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)
Processing took a long, long time. Officers barked orders and made us stand with our noses to the wall while waiting in between different steps. Wrist ties were cut and they proceeded to move us around from room to room for hours. Pockets of twenty or so people were stuffed into small, filthy holding cells with no bathrooms. While sitting around talking with folks, I discovered that most of the people taken from the park were also being charged with Felony Riot. Everyone I spoke with was anxious over the implications of having a Felony on their record and the prospect of being kept in County Jail for an indefinite amount of time.
After being finger-printed for the first time, I was made to sign a property waiver, at which point I discovered there was no record of my wallet, ID, cell phone, or bank card in my ‘property’ at all. The officers had been refusing to answer any of our questions and gruffly snapping orders since the park but now I refused to be easily brushed off. “Officer, I’m here writing an article for a paper in R.I., over a thousand miles away. If you lost my wallet, my ID, my phone, and all my money, then what am I supposed to do? I won’t even be allowed to buy an airline ticket, let alone get on a plane. I need to know where my stuff is…” The officer looked like he had a split second’s worth of remorse but it disappeared just as fast as it came. He said there was no way to know where my stuff was or if they even had it. The best I could do was track down the Police Station of my arresting officer when I got out.
About twenty of us were now crammed back into a small room with two large windows facing the hallway. Peering out we saw the cops escort an enormous scowling man with black boots into the hall. He had to be at least 250 pounds with tattoos and a shaved head. They took off his zip ties and deposited him in the room right next to ours. He immediately stuck his nose up to the pane glass and began mouthing threats at us: “You’re dead meat” and “I’m going to kill you.” This terrified some of the people in our cell at first but a closer inspection showed that the room holding the man was in fact not a holding cell at all. It was a questioning room with a desk and a cabinet. Shortly after, another cop brought in some papers and we saw that the door wasn’t even locked and our supposed psycho was as actually an off duty cop brought in to frighten us (many of whom had little or no previous jail experience.) Later the same guy was spotted laughing and hanging out with the other on-duty officers behind one of the processing desks.
I was in the cell long enough to make friends with some of the other arrestees who’d been on the bus with me from the park. We began singing and telling stories to pass the time and boost morale. The oldest guy with us, a photographer from an unnamed paper, sang a beautiful Irish labor song. I performed a poem of mine called ‘Dig’ with an intro from the anti-war traditional ‘Down By The Riverside.’ People applauded and stomped on the floor. Shortly after a cop came in and screamed at us for singing. He cursed at us and said that our “racket” was preventing them from doing their jobs and if they couldn’t process us then we’d be stuck in this cell for a long time. People were respectful to him but he seemed shocked that nobody was scared or apologizing. He left in a huff and slammed the door behind him.
I honestly cannot say how many more rooms they moved us to after that. Maybe as many as ten or eleven. It seemed very similar to a defense department tactic used on enemy combatants known as “Frequent Flyer.” The idea is that you constantly move prisoners around in order to keep them confused and hopeless. You keep pushing them from one place to another, allow them to think they’ve gotten to where they’re going for the night and get comfortable with the people they are currently being held with, then just as they start to relax you move them to a another room with different prisoners. It’s quite effective in rendering prisoners disillusioned, dispirited, mentally exhausted, and easily pliable. We had been in custody for all day and whether the Ramsey County “frequent flyer” treatment was part of the plan or not, I noticed it taking a toll on those around me.
After what seemed like hours, an angry officer with a clipboard stepped into our holding cell and began calling names. But we had questions…
“Officer, do you know what time it is? Do you know where we’re going?”
“I don’t care what time it is, and you’re not gonna like where you’re goin’.”
“Do you know when we can use the phone? What time court is tomorrow?”
“You ain’t going to see no judge tomorrow, you boys are gonna be in here for a long time…”
“Come on, man. Can’t you just tell us?” ”
“I can tell you that if you don’t shut your mouth I’ll do my best to make sure you wind up on the third floor with the rapists and murderers far away from all your little protest friends.”
