It’s 11:45 pm on a Saturday night here in Zurich, Switzerland. For several days now, I’ve been watching the protests in the US and realizing that there’s not a whole lot I can do at the moment. I’ve done the things that I can do, but mostly, all I can do is watch. Like a friend of mine in South Korea said on social media a while back, it’s like watching a slow motion train wreck.
This has deepened my disillusionment about the US that started a long time ago. When people from other countries ask me about US politics, my usual answer is to say, “Why do you think my wife and I live here now?” The other person usually nods in understanding, or says “Wow, it’s really that bad?”
Yes, it is really that bad. It has been for a very long time.
The protests now have been reminding me of my arrest at the Republican National Convention protests in 2004 in New York City. My friend Kenny and I took the bus down, planning to hang out in the city the first night, then go to the protests the next day. We arrived on Tuesday, dropped our luggage at the hotel, and went out. We saw the Stonewall Inn, had some excellent coffee at a very gay cafe, and wandered around a bit. I don’t remember if we managed to have dinner before we went over to the plaza where CNN was broadcasting or not, but it was already incredibly busy and crowded. It was interesting to see the broadcasters I’ve watched for a while in person. There were also a lot of people protesting at the time, but we were there just watching most of the action from the sidelines.
Around 8 or 9 pm or so, we decided to make our way back to our hotel. The vibe was starting to feel a bit weird and suddenly there was a massive police presence. We managed to go down a side street where we bought some drinks from a little corner shop. As we stood outside the shop with our drink it seemed that all of a sudden the road was blocked off. We tried to just quietly walk away, but the police had kettled us in. We were surrounded by cops and they started arresting all of us. They took our bags as they asked us our information, putting tags on them so we could claim them later. They zip tied our hands behind our backs, and marched us into police wagons. There were a number of people who got rounded up who were just going about their lives. One woman was crying because they took her bicycle as she was trying to go home after buying groceries. It was dark and hot, and none of us knew exactly what was going to happen.
We were dropped off at the now-infamous Hudson Pier Depot at Pier 57. The police had set up cages in the depot with chain link fencing that had to be at least 12 feet high (about 3 meters or so). It used to be an old bus depot, so the floor was covered in oil and other car fluids. There were only a few benches in each of the cages. The lights didn’t turn off so no one could really sleep. I tried to tell one of the officers that my friend Kenny needed medical attention (he was doing a special medical fast), but they didn’t really pay attention. In fact, they didn’t really feed us anything until we asked for it repeatedly. Eventually, they rolled several boxes of apples into the cage for us to eat.
Kenny and I were together in the same cage for a while, but then we were separated into male and female cages. At some point in the morning, we got some cheese sandwiches and milk, but they really didn’t feed us much at all. We spent 17 hours total in Pier 57, and didn’t even get processed by the police department until Wednesday evening.
As we were going through the system, there were a lot of cops who just didn’t care. When we got to the jail, finally, it took me over an hour with a blinding headache (mostly from dehydration and lack of food) to get some ibuprofen from the first aid nurse. When they finally believed me, I was handcuffed, brought to the aid station, uncuffed so I could take the medicine, sign a waiver, and then re-cuffed to go back to the holding area.
One cop asked why we were so dirty, and we told him that we had been at Pier 57 and that there had been no where to sit except on the ground. He shrugged. Some cops made fun of us for being dirty.
One cop was nice to me when I broke down last Wednesday night, and it was the cop who was taking our pictures and fingerprints. By this time, I wasn’t really sure what time it was, since I was pretty delirious with lack of sleep. I was crying and hysterical at this point, as I didn’t know where Kenny was, I hadn’t been allowed any phone calls, and I’d barely had anything to eat. The cop reassured me that we were nearing the end of the process, and would be seen by a judge in the morning. After getting our pictures and fingerprints, they moved us to cells in smaller groups. Thankfully, this area actually had the lights turned down so we could at least attempt to sleep. By this time I think it was about 2 or 3 am on Thursday morning.
