we're all inside a police net now

Sandy Katz, a former ACT UP comrade who served as aide to Manhattan Borough President Ruth Messenger, has sent his friends this account of his own experience with our new domestic order. On Tuesday afternoon he accidently became caught up in the enormous police action which saw 1200 people arrested for the offense of being on the streets of New York. In his own description, written after he was released 23 hours later, never having been arraigned and never having seen a judge or a lawyer, he says he ended up being handed a desk appearance ticket; he has to be back in court in three and a half weeks, "i am charged with disorderly conduct for consorting with an unauthorized gathering of people."

it’s over now. i hate being locked up. i didn’t choose to be arrested, as i have done several times in my life. back in the day the new york police routinely warned peaceful demonstrators to move before placing them under arrest. that was back before dissent was a threat to national security, when it was understood as the freedom to disagree.
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my tale of zero tolerance

hello friends,

i’ve been in new york during these republican convention festivities, mostly staying as far as possible from madison square garden, but greatly enjoying the joyous spirit of counter-cultural expression that is filling the city simultaneous with the republican invasion.

last friday i participated in a “critical mass” bike ride 5000+ strong, which was a thrilling experience. i’ve risked my life so much bicycling in new york traffic that it feels gloriously triumphant to be part of a pack of bikers briefly taking control of the streets. the group got split up by the police, and i had no idea until the following day that more than 250 bikers got arrested on the ride. people congregating without a permit is no longer tolerated in new york.

that became more apparent to me on tuesday afternoon. i had heard about a “green bloc” action called “true security,” with the theme of creative representations of a better world. the meeting place was the steps of the main library on 42nd street and 5th avenue. i arrived a little early and sat on the steps reading a book. those library steps epitomize public space and free speech and have served for generations as a meeting place for gatherings informal and otherwise. ironically (as it turned out), the library as a site for the expression and exchange of ideas is being celebrated at the moment by a huge banner hanging from the the front of the building which reads “i can’t hear you.”

so anyway, on the steps i sat reading and waiting, observing more and more folks congregating whom i recognized as not the usual mid-town crowd but rather fellow-travellers of various stripes, some with buttons, tee-shirts, and signs, some (like me) without. i also noticed massive numbers of police in riot gear assembled on the streets nearby.

not far from where i sat, a guy started to hang a banner from one of the two lions that flank the library steps like mascot icons. police were there within seconds and phyically stopped him. they told him he couldn’t hang the banner, and he cooperated, instead holding the banner with another person. however, that wasn’t good enough. evidently in new york these days it is illegal to display any banner larger than a few feet by a few feet, a threat to homeland security. the police abruptly grabbed the two banner-holders, locked their arms behind their backs, and placed them under arrest. people sitting on the steps reacted by surrounding the guys and the cops chanting “let them go,” and the riot police started moving toward the assembled crowd. it was a very tense moment..

i backed away, feeling like a coward, but firm in my resolve to avoid arrest. in the ensuing chaos there were more arrests and the police cleared the library steps. i tried to blend into the rush hour pedestrian traffic on fifth avenue, while staying nearby. i couldn’t quite believe that the library steps were being so gratuitously profaned by riot police; what more appropriate (and innocuous) place could there be to unfurl banners and offer soapbox harangues? as the police presence grew and vans and busses for mass arrests arrived, i melted into the pedestrian mass and walked downtown through streets more heavily policed and even militarized than i have ever experienced. security trumped freedom on the streets of my beloved city this week.

i headed toward st. mark’s church on 2nd avenue and 10th street, where the radical faeries were creating a sanctuary space for the evening, to offer respite and relaxation to protesters. st. marks church has been a godsend this week. they have completely opened their gorgeous historic church to activists, providing meeting space, restrooms, space for food not bombs to prepare and serve free food, and a rendez-vous spot.

but a funny thing happened on the way to st. mark’s….

as i passed union square, i heard a marching band and saw a ragtag parade/street party dancing uptown on fourth avenue. i saw an old friend in it and joined him following the parade. in contrast to many protest events, this was fun, festive, and light. not for long. a line of riot-geared police forced the parade off fourth avenue onto 16th street. then at the other end of 16th street another line of police appeared. i got off the street and onto the sidewalk, wishing to avoid confrontation with police. police were approaching from both sides, and started grabbing and arresting the musicians, videographers and photographers, and select individuals from out of the crowd. the sidewalks were packed as the police moved closer, not allowing anyone to leave. we were contained by orange netting. all the people on the street, including random folks who just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, were prisoners of the police.

