Live From New York

Jailhouse Reds

Our star reporter recounts his Kafkaesque encounter with the New York Police Department -- from the wrong side of the bars.

By 9.2.04

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NEW YORK -- "I think Kafka must be looking up at us from his grave and laughing his ass off," one of my cellmates, a thirtysomething hippy guy, said to no one in particular in the 12th hour of my incarceration. He continued:

"I woke up this morning not looking for any trouble. Now I'm locked up for walking down a sidewalk, sitting next to a writer for The American Spectator."

"You've got to chill on that, man," a younger dude said. "This is weird, but it's not Kafka weird."

"You've obviously never read The American Spectator," he replied.

A ringing endorsement if there ever was one. But I had to admit, the situation was pretty odd. It, in fact, sounded like a premise for a reality show: Take 30 rabidly anti-Bush peaceniks and throw them in a holding cell with a conservative/libertarian journalist and watch the hilarity ensue.

It could be called POWDERKEG! Each week, I'll be arrested without my rights being read to me and held for 14 hours while police refuse to tell me what charges I'm being held on. Meanwhile, the kumbaya squad will talk politics nonstop to see if they can make my head explode.

Actually, the whole situation was only really funny in that way that experiences that you are glad you had but hope you never ever have again can be funny. For example, being handcuffed so tightly that your fingers go numb and sharing a small cage in a bus on you way to a holding station with a guy in a homemade "F**K Bush" shirt while he bangs his head into the metal bars...eh, not so funny.

But being on that bus while the cops all sway and sing along loudly with the AM radio staple "Smooth Operator" followed by "We Are Family" -- that was funny. It was like being arrested by the Village People.

AND THEN, IN THE holding pen: Listening to a bunch of lefties attempt to critique capitalism? Funny. Listening to them try and script out the lines they're going to give George W. Bush in their next street theater performance? Not so funny. (Excerpt: "We could have Bush choke on a pretzel! And then chant, 'Four more pretzels! Four more pretzels!'")

Having all your cell mates sing the Sesame Street classic, One of these kids is doing his own thing/One of these kids is not like the others because you're wearing a suit and aren't liberal? Yuks all around. Being spit on because you write for a magazine that espouses a different point of view than the protesters? My response to that unfortunate episode was tempered by the sign warning that fighting in the holding cells could send me up the river for eight years.

That was actually my second favorite sign in the jail, right next to the one that warned cops to keep their "FINGER OFF TRIGGERS. DO NOT UNLOAD YOUR ROUNDS." (I may be a little off on the exact wording, as my pen was seized while I was being processed.) As someone who has a great affinity for not being shot, I hoped the police were paying close attention to this sign.

Being dressed up and out of place in a New York City jail gave me the eerie feeling I was starting to truly understand the plight of Sherman in The Bonfire of the Vanities.

SO WHAT WAS I arrested for? Well let's just say it is fairly interesting to see what is passing for "disorderly conduct" here in New York City this week. On one hand, there are the legitimate complaints -- fires, intersections blocked by bikes, protesters antagonizing convention delegates out seeing the sights.

But there are also some offenses the NYPD is gleefully pursuing with the vast power they've been granted to keep the city under wraps during the Republican convention that should leave any advocate of civil liberties disconcerted. My own "disorderly conduct" centered around my obedience to police orders, my cooperation with anything they asked me to do, and carrying out the duties of my job.

Here's how it happened: I was covering a rather tame protest at Ground Zero against the "exploitation" of the September 11 tragedy for "partisan political gain." It was an utterly paranoid and vapid affair, especially since there weren't any Republicans in sight and the only people who seemed willing to "exploit" the terrorist attacks were the protesters, who were setting up anti-Bush info booths and selling all sorts of lefty propaganda and clothing.

At any rate, as a march from the protest to Madison Square Garden got going, I attempted to make my way across to the opposite side of the street. An officer stopped me and asked that I cross instead at the next intersection. When I got there, however, bike police had boxed the protesters in. I was told once again to hold tight and I would be allowed to pass.

Alas, it was not to be. An officer armed with a bullhorn got up and announced that the marchers had to move on. This command was almost comical as the police were themselves impeding the ability of protesters to keep moving. Within seconds of the NYPD's version of Mission Impossible, a mass arrest was ordered and the police began penning everyone willy-nilly in together with a mesh orange fence.

IN SPITE OF THE fact that Secret Service agents showed up a few minutes later at the scene and verified my identity as a journalist accredited by the Congressional Press Office, and also the fact that I was clearly not participating in the protest, the NYPD still just had to have me. This was how it came to pass that I started being referred to lovingly as "the perp."

Without even a traffic violation on my record, going to jail was certainly a new experience for me. I must say, I didn't like it very much. To their credit, many lower ranking NYPD officers apologized to me privately and said they felt my arrest was way out of line.

This was not the opinion of the general population, however. My cellmates cheered like madmen anytime some new protest prisoners were led in, fists raised. Sure, they bitched about the arrests, but they delved into stories of past roundups with a relish I found confusing. The idea of being restricted to a small cell and constantly berated by guards did not find fertile ground in my imagination before I went to jail -- or afterwards.

Hilariously, some of the protest folks complained about "real criminals" -- i.e. those crazy-looking black guys across from us -- getting to see the judge before us, and the other inmates returned the scorn.

"Hey, you stupids," one real criminal called over. "You go to jail for nothing? I'm in jail, but at least I made some money getting here. Punk suckers."

As for me? Well, I got out of lockdown just as the sun was rising over the city. I walked the long walk to my hotel and enjoyed regaining my freedom. