In late December, 2014 the New York Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association coordinated a work slowdown that effectively brought street-level policing to a halt in New York City.For the previous month, diffuse direct actions that would come to be called “Black Lives Matter” had proliferated like the mythical “many-headed hydra”: no sooner had the police pushed an unpermitted march off the street, or cleared protesters out of a shopping center, than did one or two or three seemingly unrelated actions spring up elsewhere in all reaches of Manhattan, often by the spontaneous initiative of New Yorkers far removed from the professional activist set. In the face of a political machine that treats human lives as disposable or otherwise subject to arbitrary violence and systematic humiliation, this movement celebrated an unknown recent high school grad from Ferguson MO named Michael Brown, and a Staten Islander who sold loose cigarettes on the corner to make ends meet named Eric Garner, along with many other obscure names which rang out loudly in a city normally obsessed with the wealthy and glamorous.
As the protest movement grew, the newly elected liberal mayor Bill de Blasio enraged the police by expressing sympathy with the protesters and spurning the hardline tactics of his predecessors in favor of a hands-off approach to policing the movement. A police force which for over twenty years had grown accustomed to exercising petty tyranny over working class New Yorkers of color through “Stop and Frisk,” brutalizing the homeless, and generally answering to nobody did not take lightly to being undermined by a massive multi-racial, multi-generational movement against these privileges, and their anger was only exacerbated by the ostensibly divided allegiance of the city’s mayor. Perhaps eyeing their upcoming contract negotiations, the PBA used the shooting deaths of two officers by a seemingly deranged man as the occasion for a rare workplace action. Though the slowdown was officially denied, President Pat Lynch slyly called for all officers to not make arrests “unless absolutely necessary.” Arrests and tickets for most street-level offenses dropped to almost nothing. But contrary to the portended return to a Hobbesian state of nature, daily life basically went on as usual. Except, of course, life went on without the police harassing low-income people of color or issuing frivolous tickets and fines to fill the city’s coffers. This doesn’t mean the lives of everyday New Yorkers were any less fodder for the machinations of the city’s power elite during this time. But at least for a welcome change of pace, human life was cynically instrumentalized by the powerful in a way that kept people out of jail. Most of them, anyway.
During this strange period, while most New Yorkers enjoyed a tantalizing glimpse of life without policing as we know it, I was one of the lucky few to find myself behind bars in Manhattan’s Central Booking. I had been apprehended belatedly in connection with my participation in the street demonstrations, which by this point had calmed down substantially. Street politics had given way to capital-P politics in the city’s halls of power, and for a hot moment, quite against my intentions, I felt very intimately the weight of the conflict over just who ruled New York’s streets. But more importantly, I got to see up close an unwitting experiment in, to rephrase a popular anti-war slogan, imagining if they built a jail and practically nobody showed up.
Four years earlier I had been held in this exact facility during the wildest days of Occupy Wall Street, when I was arbitrarily arrested in a routine police exercise in reclaiming the streets from the throngs of the so-called 99% who had taken a stand of their own against the impossibility of a dignified existence. On that warm November evening in 2011 Central Booking was sweaty, stinking, and swarming with recent arrestees, packed thirty or more to a cell, farting, snoring, and bragging of their various prowesses all the way down the long sub basement corridor illuminated by oppressive fluorescent lights beaming twenty-four hours a day. I was mercifully split off from the other Occupards, in a seemingly arbitrary decision for which I was made grateful as their ceaseless sloganeering wafted down the hallway to my cell where the discussion was limited to the various charges we faced, comparing criminal histories, and the heaps of marijuana which would be collectively consigned to the air upon our release. Each newcomer to my cell, after being sized up from all corners of the room, was asked the same question: “What are you in for?” And each, without fail, offered the same answer: “Some bullshit.”
The charges for which these men had been abducted, kept locked away from their families in piss-soaked squalor, forced to miss work without even the chance to call, kept awake for days, and fed inedible sandwiches useful only as pillows while cockroaches inched toward their feet, were, in fact, some bullshit. Possession of small amounts of marijuana. “Loitering” in a housing project hallway after leaving a friend’s apartment. Smoking a blunt in a project stairwell because where else are you going to do it. Low-level
drug dealing. Property disputes with friends. Fist fights with cousins. Smoking a cigarette for a few drags too many on the way down the subway steps. In a processing center for all arrestees on the Manhattan, located in the southernmost tip of the island, there were scarcely any detainees picked up south of 120th St., never mind white faces, excepting of course the Occupy protesters. You would have thought quite wrongly that the island of Manhattan isn’t packed to the gills with white people who love to get drunk and fucked up on drugs and act like morons. But the fact of this racial double standard was so obvious, so uncontroversial, so ubiquitous, that it was simply unmentioned. The moralistic indignation with which activists rightfully rail against this racist double standard was completely absent, save only for the Occupards who were hard at work sloganeering about exploitation and oppression to some of New York’s most exploited and oppressed people. This was some bullshit, all right, but to huff and puff against it would be like railing against the force of gravity. It just was.
