(Originally published in Newtopia’s September/October 2004 issue)
An inside look at a Peace Activist’s 48 hours of Hell and Solidarity during detention at the RNC.
“Our aim is to confront the administration with the death and suffering for which they are responsible: more than 10,000 Iraqis and Afghanis, as many as 1,000 Americans killed, thousands more wounded and scarred for life, as well as the economic victims of Bush policies – the unemployed, the uninsured, the undereducated. The Republicans have chosen to hold their convention in New York City to link George Bush and “Ground Zero.” Bush’s policies have created “ground zeros” of death and suffering throughout the world and we hold him accountable.”
-Statement by the War Resisters League regarding the “A31″ “die-in”.
The decision to engage in Civil Disobedience over an unjust law or policy is a solemn and profound commitment that is noble, but not to be taken lightly. To successfully pull off a direct action, certain conditions must be present: an identifiable and pressing cause for action, extensive organization and training by participants and their support staff, and legal and media support groups like Indymedia and the National Lawyer’s Guild, and most importantly, the physical and mental preparedness to handle the extreme stress and emotional volatility produced by such actions. The War Resister’s League has an 81-year history of organizing such actions as “die-ins”, where demonstrators take over a street, way, or facility by lying down “dead” and obstructing access or blocking progress, in a symbolic act of resistance against the senseless slaughter of war. Their most recent action took place on Tuesday, August 31 in the largest day of direct actions in a generation, known to us in the Movement as “A31″.
As a nationally recognized peace activist engaged in electoral politics, my decision to participate in “A31″ was a no-brainer. I felt compelled and obligated, and the transient period of discomfort and inconvenience I would suffer would be negligible in the face of the suffering that the family of Christopher Diaz endured after losing him in Iraq. Christopher Diaz was the person for whom I would “die” on the corner of 28th & Broadway. I wore his name on a sign around my neck. All I knew about him was that he was 34 years old, just like me.
In the planning and training for the “A31″ actions, the script was entirely familiar to War Resister League organizers: find a strategically important intersection in the vicinity of Madison Sq. Garden to take over, shut down, and cause a significant enough disruption of traffic and police patrols to draw sufficient attention to the action. Unfortunately, what was not on anyone’s scripts this time around was the response prepared by the NYPD, which proved to be the real story behind the week-long protest actions. In criminalizing Free Speech and Freedom of Assembly-which is precisely what happened in New York City this week-America has moved itself closer to the Orwellian gulag state that we activists have been screaming about for the last four years. The clear symbol of this abrogation of rights was a run down bus depot on a pier off the West Side Highway called Pier 57, but quickly renamed Guantanamo on the Hudson.
PHASE ONE – THE ACTION
After an entire weekend of stunning mass actions-the thousands of Critical Mass riders on Friday, the Green World festival on Saturday, the massive half-million strong United for Peace and Justice march on Sunday, and the explosive Poor People’s Marches on Monday-it was time for a different approach, to communicate a very different message. The mass marches were Populist, tailored for broad-based participation from all quarters of American society. These mass marches were safe, non-threatening, and mostly permitted. They were for celebrities and soccer moms, ministers and veterans and retirees. But as Tuesday morning crested across Manhattan, the populists had disembarked the SS. Protest and gone home to points near and far, while the hardcore activist community rose and prepared for their coming-out party.
“A31″ had been in motion for months. It was to be an entire day of decentralized actions of Civil Disobedience meant to throw the city into non-violent chaos, communicating a strong and consistent message of defiance not only to Old George and GOPers, but also to the security establishment which had turned the city into a literal Police State. The overarching plan was to surround on all sides the area in the immediate vicinity of Madison Square Garden, and then one-by-one shut down access, essentially imprisoning the GOPers in their castle on 34th St. Groups opting to participate in “A31″ were advised to form Affinity groups, small clusters of up to 10 activists who would work together on individually concocted CD actions, and then go to jail together. The only caveats to the actions were that they were to be creative and non-violent.
The War Resisters League held a training session early Tuesday morning for those of us participating in the “die-in”. There we were informed of the overall plan for the day, and then were lead through a series of exercises on the appropriate ways to perform Civil Disobedience, how to deal with hostile interlopers, how to deal with the police and your incarceration, how to perform jail solidarity, and most importantly, how to keep you and your fellow activists safe.
WRL’s overall plan for “A31″ was to hold a rally and vigil at Ground Zero at 3pm, and then at 4pm begin a solemn procession of mourners dressed in white up the sidewalks along Broadway to Union Square, where they would rendezvous with more WRL marchers, then continue uptown along Broadway until they reached the lower 30′s. As close as we could get to the intersection of 31st and Broadway would be where we would all “die”. We expected anywhere from 50-200 “dead” in the street.
