Spending a day in jail has some social scientific value for the temporarily detained; it enables a closer, albeit short-lived, look at the systems of policing and criminal justice. And because I often expend much time on this blog railing against the excesses of the New York City Police Department, it makes especial sense for me to offer a few observations on my interactions with them on Tuesday last.
First, the arrest itself. The NYPD was scrupulous about providing warnings to those that lay down on Second Avenue; we were told that we were obstructing traffic and had to clear the intersection, failing which we would be arrested. We were not immediately bum-rushed. After the warning was repeated, and those who did not want to court arrest had moved out, the police moved in. I was hauled to my feet but I was not treated roughly. The handcuffs placed on my wrists–the plastic variety–were painful, and a couple of tightening tugs made them more so. The arresting officer then placed his fingers through their central loop, making them even more painful. I told him I had no intention of absconding, as I had deliberately courted arrest; he replied he had to follow arresting procedures. Fair enough. We were then bundled into the wagon, un-seatbelted, and thus susceptible to being thrown around, forward and backwards, when the wagon braked or took corners. The driver of the wagon thankfully opened the doors when we arrived at the precinct, and assured us he had turned on the A/C, but it hadn’t worked, thus leaving us sweltering. I believe him; he sounded sincerely apologetic for any discomfort caused to us.
I had been a little nervous about the arrest because I did not want to get shoved around or slammed to the sidewalk, but none of that occurred. There was no animosity directed at the police by the protesters and the police seemed more bemused than anything else by our doings.
Second, my booking at the precinct. The central irony of the precinct–as Corey Robin and I both noted in our conversation after we had been released–is that while it is a zone of legal enforcement, it feels, and very often is, a lawless zone. You come face to face to unblinking, resolute bureaucracy, beholden to its procedures, and their utter rigidity, all the while knowing that the police can stretch and violate them with impunity. The incarcerated are always aware that they are powerless, that the police can exert all manner of power over them. You might seek redress later, but that will not, in any way, diminish the terrifying powerlessness when a policeman got in your face, or pushed you, or otherwise abused you in any other way. There is also the depressing empirical fact that the long arm of the law rarely reaches out to accost a policeman. You are at the policeman’s mercy. Questions may be treated with a blank stare or a noncommittal reply, and very little helpful clarification about procedure is offered. It is here that you most sense a figurative forcing of you to your knees. The swagger, the cockiness, the brusqueness of the cop; these are all external manifestations of the confidence they posses in their imperviousness to any forms of pleading or redressal.
Third, my time in the holding cell. This is a continuation of the previous state; you are imprisoned; it can be a terrifying feeling.. The police are taciturn and reticent; they do not offer helpful responses to questions put to them, and requests for the lessening of personal discomfort are responded to with visible reluctance; you do not get straight answers on when you may expect to be booked and released. (One Bangladeshi cop was kind enough to tell us we would be released soon; in an effort to reach out to him, I told him my father had fought in the war of liberation for his erstwhile home; he offered me a tight smile and walked away, telling me his wife was from Mumbai.) You sense the police bound by procedures of due process but you also sense that they may at any time, at their own whim, decide not to follow them. (The refusal–and then later, grudging agreement–to provide water despite our constant requests seemed one instance of this.) The irony of the co-existence of the arbitrary with the rules of law is reinforced. You draw companionship from your fellow prisoners if you can. I was lucky to be with my partners in civil disobedience; their companionship sustains you; it is far more uncomfortable to be with those who are strangers. (Note: at one point late in the afternoon, a middle-aged Cuban gentleman was brought into our cell; he had been arrested for panhandling. He claimed he had merely been asking a friend for some money. His English was not as good as his Spanish, and he seemed a little discombobulated. The police had a field day with him, cracking several jokes at his expense as he was led out and in and otherwise subjected to other procedures. I presume the police code of conduct includes no strictures on gratuitous mocking of the incarcerated.)
My imprisonment was exceedingly brief; I only suffered minimal discomfort (one of my fingers is still slightly numb). I am privileged and lucky. Many others who deal with the police and the penal system are not.