From Sidewalk to Slammer: A New York Teacher Gets a cheap education

Early this summer, I was arrested for participating in a political march and became one of the 7,000 people nationwide jailed as part of the Occupy movement. I was surprised to find myself part of this group, not having intended to commit civil disobedience or otherwise risk arrest.

The march was a Casserole, a style of protest seen recently in Chile and Canada, in which people make a loud clatter by banging on pots, pans, and other kitchen utensils. Casseroles had been occurring for about a month in New York City in solidarity with a student strike in Montreal, which had shut down universities there for three months. The New York marches also highlighted issues of educational access: student debt, tuition hikes, and cuts to public funding of universities. As a teacher, these issues are important to me, but I was drawn to the Casseroles as much for their style: their gesture of converting the tools of domestic labor into the cacophonous instruments of protest. As someone who served food at Zuccotti and cooked a lot for Occupy, it felt appropriate to get out of the kitchen and into the street. This was my third march, and, luckily, the first time I went with someone I knew, an old friend named Benin.

We showed up at Washington Square a little after 8:00pm. There were between 200-300 people milling around, listening to speeches, and getting ready to set out. In addition to the usual culinary noisemakers, a couple drums and a cowbell lent the evening a festive feel, though the police presence was noticeably larger than at recent marches. A little after 8:30, Benin and I moved with the crowd to exit the park at the northwest corner. A few protesters entered the street and walked against traffic, which was stopped at the light. Benin and I crossed Sixth Avenue and turned south at the gutter. But a few steps from the sidewalk, my legs were swept from under me. I was on the ground, my glasses knocked off, two buttons torn from my shirt, my knee hurting. I didn’t see who had done this, but I heard, “He’s on the ground,” and “We’ve got one. We only need one.” Someone bent over me and shouted, “It’s over.” Another voice: “Just take it easy.” Someone else said, “Put your hands behind your back.” I recovered my glasses with some trepidation, announcing that I was doing so. The comment “it’s over” struck me as humorous. I wondered what “it” referred to. The march certainly. “You’ve got me in the wrong movie,” I wanted to say.

As I was handcuffed and placed in a van, people from the march asked for my name. After calling it out, I nodded towards Benin to indicate he would give folks my information. A man yelled, “We love you, Rory!” Soon I was in the van, and my biggest feeling was the absurdity of the situation–being tackled by three large cops for crossing a street. The sense of farce increased as the two police officers, who were stationed in the Bronx, got lost repeatedly looking for the seventh precinct, a police station on the Lower Eastside. Benin trailed the van for a while as it circled Washington Square, and when I scooted over to look out the window, Officer Antwi asked what I was doing. When I mentioned my friend would be calling my family, he treated me to a lecture on paternal responsibility and then, improbably, on Martin Luther King: “You’re not following the King route. You’re going the Malcolm X route. You’re engaging in violence.” When I responded that I didn’t see how I committed any violence, he clarified: “You didn’t listen. You didn’t follow directions.”

The seventh precinct looked like a cross between an upstate pizza parlor and a strip mall office in the Midwest, maybe a tax return outfit. As I was checked in, Antwi said I would probably receive a Desk Appearance Ticket, which would let me leave the precinct in a couple of hours without going to central processing. He didn’t mention the charges, but I assumed (correctly as it turned out) they were disorderly conduct, a convenient catch-all.
I sit alone in a cell at the back of the station for about an hour, when I hear a female voice in front singing the Sesame Street song. She is referred to as “Sarge,” so I think, “could this actually be a police officer?” She is placed in the other cell, out of my vision. About ten more male protesters and one woman are brought in, mostly in their twenties and early-thirties. They include:
Jorge, 26, born in Mexico, grew up in Texas; at one point in the evening, he references Guy Debord’s Society of the Spectacle, though both he and I have trouble explaining it.
Tom, 20, who lives with his parents in Westchester and is still facing more serious charges from May Day. He is very angry to have been charged with resisting arrest: “It was the first time I didn’t resist!”
Joel, 19, does a lot of push-ups and explains how people think he’s an undercover cop because of his style and penchant for Oakley sunglasses.
A man in a dress shirt and shoes who immediately starts meditating. He avoids eye contact, and when someone says something to him he puts his finger to his mouth.
Julian, an anti-globalization veteran of the last 10 years.
A 20-year-old Goth kid who sings duets back-and-forth with Sarge, who is still down the hall. He explains he really wants his DAT so he make it to an Occupy after-party.
Jack, 57, was arrested on December 17, along with several clergy members, after attempting to occupy an abandoned lot owned by Trinity Church. Jack is HIV positive and has been on a hunger and medication strike for three weeks to draw attention to the issues surrounding his arrest.
Mark, late 20s, hipster, complete with coke bottle glasses. People ask if he is with the protest, and he gives the universal gesture for smoking pot. Learning of our situation, he frustrates several protestors by good-naturedly insisting that “Occupy” is a brand and that parodies cannot separate themselves from the media they criticize. I later learn he is an art critic and an archivist at the School of Visual Arts.