Dying alongside me were Steve Greenfield, Secretary of the New Paltz Greens, Margaret Human, former Green candidate for State Representative in NY, and Frida Berrigan, the daughter of the late radical ex-priest Phillip Berrigan, who along with his brother Daniel performed hundreds of civil disobedience acts during the 1960′s, and became the victims of relentless harassment by the FBI. When we gathered for training, and then later at Ground Zero, I did not yet know the other 50 or so fellow “dead” who were to participate in the action. We had all come from different places around the country to do this one thing together, but we were basically strangers. That was of course very soon to change.
There was a distinctly menacing air around Ground Zero as we began to mass around the new entrance to the World Trade Center PATH station. Lined up around the entrance were US Troops and NYPD Tactical Response Units, each brandishing automatic weapons, each with their hands bound to the grip by a strap and their fingers on the trigger. Scores of police officers were taking video of the protestors, and singling out Organizers for extra surveillance. The hundreds of people milled about, carrying signs that read “No Blood for Oil” and “Not in My Name! Bill Douglas and the 911 Truth Movement folks gathered under their “Expose the 9/11 Cover Up! – The Bush Regime Engineered 9/11″ banner. Random marchers held up a sea of Bushocchio (Pinocchio ala Bush) dolls hanging on strings, their long protruding plastic penis colored noses casting shadows in the 90 degree late afternoon sun. Scores of WRL demonstrators dressed in white lined up along Church St. wearing signs around their necks with the names of dead American soldiers and Iraqi and Afghani civilians. All except for Steve Greenfield, who chose instead to laminate a copy of the constitution and wear it around his neck on a sign that read THIS IS THE ONLY PERMIT I NEED!
As the crowd grew so too did the police presence. By the time 4:00 came around, Church St. was lined with paddy wagons, and police officers on foot had formed a human barrier along the curb. Since it was not a permitted march in the street, an NYPD Captain announced by bullhorn, the procession was to use the sidewalk, which is permitted by law so long as the sidewalk is not completely obstructed and pedestrians can safely pass through unencumbered. The Captain instructed marchers to move ahead in pairs to avoid obstructing the way. But it was all a ruse. The police had no intention of letting us do even that. As the first 200 or so marchers, which included many of our friends, stepped off the curb and crossed Church St. to head east on Fulton to Broadway, the police closed in behind them, pulling across metal barriers that penned the marchers in on Fulton St. They then proceeded to arrest anyone on Fulton St., be they protestor, media, legal observer, street medic, tourist, or office worker on his or her way home. This before we even went a block.
It was the Police’s intention, by mass arresting the lead contingent, to effectively cut the head off the march and hope the body died soon thereafter. But few of the main organizers were actually in the lead contingent, and the people were really primed for this action. We met briefly with National Lawyer’s Guild representatives who explained that the lead contingent was being arrested, and after a half-hour delay, we restarted the march up Church St. to 6th Avenue while the police were busy loading the lead contingent into prison transports. We wound our way, a procession of hundreds in white, up through the sidewalks of the West Village, two-by-two, obeying every traffic light at every intersection to avoid giving the police cause to preemptively arrest us. We even managed at one point to elude the police for a good ten blocks or so until we reached the south end of Washington Square Park and were spotted again by a police helicopter. By the time we had rounded the park and were heading up 5th Avenue, the police had already begun massing north on 14th St.
Just after 7:30pm as we crossed 23rd St and Broadway we knew our time was running out. Up ahead we could see the bicycle police and a couple squad cars had blocked off any further progress north of 28th St. When we reached 28th St another NYPD Captain approached us and ordered us to turn left and head into “the designated protest zone”. We refused, and as the light turned red 50 of us bolted into the street and laid down in the middle of the intersection. A roar went up from the rest of the marchers and the crowds gathered on the sidewalks, and the Captain threw his hands in the air and got back on his radio. It was going to be a long, long night for him.
The last moment of peace I would have for the next 48 hours was as I lay on my back staring up through the urban canyon of Broadway at an immaculately clear evening sky, and all the street noise drowned away until it was just us, together, and the knowledge that we had done it. The police moved the barricades out to a one block radius on all sides. Steve and Margaret and I held hands and waited for the inevitable tap on the shoulder, ordering us to get up and out of the street or face the consequences. When that tap came, I smiled at my arresting officer and asked him how he was doing. He asked me if I was going to walk under my own power, even as he and his buddies rolled me over, plastic-cuffed me and then dragged me to the paddy wagon amidst a new wave of screams and cheers from behind the police barricade and the incessant flashing of cameras. Although I would sit in a paddy wagon for the next hour and a half as one by one they arrested all my fellow dead, the mood amongst the participants and the onlookers was electric in the face of a mission accomplished. It was certainly a nice sendoff.
