Kiss My Cuffs

“I heard three-fourths of these b****es are gay,” the Corrections Department van driver asserted – to whom, we weren’t sure. A dozen or so women, arrested in various RNC protests, sat cuffed alongside me in the back of a Corrections van, streaked with motor oil from the concrete floor of Pier 57, a former bus depot where we’d been held for roughly ten hours.
“Guess higher,” Cindy, a San Francisco tattoo artist, shouted back brightly. We laughed, and launched into a protest song.

A queer fantasy – but dirtier

If it weren’t for the omnipresent grime, the night could nearly have been a queer woman’s fantasy – or mine, at least. That Sunday afternoon, a few blocks from Times Square, I was among the forty-odd protesters arrested following the break-up of a queer “kiss-in” targeted at Republican attendees of Broadway shows. Mounted police on horses dispersed the crowd in Times Square after two protestors were found to have goggles – a violation of the legal prohibition on masks and other facial coverings. The crowd moved off, following officers’ directions, down the sidewalk on 46th Street, then south.

There was never an order to disperse from there – or, at least, we didn't hear one - but on 38th Street, police barricaded the group, forced us to kneel, and then bound us one-by-one with white plastic handcuffs. Stripped of our belongings, we were lined up on the sidewalk and photographed, causing a far larger obstruction than if we’d been allowed to disperse in the first place. Tourists on double-decker tour buses gaped as they passed, while legal observers from the National Lawyer’s Guild, dressed in neon green, strained to collect our names and pass us messages through the crowd. One held up a telephone number, which we collectively committed to memory. Other protestors, with greater foresight than I, had written the number on their arms or legs earlier in the day; I had naively assumed that if I didn’t seek to be arrested, I wouldn’t be. As I stood, cuffed, against a building, I wasn’t angry yet – just shocked.

My arresting officer joked and chatted with the women alongside me. “I work in the Bronx,” he said. “I see more serious s**t than this every day. This don’t make any sense.” Nonetheless, in order to identify my belongings, he took my name and my picture – a photo that later, contrary to protocol, he would slip to me as a souvenir. Alongside me, a woman in a red slip with an unruly grin, Paula,* vogued for her photograph with the officer.

“Have you ever worked as a stripper?” she kidded him. He did a double-take. “What makes you think that?” he replied. A little grin crept onto his face. “I’m not gonna answer that.” Others chatted with the officers about the upcoming police strikes.
“There’s no support for it on the ground, though,” one officer said to us.
“We can’t go on strike because there’s just no support.”
“Maybe you need a little peaceful civil disobedience,” suggested Paula, and the officer smirked. She noted, however, that her officer became reticent when she asked to be read her rights – and never, it turns out, complied with her request. Not all the protestors were so glib, of course. A handful resisted arrest by going limp, and were separated from the rest of us, who were herded into a police bus.
Although I complied, I wasn’t ready to be chummy with the officers. Cordial or not, they were still the agents of our arbitrary arrest, and I didn’t feel that I could trust them.
Disorderly conduct at Pier 57