the police grabbed some people standing near me, folks with slogan tee-shirts and extreme hair, so i moved away toward folks who appeared more mainstream. we were sandwiched between two lines of police telling us to move back, with nowhere to go. finally we sat down and waited, as they continued to select individuals to arrest.

i made friends with a few people immediately around me. we talked about our absurd uncertain situation and how we came to be in it. we didn’t know whether we would be arrested, but we were not free to leave. we were prisoners. we communicated with friends and family via our cellphones. eventually we were told that we would all be arrested, and they divvied us up, gender-segregated, five to an officer. my cop was officer harrigan. he searched us, bound our hands behind our backs us with plastic handcuffs, took our names and addresses, and we waited. and waited. the guy next to me (a tennessee native transplanted to new york, my own story reversed), who just happened to be walking down the street with his girlfriend, had chronic kidney problems and needed to pee. he was in pain and panicked. the police would not allow him to get up and go pee.

after an hour or so, we were led to a city bus on irving place. a huge crowd had assembled on union square, and a smaller crowd on irving place. legal observers from the national lawyers’ guild asked our names as we walked past, so they could track us through the system; unfortunately we were being moved along quickly and many of us had complicated exotic multisyllabic names.

we waited and waited, then the bus ride took forever. the mood was jovial and we channelled nervous energy into laughter. some energetic souls engaged police officers in bantering political dialogue, and we all sang cheesy songs like “why can’t we be friends?”

we were taken to pier 57, on the hudson river around 16th street, a municipal vehicular maintenance facility converted into a mass arrest detention center, known now, after a week of usage, as “guantanamo-on-the-hudson.” the concrete floor was filthy with decades of accumulated spillage of diesel fuel, motor oil, and who knows what other toxic chemicals. it made everybody’s clothes and skin filthy, and some sensitive individuals suffered terrible rashes. an investigation is underway by the national lawyer’s guild (a radical lawyers’ organization) into whether the paneling in the space is asbestos.

we were paraded before large cages filled with hundreds of people already in custody from other protest-related mass arrests. they cheered as we walked by. our belongings were taken from us and we were all in a huge cell, with no furniture whatsoever, grimy filthy floors, surrounded by16 foot fencing topped with razor wire. the cell was continuously filling for hours with people arrested not only on 16th street but also around herald square and ground zero.

when i was first searched by officer harrigan he had found my pocket stash of my aids meds (not in prescription bottles) and we’d had a conversation about my need to take them, with food, within a couple of hours. he took me to the makeshift medical office they had established on the pier, where a doctor verified that my pills were what i claimed they were and that indeed they were to be taken with food. i was still handcuffed, and we prisoners had been served no food thus far, so a sweet nurse on duty, cassandra, fed me, one-by-one, about a dozen crackers, then water and pills. i enjoyed the strangely intimate moment with her and recounted how just hours before i had been feeding my adorable and giggly16-month-old nephew acksel.

it turns out that friends on the outside were worrying about my ability to have access to my drugs. i made a few cell-phone calls during the post-detention pre-arrest period, and two different friends (simmer who lives with me at short mountain and was also visiting new york, and jonas, who lives in new york but frequently visits short mountain) tried to work out how to get drugs to me.

i wandered around the detention room talking to people. everybody was friendly and interesting. there was a strong spirit of camraderie, as adversity so often generates. most of us were tired and subdued, but in the center of the room, a spirited and energized drumming circle developed, using the plastic handcuffs, now off our wrists, as percussion instruments.

one-by-one, we were processed, our belongings were inventoried and offially taken into police custody, and we were placed into smaller cells. for me this came at maybe 3 am. the smaller cell was much more densely-packed, and we were sex-segregated. i made more friends. we were fed baloney sandwiches (on burnt and stale white bread with mayo), which i was hungry enough to eat. i dozed a bit, sitting, since the floor was so filthy and though my shorts were stained forever, i cared too much about a favorite shirt to lay on the floor in it.

shortly after daylight my name was called and i was part of a group transferred to the tombs, the notorious manhattan central booking facility beneath the criminal court building. we were rehandcuffed, this time much tighter, and taken to a corrections department van fitted with several different cage compartments. since the initial forceful blockading of us into a confined space, which was militaristic, ugly, and aggressive, my direct interactions with individual police officers had been primarily friendly and polite. the corrections officer who drove us through lower manhattan at 7:00 am treated us like the caged animals we were.

