NYPD policy of protest pre-emption lands Slingshot theatre troup in jail for “being silly with intent to be ridiculous”
“Cuff ‘em,” I heard someone above me say. I felt an instant of surprise, and then realized I was about to get arrested. Seconds later, I felt my arms grabbed and I was led across Seventh Avenue surrounded by cops. It was around noon on August 31 — the “day of action” during the protests at the Republican National Convention in New York City. My group of Slingshot collective members from the West coast had come to New York on a kind of multi-purpose field trip — protest the obscene power structure which has never met a form of hierarchy, of state violence or of environmental destruction it didn’t like — and get to hang out in NYC with amazing people. Before the day of action, we had decided to be very careful to avoid getting arrested. We decided to do a very safe action — an absurdist street theater skit in which gender queer dominatrixes treated George Bush to a little BDSM. I was playing George Bush wearing a white shirt, a tie and a cheap mask that might have actually been of the first President George. By the time we got busted, we had performed the skit without incident about a dozen times near various hotels where delegates were staying. The police had told us to move across the street sometimes, or in one case to keep moving (we performed while walking in circles) but because we were performing on the sidewalk and being careful not to block foot traffic, we didn’t think we would be arrested and we were feeling pretty comfortable and safe.
After hitting most of the hotels around Times Square, we got tired of performing near RNC hotels and decided to head south down Seventh Ave. We hadn’t seen any other protesters out, and I kind of wanted to see some action or have some sense that Tuesday actually was a day of action. We even called the legal line to see if they knew where we might find some action. They told us they were bored too — so bored that they would send us two legal observers. At noon on Tuesday, our 7 person skit was the action.
The legal observers arrived an hour later right before what was to be our final performance. The corner wasn’t near any delegates, and the police even watched the entire show before the bust. It wasn’t until the end — when the doms offer George a pretzel and he chokes on it and falls to the sidewalk — that I had any idea we were in trouble.
But we were assuming that the “normal” urban rules applied — that if you didn’t do anything illegal, you wouldn’t be arrested. We were wrong — the police had their own rules, but they hadn’t bothered to tell anyone.
Civil disobedience: yesterday & today
My first political arrest was in 1985 — I was 16 years old and the anti-nuclear arms race movement was in full swing. Over the last 20 years, I’ve seen what I consider to be kind of an evolution of protest tactics. My first arrest was of the purely symbolic type — a large group of us sat on the railroad tracks in Vancouver, Washington to block a train carrying nuclear weapons from reaching the nuclear submarine based on the Coast. We knew in advance that we would be arrested, and we knew the train would ultimately reach its destination, if perhaps a little late. The idea, I guess, was that by putting our bodies on the line and forcing our own arrest, we would attract media attention and bring attention to the issue. I did a few arrests like that in those days — building occupations, sit-ins on roads, climbing over fences at military bases literally into the arms of military police.
We weren’t that interested in causing disruption or chaos or making it difficult for the wheels of oppression to operate. If we had been, we would have been more aggressive — playing hide and seek on the train tracks, finding a spot on the fence without any soldiers. This kind of symbolic action still goes on, but more recently, a lot of “action” has moved beyond the purely symbolic to more serious attempts at disruption and direct action.
Whereas in a symbolic “action” the participants actually want to get arrested and so they figure out a way to require their own arrest, in a disruptive action, the point is to disrupt business as usual. Such an action may result in an arrest, but in general the longer you can escape capture, the longer the disruption will go on and the more effective it will be. When I do disruptive action, I’m trying hard to avoid arrest and I feel like getting arrested is pretty unfortunate, if not a failure of the action. In Seattle, many activists turned from a focus on a symbolic protest to an attempt to actually disrupt the activities of those oppressing us and the Earth.
After September 11, president Bush announced that henceforth, the USA would employ a military strategy of preemption — rather than only using military force to repel an attack (i.e. the old fashioned idea of self-defense) the USA would use force to pre-empt an attack. Any group or government that was a threat could be attacked, under this doctrine, or even any power that might become a threat. The USA would strike first. As part of this toughened US stance, US treatment of those captured became more openly harsh. The idea that those who oppose US power could be held indefinitely, without charge or access to Courts, lawyers or public scrutiny is now official US policy.
In the relationship between the state (police) and dissidents inside the USA, Seattle was the police’s September 11. During every large protest since Seattle, the police to a greater and greater degree have adopted a strategy of preemption towards demonstrators, coupled with a willingness to hold protesters outside of the normal criminal process.