In general, I found the hours sharing a cell with ten other protesters challenging. There was a lot of anger and some taunting police, which mostly felt counterproductive, although I did chuckle at cracks about Officer Best’s cheesy forearm tattoo. Occasionally, heated arguments broke out, including over whether someone who got pretty beat up should ask for medical attention or whether he should forego it to expedite his release.

At 1:30 a.m. I was told that because I had an out of state driver’s license, I would have to go through processing at Central Booking, New York City’s downtown jail which is known ubiquitously as “the Tombs.” Jack got angry on my behalf, but he also freaked me out by making the experience sound worse than it would turn out to be: “It’s a nightmare. You can be in with murderers!” Julian, the anti-globalization veteran, tried to reassure: “It’s not so bad. You’ll find a corner and go to sleep. You probably don’t want to talk to people, but talking to people in jail is not such a good idea anyway.” Jack: “You can’t sleep–people will beat you up!” Julian continued to be mentoring, detailing how a trip to Central Booking should last about a day but might stretch into a second. Earlier he taught me an old jailhouse trick where you lay down on the concrete floor, mentioning that a shoe makes a pretty good pillow, which it does.

There were about a dozen protesters waiting outside the jail when I came out to be transferred. They started applauding. Throughout the whole process I was very aware of Occupy’s support as well as the help of the National Lawyer’s Guild, which offers pro bono representation to people arrested while protesting. Knowing they had my back made the whole process much easier.

Three officers drove me in a squad car to the Tombs. After learning that I was a fellow New York City employee, they became oddly jocular with me as they racked up overtime on my behalf. Upon arrival at the jail, Officer Best decided to show his sense of humor, perhaps in revenge for the protesters’ gags about his tattoo. Waiting for an elevator to take us inside, I watched as the police emptied the bullets from their guns. “Don’t worry,” Best deadpanned. “This isn’t the execution wall. That comes later.”

The Tombs lived up to its Gothic name. I was taken down several flights of concrete stairs and was led through winding, empty passages. There was a lot of standing around at checkpoints. I had a retinal scan and another set of mug shots taken. I also had a perfunctory interview with an EMT: I stood at the top of a flight of stairs while he sat twenty feet away, behind a desk, while a zombie show unspooled on a small TV. Following advice from my comrades at the seventh, I decided not to mention my swollen knee.

I got to my cell around 4:00am. In it, 14 men were sprawled out, 13 Black guys and a Latino, lots of people my age, in their mid-to-late 30s and 40s. I sat down next to Will, a guy in sunglasses. Upon finding out I was in for protesting he mentioned he spent a couple of days at Zuccotti, but couldn’t handle sleeping outside. The dominant personality in the cell was the Raconteur, who told a series of fantastic tales (snowboarding off a cliff in Tahoe, being with three naked girls from Dallas but being too stoned to make the most of it). Unfortunately, the Raconteur decided to take me into his act: “Those are expensive shoes; he’s got some money at home”; “He looks like Bernie Goetz”; “his hoodie is Nike too; I always know when people have money.” He also made a few comments about the protests being for whites only.

