The Right Body Language For A Court Appearance

On Wednesday morning, I reported to the New York City Criminal Court to be arraigned on charges of disorderly conduct stemming from my arrest during a civil disobedience protest staged outside the office of the governor of New York State, Andrew Cuomo, on March 24th. The day proceeded along lines similar to those I had reported in my previous day in court (back in 2014, after protests outside the Israeli mission during the Gaza crisis): meet my fellow defendants; meet our union’s lawyers; wait to be called into courtroom; wait to be called up before judge. We would, in all probability, be granted an ‘adjournment contemplating dismissal’ (ACD)–a deferment for six months, during which time the charge would remain open and after which could be dropped. Unlike my last appearance in court, this time my name was called out in the first group itself.

I walked up to the front of the courtroom and stood in front of the judge. My fellow defendants–three of them–stood next to me. As I stood and waited, I crossed my arms in front of my chest. Seeing this, a court guard–who was handing papers to the judge–walked up to me and told me to put my arms down. He didn’t specify an alternate location; just that the current one wouldn’t do. I complied; I had no intention of arguing with a police officer in a courtroom, thus risking another arrest for ‘disorderly conduct’ even as I was appearing in court for another such charge.

But the business of being told to adopt the ‘correct’ or ‘appropriate’ body language was intriguing and revelatory. So much of what happens in the courtroom is pure performance, a legal theater: the judge’s seat placed on high, the imposing architecture, the formal, stately, convoluted language, the solemnity, the tightly circumscribed procedure, all the better to impress upon legal subjects–sinners, penitents, and legal officers alike–the awe-inspiring power and majesty of the law. Respect; deference to authority; unblinking conformity–these are the values to be reinforced in this space.

My act of crossing my arms was, I suppose, in this context, an insolent gesture: I did not convey the appropriate respect. I was certainly not causing any disruption; I did not talk; I had not raised my voice.  I was not a threat of any sort–in case, you think that crossing arms allows for the concealment of weapons–because I had already been searched upon entrance to the court. No, quite simply, I had to be bent into that shape which would convey the appropriate respect for the court. And also the particular and peculiar blend of humility and servility that the law is looking for in those who ‘commit crimes.’ The guard’s admonishment was a reminder I was not following the director’s stage instructions.

A minute or so later, it was all done, and I headed to campus with a warning from the judge to ‘stay out of trouble.’ That will not be easy if the Governor of New York State does not restore funding to the City University of New York, if the CUNY administration does not sign a new contract with its faculty and staff.

A Day In Gaol: Protesting Andrew Cuomo’s Attack On CUNY

Yesterday I, along with many other members of the City University of New York’s faculty and staff union, the Professional Staff Congress (PSC-CUNY) participated in a civil disobedience action outside the New York governor Andrew Cuomo’s office. Across the street from us, other members held a rally; they waved signs, chanted slogans and marched. We were all protesting New York State (and City’s) slow starvation of CUNY–through persistent budget cuts. (See this earlier report too.) Moreover, faculty and staff have now been without a contract for six years. Given the cost of living increases in New York City, this  means that we have been receiving pay cuts for the past six years.

We marched out as a group in rows, arms linked, and then performed a ‘die-in’ in front of the entrance to the office building. We received three warnings from the NYPD to cease and desist; following our non-compliance, we were all arrested and taken to NYPD’s central office at One Police Plaza for booking and post-arrest processing. (Thankfully, the NYPD was not over-enthusiastic about tightening their plastic hand-cuffs.) The usual tedium ensued: first, we waited in the paddy-wagon before being driven off, then on arrival we waited before disembarking. Once that had happened, we moved slowly through several stages of processing. Identity cards were collected, searches conducted, property–including shoelaces–confiscated for holding, mugshots were taken (with a twist that each arrested person ‘posed’ with his arresting officer.) This done, we were sent to a holding cell. I had been assured by my arresting officer–a Pakistani gentleman with whom I struck up a rolling conversation in Hindi-Urdu-Hindustani-Punjabi–that a new streamlined procedure was being followed and that we would be out quickly, but even then, a wait of approximately four hours was still in store.

As was the case in my previous time spent in a NYPD holding cell, conversation with my cellmates was the saving grace of what would otherwise have been an exercise in boredom. I chatted with, among others: a staff member of CUNY’s Murphy Institute who hailed from a family with four generations of union organizers;  a political theorist who analyzes conservative critiques of capitalism; a doctoral student in sociology writing on race and class in social movements; a Brooklyn College sociology professor specializing in studies of policing and police brutality. (In the paddy-wagon too and while waiting in line for processing, there had been wonderful moments of bonding and camaraderie, including the obligatory rendition of ‘Solidarity Forever.’)