While there were no clocks, the guards who occasionally passed by felt no need to respond to questions, and the “one phone call” of the popular imagination was only good for those with quarters or numbers memorized to call collect, the time nonetheless passed in my cell. Detainees practiced innocence narratives for the judge, seeming to convince even themselves. A middle-aged father on his way to Rikers recognized his son across the hallway and enjoyed some catching up. This reunion lead to brokering an exchange of a plastic glove stolen from the police during processing (which it turns out is a hot commodity, useful for keistering illicit objects on the Island) for a small amount of marijuana similarly stashed up someone’s ass. The glove was promptly delivered across the hall, under the cell bars in a single-serving cereal box, but the deal hit a snag when the marijuana failed to materialize. “Don’t rush me!” yelled a squat Mexican man flushed red in the face as he sat on the toilet grunting and everyone jeered. Thankfully for the integrity of this informal economy, everything came out just fine in the end.
Meanwhile a young black kid not a day over twenty painted an unforgettable portrait of his arrest for street dealing. Thinking fast, he had managed to get his stash of crack vials into his mouth, and battled to swallow them while one cops held either arm and a third strangled him to prevent the bag from going down his throat. When he choked it down nonetheless, the arresting officers furiously charged him with destruction of evidence. He paused, and wondered “What evidence?” with a sly laugh that brought the cell to its feet. Soon after, a severely stoned heavyset man arrived complaining morosely of being arrested for petty drug possession in a restaurant at the exact moment his food was coming out. That plate of food was clearly haunting him, and the moldy cheese sandwich and crumpling apple he received for his stay were scant compensation for the meal that got away. All the while an older, seasoned convict’s ceaseless sleeping farts in the direction of an already aggravated young man slowly built to a heated altercation, or, more precisely, the performance of one. The two men made exaggerated gestures and issued grave threats of bodily harm, though it was obvious that neither wanted to fight. The younger man got in close and demonstrated quite delicately how he would choke the elder, to which the elder said not so fast, and took the phone off the hook to demonstrate how he would use it to break the choke. The pantomime became increasingly convivial until they discovered that they hailed from the same block in Harlem, and after that they just compared mutual friends.
I was released after 35 hours, and while I hadn’t necessarily learned anything I didn’t already know about the racist brutality of Broken Windows policing, I had glimpsed the banal subjective dimension that can be all-too-often lost in a sea of data or saccharine political rhetoric. These were human beings, whose lives are the playthings of the shifting winds of city politics, academic theories of policing, targeted arrests to make way for condominiums, political campaigns desperate for the mantle of “tough on crime,” non-profit organizations claiming to champion the down-trodden, and so forth.
Upon my return in early January 2015, amidst the PBA’s police slowdown, the place was almost unrecognizable, though unmistakably unchanged. The architecture was the same, the food was the same, the stale air reeking of bleach and body odor remained eternal, but gone were the people. The endless corridor between intake and the door to see the judge seemed so much shorter, and silence reigned, belying the everydayness and shabbiness of the space, made from quite ordinary materials after all. The subtle threat of violence which prior had undergirded an otherwise oddly fraternal atmosphere gave way to the dullest of boredom. The soft time of short-term of incarceration stretched out even further as the hours failed to tick by. In twenty hours I met about ten people, and reminiscent of an episode of The Twilight Zone, we soon figured out that ours was the only cell, and began to worry the guards had forgotten about us. In the parlance of the police slowdown, these must have been the baddest of the bad, those whose arrests, never minding “some bullshit,” were absolutely necessary. Who were they?
One black man in his mid forties had been in and out of the system his whole life, and had a story for each cell in the hallway. Ten years prior the cell diagonally across the hall had held him for a day before he was extradited all the way to Texas for a sentence he had already served. This clerical error was corrected a year after he was taken from Manhattan Central Booking in a van that stopped off at various jails to sleep and to feed him Burger King along the way, always Burger King. He proudly hailed from Harlem, and had written a novel based in part on his hardscrabble upbringing. When I later searched for the title, I found a review by an amateur critic who disputed my cellmate’s claims to have mastered ten languages (“when he barely speaks English!”), and to have sold tens of thousands of copies of his self-published book, and concluded the review by complaining that a previous bad review had earned him a personal message from the author threatening his safety. As a writer, I can relate. But it wasn’t threats against his reading public that earned my friend a two-day stay in Central Booking, this time at least. My new friend had argued with his schizophrenic mother, and when she called the police on him, they arrested him for property destruction—his own property, in the form of a small hole he had punched in his own wall. The police were reluctant to take him in, not least because they recognized him from YouTube. He was also a well-known local rapper, though not as famous as his cousin in the Wu Tang Clan.