The bus took us to Pier 57, a vacated bus depot being used temporarily during the convention to process arrests. As we waited at the entrance, chafing under our cuffs, I chatted with some of the women with whom I’d been arrested: schoolteachers, photographers, students. Paula, it turns out, worked in a quilting store. “I like t. and a.,” she quipped, “the traditional arts.” For most of the predominantly young, white, queer crowd, the arrest was their first, adding to the delay in processing. First-timers, it turns out, are a bigger hassle to book. Officers repeatedly said to us, “We don’t want to be here any more than you do” and “we don’t go home until you go home” – but home, of course, meant Central Booking for us, and families in Queens or the Bronx for them.
In line, and all through the night, we traded theories as to why we’d been arrested. At first, I thought it was a case of ‘walking while queer’ – that we’d been singled out by homophobic officers for having the temerity to kiss in public. If so, however, the order must have come from the top – our arresting officers didn’t harass us, nor did they bat an eye when, in the pens, an impromptu game of Spin-the-Tampon took place. Others opined that the arrests functioned to clear the streets. A third theory, perhaps the most cynical, was that the police needed to fill convention-specific quotas, and relatively few protesters had been arrested thus far, prior to Tuesday’s planned day of civil disobedience.
After passing through a series of lines, we were gathered into a chain-link holding pen, crowned with barbed wire, adjacent to the men. The accommodations were sparse, to say the least: a few benches and a water dispenser, under which an oil-slicked floor gleamed. At first, the group was, if not despondent, down-tempo, gingerly sitting on the filthy floor. Boredom, however, bred ingenuity. A game of Red Rover started, followed by the aforementioned Spin-the-Tampon. Girls grappled in arm-wrestling matches as others traded shy or swaggering kisses. Two tranny bois in white wife-beaters did push-ups against the benches. Others traded stories or talked about their lives; a green-haired student, Thalia, talked about her efforts to unionize Philadelphia sex workers – an initiative for which she had painted herself with the slogan ‘Sluts unite!’ to the perpetual amusement of the officers.
“Keep it PG in there!” a female officer called to us, but she was smiling.
A game of Simon Says began across the fence with the boys, who were held in a separate pen. “Simon says say ‘Women are superior!’” shouted bubbly, curly-haired Monica.
“Women are superior!” the men shouted.
“Did Simon say to stop saying it?” she prodded.
“Women are superior! Women are superior! Women are superior!”
Simon Says evolved into a sing-off/dance-off, in which, true to stereotype and counter to their coerced statement, we were utterly vanquished by the gay men, who followed up their original Backstreet Boys tribute with a West Side Story dance-cum-fight scene. Meanwhile, a lanky, tow-haired girl named Brenda racked her brain for showtunes and pop songs to sing. “We may need to resort to Disney,” she said, grimacing. “Let’s swing dance!” exclaimed Monica.
Our spirits were periodically shaken, however, by women’s screams in a separate pen – from those who had resisted arrest, we speculated. Later, while waiting to collect our belongings, one of the resisters confirmed that we had been right. The handcuffs, she said, on those who had resisted arrest were removed much later than ours, and were bound particularly tightly. Guards were unresponsive to repeated requests to loosen the cuffs, the woman said, so the arrestees began to scream. It didn’t work. As the hours dragged on, the screams petered out, and most of the protesters tried to sleep. There were too few of the backless benches for everyone to sleep on, so most of us stretched out on the floor, cradling our faces in our arms, or lying on our backs, to try and stave off the inevitable grime.

Stir crazy in the ‘Tombs’

The hours stretched still longer, however, after we left Pier 57 for Central Booking, with our discourteous escort (who also commented that he hated dealing with women because “when guys mouth off, you can clock them”) at the wheel. In Central Booking, our information was taken and we were once again searched and photographed, and then shuffled between different windowless, fluorescent-lit cells in the infamous “Tombs” jail – for what purpose, it wasn’t clear. Officials seemed surprised, sometimes irritated, when we asked what awaited us next, and frequently weren’t sure themselves: not only did one hand (Corrections) not know what the other hand (the police department) was doing, the fingers on each hand (individual officials) weren’t aware of each other’s actions.
The staff at Corrections, for instance, were unaware that we’d been held at Pier 57, and asked us why we were so dirty – compounding my fear of how we’d look before a judge. “Unwashed protestors in our natural element – filth,” I joked with Daphne, a middle-aged photographer and world traveler from Vegas. Guards told us that soap was verboten, despite the fact that the first pen in which we’d been held had it. Requests for vegetarian sandwiches (cheese on white bread, rather than baloney) were likewise denied, despite the prominently displayed signs asserting our right to vegetarian or halal meals, should we need them. As a result, some of the women went hungry during the entirety of their prison stay, taking only water, and once, when it was offered, bran cereal.
Court officials came to interview us, taking details, they said, which might help to establish us as reputable persons before the court. In the hopes of appearing like the bright-eyed college kid that I am, I gave staff the name of my university, and of the organization with which I interned this summer. Others were uneasy about giving more information to officials. Daphne asked about the interview’s purpose.
“For the court,” a female official replied brusquely. “Do you want it or not?”
“But what exactly is it used for? They give the answers to the jury?”
“It’s for the court. To establish you before the court.”
“You have the right to decline it,” Paula commented quietly, to the official’s chagrin.
“Why are you making this so hard?” she challenged us. “It’s for the court!”
“I just want to know what this is for,” replied Daphne. “Does it stay in my record?”
The woman threw up her hands, and walked away from our cell. Daphne’s face crumpled.
In the meantime, we grew steadily more exhausted, dully batting back and forth an inflated plastic glove. Paula and Cindy made up little songs about white bread and baloney; Daphne hummed the same Outkast line ad nauseum, and I rhapsodized about the Indian food I’d eat when I left. When there was nothing else to talk about, someone would invariably bring up the men’s Backstreet Boys dance at the pier. We’d smile, and then return to our griping. By then, we had given up devising ways to afford more privacy to those who needed to use the hardly-secluded toilet in the cell. I tried to sleep, just to pass the time, but couldn’t situate myself comfortably on the concrete bench. When, finally, I overcame the fluorescent lights and the harsh surfaces and drifted into unconsciousness, I was shaken awake, minutes later, as we were made to change cells.
For the first time, I felt not just tired and annoyed, but angry. Every few hours, officials would feed us phony estimates of how long we’d remain there; once, with unvarnished smugness, a senior official at Tombs strolled by the cell to ask us how we liked it.
“You sure are running an operation here,” said Paula cheekily.
“And you really do like your job, don’t you?” snapped another. A third girl was crying.