Finally, the moment came, as our arresting officer called us out to pick up our property and court appearance notices (we had been charged with ‘disorderly conduct.’) After doing so, we were escorted out to the precinct gates, where we were greeted by our union colleagues, who had kindly arranged for food and snacks and had held on to our backpacks. I was underdressed as I had not anticipated the sharp drop in temperatures, so I quickly ate a sandwich and headed for the downtown Q train to take me back home. I was in bed around midnight.

The ongoing, seemingly nation-wide, assault on public education is one of the most shameful features of modern American life. It is the true negation of the American dream, a central component of which was the promise to educate, and make possible, a better life for those who could not afford it otherwise. An attack on public education is a political act; it loudly and proudly proclaims an anti-intellectual stance; it says that education is a privilege reserved for those able to pay for it. That is not what CUNY is about, and the faculty and staff here will not let the city and state administration forget it.

Note: These articles by Village Voice writer Nick Pintohere and here–provide more useful background on what is going down at CUNY. This article in the Gotham Gazette reports some of the latest developments in the funding crisis.

Lon Fuller On The Inability Of The Judiciary To Police The Police

In The Morality of Law: Revised Edition (Yale University Press, New Haven, 1969), Lon Fuller writes:

In this country it is chiefly to the judiciary that is entrusted the task of preventing a discrepancy between the law as declared and as actually administered. This allocation of function has the advantage of placing the responsibility in practiced hands, subjecting its discharge to public scrutiny, and dramatizing the integrity of the law. There are, however, serious disadvantages in any system  that looks to the courts as a bulwark against the lawless administration of the law. It makes the correction of abuses dependent upon the willingness and financial ability of the affected party to take his case to legislation. It has proved relatively ineffective in controlling lawless conduct by the police, this evil being in fact compounded by the tendency of lower courts to identify their mission with that of maintaining the morale of the police force. [pp. 81-82]

There is little need to emphasize the topicality or relevance of these words, originally uttered in 1964 by Fuller, during the delivery of the Storrs Lectures on Jurisprudence at Yale Law School. Still, one is almost unavoidably drawn to the last sentence of the excerpt above. The considerations raised there are especially worth revisiting. (Fuller’s larger project, of course, is to argue that law-abiding behavior is better ensured by a consideration of the moral weight attached to any injunction of the law.)

In the Michael Brown and Eric Garner cases, both of which resulted in acquittals and failures to indict the police officers, it was transparent to most dispassionate observers that the judiciary did not see its work as upholding the law, as much as it saw it as supporting the police force, a ‘partner’ in the work it was engaged in elsewhere. Prosecutors and district attorneys work with police forces to enforce the law; they were not interested in bringing any of their ‘co-workers’ to justice, to subjecting them to the same standards employed on other legal subjects.

These facts are worth keeping mind when we think about the developments in the latest case of murderous policemen: the shooting, in South Carolina, of Walter Scott, an unarmed black man, supposedly for grabbing an officer’s stun gun. The police officer, Michael T. Slager, who shot him in the back as he ran away–and then planted evidence, the allegedly stolen stun gun, next to Scott’s body–is now facing murder charges. My first reaction to this story dipped deep into a constantly replenished well of cynicism:

My guess is, the new strategy is go ahead and indict, and avoid the fuss that will be made if you don’t. You can always acquit later with the right kind of jury.

Hours have passed since I wrote the comment and I see no reason to reconsider. Video evidence–the kind that led to the formulation and pressing of the initial murder charges–has never been considered probative when it comes to assaults on black men by police. And as always, the enduring and transient members of the judiciary–like the jury–will, in all likelihood, worry more about the hit the morale of the good police officers of South Carolina, and perhaps nationwide will take. Such dangerous work, such little reward; surely these men in the line of duty, standing shoulder to shoulder with us in the administration of the law, should be forgiven their minor transgressions?

NYPD: In New York, Protests Are A Terror Threat

There truly can be no police department more tone-deaf, more insensitive, more colossally, thickly stupid and offensive than the New York Police Department. Consider, for instance, its latest announcement, that of the formation of a special anti-terror unit:

A brand new unit of 350 NYPD officers will roam the city with riot gear and machine guns, trained specifically to respond to terrorist threats and public demonstrations, Police Commissioner Bill Bratton announced….

“[The unit] is designed to deal with events like our recent protests or incidents like Mumbai, or what just happened in Paris,” Bratton said Thursday. “It will be equipped and trained in ways that our normal patrol officers are not.”

He added that the unit would be suited up with, “extra heavy protective gear, with the long rifles and the machine guns that are unfortunately sometimes necessary in these instances.”

You got that? The ‘recent protests’ –i.e., those protesting the choking to death of an asthmatic man by a NYPD officer, the shooting of a teenager in Ferguson or a twelve-year old in Cleveland, are just like the killings of innocent people in Mumbai and Paris. That is, citizens exercising their First Amendment rights by marching on the streets, raising slogans, and blocking traffic, are a terror threat just like those who throw hand grenades and gun down men, women, and children.