I think I must have slept a little bit because the next thing I remember is the light coming on, and that we were getting fed some sandwiches and milk again. I do remember they were pretty nasty, but it was food and drink so I didn’t care. Around mid morning, we were moved to the waiting areas on the courthouse side of the jail. It was here where I finally was able to get access to a phone to make a phone call. I don’t remember clearly, but I think I called my parents to let them know where I was. I think I remember them being pretty shocked that I was still being held, and that I hadn’t even been given a phone call until nearly 48 hours later. I don’t really remember what I had said to them, but it was good to hear a friendly voice.
Around 6 pm or so, we were finally in front of a judge, and I got offered something called an ACD. I can’t remember what the acronym meant, but I was basically set free and had to not get arrested in New York for 6 months, after which the charges (which I don’t remember what they were) would be dropped. When I left the courthouse, it was about 8 pm, and there were still protests going on outside. With the help of some of the Lawyer’s Guild people, I found Kenny and we went to the area where we were supposed to pick up our personal belongings. I managed to get my backpack that night, but Kenny couldn’t get his till the next day. We finally made it back to our hotel. It was a little funny walking into the hotel, since it was a little on the posh side, and we both walked in covered head to toe with dirt and grime. We both showered, had something for dinner, and pretty much passed out. Luckily check out time wasn’t early!
The next day I went with Kenny to go get his backpack. I stayed outside the station while he went in. I made the mistake of pulling out my laptop, then. I think I was going to upload some pictures I took. I was minding my own business, when a cop came up to the bench I was sitting on, and asked, “Whatcha doin’?” I told him I was looking at some pictures, but catching on, I told him I’ll finish looking at them when I get home. “Good idea,” he said, and walked off. Kenny then came out, and we caught the bus home.
After my experience, I sent emails to several newspapers, and only my local RI town paper interviewed me. I tried to keep up the spirit of solidarity with other protesters on mailing lists, but those mailing lists devolved into “I’m more activist than you because I got a lawyer and fought it.” I wasn’t privileged enough to be able to do that. I had to go back to work and couldn’t afford to spend months fighting the City of New York. I became disillusioned with the whole protesting thing, and stopped getting involved with other people from the protests. I was really disappointed when Starhawk posted about her experience and said it “wasn’t so bad.” She had gotten arrested earlier in the week and never was in Pier 57.
This whole experience left me with more trauma that I realized. I have never had a desire to return to NYC, nor do I trust cops. I’ve had other experiences myself and with family members, before and after my arrest in NYC, that make me distrust cops in general. American cops, especially, are pretty terrifying for me.
However, I’m lucky. I’m a white woman. My experience in NYC gave me just a glimpse of what happens to people in jail. It made me think that if this was *my* experience, how much worse would it be for black people? Asian people? Other people of color? I was lucky because there were some others who could afford to start a class action lawsuit. In 2015 I got $2000 from that lawsuit.
I was lucky to get something back for the wrongful arrest. But again, I’m a white woman.
Seeing the protests now, brings back my memories of the experience. So when people from other countries here ask if it’s really that bad, I can say that it is. I can tell them that I was lucky to be a white woman and not black or hispanic, or it would have been much worse. I can tell them that the cages with children are real. That the school to prison pipeline is real.
When I see people trying to say that it’s not so bad, or that if they weren’t doing anything they’d have nothing to worry about, or that the police are required to let you have your phone call, or only hold you for 24 hours, or that if you’re polite, then things will be fine, I call bullshit. The system doesn’t care about you. If you’re white, it might be a little less time, especially if you’re a rich white male. If you’re poor, they shrug. If you’re a poor black person, they destroy your life, or kill you. Even the “nice” cop was shoving us through the system, even if he helped to calm me down. He just was doing his job and didn’t say anything to other cops who were making fun of us.
So please don’t tell me “not all cops.” It’s bullshit, and you know it. I’ve been lucky to get away with things with cops because I’m white, even when I lived in Oakland, CA, that black people would have been shot for. Even the good cops prop up an abusive and unjust system. Even the good cops use intimidation to show who has the power in one’s town. Even if your relatives are cops, even if you think they’re one of the “good cops” that would never harm anyone like that, they are still complicit in a system that is just plain wrong and corrupt.
Like I said, I was lucky. I’m white.