As many of you know, the Republican National Convention was in the New York City last week. On Sunday, Aug. 29, there was a massive protest through the streets of Manhattan attended by roughly 400,000 people (or 120,000 if you like Fox News Channel). I was in that. It was fun, in a sort of melodramatic way because it was so gosh-darn peaceful. I wanted to be part of something that the entire world would see, something that no Republicans could really find any fault with, and that is exactly what happened. The police were cool, the protesters were cool and the weather was very, very hot.
Tuesday, Aug. 31, was a different kind of protest. People representing 15 or so different organizations -- those dealing with AIDS, abortion, accuracy in the media, etc. -- set up different spots for protesting in a rough perimeter around Madison Square Garden, where the convention was being held. Most were at least three or four blocks from the Garden because police were not allowing them any closer for the safety of the delegates.
I ended up meeting my friend Darren around Herald Square at 34th and Broadway. We were standing at the southwest corner, watching the goings on around us, as our corner filled with protesters chanting, waving signs, dancing, playing music and all that fun protestin' stuff. The intersection was open for buses taking the delegates to the RNC, as well as for police and other official vehicles. So far, nothing had happened -- no one was being arrested in that area and the protesters could be described as peaceful.
Quite suddenly, a large group of maybe 150 people broke off and started heading east down 34th and then up to 35th. Darren and I moved with them. We moved down the empty street back to Broadway, where a series of metal barricades had been set up. It's a street full of apartment buildings, and many people were simply walking home or stepping out of their apartments to see what was going on and were in no way part of the protest.
Darren and I stood at the front for a while, taking part in some chants (some of which were encouraging the police to follow through on a strike they had been threatening the city with for some time). Eventually, we turned around to look for some friends of his and began walking back down 35th.
A few moments later, many of the protesters began running by us in the direction we were now headed. We turned to see that police had assembled in a line and were pushing the protesters down the street. We began jogging with the others, as it seemed to be the right thing to do. At one point, several people dropped boxes of apples, bananas, water and peaches. At the time, I was unaware that these were intended for people to take due to the fact that you would soon be arrested. I was just happy to get a banana because it was 9 pm and I hadn't eaten since lunch.
Now slightly fed and rehydrated, I heard the cops behind us shouting for everyone to move the sidewalks and disperse from the area. "Keep off the streets and there will be no trouble," they said. Everyone moved to the sidewalks and relaxed and continued walking. That is when we discovered a barricade had been set up across 35th with police motorcycles. We found ourselves blocked by them while slowly being pressed in by the still advancing, and ever-growing, line of police, who had at this point removed their billy clubs. I watched, fairly horrified, as one kid who was eating a peach had the length of a billy-club rammed into his chest by a cop who yelled, "Are you planning on throwing that f--ing peach at me motherf--er!?" Needless to say, I dropped my peach.
The police formed a wedge like a flock of birds and divided our group into two and simply began arresting people. The police standing behind their bikes simply shrugged their shoulders when people were screaming, "Why won't you let us through!?"
Eventually, everyone was arrested -- the first 10 or so quite violently to get the point across, and then we found ourselves sitting in plastic-tie handcuffs in rows on the sidewalk where we had originally been told to leave. Some people who had tried to get past the line of cops pressing us in were told they would be pepper-sprayed if they tried. I would describe some of the things the cops were saying to us while sitting on the ground, but it would take a long time and it probably wouldn't surprise anyone.
After we were loaded on a bus, every five "protesters" (read that word with quotation marks, please) were ascribed to one "arresting" officer. Mine was Officer Fortunato, a good Italian chap who, in my later delirium, I liked to refer to as Officer UnFortunato. We remained at the scene for a while before being driven through the intersection at 34th and Broadway that only Republican delegates and cops had been allowed in before. It was a minor success, and it was awesome to hear the protesters cheering for us as we passed.
We eventually made our way to Pier 57, an old bus parking garage that had burned in a fire and had not been used for anything else since because of the chemicals and other toxins there. The police had gone out of their way to set up chain-link and barbed-wire holding cells, four on each side and one large one towards the back of the hangar. After waiting in the bus for at least an hour or so, and then in line to be "processed," I was released into the hanger sometime between midnight and 12:30.
This whole time, we were being told that it would only be a couple of hours before we would be seeing a judge and going home. This tactic was one they would use throughout the next three days, I believe, to keep people from starting full-on riots.
Throughout the next 13 or so hours, I was shuffled back and forth between the large cell and the smaller ones, provided one apple to eat, two sandwiches consisting of stale Wonderbread and two slices of that fake, pre-wrapped cheese. Oh, and a packet of mustard and mayonnaise. The entire time we are being told "just a few more hours and you'll be out of here, on your way home". There were urinals that you had to ask permission for during the first eight or so hours, but were eventually, in a display of unbelievable kindness, opened to us to use freely.
I didn't think it was too cold, as some of the other protesters described, but we were given nothing to sleep on, no napkins or soap to wash our hands with, no access to a telephone and no information regarding anything that was happening with our cases or outside on the streets.
