Making Our Arrests Count: How We Can Keep Civil Disobedience Meaningful
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“The Tombs” is the less-than-endearing nickname for New York City’s Central Booking, the jail you get sent to if you are arrested in Manhattan and set to be arraigned before a judge. This spiraling dungeon below the courthouse at 100 Centre Street is about as ominous as it sounds. Above, the court itself is pristine and immaculate, adorned in mahogany and full of quiet, proper, well-dressed people. But all you have to do is open a door to the back of the courtroom to reveal an underground complex made up of filthy jail cells, violent correctional officers and hundreds of (mainly) poor people (mainly) of color, awaiting their arraignment for anywhere between 10 and 72 hours.
Everything about the Tombs is awful. It’s cold even when the weather is warm and summery outside. The lights maintain their piercing, head-splitting fluorescence even at night, and the bars jut out just so you can’t lean on them comfortably. You eat stale cheese sandwiches and drink milk, though dairy is probably the last thing you want during a 40-hour stay in a mass cell with one toilet. You are stripped of most things about you that make you human — your ability to manage your own affairs, to move around, to communicate with the outside world, to be productive, to identify yourself. And of course, as you sit there, you realize this is only the tip of the iceberg of the kind of repression the state is capable of, or the kind of violence it heaps on working class communities of color every day. All the while, you are still supposedly presumed innocent.
From occupying Liberty Square and marching in the streets without permits, to carrying out targeted acts of direct action against the banks that crashed the economy or the courts that auction off people’s homes, winding up in places like this has been an integral part of the Occupy Wall Street’s life since its birth. Yet we’re only at the very beginning of understanding our civil disobedience — the ways in which it grows but also shrinks the movement, the positive and negative impacts it has on the movement’s internal culture, and the challenging but ultimately vital role it plays in the struggle for liberation.
The whole world is watching
The mass arrests and pepper-spraying that took place in New York City on September 24 drastically changed the course of the movement. The NYPD dragged us kicking and screaming, in handcuffs, into the headlines. It won sympathy and solidarity from a lot of people who were — until then — watching from the sidelines, trying to decide if the movement was worth supporting, identifying with and joining. The arrests on the Brooklyn Bridge a week later did even more of that, catapulting the movement into the national and international arena. Those events dramatically inflated our numbers, deepened our resolve, and won us tremendous popular support. We were unstoppable. The whole world was watching. We were winning.
Many of us in the movement have gotten used to thinking that it’s always a good thing to appear in the paper getting arrested in large numbers, as long as we can practice nonviolence and come out of it looking innocent. But there’s another side to it. What if the politicians and bankers don’t actually care if we are in the news? What if the NYPD doesn’t care if the violence looks like it’s their fault or ours? Maybe to them it doesn’t matter whose fault it is, as long as what is being communicated is that anyone who sets foot in the streets with the Occupy movement has a good shot at ending up in the Tombs, or worse. In fact, they might be thinking that the more people who see those gruesome images on the cover of the Daily News, the better.