Occupy Wall Street Protester, Arrested and Jailed for 30 Hours, Tells Her Story for the First Time
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On Saturday, October 15, I went to Washington Square Park to take a closer look at the Occupy Wall Street movement. There were many young people who could be my children or rather grandchildren, but many older people, too, all generations united, it seemed, under the banner: "We are the 99 percent."
Different groups decided to go to a bank. I joined one that went to Citibank at La Guardia Place and Bleecker Street. As we entered, there were a couple of customers and a few banktellers inside. A teach-in ensued. The story the students told, surprisingly calmly and politely, was shocking.
The ride to Central Booking in the paddywagon was an ominous beginning. Either New York’s potholes are beyond repair or the shock absorbers of that car were non-existent. With our wrists handcuffed behind our back, there was no way to hold on to anything as we were thrown off our seats into the air during that ride in hell. After hours of “booking procedures” -- standing in line, being handcuffed, getting uncuffed, backpacks, wallets, phones and any other object, even a single tissue, taken from us, our names shouted as we were inspected and lined up spread-eagled across a wall – we were finally led into three cells, allowed for the first time to sit down. It was early evening by now but we were not allowed an extra piece of clothing for the cold, just a T-shirt or whatever first layer of clothing we wore.
During an inordinately lengthy fingerprinting procedure, with the male officers operating the machines and the female officers locking and unlocking our cells as we were called out one by one, it sometimes seemed the police outnumbered us. But still, it took what seemed like hours.
Barely back in our cells, we were taken out again, handcuffed again, this time with a chain between our cuffs, and led “upstairs.” But there had been some mistake. A female officer told "our" officer that, no, she couldn’t process us. Some paperwork was missing, some order, some stamp. Time to cuff us again and go down the stairs back into our cells. How many more instances of handcuffing, uncuffing, leading us up and down stairs and long hallways, waiting, returning, repeating what seemed nonsensical procedures and reversals then followed I do not know and did not count. But a deep sense of disorganization, competence fighting incompetence, if not chaos, reigned. It seemed as if, in the name of bureaucratic rules and regulations, in the name of "security," we were witnessing a dysfunctional institution and people not used to daylight shining in; people generally accountable to no one but themselves.
Finally, we were driven to the Tombs. We landed in a large collective prison cell; there were 11 of us plus an Indian woman with her own sad story and two run-down black women on crack or some other drug who occupied the only three mattresses in that medieval cell, and whose intermittent yells, shouting, and appalling screams made rest, let alone sleep impossible. We spent many hours on extremely narrow, hard benches, no blankets, with pieces of dry bread and a dry piece of cheese or peanut butter for food. The young women, all in their early 20s, somehow managed to bend themselves into shape to catch an hour of sleep here and there. For my 70-plus-years-old bones and K., a 68-year-old lifelong environmental activist, it was tough going.
The experience was depressing in every way. All of us could see the irrationality, the nearly obscene bureaucratic time, energy and money spent on our (probably illegal) arrest. During that constant cycle of being cuffed and uncuffed at every step and during each transfer, some of us couldn't help feeling that the 9/11 terrorists have indeed won. The culture in this institution seemed a noxious mix of breathtaking incompetence, disorganization and open or just-beneath-the-surface-always-present brutality. Hardly a verbal communication without harsh and loud shouting and orders to stand here, move there, stop doing this or that.
During the long, cold night in the Tombs, at some point we asked a female officer if we could have some blankets. "We have no blankets." Some mattresses since we were 12 or so people? "We have no more mattresses." Some change in exchange for dollar bills so we could call parents and loved ones? (The one public telephone in the cell would only take coins.) "It's against regulations." Some soap? "Maybe we'll come up with some soap." After no, no, no to every reasonable request, we wound up with a small jar of soap. Distressing is hardly the word for a culture of willful neglect and the exercise of what power those officers held over us for those 30 hours.
But there were a few -- mostly black cops -- who, as we were transferred from point A to point B, told us openly, "We support you. If I could, I'd participate in what you're doing."
Barbara Schneider Reilly is a playwright, teacher and citizen (of New York and Berlin).