While this idea about New York Occupy is not really fair, certainly not in terms of its aspirations, it has a grain of truth. My cellmates at the seventh (eight of twelve were white) did not really approximate the demographic mixture of the movement. I would guess most Occupy marches in the city are about 90% white. The over-representation of black and Latino protesters in jail indicated more targeting by police–a targeting which parallels the day-to-day policing of New York streets, the biases of which were on full display in the cell in the Tombs. To the Raconteur, I mumbled a few things about Occupy turning out for the Trayvon Martin protests and anti-Stop and Frisk marches. But I began to sink into myself, practicing an abstracted stare, which came surprisingly natural. In fact, the Raconteur’s last taunt was “Man this dude is too cool–doesn’t he know we’re monsters in here?”
I still had Jack’s warning about violence ringing in my head, and while I was never exactly scared I was definitely uncomfortable. But fairly soon I came to realize there was nothing threatening about my cellmates. Before long people were embarrassedly recounting the trifles they were there for. The trivial nature of the offenses was astounding: things that white or rich people would have walked away from with a ticket at most. The offenses included riding a bike on the sidewalk, riding a bike against traffic, peeing in public, transporting fireworks, a lot of smoking a joint, and one case of dealing pot. One man in my cell had been out on bail awaiting trial for armed robbery, but now he had been arrested for possessing pot. He expressed scorn for the detectives who wasted their time on him.

The Raconteur and an older man named Taylor started talking about Harlem. When asked what part of Harlem he lived in, the Raconteur replied “All of it!” Taylor mentioned that he lived on 140th and 8th Ave, at which point I emerged from my abstraction to say I had been teaching a couple of blocks away from there at City College. Taylor said, “See, this guy is cool. Why are you giving him a hard time?” Taylor relished contemplating what I would teach my students tomorrow, and my nickname from the Raconteur evolved from “Player” to “Teach.” Over the next few hours, Taylor and I commiserated about missing our daughters and laughed about the excuses our partners were making up to cover our absence.

Around 6:00am a corrections officer read off names for morning court appearances, and six of my cellmates joined about twenty other prisoners in chain gangs going upstairs. Thirty minutes later, two more protesters arrived in my cell, Tom the kid who “didn’t resist arrest this time” and the hunger-striker Jack, whom I happily greeted. Other cellmates began to join our conversation about the protests and police violence. It quickly became evident why jail can be a powerful space for consciousness-raising: you have shared conditions, a common enemy, and ready examples of how the system works. There was a lot of cooperation too. People shared food and legal advice (some of it dubious), negotiated cramped sitting and sleeping space, tried to get the guards’ attention if someone else had an issue, and helped each other clean up.

Another dynamic that changed with the arrival of my fellow protestors was that people became at least a little more careful about using homophobic and sexist language (in general the amount I heard the phrase “faggots,” along with “bitches” and “cunts,” was upsetting and somewhat disorienting for me). But people were largely caring and polite with Jack as an out older gay man. I never heard slurs directed towards him and on at least two occasions someone apologized for saying faggot–“you know how I mean it.” Jack would just shrug his shoulders and smile sadly.

There was a free phone in the cell, and I called my wife a couple of times. Overhearing other prisoners’ conversations was a window onto how the damage of arrest spills outward. The man up for armed robbery, which carries seven-to-fifteen years in prison, yelled at a significant other over the phone about the triviality of the new offense. When Tom called home, his father kicked him out after hearing he had been arrested again while awaiting trial. Tom hung up on his mom when she told him to be more conscientious.

“Have more conscience?” Tom said exasperatedly, “I wish I didn’t think so much!” Tom broke down in tears, and Taylor reached out to him as a parent. He told Tom his parents love him, and talked about how slow parents are to come around to respect the things their children do.