one of the other guys in the van was in severe discomfort. his plastic wrist restraints were so tight his circulation was blocked and his hands were blue and going numb and getting darker. as we sat in the hot stagnant garage in our cages awaiting the transfer of the last prisoners, he and others of the group pleaded for attention to the problem. the corrections driver ignored us for as long as he could, then flatly refused to do anything, saying that it wasn’t his problem, he didn’t put the cuffs on, and offering only that after we got to the central booking facility, if it turned out there was a medical problem with his hands, he would be sent to a hospital for attention.

several of my fellow passengers, and one in particular, got kind of aggressive with the driver, pounding him with insults. their aggressiveness made me feel unsafe. the loudest most aggressive guy was partial to the epithet “cocksucker,” which i think is homophobic, when it is used in an insulting way, as a metaphor for the basest thing a man can be. the mean negligent corrections officer was a cocksucker. george bush not only was a cocksucker, he sucked the devil’s cock. i felt really angry at this guy and was on the verge of going off on him for his non-stop, loud, homo-hatred. but thankfully before it came to that, in central booking our paths diverged and i haven’t seen him again.

down there in the central booking tombs we were constantly on the move, sitting and waiting in perhaps 6 different cells over the course of about 12 hours. each time we would become familiar with a group of fellow inmates, we would be reshuffled. in one cell i ran into a guy named ryan who i met at a party in murfreesboro tennessee last month. how unlikely is that? ryan was tackled by a police officer in his arrest. his face was a collage of band-aids, and his front teeth were broken.

we were moved in groups of 5-12 in chain-linked handcuffs. it reminded me of the leashes that people use to walk a bunch of dogs, or that day care groups use on outings. we’d lean up against a wall in a corridor in a line together, and sit down on the floor or get up in unison. between cells we stopped for photographs, various cursory informational interviews, and fingerprints, which are way way higher-tech now than in my previous arrests, with an instant-gratification imaging machine attached no doubt to some massive fingerprint database.

it was a bit like a board game, in which we knew eventually we were headed out of jail, but everyone’s roll of the dice and the arbitrary cards they pull are a little different. sometimes people that came into a given location last would be moved first, and the first last. some people got out in 12 hours; the last were released late last night after about 60 hours and a court order. i was held for about 23 hours.

i was never arraigned; never saw a judge or even a lawyer. i was released with a desk appearance ticket, which requires me to be back in new york on september 29. i am charged with disorderly conduct for consorting with an unauthorized gathering of people. we emerged onto the daylight of the street from the tombs around 5 pm. organized support allies greeted us with cheers and hugs and food and drink and phones and street medics and legal information.

we were directed to a trailer a few blocks away to retrieve our belongings. i waited more than two hours immediately after being released to find out that they couldn’t find my bag yet, but some hadn’t been transported and some had yet to be organized. the next morning i waited another 3 hours before finally receiving my bag. the process was agonizingly slow, to the extent that it felt punitive rather than simply inefficient or inept. every theater, museum, and nightclub manages to devise a coat check system that’s easy and fast. the police were tying us up, adding to the time we had to spend penned up, adding insult to injury. we were literally penned in metal street corrals waiting these hours, watched over and scrutinized by dozens of police.

it’s over now. i hate being locked up. i didn’t choose to be arrested, as i have done several times in my life. back in the day the new york police routinely warned peaceful demonstrators to move before placing them under arrest. that was back before dissent was a threat to national security, when it was understood as the freedom to disagree.

the new tactic of preemptive mass arrests is chilling. many of the people i talked to behind bars were random bystanders who simply had the misfortune of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. i met a pair of 16 year old boys from the bronx who had just done their back-to-school shopping at macy’s (it’s a tax-free shopping week to promote spending in new york) when they got caught in the net. they were not activist-identified in the least, but they’ve certainly been radicalized by their wrongful detention.

i’ve been radicalized, too. for me it’s less about protesting bush, per se, than about public space and the methods of social control. in a world where property ownership is god and real estate determines culture, public space is precious. that is where people can congregate without some specific authorized purpose. do we want to live in a world where we need permission to gather? i sure don’t.

thanks for bearing with me. feel free to forward this to mutual friends or anyone else you think might be interested. the most specific reason i wanted to get out of jail quickly is that my sister lizzi underwent mastectomy surgery yesterday, and i wanted to talk to her before and be with family as we awaited news of the surgery. i talked to lizzi this morning. she sounds great. the surgery went well, and revealed no signs of cancer in the lymph nodes. we are all very relieved. on that note i sign off, sending along with all these words my love and best wishes.


Sandor Ellix Katz aka sandorkraut

Will Sandy's story make it to the hearing?