"We Want Your Retina?" My 37 Hours in Police Custody for Protesting Were an Eye Opener
“You got press credentials?”
I barely had time to say no to the mustachioed White Shirt before he grabbed my forearm and threw me to the ground. As he brought me down I transferred my smartphone – which I had been using to document the NYPD’s aggressive arrests following the impromptu celebration in the Winter Garden on Dec. 12 – to my left hand and then my pocket. The website Boing Boing posted a very dramatic photograph of me holding my glasses while police pile on top of me. I’ve been covering Occupy Wall Street as an independent journalist for its entirety as a radio show host, for Salon, and on the ground.
My arresting officer soon moved me to a chair at the far end of the lobby, just in front of the giant bay windows that line that side of the building. I was the 12th person arrested so far. There would be five more that morning before the cops were done – 10 men, seven women. Next to me sat a woman named Sarah, a drummer for the phenomenal protest marching band the Rude Mechanical Orchestra. Plastic zip ties – a longtime favorite tool for so-called riot police – held her wrists behind her back. Sarah still had her bass drum strapped to her chest, though, giving her a somewhat comical appearance. One could imagine charges against her reading: conspiracy to start a dance party. That type of absurd application of authority would become common over the next 37 hours as my fellow arrestees and I would wait for our arraignment.
The perp walk from the atrium to the paddy wagon wasn’t so bad. There were around 100 supporters standing by in solidarity clapping, taking photos and yelling, “Whose tweets? Our tweets.” Of the 10 guys I was in the wagon with, eight of us had either been tweeting, livestreaming or had cameras. None of us had official NYPD press credentials. On the ride to the station I was able to reach into my pocket and slide my phone into my hand to shoot off some last-minute tweets, Charles took some photos, and Paul, who was sitting next to me, fired up his livestream again. When we got to the 7th Precinct none of the cops standing guard paid much attention to us, until one of their bosses came up and told them that someone at One Police Plaza was watching the paddy wagon feed, and they weren’t too happy about it. After that we put everything away, but Elizabeth, another member of the OWS media team, continued to film from outside.
They brought us inside and sat us in chairs against the wall in a large meeting area with a podium on one side. I was the last arrestee to be processed, just short of five hours after I had been handcuffed. The police would continue this blistering pace for the next day and a half, using every excuse or procedure possible to slow our processing down. Once the sergeant on duty removed my plastic cuffs – which dig into your skin, often cause tingling or loss of feeling, and for me caused soreness, though nothing extreme – and confiscated my backpack and personal belongings, they sent me to the holding cells in the back of the precinct.
One cell in the tiny hallway held the seven women, next to that was a bathroom with a door that didn’t close, and after that was a cell that held the nine other men. Our cell was roughly 7 feet by 8 feet, and for the entire time we were held there were between 10 and 12 men inside. We were kept there from early Monday afternoon to 3 a.m Tuesday. I was not allowed to make a phone call until roughly 1 Monday night, about 14 hours after my arrest.
Getting to know Diablo
A man whom I’ll refer to as Diablo – a pseudonym based on a pseudonym – was with us most of the time we were there. He was being held on drug charges, but he claimed to be the victim of a setup. Diablo is a 28-year-old man from the neighborhood around the 7th Precinct, grew up in the projects near the Williamsburg Bridge, and had been involved in various petty crime operations since he was a teenager. According to him he had many, many priors, but none of them had resulted in felony charges.
As the 11 of us sat there, he told us that he was trying to get a gig as a security guard and work his way up to a position at an independent armored car firm, like Dunbar. If he got a felony charge, though, that would essentially end that potential career path. He said that we was a really talented basketball player when he was younger – his position was shooting guard – until he got wrapped up in the drug game, as he said. He also likes doing yoga and said he would love to be a personal trainer someday. So we sat there and talked about him, and about Occupy Wall Street, and then a cop came in and handed him a few sheets of paper that said he was going to be charged with a felony.
He was upset, clearly, but his initial reaction was something closer to resignation than anger. He said that he had “had a good run,” and if he had to do a city beat – which refers to spending time in Rikers, as opposed to being sent upstate – that wouldn’t be so bad. He needed a vacation, needed to get sober, stop smoking weed, exercise more. At one point he said, “I’m not going to pretend like I didn’t see this coming. What I was doing was illegal.” He jokingly asked if OWS could send a working group up to visit him at Rikers. Some of the organizers I was with said yeah, we’ll do jail visits.