The protests in New York represented the most dramatic slide yet in this direction. The police made a conscious decision on August 31 to preemptively arrest people who appeared to be protesters — not necessarily because they were doing anything particularly illegal or disruptive at the time of their arrest, but because they might later engage in disruption or illegal acts. Once arrested, the police used every trick and stalling tactic to keep people off the streets for a long time. People arrested for a violation who might normally be given a ticket and released were subjected to a full booking process including fingerprints — held overnight or longer with no access to legal process.
There are two ways to look at this. On the one hand, what’s the big deal? The US government dishes out far more oppression to almost every person or creature on earth — even defenseless plants and rocks — on a regular basis. People in Iraq are being killed by the hundreds; during the RNC, the NYPD kept at its “normal” job — suppressing the poor and communities of color.
The other way to look at it, however, is to realize what this means to future chances for dissent. If just by standing on the sidewalk at a legal political demonstration a person risks arrest and confinement for a few days, the number of people who will dare leave their teevee sets and hit the streets will be very limited indeed. While the police want to justify their policy of preemption by pointing (ad nauseam) to the few windows broken in Seattle and the need to maintain order, the rulers understand that if preemptive arrests stifle political involvement — limiting it to those young enough or secure enough to take risks — their unjust authority is safer. We accept preemptive, illegal arrests — just because the state often uses far harsher methods against its enemies — at our peril.
Guantanamo on the Hudson
Out of our group of 7 street performers, the police only grabbed three of us — George Bush and two of the three dominatrixes, C and M. At first, all three of us thought the whole thing was so ridiculous that surely the police would just take us around the block, give us a ticket or a warning, and cut us loose. But again, we were assuming reality was as it normally exists — not the parallel universe of New York during the RNC. For weeks, the NYPD had been hyping the protests, claiming there would be “violent anarchists” there bent on destroying New York. They had gotten tens of millions of dollars in federal money to protect the Republicans. And so they put on a good show — hordes of police everywhere you went, huge barricades for blocks around midtown Manhattan. The cops had converted a bus garage on Pier 57 on the Hudson River to a temporary holding station complete with chain link enclosures topped by razor wire — it looked strangely like Camp X-ray at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. The problem was “where are the violent anarchists?” Finding none, the police had to do their best to improvise so they wouldn’t look like fools.
My two friends and I stood in a little police sub-station with metal handcuffs on feeling so full of emotion, so close to each other and for just a moment so deeply alive. Sometimes you feel like you’re stuck in your life — repeating boring patterns, working too much, playing not enough, not feeling enough intensity, feeling lonely and longing for human connection. We had been talking about it the night before — how can we really feel? How can we be fully alive given all the complexities of our lives? But in that station, we knew we were alive. We felt our existence very intensely — my eyes grew teary not out of fear, but out of joy at being this alive. We all kissed and they had tears in their eyes, too.
It isn’t fun getting arrested — we were pissed off at the injustice of it, pissed at having our freedom taken from us, worried about what would happen next, trying to figure out how to manage this new reality. I felt particularly worried about C and M — they were wearing skimpy, sexy outfits — fishnet stockings, tight see-through stuff, leather. They had no identification, no money, and no keys to the place we were staying.
After searching us, the police put us in a van and drove us to Pier 57. On the way, we used our affinity groups’ call “WHOOOP” to penetrate the thick plastic separating the men from the women.
When we got to the Pier, we were surprised to see the vast place basically empty, with tons of cops just standing around waiting for something to happen. After being searched again, they started the grim process of paperwork. At one station, they counted the money in my wallet over and over because there was too much and they had to put some of it into “checked baggage.” They called a supervisor over to make sure the paperwork was right. They worked on this for what seemed like an hour. It felt highly symbolic of life in the US that the cops would take 1 second to deprive us of our freedom, but would spend an hour dealing with $71 — in America, money is always taken far more seriously than freedom.
Finally, I got locked in the big chain link cage. The police had taken my necktie so I couldn’t hang myself with it while I was in the cell. The line from Alice’s Restaurant ran through my head “Officer Obie, did you think I was going to hang myself for littering?” Taking my necktie seemed really silly given that all around the cell there were signs warning us to be careful of cutting ourselves on the razor wire. Anyone wanting to kill themselves in that cage would have had an easy time of it.
As much as it pissed me off to be locked up for nothing, I have to say that in retrospect, I feel lucky to have met the people I shared the cage with. They were all from a group that had allegedly thrown a little party on Wall street earlier in the morning. Apparently, their small group was far outnumbered by undercover cops who grabbed all of them, drawing blood in a number of cases. They were a great group — creative, fun and smart. One guy was walking the Appalachian trail and had taken a break from his walk to come to the RNC. Another had just taken the bar exam to be an environmental lawyer. We exchanged all kinds of stories over the course of the next almost day long ordeal.