Jack and I had more constructive conversations in the Tombs than we could back at the precinct. He described his four previous arrests over fifteen years, including his first arrest at the Matthew Shepherd protest in the late-1990s which drew attention to anti-gay violence. Jack also made a point to ask about how I was feeling. Following a conversation about how the arrests are meant to intimidate he said, “Not to offend, but are you intimidated?” I responded that I was on two different levels. Not only had I seen how easy it is for the police to detain people who are simply at a protest, but the experience was giving me a concrete sense of the system that I’d only understood intellectually before. I knew I was only grazing the tip of the structure, but even this glimpse showed the massive array of force that defends the status quo. A landscape of prisons spread out before my imagination, each designed to humiliate, stigmatize, separate, isolate. I said, “How does one fight against that, let alone transform it?” Jack said, “this whole thing has to be torn down.” I said, “I know, but the question is how.” Jack said, “you have to keep fighting, tell all your friends about what happened to you, put it in a blog.” This article is my small effort to honor my new friend’s advice.

One of the most difficult things of the time was not knowing its duration, lacking signposts to measure progress, and indeed having few markers of time at all. Everyone played a guessing game of how long the process would take. Several times anger washed over me at the time the police were stealing. I imagined my daughter upset in the morning when I wasn’t there, and being more so if I didn’t make it home for dinner or bedtime.

But at 4:00pm my name was called right after Jack’s and I felt like Bob Barker had just invited me onto the Price is Right. I walked in a chain gang with four other prisoners up several flights of stairs. The guards told me repeatedly to move faster, but I couldn’t because my knee was hurting badly at this point.

Upstairs, there were twenty people in a waiting area, some of whom had been there since morning. I talked to an older man, probably in his fifties, who soon became embroiled in a debate with three others. A disagreement swirled around whether he should have run when caught with a joint in Central Park. “That’s youth talking,” he shrugged. “This way, I know it ends here.” His Legal Aid reported back that the prosecutor’s offer was three months in jail. I felt angry for him, but he was stoic and ironic. He explained that he had a decade-old felony conviction for selling marijuana. He was glad the prosecutor didn’t ask for six months.

Pretty soon I met with a National Lawyer’s Guild Attorney, who heard my side of the arrest and explained that I would be offered an ACD (Adjournment Contemplating Dismissal), which meant the charges would be dropped if I wasn’t arrested again within the next six months. Although I felt confident that the allegation that I was blocking traffic would not stand up in court, I was tired and wanted to avoid the hassle of a court date, so told him I would take the ACD. As I was called to the courtroom and said goodbye, one of the kids up for dealing called out, “This dude is our protester. Don’t fuck with him!” It hardly seemed necessary, but I appreciated it.

Entering the courtroom was to pass into a world of civility and decorum, with mahogany pews, men and women in suits, and lots of natural light. The waiting bench for prisoners was made from the same wood, signaling, I suppose, our equal participation in the affair. But on the inside of the elegant barrier that separated our bench from the rest of the court, prisoners had scratched notes from the Tombs, reminders of what structure this space sits above, what it depends upon and reinforces.

I waited for fifteen minutes in court, and then copping my plea took 45 seconds of the judge’s time. Outside the courthouse a support person from the NLG checked in about how my case was resolved and five or six people from Occupy doing jail solidarity offered me snacks. A medic in the group looked briefly at my knee, told me to ice it, and offered a cigarette, which I declined.

Getting home just in time for dinner, I was very happy to soak up the last rhythms of the day. But as we were eating Chinese take-out with my in-laws, who were celebrating their anniversary, I mentioned how I felt a wave of survivor’s guilt, mostly for the poor souls in the Tombs for another night but also for the people this system has its hooks in deeper.

During the experience, many of my cellmates had been able to sleep for a few hours on the cement floor, but I never managed to doze off for more than five minutes. Now, as I lay down in my own room, I was kept awake, by recollections as well as a new emotion: a euphoria, as if I were buoyed up on a swell.
So often while organizing, apathy or indifference appears the real enemy. Many times I’ve had to swallow a sense of embarrassed futility while making a minor ruckus in a day that seems hardly disturbed. But we stand in a moment of possibility and openness, even if it has shut some since last fall, and that moment is attested by the fact that a few hundred kids beating on pots and pans can seem to those in power a serious and dire threat.
Special thanks to n+1 who published an earlier version of this piece at:
The names of all protestors and prisoners in this article were changed, excepting Jack, who is publicly identified with the movement