn’t have the money and none of his friends did either. He swore he hadn’t done anything illegal but started talking crazy about taking a guilty plea to anything they offered. My roomy and I sat him down and explained how the bonding process worked and that it wouldn’t be hard for him to get someone to throw down 10% of the bail. He just had to keep his head and hold on for a little longer. We borrowed a pencil from a guard and wrote down the number for the bondsperson my lawyer had given me. The boy squared his shoulders and shook my hand. Much of the frantic look had left his face, but he still seemed so young and vulnerable. We did our best to make him feel supported and kept an eye on him for the rest of the time we were in the same cell.
Shortly after, they began moving us from room to room again. It was irritating but the idea that we were actually being processed out began to set in and my spirits rose. Also, for a short while, we were placed in a room across the hall from a bunch of the girls also taken at the park, and others from “the parking lot” (which we had found out was the location of another mass arbitrary RNC arrest site.) We could hear them singing and it felt good; good to know they were safe, good to know they were weathering this whole mess seemingly much better than we were, and good just to hear the sound of their voices. They peeked in the door windows and smiled at us. It was unquestionably the high point of the preceding 40 or 50 hours.
However, much to my shock and dismay, when I was finally called out of the cell I discovered that I wasn’t being released. Rather, I was brought back down the same dark hallway full of shower stalls without faucets from two nights before. Instead of giving me my clothes back, I was actually subjected to a second strip search only to then be brought back out to a different pod and placed in general population.
I could feel the heat rise into my face, standing completely naked, once again surrounded by that dirty meat smell, with my hands on the wall. Déjà vu. The internal struggle to rebel all over again. I couldn’t believe this was happening. I was made to turn around, bend over, and display my genitals from all angles before another huge guard and his gun.