New York City follies…

…or, Guantanamo on the Hudson, part two. Here’s the first hand account:

On Tuesday the 31st my friend Sarah and I were on our way home from vacation. We were driving right through New York City and were listening to news on the radio about the protesters at the Republican National Convention. We wanted to stop and bear witness to the protests. We wanted to add two to their numbers, if only for a few moments, as we each had to be at work on Wednesday. We drove to town, parked the car in a garage and rode the subway downtown. We had heard that there was to be a rally in Union Square Park from 5-7pm. It was published information and it never occurred to us that we would be participating in anything illegal.

We arrived at Union Square around 5pm and didn’t see anything particularly organized. There were lots of people milling about with signs, costumes, and leaflets. There were lots of police surrounding the park. It felt a little bit like a stew simmering: everyone was waiting for someone to do something illegal. The protesters wanted the cops to infringe on their rights, and the cops were waiting for the protesters to become violent. We milled about for a bit, took some pictures. Then we headed a few blocks downtown to meander through the streets of the village. I work at a used bookstore and wanted to visit The Strand. After a few hours of sightseeing, we thought, before dinner let’s see if we can find this rally again. It was almost 7pm and the rally was scheduled from 5-7pm. We again saw no signs of an organized rally, but after a few minutes a band started playing and swaying and then walked away from the park. People followed them and we followed to see where they were going. It never occurred to us that we were participating in anything illegal.

We crossed Union Square East and then turned into 16th St. There were people walking in the streets, but I made a point of always staying on the sidewalk. We were following a bunch of people. A line of police closed off the intersection at Union Square East and 16th St. Some people took off running for Irving St to get out of that block, but we stayed on the sidewalk and didn’t run. We didn’t want to look like we might be doing something wrong. It never occurred to us that we were participating in anything illegal.

Soon a line of police closed off the other intersection at Irving and 16th, trapping us on 16th St. We didn’t get on the street, we didn’t climb onto anything to see what was happening, we didn’t yell, we didn’t attempt to run, we didn’t appear violent in any way. There were probably 100 of us together there on the south side of 16th St, I think that the police had trapped other bubbles of people on the north side and farther up and down the sidewalk. We saw the police roll out a yellow net, a mesh bolt of fabric that they unrolled and used to push us into a tight group. At one point a policeman yelled at us violently and angrily that we had brought this upon ourselves. He was walking past us on the sidewalk and he yelled and screamed; and this was the moment when I became seriously afraid. I was standing closer to the street, not pressed against the walls of the buildings, and I was afraid that he would grab me and hurt me: I was very scared. The police never gave us an opportunity to move, to disperse, they never told us that we were about to be arrested, and they never said a word, besides this one officer who scared the shit out of me. It never occurred to me that this would happen. I didn’t know that we had participated in anything illegal.

Eventually the police pressed us tightly together into a group. And then they kept pressing. They grabbed instruments from the band members and threw them into the road. Then they grabbed the band members, the group held onto them, but the police pulled these individuals away and tossed them into the road. The police were pressing us and pulling individuals who were on the perimeter away. People were shouting to the police: “Tell us what to do and we’ll do it” and instructing us to hold onto the individuals the police were grabbing: “Don’t let them take them away.” I was on the perimeter of the group and I was scared that they would grab me next. I was standing right next to a street sign, there was a bicycle tied to the sign and it had fallen, and I was standing on the bicycle; every time the police pressed us I grabbed on to the sign and Sarah grabbed on to me, and I prayed that I wouldn’t fall and break an ankle on the bicycle. I was scared like I have never been before. I was carrying a bag and yelled at Sarah to get her ID out and gave her some money, and someone else passed around a Sharpie and we wrote the number for the National Lawyers Guild on our arms. This was when I really knew that we were in trouble, even though it had never occurred to me that I had done anything illegal.

