I was in New York for one simple reason: As a writer and photographer for N.C. State’s student newspaper, Technician, I was to trail my fellow NCSU students around the city and report on their participation in protests at the Republican National Convention. But 48 hours later, things seemed less simple. In Manhattan that Tuesday, I found myself handcuffed in the back of a paddy wagon, swept up and detained with over 1,000 people. I was headed toward Pier 57.
Earlier that day, I met up with some NCSU folks outside Fox News studios for one of the best demonstrations of the week. About 1,000 people gathered for the “Fox News Shut-up-a-thon” and chanted “Shut the Fox up.”
When the merry band of protesters decided to head down to the New York Public Library to regroup for a march to Madison Square Garden, the party atmosphere took a drastic turn for the worse.
As the library came into view, we could see a commotion on the front steps. Five members of the National Lawyers’ Guild and I ran straight into the fray.
A local AIDS activist had three police forcing him to the ground, and more had to join in to turn him over. One officer kneeled on the guy’s shoulders as the others grabbed his arms, twisted them back and handcuffed him.
Camera in hand, I knelt down and began to shoot pictures.
I was naive thinking the cops wouldn’t arrest a journalist doing his job–freedom of the press and all that. But as my camera continued to snap, my face was pushed against the sidewalk with a knee in my spine and my arms wrenched behind my back. Wearing the white, plastic Flexi-Cuffs, I was stuffed into the wagon.
I was never told that I was under arrest. I did figure that out. I was never read my rights. It was not a day for that rights stuff.
The wagon took off and we tore through the streets at 40 to 50 mph with full police escort down to Pier 57–Guantanamo on the Hudson as it came to be known.
At the pier I asked if I was under arrest. The officer who brought us in said, “Well, it certainly looks that way.” I asked what the charges were. Officer Mathew Wohl of the New York Police Department refused to tell me. I informed him that it was my right under federal and New York state law to know the charges.
“I don’t give a fuck,” he said.
The old Port Authority garage near the World Trade Center site was prepared for the mass arrests. As we arrived at Pier 57 at least 100 people stood in line in front of us to give their names, have their Flexi-Cuffs cut off, and have their property checked in for safekeeping (the police kept our cameras as evidence).
Many people in line, including me, were numb with pins-and-needles in their hands due to rough police treatment and the self-tightening nature of the plastic cuffs. Four days later, I still have bruises around my wrists.
Pier 57 looked like an internment camp. Long rows of cages approximately 30-by-20 feet lined the warehouse with 10 foot high chain-link fencing topped by razor wire. Forty people squeezed into each cage, which had benches around three sides. Most people sat or lay on the floor. That was a problem.
A fire a decade earlier had reportedly covered the floor in a thick coat of oil and soot. That, combined with carbon monoxide from the busses and paddy wagons driving through the building, caused many asthma attacks. Others had swelling around their eyes and their open wounds. I was coughing up a black substance for almost three days after I got out.
The National Lawyers Guild later asked detainees not to wash their clothes and submit the dirtiest items for chemical analysis.
Inside the pier, anxiety was high. We didn’t know our actual charges, how long we’d be there, or where we’d be going.
Every four or five hours, police would hand each detainee an American cheese sandwich on white bread. I gladly ate the first one, but before I would see the outside world again I consumed another eight. I will never get near American cheese again.
The police kept me in Pier 57 for 14 hours before I was moved to the Tombs, otherwise known as the Manhattan Detention Complex, for processing and arraignment. I was there another 12 hours before being arraigned. That’s 26 hours in a state where the writ of habeas corpus demands people be arraigned within 24 hours or be released.
I was one of the lucky ones, though. Some of the approximately 1,200 people arrested on Tuesday waited for up to 60 hours, according to The New York Times.
The mood among my fellow detainees settled down once we were in the Tombs. People sprawled across the floor trying not to kick each other in the head or face as we all attempted to get some much-needed sleep. You wouldn’t normally look forward to the cleanliness of a Manhattan jail, but compared to Pier 57, this was a penthouse at the Plaza. I gladly put my head on that floor; even if there was something sticky, at least it wasn’t toxic.
The floor may have been in better shape, but as the cells filled up with 30 active activist men who had not been able to prioritize showers and deodorant for a couple of days, the air turned ripe.
More cheese sandwiches greeted us as we passed through various cells. Give New York law enforcement a bit of credit. There was also a vegan or lactose intolerant option the corrections officers called “soy butter” on the same white bread that tasted something like slimy synthetic peanut butter. I stuck with the cheese.
I was not told what I was charged with until meeting with my pro bono lawyer from the National Lawyers’ Guild right before I saw the judge around 8 p.m. on Wednesday. Two counts of disorderly conduct for photographing arrestees in front of the library. The judge let me out with a promise that I wouldn’t get in any more trouble in New York City; if I did, the charges would be brought back against me.
Of the 1,200 people arrested that day, The New York Times reported, most received violations such as disorderly conduct. But they got us off the streets and out of their hair for more than 24 hours. Constitutional rights? Fuggedaboutit.
The day after my release, the National Lawyers’ Guild filed suit against the city to demand release of all detainees kept longer than 24 hours. In the writ of habeas corpus hearing, the angry judge demanded the release of anyone not yet arraigned who had been held longer than the legal limit. The police did not comply with the court order and were found in contempt of court for holding more than 550 detainees past a 6 p.m. deadline Wednesday. The court fined the NYPD $1,000 for each detainee.
The police say they’ll appeal the decision.