It was difficult to sleep because they were calling out names every so often, and you were so desperate to get out of there that you didn't want to sleep and miss your name. Not to mention the fact (one that is going to bring the NYPD a whole mess of trouble) that the concrete floor was covered in a layer of black grime that was soon giving people rashes and bumps and causing nausea and coughs and a whole slew of ailments.
There were signs hanging from the ceilings that said for people to be wearing protective gloves and face masks and suits while in the building. I was sitting in the corner at one point and a guy told me I should move because there was a liquid leaking from the porta-potties forming a puddle on the floor.
Around 1 pm on Wednesday, we were finally loaded on a bus, handcuffed again, and told we would be moved to the central booking agency where we would be held for a short time before being fingerprinted and put before the judge -- and then freedom. The trip itself was short, but once we got to the station, we had to sit on the bus, the kind of bus you see in movies to transport prisoners.
It was while I was sitting there, desperately hungry, exhausted, sweating profusely and unbearably, the pain returning to my shoulders from the handcuffs that were also digging into my wrists, that I began to think the police were intentionally moving slowly so as to keep us off the streets until at least Thursday night when the convention would be over. This thought was the one thought that would continually drive me crazy and leave me unable to sleep for the remaining 24 hours because it was so obviously true. Yet every time the cops said "just a few more hours," you would believe it and this hope would rise up in you only to slowly dissipate into anger, helplessness and fear for the next six hours until they said it again.
Sorry, I digress. I meant to mention that the driver of the bus, sitting in the driver's chair, happily ate pizza while we sat there suffering, occasionally asking if we would like any. I hate that man; in fact, I hate several men and several women now.
OK. They took us to a holding cell where we waited, were searched, then taken to another holding cell. This cell was maybe 25 feet by 30 feet, no open windows, no air conditioning and packed with up to 50 prisoners at any given moment. I should have mentioned that the holding cells in the hangar were about the same size and filled with as many as 70 people. The chain-links and barbed-wire provided healthy ventilation, however. Here we had access to a phone that was just outside the cell, allowing for the presence of some policeman who would listen to our pleas and dial for us. I was unable to call out of the state and I could not remember any numbers in New York. I was able to make collect calls, but until my brother finally answered in Spokane, I couldn't get through because my folks don't pick up the phone until after the answering machine because of telemarketers.
I was held in this room, which had benches on parts of the walls but most people were still having to lie on the ground, until around midnight, at which point I was moved to a cell in the basement, once again believing it would only be a couple of hours until I was free. I would remain in this tiny cell with 21 other prisoners until three that afternoon, unable to sleep once again for fear of missing my name and out of frustration for my situation. The only benefit here was the availability of pay phones in the holding cell and my miraculous recollection of an old calling card number.
Finally, after hearing that the National Lawyers Guild and ACLU had sued the police for detaining the prisoners longer than 24 hours, we were told we would be out by 5 pm, and in the only earlier-than-expected moment of the three days, I was ushered to a cell where I met with a lawyer who explained my case and five minutes later I was being released by the judge with an "ACD" charge that means nothing and will be cleared from my record in six months. It was Thursday afternoon, and the convention was just about over.
My mom asked me what it was like. It was hell. I would watch these cops counting a stack of 20 files (I could count them from as far away as I was) five or six times over 10 minutes, then leave to go joke around with some other cops before returning and counting them one more time. Then, over the next half an hour, three more police would count the stack and nothing would result from it. After having not slept for 55 hours, your stomach only barely filled with stale bread and fake bologna and cheese, covered from head to toe in some vile black stuff, you'd watch your captors joking around with each other, taunting you, telling you to "blow it out your ass" when trying to get help for a sick prisoner and a thousand other abuses that have almost become one massive blur in my memory. All the while, you're fearing that if you say or do one wrong thing, whatever that may be, that they could "drop" your file somewhere or simply keep you for as long as they wanted.
I met a lot of cool people on this adventure, but I only got two phone numbers because, for the most part, I just don't want to think about it ever again. I'm sure you can understand why. It was amazing, though, to be a part of such a resilient group of people, a group that would cheer whenever someone got their name called to move on to the next step; a group that could still tell the cops after 40 hours, "Hey man, what do you say you just let me go, I swear I won't tell anyone"; a group that sang Bob Marley and Clash songs set to jail lyrics; a group that remembered why we were there in the first place.
I don't mean to end this on a rosy note, because the only good thing about it is how happy I am just sitting at my disk sipping a beer. I never want to go through it again. But I have to admit, it just makes me want to go the next protest and give them all a big, certain finger.
Hopefully things will change after this, though, and no one will have to worry ever again about being wrongfully arrested or detained.
Jacob Albert wrote the "Jake's Take" column for The Inlander this summer. He recently moved from Spokane to New York City, where he will attend City College of New York as a grad student in creative writing.
Publication date: 09/09/04