The cops pressed and we held onto each other, they pulled people out of the group and took them away somewhere. The cops looked like they didn’t know what to do and I certainly didn’t know what to do. Eventually they had us sit down. When we sat they started handcuffing us. Before they got to me, I snuck my cell phone out and left a message for my sister “I think Sarah and I are about to be arrested, if we get separated we are going to call you to find each other, leave your phone on and stay near it.” That was the last call I would make for 28 hours. I wouldn’t be released for 49 hours.

Know Your Rights

I have never done anything illegal in my life. No illegal drugs, no underage drinking, I don’t even smoke cigarettes. I had complete faith in the legal system of this country. I never thought that I would be arrested, much less arrested without any explanation. I had no idea what my rights were as a citizen under arrest.

I now know that I have the right to hand out leaflets, rally on a sidewalk, set up a moving picket line, and wear costumes. I cannot block any building entrances or have more than 3 people wearing masks (including bandanas). I need a permit to march in the street, rally in a park with more than 20 people, or use electronic amplification. I do not have the right to resist a search (although I can say that I do not consent to the search). I am not entitled to a phone call while being detained, and there is no limit to how long they can hold me.

The police were instructed to lie to us, to pacify us, to tell us that they would move us soon, “It will only be a little longer.” Some police were honest and said they didn’t know what was going on, while others took out their hostility on us, blaming us for “clogging the system” and lecturing us about how we deserved what we got. There were instances of sexism and verbal abuse. We were held in numerous cells and we were often reshuffled with people from other cells, a tactic I believe was purposeful to help discourage solidarity.

Many police, I think unfamiliar with the plastic, zip-tie-like handcuffs put them on too tight inflicting much damage and pain. I saw people with bruises and swelling, one person had surely endured nerve damage and possibly a broken wrist. One person had just had shoulder surgery and her request to be handcuffed in front was ignored, hours/days later she was sent to the hospital in a sling. Fortunately I was only in handcuffs for four hours the first night, and the next day for three hours as they transported me again. My cuffs were undeniably too tight, but I suffered no bruising.

Under Arrest

We sat handcuffed on the sidewalk for over three hours while the police figured out what to do with us. We were denied food, water, the opportunity to use the restroom, or our cell phones. Finally we were transported (in a city bus) to Pier 57, a holding area.

I was held for 14 hours in Pier 57, also called “Guantanamo on the Hudson,” a warehouse previously used by the MTA as an automobile garage. The conditions were appalling. There were numerous cages built out of wire fence and razor wire. The concrete floor was filthy, covered with oil residue, soot and chemicals, there were in fact still signs posted around the facility warning of the chemicals. People experienced rashes, chemical burns, asthma attacks and head to toe filth. Some chose to stand or sit against the fence all night, but I was so exhausted I lay right on the ground and was caked and covered in filth.

We were initially held in a large cage while our arresting officer filled out paperwork and had our property “safeguarded.”(They took our property in exchange for a pink voucher slip that once released we could present with ID to have the property returned.) There were about 600 of us in that first cage. There were four Porta-Johns that we could wait in an hour-long line to use. There was water near the Porta-Johns, so I would’ve had to wait in line again just for water (to drink only, they would not let us wash our hands). We were given an apple. Later I was moved to a smaller female only cage, about 20×40, there were almost 100 of us. Two Porta-Johns were accessible in the cage, as was a waterspout, though paper cups were hard to come by. In this cage I was given a bag with two sandwiches: white bread with government cheese. Fourteen hours with one apple and two crappy sandwiches.

I read that Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly said the air quality at Pier 57 had been tested and determined safe, and that the average stay in Pier 57 was 90 minutes, with 8 hours as the longest (I was there 14). I also heard that the day after we were held in Pier 57 they laid carpet in the cages, covering up something.