I tried hard not to show it but my stomach sank. I think everyone’s did. It seemed fairly obvious that up to this point the police had been intentionally keeping all the protesters together and I didn’t really believe that we’d be assigned to a floor specifically for violent offenders but I also knew they could do anything they wanted with us. What got to me the most was the way he spoke so surely about us being in for “a long time.” How long would it be, two days? Till the end of the Convention? Longer?
When my name was called I was led down a short hall lined with shower stalls that didn’t have any actual shower faucet heads. There were grimy yellow walls and a moldy, rancid meat smell that filled both nostrils. An armed guard led me to one of the stalls and said, “Strip. Then put your clothes in that crate.” Excuse me? “TAKE OFF YOUR CLOTHES AND PUT THEM IN THE CRATE.” Everything in me wanted to refuse. I hadn’t done anything and they had no right to keep me there. Blood rushed into my face as I looked the huge man up and down; I saw that he was tired and very irritated. Not abusive like the other officer, just worn out and seemingly nearing the end of his rope.
I was more angry than scared but I knew it would be dangerous to tap into that kind of venom. This is how the Law ensnares peaceful people into more trouble than they were swindled into in the first place. I switched my focus. “Remember everything and then write it all down,” I thought. “When you get out, win this case, and publish every last detail.” I took a deep breath and removed my clothes.
“Turn around, face the wall. Lift up the bottoms of your feet, one at a time. Good. Bend over and touch your toes. Spread your ass cheeks; left, right. Good. Stand up, turn around. Lift up your sack, move it to the left, the right. Separate the shaft from your sack; left, right. Good. Now wait here and don’t move.”
He shut the shower curtain and left with my clothes. Naked as a newborn, I waited in the meat-smelling oubliette until he returned with another crate. “Now put on the uniform and wait till I come back.” The uniform was a bright orange jumpsuit, just like the images we’ve all seen from Guantanamo. I thought of all the people that have been held in that place for years without a lawyer, without rights, and I felt ashamed for how little I’ve done to advocate for their rights; to be accountable for what my tax dollars pay for. I thought of all the innocent people and those doing unjust sentences in American jails as well. I began to consider the implications of putting that suit on myself. It seemed that the simple act of stepping into it was a giving over in and of itself; a rendering, an acceptance of defeat, an admission that something wrong had been done. I mean, how many hours walking around in G-Bay orange before you actually start to think of yourself as guilty on one level or another?
It was late and I was incredibly tired. Once again I reminded myself that the Victory would be in making my way through this snake pit without them getting the best of me and following it up with legal action once I was released. My life suddenly felt distant and detached, like this was all happening in a movie or TV show somebody else was watching. My arms and legs slowly began to move (as if acting on their own accord), methodically putting on the suit. Mismatched orange socks in scummy, thousand-time worn County flip flops click clacked along the dull floors as we were finally placed in cells where we could sleep. Two guys to a cell about the size of a walk in closet, stainless steel lidless toilet, two mattress-less bunks, and one tiny sliver of a window with frosted glass you couldn’t see out of.
Before shutting us in for the rest of the night, the guards informed us that we were on 23 Hour Lock Down. This means that until we were released we’d only be allowed to come out of our cells and onto the main floor area for two 30 minute breaks a day. We would have to remain in our cells for every second of the other 23 hours. In addition to that, nobody would be allowed to use the phone until “later.” I thought this was just another intimidation technique, like, they have to give us our phone call, right? Once again I had terribly underestimated Ramsey County Jail’s ability and willingness to do absolutely whatever it wanted with it’s charges. The Bill of Rights is just a piece of paper, and in here, the Sheriff had absolute authority.
We were given a tooth brush, paste, soap and two paper-thin sheets for bedding. My roommate and I brushed our teeth and then collapsed unto our respective bunks. We wouldn’t have been taken to an actual prison cell like this if we were seeing a judge in the morning and we both knew it. It felt like a semi-permanent placement but we were too tired to care. I laid my head down and fell fast asleep.