The announcement of this special anti-terror unit has, I’m sure, has sent the more trigger-happy members of Bratton’s corps into quivers of firearm-induced  tumescence. But before those lads get a little too giddy in anticipation of watching and listening to things that go ‘boom’, and enjoying the spectacle of their targets flopping to the ground in convulsions of pain and agony, I have some questions to ask.

What does Bratton imagine his ‘special terror unit’ doing when a protest gets a little loud, when the slogans of protesters hit a little too close too home, when their die-ins go on a little too long, when their chants of ‘Hands Up, Don’t Shoot’ or ‘I Can’t Breathe’ get a little too aggravating? Will the officers in charge set up special machine-gun nests, arrange their ammunition belts in neat little stacks, and then open fire, making sure they distribute their payloads evenly and accurately so that the thousands of bullets they emit find their targets unerringly? Will they wait till they see the ‘whites of their eyes’? Will they keep firing till the barrels of their machine-guns overheat, or will they stop occasionally to let them cool off? Will they rely on snipers–like the kind glorified recently by Hollywood–to blow out the brains of those who have somehow survived the initial barrage of fire? Will we have to rename Union Square ‘the killing field’?

If Bratton could put down his video game controller and his armament requisition forms for a bit and address these questions, I, and many other citizens of this city, would be most grateful.

An Officer’s View On The NYPD Protests: Still Blinkered

Steve Osborne, proudly standing with his back to the Mayor and the city of New York, comes to tell us why the New York City Police Department has been throwing an extended tantrum that would put a toddler to shame. (Interestingly enough, the NYPD has given itself a ‘time-out’ and like harried parents everywhere, we are oh-so relieved and wondering if the offender should stay in there just a little longer.)

Osborne’s Op-Ed is not much more than Pat Lynch Lite:

Mr. de Blasio is more than any other public figure in this city responsible for feelings of demoralization among the police. It did not help to tell the world about instructing his son, Dante, who is biracial, to be wary of the police, or to publicly signal support of anti-police protesters (for instance, by standing alongside the Rev. Al Sharpton, a staunch backer of the protests). If there is any self-pity involved, which I doubt, it is only because we lack respect from our elected officials and parts of the media.

Quick question for Osborne: Did you read my piece about the ‘deadly self-pity of the police’? You really should. You might be able to rent a clue if you did so.

Osborne writes one sensible, revealing, paragraph:

Most cops I know feel tired of being pushed to do more and more, and then even more. More police productivity has meant far less crime, but at a certain point New York began to feel like, yes, a police state, and the police don’t like it any more than you do. Tremendous successes were achieved in battling crime and making this city a much better place to live and work in and visit. But the time has probably come for the Police Department to ease up on the low-level “broken-windows” stuff while re-evaluating the impact it may or may not have on real, serious crime. No one will welcome this more than the average cop on the beat, who has been pressed to find crime where so much less of it exists.

As the NYPD’s ‘strike’, its refusal to arrest anyone ‘unless absolutely necessary’, has shown, the sky has not fallen on our heads while the police have decided to kick back just for a bit and ease up on the usual ‘up against the wall’ nonsense. (The police seem to not have studied the history of strikes: they are meant to show you are indispensable, not the other way around.)

As for the rest: Spare us this incessant whining, this invocation of weeping, anxious women waiting at home for their soldier men to return from the front after doing battle. I’ve met many men who fought in real wars, and they never went on and on like this self-absorbed lot who can’t get it through their heads that their methods might have something to do with the lack of ‘respect’ sent their way. Stop asking for respect, and start showing some for the citizens you police. You might be surprised with what comes your way.

Memo To NYPD: Don’t Let The Door Hit You On Your Way Out

Over the past few days the NYPD, offended by protests against their policing, and still in a huff at New York’s mayor, Bill De Blasio, for daring to suggest they might need reform, has gone on a work-stoppage of sorts, refusing to carry out arrests or hand out parking tickets or miscellaneous traffic summonses. Meanwhile, I have not been quivering in my home at night, afraid that sundry villains will break down the doors and come rampaging in to my castle to loot and pillage, to despoil my wife and children and rob me of my belongings.

The police are not a thin blue line separating us from the forces of darkness and disorder. They are a street-level, heavily armed, occasionally violent, revenue collection service for New York City. The police department’s threat to the city is not that law and order will mysteriously vanish to be replaced by anarchy now that its members are busy keeping themselves safe and sedentary–not too far from the nearest doughnut establishment. Rather, it is a threat that the minor monies the city relies on the police to collect on an ongoing basis to ease its perennial budgeting crises will not be forthcoming. That is, in case you missed it, the police are refusing to be partners in a low-level extortion racket the city has been running for a while now, the cracking down on behavioral nuisances deemed too dangerous and disorderly for civil society.