A lot has been made of the dangerous health conditions at the converted bus garage — an oily substance coated the floor which was supposedly mixed with asbestos or worse. A guy in the cage was using a rolled up dollar bill as a paint brush to create a political t-shirt on his plain white shirt — the oil on the floor was his paint. I touched the floor to see if it was safe to sit down — my finger turned solid black. We were lucky, because only a few of us were in the cage during the middle of the day. Later in the evening when the police arrested over 1,000, I am told that the cells were stuffed and avoiding contact with the filthy floor was impossible.
I couldn’t see C and M, but at various points we whooped signals back and forth to each other across the vast, noisy, hanger-like Pier 57. Finally, after cooling our heels for a long time, the police let me out of the cage and a school bus with prison bars pulled up. C, M and I stood facing a fence. The police always marched us around telling us to face the fence or the wall, etc., getting off on their power trip. We were surprised when we boarded the bus and discovered that we had the whole thing to ourselves! The bus pulled out of the pier and what followed was the wildest ride I had in New York — even better than the Cyclone I rode at Coney Island a few days later. The huge, empty school bus (except for us and the arresting officer) sped through Manhattan, running red lights, with a police car escort running ahead of us. All this for street theater?
Wingnuts in the Tombs
When we got to the “Tombs” — Central Booking — I had a naive optimism that we would soon be released. When we had reached Pier 57, an officer had said “this will just take 2-3 hours.” I felt like that meant it would take 6 hours, maybe 8 hours. Since we were now pretty sure very few protesters had so far been arrested, and since the Courts were open and available, and we were entering the court building, this assumption appeared reasonable.
In the days after August 31, the police have defended the long period of time (hundreds of people were held for 48 hours) it took them to “process” and release detainees on the grounds that they were “flooded” with arrests on August 31. (No matter that this flood was their own doing as they swept up innocent people.)
Our experience at the Tombs proves that this police claim is a lie. When we got there, they had only arrested a couple of dozen people all day. The police were sitting around waiting for something to happen. It took a few minutes for them to offer me my phone call, and a few more to finger print me. Then, I figured I would wait around a little while and then be released. Instead, I was taken downstairs, very thoroughly searched again, and then put into a cell with other unlucky folks. There was one other holding cell that had people in it — so called “regular” arrestees — the police kept the RNC detainees separate from the normal population.
Aside from those two cells, there were huge numbers of empty holding cells. We sat and sat and a tiny number of us were gradually taken up to Court, but mostly we were held. There was a pay phone in the cell and we began to hear that out in the real world, mass arrests were happening. But we didn’t see the folks getting arrested for hours. Maybe around midnight they started bringing the first group in — the peaceful Fellowship of Reconciliation march that had been arrested at 4 p.m. for walking on the sidewalk near Ground Zero.
If the police couldn’t process the “flood” of arrestees in a timely fashion because they were a flood, that doesn’t explain why the police couldn’t deal with two dozen arrestees from early in the day in a timely fashion. Of course, the answer is that the police had made a conscious decision to move protesters through the system slowly. Some day, as the lawsuits over the RNC protests are resolved, we may learn more about who made this decision, but anyone who was there could plainly see what was going on.
As the night passed away in jail, more and more folks got brought over from Pier 57 until eventually, all the holding cells were full. There was insufficient space to lie down, so mostly we stayed up chatting, making friends, feeling outraged, feeling our bodies grow increasingly exhausted. As it turned out, I was one of the lucky ones — I got release in only 17 hours at about 5:30 a.m. I got to see the rising sun shining on the Brooklyn bridge — a beautiful sight in a beautiful city — and freedom had never tasted so sweet. But also so sour, because I knew that hundreds more were still locked away, and because I knew that none of us can ever be really free under this system. And I knew that the cops were probably going to get away with the whole thing — arresting people for nothing other than daring to hit the streets to oppose those in power, intentionally holding us for long periods, and harassing us with dirty conditions at the Pier, sleep deprivation and disrespect.
My friends C and M and been released a little before me, and between my affinity group and the fantastic legal support teams outside the jail, they were okay despite their skimpy clothing, lack of money and lack of ID. C and M had been arraigned and had their charged adjourned contemplating dismissal — in other words if they don’t get arrested for 6 months, the charges will be dropped. My situation was more annoying — I would have to return to New York from my home in California in three weeks to attend a court appearance. When I returned, I got an ACD, too. The National Lawyer’s Guild lawyer told me that of the 1,800 people arrested, about 1,200 would have to return for a court date. Two-thirds of those arrested lived outside New York. Perhaps this was a way to promote tourism?