A similar story (local fame notwithstanding) came from another black man around the same age but with no prior experience in the system. He had wrestled with his pubescent son as I had with my own father at that age, but in this case his son, bested, had come away with a wildly reckless case of sour grapes and called the police. Even in cases so seemingly innocuous, cops responding to a domestic call have two options: leave the scene and risk being held accountable should someone commit assault or murder once they leave, or make a bullshit arrest that will likely result in the charges getting dropped later. But that’s not always clear to the arrestee. A longtime employee of the NYC Parks Department, this poor man was frantic that he would lose his job over his first-ever brush with the law. Worst of all, he had thoughtlessly commented to the arresting officers that he was in such despair he wanted to kill himself, which earned him a twelve hour observation at Bellevue before our paths crossed downtown. Having experienced both holding areas, I can say he was in a much better place now, by a mile, and he bore every symptom of having been held in a truly barbarous place.
I tried to reassure him and others followed my lead—his son would drop the charges, he would not lose his job, and all would be well. We finally got him to calm down sufficiently to confirm a longstanding observation I couldn’t resist running past him: weren’t the toilets in Central Booking the same as the Parks and Recreation pools and weight rooms? He had to concur. Perhaps more out of boredom than altruism, I took this admission as my chance to put in a good word for the mostly black young kids who populate the Parks and Rec system’s after school hours. In my facility, they are treated very badly by the city workers who patrol these facilities, harassed for ID (which most people lock up before working out) and generally given no respite from the school-to-prison pipeline even when following the mayor’s admonitions to keep fit. Why else did stray pieces of exercise equipment, useless outside the gym, always go missing? He hadn’t thought about it that way. More generally, he couldn’t get over how poorly he’d been treated. Maybe some of those kids would have an easier time from now on.
Another man, a little younger, was a Puerto Rican from Springfield, Massachusetts who was arrested visiting his cousin in New York. His crime was possession of a knife in excess of New York’s draconian knife law, which as many carpenters, art-handlers or movers will tell you, is a very common experience, compounded by the fact that like many street level offences, no two police officers seem to agree on what constitutes illegality. We couldn’t quite figure out why this poor bastard had been taken in, except that he looked the part of a seasoned hood, with the criminal record to match, and hailed from out of state and therefore would likely just ignore a ticket. Unsure what to make of the rest of us, he cautiously alternated, as most men in lockup seem to do, between the ridiculous performance of exaggerated masculinity necessary among low-income men, and the more approximate reality of a vulnerable, playful, and generally affable man scared out of his wits by his own perceived inadequacies. He was gracious enough when I recommended he make a pillow out of the otherwise useless sandwiches they provide, but was prevented from sleeping by his nagging (and well-founded) dread of ending up stuck at Rikers.
De Blasio Sucks
When the guards brought in another white guy, he generated the same buzz that had greeted me—what the hell did you do to get in here, on any day, but today of all days? Sharply dressed and noticeably groggy, this twenty-something just wanted sleep and didn’t want to talk. His addition to the pack occupied everyone’s imagination, to which wordless sidelong glances from every direction were testament. Finally, as the unofficial ambassador to white world, I loosened him up sufficiently for him to tell us with some hesitation “I helped myself to something that wasn’t mine.” After further prying, that something became a taxicab. And soon we learned the taxicab was running. And the driver was chasing after it on foot. And it perhaps went without saying that the perpetrator of this brazen theft had no motive besides being very, very drunk. Perhaps thankfully, he didn’t make it very far. For every block of his adventure he had incurred another charge: grand larceny, reckless endangerment, operating under the influence of alcohol, and everyone’s favorite, failure to pay a fare. During my two-day stay I would meet one other white guy, the next day in the Tombs. He was a knucklehead from
Framingham Massachusetts who, also drunk out of his mind, had knocked a police officer out cold, and despite claiming no memory of the incident, had it on good authority that the cop was a head taller than him. I told him that he should probably consider getting help for his drinking, and half delirious with lack of sleep, shared my own experiences getting sober. “Some good it did you!” he replied.
I waited to make bail in the Tombs, where I could have been kept for weeks if the money didn’t come through. This place was meaner than Central. The lead guard figured the case I was caught up in, and tried to threaten me while his subordinates half-heartedly played along. He taunted me with an unexpected salvo: “De Blasio sucks.” Well, we agree on one thing, I told him. I was preparing myself to hunker down for indefinite sustained hostilities, when the strangest thing happened. There was a shift change, from afternoon to night. The white commanders were replaced with black commanders, who began to tell me how much they supported the protest movement. One guard gave me extra food “for a brother.” The officer-in-charge told me she proudly owned an “I Can’t Breathe” t-shirt, and she would be sure that I got out ASAP if she had anything to do with it. My cell mates were a young black man and a young Latino man who knew the place well, and explained the hierarchy of the various guards and various bureaucratic points of process to me while we waited. They were in on some credit card fraud charge I couldn’t quite understand, and they passed the time comparing the comparative disadvantages of Rikers and upstate prisons, with the former praised for its better comfort and later lights-out time. If he could get his charges knocked down to a misdemeanor, the black man told me, he was going to become a corrections officer. Then the black corrections officer with the “I Can’t Breathe” shirt, who told me her sister begged her not to wear it to work, called my name and I was set free, for a while at least.
A few days later, the slowdown that supposedly wasn’t happening was called off, and some bullshit kicked back into high gear.