Prisoners kept trickling into the holding cell. Each time someone entered, the door slammed shut behind him with an iron clang. We were a diverse collection of protesters—there were some teenagers, some people in their fifties. Many of us had been plucked from the kitchen during the eviction, but there were also plenty of people who had been part of the street crowds. Some cellmates had nothing to do with the protests, and had simply been crossing the wrong street at the wrong time when the police decided to start arresting pedestrians indiscriminately. I briefly chatted with New York City Councilmember Ydanis Rodríguez, who had been injured by the cops during his arrest and was still bleeding from the head. Everyone was torn up and exhausted, but we were in high spirits. I used the phone in a corner of the cell to call our legal team (the number still written on my arm), and after I gave my name, we passed the phone around until everyone had given his information.
Being in jail with a hundred other political protesters was a fascinating experience. Cops and prison guards are obviously accustomed to ignoring a single “prisoner” yelling or carrying on, but we used our collective weight when we needed to be listened to. At one point, the cops wheeled out a stretcher holding one of our girls; she was lying motionless, oxygen tubes connected to her face. She had been denied her medication and was now unconscious. The stretcher was left in the hallways, and cops were either walking past or photographing her. A guy in our holding cell tried to get their attention. “Hey!” he shouted. “Stop taking pictures of her. Help her!” They ignored him. He banged on the windows, tried to yell through the door, but nobody paid any attention. “Mic check!” He screamed. Suddenly, the entire room, a hundred protesters, immediately jumped to life. “MIC CHECK,” we all echoed. “There is a girl,” “THERE IS A GIRL!” “On a stretcher.” “ON A STRETCHER.” “Who needs medical attention.” “WHO NEEDS MEDICAL ATTENTION.” “Stop taking pictures of her,” “STOP TAKING PICTURES OF HER,” “and treat her.” “AND TREAT HER.” “TREAT HER NOW. TREAT HER NOW. TREAT HER NOW,” we chanted. They moved her immediately.
It happened again when they left a garbage bag full of stale cheese sandwiches outside the cell. “Hey,” people tried to get the cops’ attention. “Can we please have those sandwiches? We haven’t eaten in hours.” “Please—can you get the captain?” “SOMEONE! Can we have those sandwiches!” “MIC CHECK!” “MIC CHECK.” “WHAT DO WE WANT?” “SANDWICHES!” “WHEN DO WE WANT THEM?” “NOW!” “WHAT DO WE WANT?” “SANDWICHES!” “WHEN DO WE WANT THEM?” “NOW!” An uncomfortable looking cop tossed the sandwiches into the holding cell.
We were called out one at a time to get fingerprinted in an adjoining room. The officer escorting me again asked why we are protesting. “You know that sticker on the wall out there that says ‘NYC cops deserve more’?” “Yeah?” “That’s why we’re protesting. We feel the same way.” He nodded pensively. “And what about you?” I asked. “Why were you there? Do you feel that arresting peaceful protesters is the right thing to do?” He was having trouble getting my left thumb to scan. “I’m just doing my job.” “Yeah right. You guys just wanted an excuse to use all those fancy riot toys.” He chuckled. “So what were you thinking when you saw the people chained together?” “Oh man. I was like—you’ve got to be fucking kidding me.” He still couldn’t get my thumb to work. “You’re not gonna be able to get it.” “What? Why not?” “I have erased my own fingerprints.” “What?” “Just kidding.” I turned to the camera for another mug shot and gave my most winning smile. “Come on,” said another cop. “Look mean. Look tough.” “Nope. I know you want to imagine us protesters as angry hooligans, but I’m not gonna play into that.” The camera clicked. “Wait, I blinked!”
Back in the holding cell, the fluorescent lights hummed and flickered. There was no source of daylight in there, no way to guess the time, but I learned that it was around eight in the morning when they moved us. Running on 24 hours without sleep, we were handcuffed together in chains of five people and loaded into vans again. The gray New York morning filtered through bars as we drove through the streets to Central Booking. Inside, again we waited for hours and hours. We mic checked through the hallways to communicate with each other across the entire jail. We had to go through the whole booking process all over again, because the information hadn’t been sent over. Anyone who calls OWS disorganized or inefficient has clearly never had an experience with the NYC corrections department.
Again we used our collective group weight when necessary. After hours and hours chained together in the hallway, one girl tried to explain to a guard that she had anemia and she was on her period, and if she didn’t make it to a restroom, it could turn into a medical emergency. The guards ignored her. So she mic checked, and dozens of voices simultaneously echoed that she needed to get to a bathroom. One friendly-looking older cop came around the corner when he heard the shouting. He seemed troubled and conflicted, sympathetic as another girl was calmly trying to explain the situation, but then a shadow passed over his face. “ARE YOU TELLING ME HOW TO DO MY JOB?” He snapped. “What? No sir I was just trying to explain—” “SHE’S NOT MY CONCERN, YOU HEAR ME?”
I was blown away by this dehumanized, willful apathy. What must this man have gone through, or how threatening must have been his orders, that he was able to harden his heart to a young girl begging to use a bathroom?