Wednesday morning around noon my name was called, and I was moved to a different smaller cage in preparation for being transported to Central Booking. (Fortunately Sarah’s name was also called and we traveled there together, once we arrived we were separated and I didn’t see her again until we were released.) We waited in this smaller cage almost an hour for a vehicle to become available, and then were handcuffed for the short ride that took over an hour.

Arriving at Central Booking we were again searched and I spent time in three cells before I was fingerprinted around 8pm. I was held in two cells and in hallways finally arriving where I would spend the night around 11pm. It was here that we were able to use the phone, or at least some of us were able to use the phone before the guards grew tired and refused to respond to any more phone requests. There were about 27 of us in this cell. Here we were given soap and toilet paper for the first time, and those women who were on their periods were given appropriate products. There was not enough room for us to all lie down, some chose to remain sitting on the bench, I curled as best I could on the floor in the space available. We were denied blankets and the police refused to close the windows. Every two hours they would come in and sweep the cell making us all stand or sit with our feet raised. Every few hours they would wake us up again bringing food, white bread sandwiches (can you believe they had soy meat as an option), milk cartons, rotten apples, peaches, and once I had an orange that tasted like heaven.

I stayed in this cell the longest; my name was not called until around noon Thursday when we were told that we were about to get our mug shots. They pulled five of us (from various cells) into the hall and chained us together (the usual way of moving around Central Booking). The NYPD were then going to put us back in a cell, when the Corrections Department insisted that we not be chained and locked in a cell at the same time. We were unchained and locked up in a small cell right next to the one I had just left. An officer told us he would be back in 15-30 minutes to take us downstairs for mug shots (an hour and a half later he did in fact apologize for not being able to come get us when he said he would).

Mug shots and waiting in various halls took two hours and then a new group of us were taken to another cell. This time I waited over three hours before my name was called and I was transported to a new cell, this time to see an attorney. From there it took another two hours until I stood in front of the judge and was released. It was 8:30pm Thursday night, I had been put in handcuffs on the sidewalk of 16th St. at 7:30pm Tuesday night.


It was an anti-climactic moment. The judge said I was free, the attorney nodded kindly to me and I turned around in the courtroom. I didn’t even know which way was out. I walked past a few people sitting waiting for friends, out a set of double doors, into a hall where lots of people were milling about. I found a representative from the National Lawyers Guild and gave her my name telling her I had been released (earlier from a call inside the prison we had each given our names and any complaints). I wandered outside, crossed the street and found our supporters. All throughout the previous night we could hear people on the street chanting for our release and letting out whoops and hollers every few minutes, they were a blessing for those of us inside. They boosted our morale and we chose to believe that every whoop and holler meant someone else was released. I kept waiting for the whoops and hollers that would be mine. By the time I was released, 8:30pm, a lot of our supporters had dwindled, but they were still there with food and water and hugs. One person I had befriended while inside rushed over to me and gave me a huge hug.

The next step was property pickup. Sarah and I had set that place as our meeting place and rather than find a pay phone and call my sister to see if she was out I thought I’d get over to property pickup as fast as I could. The police had given us a sheet with directions when I got my property voucher but the route they described had been barricaded. I got pretty lost before I ended up at a trailer on the side of the road with a makeshift line formed out of police barricades and entirely surrounded by police. Sarah wasn’t there although a lot of people said they had seen her back in jail and they thought she was on her way out soon. One person was so concerned that I find Sarah she offered to hold my spot in line so I could walk back to the courthouse to look for her. And that’s where Sarah was, wandering around shaky and lost, teary and spent. There was no way she could have made her way to property pickup. I thank that women for enabling me to go find her.