PHASE TWO – GUANTANAMO ON THE HUDSON
We pulled into the RNC Detention Center on Pier 57 at approximately 10pm and disembarked into one of the strangest worlds I had witnessed in perhaps my whole life. We were fed into a gated chute where about 200 of us stood in a long line, cuffed, awaiting admission to the camp. The scene was completely raucous. The roar from the pens deep within the detention center was unbelievable. As each new contingent was taken from the chute back into the detention area, cheers would erupt that rippled and echoed across the expanse of space, rivaling those going on across town as the Terminator gave his fatuous address in which he called John Kerry a “girlie-man”.
Each arresting officer was responsible for approximately 6 “perps”, as they called us. Steve and I shared our officer, Andrade, #10728, with five other men from the “die-in”, one who was in his 40′s, the rest in their 50s and 60′s. I was also shocked to learn that all but one was participating in his first Civil Disobedience. When asked why, to the one they said, “because I’m seriously pissed off at what is happening to our country.”
Andrade, our arresting officer, was Latino, about 5’6″ tall, and looked about 25 years old. He was also pretty cool. He was quiet and polite, and when I explained I had a chronic shoulder condition that forced it out of joint all the time (true) he recuffed me in the front, even though he would later be reprimanded for it. I got the distinct impression he was not too keen on mass arresting people, but he also didn’t particularly strike me as the kind of guy to have an ideological objection either. Throughout the process it appeared like he was just trying to keep up. I never saw him move slower than a slight jog the minute they admitted us to the detention area. That was the case with most of the police there. It was complete mayhem.
When we were first arrested, a cop with a Polaroid took three separate shots of us next to our arresting officer. These photos were used to identify us and our property throughout the entire detention and booking process, and as we moved through each phase of the process more and more sheets of paperwork would become stapled to them until the point where officers were carrying around two inch thick stacks piled on top of each other. Our property was promptly stripped from us and deposited into plastic bags that were transferred to a back room on Pier 57 and eventually found their way to central property storage at 100 Centre Street. After release, many reported 4 and 5 hour waits to retrieve property, and there was quite a bit missing as well. Film and tape were removed from cameras and kept as “evidence”. We were permitted to keep our identification and any cash money we had on us.
The detention facility itself was a former wharf/bus depot that had perhaps a 30 foot high ceiling and ran approximately the length of a football field from end to end. As has been widely reported, the floor was covered with about 30 years worth of oil, diesel fuel, transmission fluid, grease, antifreeze and other assorted chemical solvents. It was pitch black and slippery, and when you walked across it your shoes made distinct imprints. The holding pens ran along the perimeter of the facility, and were comprised of 12 foot high sections of chain link fencing topped with swirls of razor wire. There were eight pens of equal size along the north and south walls, and then a massive single pen at the far western side that could have easily held a thousand or more people. There were a double set of access doors/gates to the pens, in between which were two porta-johns and a dispenser for bottled water. Inside the only amenities were two narrow benches bolted to the floor.
What was the most disturbing about the facility was the newly installed signage warning about potential exposure to dangerous or toxic substances, and instructions on where water and shower facilities were in the event of exposure. In other words, we interpreted, in the event that the police used mace, pepper spray or tear gas on us, they had clear instructions on where to go and what to do. The thought of one of them releasing an agent into the air inside that place was terrifying. There was no ventilation. People could die.
When we were herded into the first pens we were offered a chance to use the toilet and told to take one paper cup from a stack by the door, and that we would only receive one. We would sit in this pen until Andrade filled out our paperwork and got each of us checked in, and then we were moved down to another adjacent pen to make room for what appeared to be a never ending parade of new detainees being deposited by an equally unending river of transport buses, met by waves upon waves of cheers and chants. FREE US NOW! FREE US NOW! FREE US NOW!
Steadily the pen filled to capacity. A lucky few managed to stay up on the benches until their butts and backs gave out and they finally acquiesced to the toxic floor and stretched out along the lengths of the fence. Very quickly our clean white protest clothes turned an oily, smeared black, and within hours we looked like a collection of Homeless, our hands and faces covered in petrochemical sludge. There was no supply of fresh air to the facility, fumes were coming off the floor, and the air grew hot and fetid with the combined smell of steadily filling porta-johns, bus exhaust, body odor, and that sickening stench of prison-grade baloney. For myself, (as an annoying vegetarian) the baloney smell was worse then anything I could imagine. It smelled sickly-sweet like rotting carcass, and even worse as it was passing through the digestive tracts of a thousand desperately hungry detainees. Steve and I found a corner against the fence, propped our backs against it, pulled our shirts over our faces, and almost instantaneously drifted into this exhausted waking sleep. The cheers and chants went on and on.