My minute in court

It was Monday afternoon by the time most of our group met with the public defender, called up five at a time to a separate holding pen where we waited to confer with them in private booths. As we waited, I grew anxious, wondering why we’d been grouped as we had. Was there a method, and if so, what did I share with these women?
Two women who’d been involved in the Bike Bloc were charged with misdemeanors. A third woman was an anomaly - a self-described university bureaucrat and South Asian studies geek who had been arrested at the United for Peace and Justice march. She was dealt felony charges for incitation to riot and setting a puppet on fire (charges of which she claimed to be innocent) and saddled with a four-hundred-thousand dollar bail. Prior to meeting with the lawyer, she had been recommending Arabic language programs to me; afterwards, she paced back and forth, touching her forehead in shock. “It’s Kafkaesque,” she said.
At long last, after over twenty-four filthy, sleep-deprived hours in custody, I met with a lawyer and learned of my charges: two counts of disorderly behavior and one count of ‘parading without a permit’, the same as those facing the majority of our group, and amounting to a mere violation. With my summer in New York almost finished, my main concern was whether I’d have to return to the city. An airline ticket alone was more expensive than the fine if I plead guilty, or, as I preferred, no contest. Fortunately, the lawyer advised me that most of the kissers were getting ACDs – a provision that stipulated that if we weren’t arrested again in New York State during the next six months, our records would be cleared. Effectively, the ACD was a slap on the wrist, a non-sentence – but one designed to deter us from further protests. I took it, but my relief was mingled with insensible annoyance at the trifling penalty. It seemed like an admission that the charge was bogus.

My appearance in court was brief and unexceptional: a Judge Judy type delivered me my ACD, and advised me not to get into any more trouble. I thought to myself, “All right – I’ll stop doing rebellious things like walking down the sidewalk according to police instructions,” but nodded penitently as she spoke. I exited the courtroom, where two Prison Solidarity activists handed me a daisy and a chocolate kiss before taking down my name and sentence. On them, I poured praise.

Outside, Food Not Bombs served freed protesters fresh fruit and donuts, and volunteer medics quizzed us about cuffing-related bruises, numbness and nerve pain, as well as chemical burns suffered at Pier 57. It was a godsend – one that most prisoners, I was reminded, don’t get. Neither do the countless people who are wrongfully arrested every day, in less glamorous circumstances, receive such kid-glove treatment from the police, or gain comfort from a community of like-minded arrestees, or avail themselves of free services from the National Lawyer’s Guild. As frustrated and tired as I felt, I had been lucky – or rather, privileged – in every way.

I wanted to find Daphne – she needed a place to stay the night – and Paula, to thank her for keeping my spirits up – and a dozen or so others, whom I’d love to meet again, in other circumstances. But I was ready, by then, to go home. With the daisy in hand, I walked down the block, to claim my possessions.

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