We waited together in line at property pickup for two hours. At one point barricaded in place, surrounded by police and waiting, I commented that it didn’t feel all that different being free. I was able to get my bag, but my camera is being held as arrest evidence so I need to go to the DA’s office and get a release before I can get it back. I expect that on Tuesday, after the holiday, I will drive to NY and wait again in interminable lines both at the DA’s office and then at the Property Clerk’s Office. I witnessed people who were unable to get their stuff back. One person had initially refused to give her name so her property was checked under Jane Doe, but her release had her name aka Jane Doe. The police officers said since she couldn’t show ID with the name Jane Doe on it she couldn’t have her stuff. There was a lawyer with her, but I don’t think she was able to get it. Another person had lost her wallet right before being arrested; in fact she had only been in NYC for thirty minutes before she was arrested, so she had no ID. I knew of another person who’s ID was in her car, but her car keys were in her bag, I don’t know what became of her property.

It was almost midnight when we made it back to the garage where I had parked the car (fortunately in a garage and not towed, ticketed or broken into). The garage was in a hotel where many delegates were staying. It was a surreal experience walking amongst them, smelly, dirty, hungry, without having slept in two nights. We got more than a few unpleasant glances. I then drove the two hours home to Philly where we were welcomed with banners, signs, flowers and balloons from our roommates.

The Truth?

I have been amazed at what the news has been saying about those of us arrested. I hear that there were 1200 arrests in four hours on Tuesday, over 1900 arrests all week, the most for any political protest.

I feel that many of us in jail were not protesters; there were a lot of innocent bystanders swept up in the arrest nets. There were people on their way home from work, people heading out for dinner, and people like us. At the same time there were also people who expected to be arrested, people who were staging acts of civil disobedience, performing sit-ins or refusing to move when requested. A lot of people were warned by the police that they were about to be arrested, and a lot of us were given no chance at all.

I have read articles that said that no one requested medical attention. In every cell I was in someone requested medical attention. At Pier 57, people were experiencing rashes, chemical burns, asthma and other possibly chemically induced conditions, people repeatedly requested medical attention, frequently even chanting for it, and I never saw anyone at Pier 57 receive any type of medical attention. Once we were at Central Booking a few people were sent to a medic. I personally saw a person suffering from a migraine and another with a kidney infection taken to a medic. I heard of a person who had massive bruising and injuries from the police and the handcuffs taken to medics. Sarah takes medication twice a day and had missed four doses, she saw a doctor who wanted her to go to the hospital. We had been told that people who went to the hospital waited in the Emergency Room to be seen in order of severity and then came back to Central Booking to pick off waiting where they had left. Sarah did not want to add 12 or so hours to her waiting time and she refused to go to the hospital.

I read a few editorials that said that the protesters were violent and deserved to be locked up. While I was in New York City, I saw no violence on the part of the protesters, but instead plenty of violence and violent behavior from the police.

The police have said that they were prepared for 1000 arrests each day of the convention, and they also said that they delay in processing us was because we clogged the system. Both cannot be true.

Wednesday, from prison, we heard from the National Lawyers Guild (someone would always call them when we had a chance to get to a phone) that there was an order to have us released by midnight. We heard that the NYPD stalled and at an appeals court on Thursday the State Supreme Court ruled that everyone held over 24 hours be released by 5pm, and that for each person held longer the city would be fined $1000. (I personally wasn’t released until 8:30pm.) Here are some articles to that effect.

Guantanamo on the Hudson

City May Have to Pay Protesters

Some people in one of my cells at Pier 57 still had a cell phone and they called Democracy Now, this is a transcript of their talks. Most of them were arrested where I was on 16th St and most weren’t even protesting.

Guantanamo On the Hudson: Detained RNC Protesters Describe Prison Conditions

I believe that we were held until the convention was over.

I believe that that the mass arrests were a tactic to discourage any protesting. There are people who are full-time direct action activists, but when the level of commitment is raised from one afternoon of protesting to three days of work lost, people are likely to be scared away. I know that I personally am unlikely to attend any protest that is not legally permitted and well organized. At the same time I feel that my arrest and subsequent detaining have encouraged me to become even more aware of politics, my rights and any possible influence I might have over issues that concern me. I plan to monitor non-mainstream news sources daily to stay alert and aware.