All night detainees were transferred busload by busload over to Central Booking at 100 Centre Street, receiving the same cheers as they departed that they received upon their arrival hours earlier. Around 8:00am the next morning all the remaining men-some 500 of us-were transferred into the large pen on the western end and ordered to sit on the floor in lines that stretched from one side to the other. It was around this time that the mood began to shift. There was still a lot of solidarity going on amongst the remaining, but it was being slowly infiltrated by a growing rage as those who had not planned on getting arrested-seemingly half if not more-began to come unglued at their situation.
What exacerbated the situation was that 100 Centre St. was overwhelmed, and they stopped transporting detainees for a period of about 6 hours. There would be five or ten taken here and there, but for the most part it just stopped. It had now been about 18 hours since we in the WRL had been arrested, and neither Steve nor Margaret nor I had even begun the official booking process.
Imagine if you will that you were not a participant in an act of Civil Disobedience, but instead an average working New Yorker on his way home who had the unfortunate luck to come across a direct action taking place, and who was pulled into a big net cast indiscriminately by the NYPD. You are arrested and detained without cause, held in a filthy facility, and denied the ability to contact anyone on the outside, including your family, who after 18 hours or so are most likely frantic. No measure of jail solidarity amongst organized protestors can assuage the rage of these poor people, who began to lash out fairly regularly at the police. For their part, the police could have cared less. The officers on Pier 57 were interested in only one thing: keeping us off the streets. If perchance an innocent bystander was caught up, that was for them to work out for themselves later, all this while the Right to Free Assembly is eschewed right in front of us, on every block in Manhattan.
There is a saying that goes, If you aren’t outraged, you haven’t been paying attention! Suffice it to say that although I sympathize with those innocent bystanders who were arrested, I don’t pity them. For it is precisely those average people who will have the most impact on general public opinion about these new repressive tactics, because now they are paying attention in a world in which those around them still are not. So, they will make a lot of noise about what happened to them to make others understand, because they now finally have suffered an injustice on par with those who are in the most oppressed quarters of our society. Sadly, that group includes non-violent activists. Well now some of these average everyday Americans are finally outraged like the rest of us, and people will listen to them rant, because they look like them, because they are not the type of people to ever get arrested. Because they could do it to you too.
The other problem that began to emerge was that certain detainees, predominantly the younger contingent, had a very difficult time (if they tried at all) controlling themselves. They stood around shouting at the police, demanding their rights, demanding to be released, and when they were ignored they heckled police indiscriminately. To be fair, at this point in the process, even if there were a standing order from City Hall ordering the police to drag it out as long as humanly possible in order to keep us off the streets, the police had their hands full trying to get us out of there and they were just trying to get through the process. I am fairly certain they did not expect to process what turned out to be about 2000 arrests, and it showed in everything that was going on. The police were not going out of their way to harass us yet, although there were some notable incidents of power clashes between police and protesters.
As we were being herded into the big pen, a young guy refused to walk with his hands clasped behind him, and a cop rushed him, grabbing his arms and wrenching them behind his back. Instantly we all turned on the cop and booed SHAME! SHAME! SHAME! He barked back at us as his backup poured through the gate and surrounded him. Later, when the women were hungry and calling for food, the men all began chanting LET THE WOMEN EAT! LET THE WOMEN EAT! Many rushed the fence and began shaking it hard until the police closed in and began cracking the fence. A Captain came barreling through the melee barking through a bullhorn about keeping us until Christmas if we didn’t mellow out. The men would hear none of it, because there were still a couple hundred of us left, and the police weren’t bringing the women food.
About 8 hours later the outflow to Centre St. picked up considerably, but Steve and I still sat. We couldn’t discern any method to how they separated us out, but they were busy doing something while they organized us into piles. The space had opened up, but it was completely befouled. The porta-johns were overflowing and the stench was unbearable. Food had been ground into the floor. And the men were filthy, absolutely filthy, and people began to complain of medical issues like burns, rashes, nausea, diarrhea, headaches, and coughing accompanied by a dry burning sensation in the throat. As it turned out, Steve and I were among the last to be transferred out, and I left one busload before he did with about 20 other men. It was a prisoner transport bus, one with steel gates across every window and steel cages inside. It was unbearably hot inside the bus, and we were all quite concerned with what was going to happen next.
We knew by now that we were going to Central Booking to be put through the system. We hadn’t known that the night before, when there were rumors going around that we would just be given citations and set free from Pier 57. This proved to be ridiculously wishful thinking. So, the discussion turned to speculating about how long it would take us to go through booking. We had heard that the detention phase was the long part, and that the booking phase would go much quicker. Everyone expected to be out on the street within 24 hours, but it was already 4 pm when we left Pier 57, 21 hours after most of us were arrested. We thought, maybe another 6 hours. We should be out by midnight the latest, right?
Not even close.