One of the highlights of the whole thing for me was when the OWS women in the next cell started singing “Lean on Me,” and after a few bars the men joined in. When we finished Diablo said, “Man, this is some straight up movie shit right here.” An occupier named Guy looked at Diablo – who was facing six months in real prison and was surrounded by 17 protesters – and said, “This must be pretty weird.” Diablo responded, “No, definitely, this is real weird.”
Around 3 a.m. the cops were finally ready to move us to Central Booking. We lined up outside our cell standing in five sets of pairs, all facing the same direction. The cops then shackled us together like you would a chain gain, except instead of the full hands and feet we were only bound with one hand. So if you were in the front pair standing on the right, your left hand was attached to your partner’s, and vice versa, and each pair was linked together by maybe two feet of chain. We were marched through the precinct’s lobby – where Elizabeth the livestreamer slept in a chair, waiting for us – and into a new paddy wagon. We marched up the stair and into the holding area in complete darkness. When we were all inside an outwardly confident though obviously deeply insecure officer named Pete Volaric shut the doors behind us, leaving us in complete darkness.
The ride to Central Booking was stop and go although it was 3:30 a.m., and with each slam on the brakes we lurched forward as one awkward organism. Our handcuffs weren’t double locked, which means that with every motion, every yank, the rings got tighter. When we got to Central Booking a different cop opened the latch and said, “Jesus, Voleric, you didn’t even turn on the light?” That cop switched it on as we made our way out of the paddy wagon. Standing in an open air pen inside the perimeter of Central Booking, shivering from the cold, Justin – a high-profile occupier – offhandedly remarked, “This is some real Soviet shit.”
The next two hours in many ways distilled the absurdism of our entire detainment. The 10 of us were forced to wind our way around tight hallways and down staircases all shackled together. One member of our group, Al, is an older man who had trouble walking quickly, especially since his belt had been taken, and as a result we moved at a pallbearer’s pace. The officers shuffled us from station to station, each time stopping us outside the room we had to go in to release us from our group cuffs one at a time. As a result, a series of processing procedures that could have taken 30 minutes total was dragged out for about two hours. I can’t be certain, but I think we finally arrived at our new cell in the tombs at around 5 a.m.
We spent the next 15 or so hours there. At lunchtime when we lined up in the hallway we saw Diablo in the next group cell over. It was like seeing an old friend. He asked how we were doing, we said fine. We asked how he was doing, he said fine. Someone in one of the other group cells behind us said, “No, no, that’s the Occupy Wall Street guys.” A few arrestees said keep up the good work. Later in the day we called some allies and recorded a phone interview describing our experience. Jeff, a member of the press team, and Lorenzo and Nick, members of the livestream group, set up the interview and sent it out to the Internet. I spoke with a friend of mine named Joe who helped me alert people about our situation.
We want your retina
When we were finally brought to the final holding area for our arraignment we were informed that if we refused to submit to a retina scan we would likely be held overnight. The retina scan is a voluntary procedure that all 10 of us had already denied earlier that day. According to our lawyers from the National Lawyers Guild – who are heroes – the lieutenant on duty and the judge said that if we continued to refuse the scans we wouldn’t get out that night. With only a few exceptions due to personal commitments, we all stood in solidarity and refused to submit to the procedure. This was around 11 p.m. on Tuesday, roughly 36 hours after our arrest. Several of the women arrested and a majority of the men were going to spend another night in prison to protest the ever expanding security state. In many ways, this final hurdle was the most egregious encroachment on our liberties. The retinal scan is a voluntary procedure, but if you don’t submit to it, you will be punished.
One final thought after these illuminating 37 hours. The story of Occupy Wall Street is impossible to tell removed from the story of the prison industrial complex. What makes OWS necessary is a story of a failing educational system. It’s a story of privatized prisons. It’s a story of predatory lenders, lack of affordable housing, and a complete absence of jobs in the most marginalized communities, who are often black or brown. It’s a story of a so-called drug war meant to imprison black and brown youth as a means of generating profits for the 1 percent. The NYPD have shown they will arrest accredited and unaccredited journalists alike. Official credentials don’t work as a protection.
That said, journalists – like activists – shouldn’t be afraid of going to jail. If and when we do get arrested it is not an inconvenience, or something that we shouldn’t be subjected to. It’s a chance to refocus our outrage, a chance to tell the most important stories, a chance to bear witness to the horrors of our criminal justice system. I don’t think the NYPD will ever offer me official credentials, but I won’t be asking them for any. Our right to observe and document police misconduct is not contingent on the approval of the authorities. And if the police think that intimidation is going to stop this movement, they should know better by now.