As anybody who has interacted with the police knows, complaining about crime that is most likely to affect a New Yorker–muggings, break-ins, car theft–is normally met with a shrug of the shoulders and a laconic “Whaddyagonnado?” There is little reward in this for the police; no glory, no fame. There is instead, some tedious detective work to be done. When it comes to ‘big-time crime’–homicide, drug smuggling, terrorism, etc–police work is done by specialized detectives in conjunction with more specialized outfits like the FBI. Most of the conflict resolution work the police do-intervening in domestic violence disputes,  in minor altercations at home or commercial establishments like bars for instance–can be done much better, and more safely, by unarmed citizens groups. (These interactions with citizens are typically dangerous because of the easy availability of guns, which is a separate problem altogether, and on which more, anon.)

What the police are really, really good at enforcing is low-level disorder offenses because the odds are so overwhelmingly stacked in their favor. They have guns and they can use them whenever they want; they can be as violent as they want; and they never work alone.  This kind of work, this policing of joint-smokers and beer drinkers, homeless panhandlers and building project teenagers, ticket-less travelers on subways, this low-level ass-kicking, where you get to say “Sir” in your most faux-polite voice, where you can just casually shove up someone against the wall, or punch them for looking at you wrong, or talk in your most menacing tone, the one you spent years perfecting in high-school but never got a chance because guess what, in that jungle, someone else, some other bully, was kicking your ass instead, this is the kind of work the NYPD likes the most. This is the kind of work whose parameters would be affected the most by recent protests. (After all, the protests are not asking for police to change their fingerprinting procedures.) No wonder the NYPD is upset and wants to walk off the job.

But the folks who get hassled by them everyday are not; they want to make sure the police don’t let the door hit them on the way out.

Memo to Blasio, Bratton, Lynch: Ixnay On The Suspension Of Protests

On Saturday, a lone gunman with a history of violence, Ismaaiyl Brinsley, shot dead two New York City policemen. Before he did so, he proclaimed on his Instagram page that the killings were revenge for the choking to death of Eric Garner by the NYPD. After he shot the policemen, Brinsley killed himself at a nearby subway station.

Brinsley seems to have been a mentally ill person, someone who had, earlier in the day, also attacked his partner. He was not acting on behalf of any political organization or movement. He acted alone, and violently. Unfortunately none of these facts seem to matter in the aftermath of the killings. Irresponsible and incompetent journalists are reporting hearsay that some cheered on hearing the news of the policemen’s shooting, and yet others are writing that Brinsley had tenuous connections with shadowy violent groups.

Most unsurprisingly of all, the worst reaction of all has come from the NYPD itself. Stewing in a deadly soup of resentment and self-pity over the years, it has come out swinging recklessly, threatening a coup d’etat of sorts, and declaring war against the the city and the people it polices. Pat Lynch, the head of the Policemen’s Benevolent Association, proclaimed:

The mayor’s hands are literally dripping with our blood because of his words, actions and policies, and we have, for the first time in a number of years, become a ‘wartime’ police department. We will act accordingly. Absolutely NO enforcement action in the form of arrests and or summonses is to be taken unless absolutely necessary and an individual MUST be placed under arrest. These are precautions that were taken in the 1970’s when Police Officers were ambushed and executed on a regular basis.”

There is no comparison between the stray killing of two policemen by a violent criminal and the peaceful protests that have been prompted by the relentless killings of citizens by the police. This elementary fact is clearly of no import to the NYPD, convinced as it is of its martyrdom, its saintliness, its eternal rectitude. If it wants to make the lives of policemen on duty safer, it should begin by changing its crude and violent policing methods.  Threatening a coup d’etat and a quasi-strike won’t help. It won’t stop the ‘Fuck the Police’ chants that bothers them so much. It merely makes an already dangerous organization even more threatening.

Among my reactions to the news of his actions was the sinking feeling Brinsley had done incalculable damage to the protest movement currently underway; there was no doubt the protests would be blamed for the killings and sure enough, they were.

Today, New York police department commissioner Bill Bratton said:

[I]t’s quite apparent, quite obvious that the targeting [of] these two police officers was a direct spin-off of this issue of these demonstrations.

And then, New York City’s Mayor Bill De Blasio made matters much worse by asking protesters to cease and desist:

It’s time for everyone to put aside political debates, put aside protests, put aside all of the things that we will talk about in due time. That can be for another day.

To paraphrase what Neo said to Agent Smith, when offered the opportunity to “bring a known terrorist to justice”, let me just say the following to Mayor De Blasio and Commissioner Bratton:

Well, that sounds like a pretty good deal. But I think I may have a better one. How about I give you the finger and you give us the protests.

Deal?