As we pulled off the pier we saw through the grated windows a huge solidarity rally across the street, and a cheer erupted from those gathered as we passed by, and we screamed back to them, throaty and hoarse. It was exactly what we needed at the moment, and it cut the tension through and allowed us to stop talking about how long we were going to he held. As we flew down the West Side Highway, all of us with our hands cuffed at the rear, I struggled to stay planted on my seat next to a guy named “John Weddingdress”. Here was a truly grizzled Radical in his 60′s, tall and bald with a baseball hat and a long grey beard, big round glasses, wearing nothing but a hot pink sundress. The whole ride over to Centre St. we talked about marches and rallies either of us had been too-Seattle, Feb 15, March 20, D.C. Women’s, Miami, the DNC. He was mad as a hatter, cackling loud and friendly, but he wasn’t crazy. He knew what was going on in the world, and had an incredible sense of humor about it. The police just did not know what to make of him. He made me laugh, he made everyone laugh, and it was good that he did too. I was really worried about Steve. He was still back on the Pier.
PHASE THREE – CENTRAL BOOKING
TIME SINCE ARREST: 21.5 HOURS
Arriving at Centre St, another growing solidarity rally was building in the park across the street, full of green-hatted legal observers and medics and Indymedia chronicling the events as they unfolded, recording the arrival of every busload. They cheered us on as we disappeared into the security tunnel that led to “the Tombs”, the more familiar name for the Central Booking facility. We were taken off the bus, cuffed together with chains in a long line, and marched inside the facility, up into the first of a series of holding cells through which we would move over the course of the next full day.
The tone in Central Booking was distinctly different from that of the detention facility on Pier 57. There was, of course, the same amount of people in custody, and the same amount of police waiting to process us, but the space that we occupied had just been reduced by more than 90%. Each of the perhaps 15′X15′ holding cells were designed for about 10-20 people on a busy day, but we were stuffed in there 60 and 70 at a time. There was little room for people to sit or lay down, it was unbearably hot with no air circulation compounded by the mass of bodies packed tightly together, and the smell was becoming overpowering. In each cell there were two toilets and a filthy sink which sputtered out warm water that was undrinkable. Nevertheless, we were forced (and we forced others) to drink it to keep ourselves from dehydrating. The volume of noise was deafening as full pens of protestors shouted between the bars for food and water and access to phones, which we had not yet had more than 24 hours into the process. People were hungry, exhausted, and nerves were beginning to frazzle. You could see the anxiety hanging on everyone’s face. No one was telling us anything, and no one seemed to be going anywhere.
In the first holding cell I reconnected with three of the WRL men that I had been arrested with by Andrade, #10728. It was good to see them, but we all gave each other a wary look. While most of the younger men were engaged in antagonism with the police, the older men were just plain worn out. I was rapidly becoming very tired, so I backed myself into a corner under two benches on the filthy jail floor and attempted to sleep for as long as I could. Experience had taught me this was the best way to pass the time with the least possible stress.
Waking up about two hours later, the scene was still chaotic inside the cell. The police had distributed stale, rotting baloney sandwiches and a few boxes of dry cereal, and now the cell was beginning to fill up with trash as well, and food was being smeared into the floor. People were screaming for their phone calls, and the police were not too forthcoming. They told us our arresting officer had to give us the phone call, but none of our arresting officers were actually there at Central Booking. They had gone home hours ago because their shifts were over. No one had been pulled out of the cell in hours, and people were beginning to descend down that very dangerous path to where despair and rage meet. It was clear things were breaking down fast. Something had to be done.
I stood up and inquired with a couple of my more level-headed cellmates as to whether or not we should organize the cell. The consensus amongst them was that we needed an act of jail solidarity to break the direction we were headed, so we very patiently and politely asked everyone in the cell to participate in a meeting, and most of the men stopped what they were doing and formed a tight circle. I began to facilitate the meeting, first stating what I felt to be a fair assessment of the situation: We were stuck in an overcrowded cell together not knowing when we were going to get out, we were hot and tired and hungry and some of us were sick, and many of us were beginning to mentally deteriorate under the pressure. I advised people that the only way we were going to get through this was to band together and help make each other’s situation better by calming down, cleaning up the cell, and allowing others to get some rest. Most importantly, I recommended that the antagonism towards the police stop, because it was clear they were punishing us each time we lashed out at them, and even if they weren’t, it wasn’t doing us any good. Then I asked others to express their concerns, and we began to go around the cell.