So we all sat down and refused to move. “Come on,” he said to my group. “Let’s go.” “Mic check!” “MIC CHECK!” “We refuse to move,” “WE REFUSE TO MOVE,” “until she gets medical care,” “UNTIL SHE GETS MEDICAL CARE,” “or access to a restroom.” “OR ACCESS TO A RESTROOM.” He grabbed at the cuffs and dragged two girls by their wrists across the tile floor. Then he realized it was futile, and he lost it. He yelled and swore and threatened us, but we just sat there. Finally, a female guard stepped forward. “Yes. She will get access to a restroom.” So we left.
Images popped into my mind of the Toulsleng Genocide Museum in Cambodia, the mass atrocities of the Vietnam war I’d read about, the Nuremburg Trials for Nazi war criminals. The similarities were chilling. In the aftermath of these atrocities, everyone said the same thing: “I was just following orders.” I understand that these cops had no choice but to arrest us. But the line has been crossed in too many disturbing ways. Destroying our possession, including musical instruments, medical supplies, and books (including Bibles and other holy books)? Denying people access to medical care when they ask for it? The brutality that occurs regularly during the ongoing attempts to suppress this movement? The obvious instances have caused national outrage—the UC Davis pepper spraying, the rubber bullets in Oakland, but how many equally intolerable instances happen each day that are simply not caught on camera or publicized? The way our police forces have been psychologically manipulated in order to justify their use of violence is disturbing. The polarizing us vs. them mentality (unwillingness to see us as humans during mass protests), the apathy and lack of personal responsibility (‘she’s not my concern’), the inability to think for themselves (‘I have no choice but to follow these orders’)—these things are all frightening. It raises an uncomfortable question. How exactly does a genocide or other mass atrocity happen? Everyone says, ‘I would never take part in something like that. If it came to that, I would refuse my orders.’ Yet how, then, do these things happen? It must always begins with this kind of small-scale boundary pushing. Three months ago, most cops probably would have said they’d never deny somebody medical care, or gash open the head of a city councilmember, or use pepper spray on innocent citizens.
Finally, after fifteen hours in custody, thirty six hours without sleep, my chain gang arrived at the medical screening section of booking. A police doctor sat behind a desk. “Do you currently need medical care, or have any medical issues, allergies, trauma history, etc.?” I raised my hand. “Don’t you think it’s a little late to be asking this now?” He glared at me. “Do you need care?” “Shouldn’t this be the first thing you ask upon booking? I mean, we’ve been in here for fifteen hours already. If I had a life threatening medical issue, I’d be dead by now.” “DO YOU OR DON’T YOU NEED MEDICAL TREATMENT.” “There’s a girl around the corner who does, and it’s being denied to her. Why don’t you ask her?”
Eventually they paraded us through a new doorway and locked us into another cell. There were about six cells in this hallway and about twenty people per cell, 80% protestors, 20% other criminals who asked us about the protests and how we ended up in jail. We tried to sleep on the cold tile floor, but we were woken up for cell sweeping, then for cell mopping, then for food: more stale cheese sandwiches and a carton of lukewarm milk. I stood by the cell door, my arms draped through the bars, and I looked down the hallway. In every cell, there was some sort of intense political debate going on between protesters, criminals, and guards.
Hours and hours. Finally they called us out of the cells and lined us up. It was apparently “morning,” though I still had no sense of time and felt totally exhausted and disoriented. They moved us upstairs to a new cell, where we took turns meeting with the lawyers. Finally, one by one, we were sent through a door and into the courtroom. The judge appeared slightly fatigued.
34 hours after being arrested during the eviction of Zuccotti Park, I was released from jail. When I emerged from the courthouse into the rainy gray, the jail support team was waiting with hugs and hot food and cigarettes. Since all of my possessions had been confiscated or destroyed, they told me to head over to the donations warehouse. When I arrived, volunteers from the Comfort Working Group set me up with a new sleeping bag and some dry clothing. Someone handed me a bowl of ice cream. Ben and Jerry’s had donated an entire mobile freezer.
New gear in hand, I headed back to the park, not knowing what had happened over the last 34 hours in the aftermath of the raid, not knowing what I’d find.
Though the tents were gone, hundreds of protestors were still gathered in Zuccotti beneath the honey locust trees, yellow-orange leaves shivering in the dark rain. Police presence was high. The whole park was barricaded off, and each of the two entrances was monitored by half a dozen cops, but people were pressed against the barricades still chanting and holding signs. I entered the park and walked up to a group of people to ask what had happened. “I need an update,” I said. “I just got out of jail—” “Thank you!” a girl said, and she threw her arms around me. They filled me in on the events of the last day. There had been a rally in Foley Square, and another two hundred people had been arrested. Nothing was allowed in the park anymore—no tents, no sleeping bags, no backpacks. Someone passed me a Styrofoam container of chicken and rice. “So where do we sleep now?” A few local churches had opened their doors to us. For those who hadn’t gotten their wallets back yet or didn’t enough money for the subway, people would be passing out metro cards.
The movement was still alive.