Most of the men were just angry and needed to be heard. So many complained that they were arrested for just walking on the sidewalk, and they kept yelling about wrongful arrest and their rights and demanded to be set free. It quickly became clear to me who had been in jail before and who had not. What the general public doesn’t understand is that prisoners, even those who have not been convicted of a crime like us, have no rights. Possession is 9/1oths of the law, and they had full possession of us. We would have rights only under two conditions: if the police gave them to us, or if we demanded them through jail solidarity. “Peter”, one of the many who had been scooped up on the sidewalk but who managed to keep himself relatively in control, proposed we refuse food. I and ten others agreed we’d hunger strike if necessary for fresh water, fresh air, and less people in the cell. But the minute we began talking about doing that, as if on cue, a police officer appeared and began pushing oranges and fresh sandwiches through the bars. Half the men jumped right up and began clamoring for the food. So much for a hunger strike.
The oranges and sandwiches did have the effect of calming many down (although the baloney-stink quotient went through the roof), so after a few minutes of feeding frenzy the men were prepared to try and finish the meeting we had started. We decided collectively to clean up the cell, segregate it, however we could, into a sleeping section and a talking section, quiet down and let people get some sleep if they wanted too. We also decided that we should have just one spokesperson to interact with the police on our behalf, and they all promptly nominated me. This was what I got for opening my mouth, but I welcomed the opportunity to put a different face on our situation. We got everyone situated, half laying side-by-side on the floor, the other half sitting together in the corner talking quietly, and I approached the bars to request that we be given fresh water and a fan to circulate the air. I asked politely, claiming we had some sick people in here, and eventually they dragged out a big stand-up fan, which soon began blowing air, not necessarily fresh air, through the cell. The men were visibly more calm now and the cell quieted down. That was just about when I saw a Sergeant approaching me. He asked my name.
“Shaw. Charles Shaw.”
He walked over to a table which held stack after stack of our paperwork, rifled through a few piles, pulled out my Polaroid and my paperwork.
“This you?” he said.
“Great.” He handed my paperwork to the officer managing it. “Put Mr. Organizer here on the bottom.” He turned back to me. “How’s your ‘solidarity’ now? Maybe you should just shut up and get a real job, huh?”
He laughed, which inspired a round of guffaws from his underlings gathered around him. I naturally found it less funny than he did. Attempting to manage my frustration over this, I found a spot on the floor and went back to sleep. By this time most of the rest had joined me on the floor, and for a while things were quiet.
We remained in that holding cell from approximately 5:00pm on Wednesday until Midnight, when they finally began to take us out of the cell about 6 or 7 at a time. I heard them call out the names of all the men I had been arrested with, including Steve who was being held in a different cell two over from ours. I was not taken out with them, so it was quite clear now I had been singled out. Steadily over the next three hours they moved us from the holding cell to fingerprinting, while repopulating us with the men that were in an adjacent cell who had been arrested long after we had on Tuesday, but who were moving through the system faster. Four AIDS activists who had managed to get on the floor of the convention before stripping off their suits (they had hospital smocks on underneath) and unfurling a banner had been brought in and deposited in our cell. They were attacked and beaten on the convention floor by Secret Service and Republican delegates, but it was the four non-violent activists who were charged with felony assault. The picture was becoming much clearer. At about 3:00am, they finally pulled the last eight of us out of the cell, chained us together, and marched us off to fingerprinting.
TIME SINCE ARREST: 32.5 HOURS
After we were printed, the eight of us were led upstairs to another series of holding cells, these designed for maybe two or three people and absolutely crawling with cockroaches. We were unlocked and put inside, and then left to sit.
Of my eight fellows, five were college students, one was in his mid-twenties, and one, “Tom”, was a 50 something Peacenik from Massachusetts whose spirit was ebullient in spite of the madness and frustration going on around us. He had long stringy grey hair and a short beard to match, John Lennon eyeglasses, and wore a t-shirt and shorts. His voice was slightly high pitched and severely hoarse, but he talked on and on about keeping up our spirits and “sending out positive vibes to our friends and family on the outside to let them know we are okay.” At the time, the younger guys were preoccupied shouting out to the police about when they were going to be released. “Jeff” in particular was becoming really agitated, and would erupt with these vicious outbursts. You fucking fascist dicks go eat some more donuts! “Mike” was pleading desperately over and over for an answer from the police. “David” looked like he was a half-second from hitting someone. The tension was palpable. These guys were really scared.
“Tom” and I looked at each other and nodded, and as best as we could, got them to settle down enough to listen to us. I told them I knew from experience that we could be here in this cell anywhere from 6-24 hours waiting for our prints to clear the database, and it was simply unavoidable, so we all needed to get used to it pretty quick or else they were going to drive themselves to the point of snapping. “Tom” told the kids to love the cops, not hate them, not scream at them. The younger men weren’t going for it, so I asked them to talk about why they were mad, to take their attention away from the police. “Jeff” explained he suffered from panic attacks and did not have access to his medicine. “Mike” was upset because he worked with homeless people in his Bronx neighborhood and had their first neighborhood-wide meeting that evening. He was afraid they would never come back if the meeting was cancelled. “David” had missed work and was worried about being fired. “Miguel” was worried about his mother and his job too. “Shaun” remained pretty much silent throughout the conversation. “Noah” was one of the hundreds of innocent bystanders and onlookers who were swept off the street, and the experience galvanized him to take action. He circulated some paper for us all to put down our contact info in the hopes that we would take collective legal action following our release.
It seemed that once unburdened of their fears, the men were able to talk about themselves and take their minds off the elephant in the middle of the room for a bit. I once again reiterated that it would be best for everyone to try and get some sleep, because the lack of rest was frazzling us all. We all staked out a section of the cell, and went to sleep.
We were awoken a few hours later by a loud commotion taking place down the hall in another holding cell. Women were chanting FEED US NOW! FEED US NOW! and pounding on the walls. We heard a mess of police come running in and a bunch of back and forth yelling which was hard to decipher, and then more scurrying on the part of the police. We would learn a short while later that the women, having not eaten all day, held a solidarity action by stripping naked and screaming to high heaven until they got what they wanted. Shortly thereafter the highest ranking cop we had seen yet came over to our cell escorted by two other officers carrying a box of apples and a box of cereal.
“You guys ok in here? You need anything?” he said, visibly flustered.
“Mike” and “Jeff” pounced. “When are we getting out of here, we’ve been sitting in this cell for nine hours!”
“Soon, guys, soon,” he said, and disappeared as quickly as he had appeared, leaving us wondering what was going on. “Tom” and I speculated that perhaps our legal support on the outside was turning up the heat. We didn’t know that they were just terrified we men would strip too and begin raising hell. We owed another unscheduled “meal” to the women, who did what it took to get fed. So, I would like to take the opportunity here to offer my fullest respect and admiration to the women of the Movement, who were vastly more organized and supportive towards each other than we men while we were all dealing with our incarceration. They not only did what they had to do, they also maintained a tremendously positive attitude about it. The women are an inspiration to us all, and I am grateful they are here. We should all be grateful for them. If only our government was so inclined, we might very well be living in a very different world.
By the end of our nine hour stint inside cell #2, “Tom” had taken command of the mood. His relentless optimism, his kindness, his unconditional love and wonder at the beauty of us all banding together was infectious and most noble. On the street, “Tom” would be too easy a target for ridicule, odd and unique as he was. But in a situation in which what was most needed was a healthy dose of humanity, “Tom” delivered in spades. He told stories about the Arizona desert, talked about Yoko Ono and Linda McCartney and George Martin, talked about the importance of peace, love, and understanding in the Movement, quoted Gandhi, and then lead the boys in these muted, off-key renditions of “Let It Be” and “Imagine” and “Teach Your Children Well”. It was beautiful and touching and for me what this was really all about. In a matter of half an hour he had taken six very frightened and angry young men and turned them into smiling, chattering human beings again. So when we heard the outer door clank open and an officer approach our cell with the jangling sound of the chain of handcuffs, we all leaped up and hugged each other and whooped and hollered. The cop who unlocked the door looked at us as if we were totally insane, and at that point we most likely were.
TIME: 1:00 PM, THURSDAY
TIME SINCE ARREST: 42 HOURS
Led down a series of narrow winding tunnels all painted the same sick green (and now clearly understanding why they called it the “Tombs”), we eight rounded a corner to see about 30 women chained together sitting along the wall in a long narrow hallway. Immediately the room erupted in cheers. It was the first time we had seen anyone else in 10 hours. We were ordered to sit down next to them, and so we all caught up on what was happening.
Word had come down that there was a series of hearings on us that had taken place in the courts, and that the National Lawyer’s Guild had filed a writ of Habeas Corpus demanding our immediate release. Over the course of the next three hours we would see a steady stream of other detainees come past us after being photographed, and each group would have a new piece of information for us. By 3:30 we got the first word that the Supreme Court had ordered us all released by 5:00pm, and everyone’s heart soared.
To pass the time we played “telephone” up and down the long chain of us, trying to laugh and keep up our spirits through this last final phase. By now, all of us looked like refugees, we stunk, our muscles were cramped and our asses were numb, we were largely malnourished and dehydrated, and with the edification of hearing that the Supreme Court had ordered us out, some of us also began to get a little cocky. The phrase that we passed up and down the line was…
Remember the time before the time when we were all put in jail and told to shut up? That was the best time of our lives!
Then we began to chant…
Remember the time before the time when our rights were stripped and it was legal to speak our minds? THAT was the best time of our lives!”
A police sergeant flew off the handle at us, but seemed to only single me out again. He asked my name, pulled my paperwork, and informed me “you’re never getting out of here.” Then he disappeared. Two officers came up to me and said, “just ignore him. He hates you guys. Nothing more will happen to you. We promise. He’s just pissed we can’t keep you guys any longer.”
This phrase coincided with a significant shift in the attitude of some of the police towards us. Various officers moving us through the photographing phase now began to express their sympathy towards us. They stopped barking orders at us and began to speak to us as if we were human beings again, “requesting” that we remain calm, keep quiet, etc. The last 30 some women were moved out of the hallway before us last eight men, but we could hear them in a cell down the hall, and so another spontaneous chant of “FREE US NOW! FREE US NOW!” erupted. In response, a police Captain told us if we didn’t shut up we’d never get out of there.
About another hour later we were taken to be photographed, and then brought down to the holding cells below the arraignment courts. The corrections officer who put us in our cell actually congratulated us, and apologized for having to lock us up. He gave us food and juice and a photocopy of a Greg Palast article that had been written that day, and told us to just relax and we’d be out soon. There were phones in these cells, so we began calling everyone we knew to let them know we were still in there. I made my first phone call since being arrested. The 5:00pm deadline had come and gone, and the boys were beginning to get agitated again. In talking to the National Lawyers Guild, we explained that the Captain in charge of this particular holding area had told us she knew nothing about any Supreme Court decision ordering us out, and as such, was still acting as if we were to be held until arraignment. The lawyer on the phone asked to speak to the Captain; the Captain refused. We sat some more.
The last stage happened so fast it seemed a clear indication that the Supreme Court decision had finally made its way down the police ranks. At exactly 6:00pm a flurry of officers gathered around our cell and told us it was time to go, that we were being released. They chained us together and marched us into a corridor where we were joined by another 20 or so remaining detainees. Then, all of us were marched up to the arraignment courtroom, and one by one we were given summons and released.
I was the last person to be released from this group. I received a summons to return to court October 7th, and as I began to head out of the courtroom another police captain supervising our release pulled me aside.
“Well, I hope you and your people are happy. You guys broke the machine today.”
I smiled and thought to myself, wow! That made everything worth it, even though my jubilation was tempered by the knowledge that the machine would not remain broken for long. I exited the courthouse 47.5 hours after my arrest (still not having seen a judge) to the thunderous cheers of a huge solidarity rally across the street, where we were fed, given medical attention, and had the chance to speak to the Lawyers Guild. There were a lot of hugs and laughter and tears, as we milled about looking at each other we realized we had something very special, a community of conscience that had banded together to take care of our own. No matter what the police would throw at us, no matter how dark things would become, one thing was for certain as we waited for the rest of us to finally be released…
We Shall Overcome!
New York City & Chicago , September 2004
Postscript, September 9, 2004: It has been a week since my release. I have some lingering health issues like rashes, a dry scratchy cough, some burns on my skin, insomnia, and blistering headaches. But more than the physical complications, the full impact of what we witnessed in New York is weighing upon me heavily. We have crossed a Rubicon in our culture and entered a very dark phase that will be upon us for a long time. When free speech and free assembly are criminalized, the only logical conclusion to be drawn is that those in power fear public dissent and revolt more than they fear the nebulous specter of “terrorism”. Still, amidst all the abrogation of our Constitutional Rights, the people have indeed risen. The new broad based Movement was born in New York City during the week of the RNC, and it was a beautiful thing to behold, even in spite of the complete lack of coverage given to it by the Corporate Media. The largest and most creative acts of resistance in a generation have only just begun, and they will not be held in public obscurity for much longer, for this truth cannot be contained. No matter how hard the power establishment will work, they will never quash the spirit of Liberty that is at the heart of Democracy. To that effect, I have decided to return to New York permanently, to play my part in the Revolution that is coming. And trust me, folks, its coming.
Newtopia founder and editor emeritus CHARLES SHAW is an award-winning journalist and editor, author of the critically-acclaimed memoir, Exile Nation: Drugs, Prisons, Politics & Spirituality, and Director of the documentary, The Exile Nation Project: An Oral History of the War on Drugs & The American Criminal Justice System.
Charles serves as Editor for the openDemocracy Drug Policy Forum and the Dictionary of Ethical Politics, both collaborative projects of Resurgence, openDemocracy, and the Tedworth Charitable Trust.
Charles’ work has appeared in Alternet, Alternative Press Review, Conscious Choice, Common Ground, Grist, Guardian UK, Huffington Post, In These Times, Newtopia, The New York Times, openDemocracy, Planetizen, Punk Planet, Reality Sandwich, San Diego Uptown News, Scoop, Shift, Truthout, The Witness, YES!, and Znet. He was a Contributing Author to the 2008 Shift Report from the Institute for Noetic Sciences, and in Planetizen’s Contemporary Debates in Urban Planning (2007, Island Press). In 2009 he was recognized by the San Diego Press Club for excellence in journalism.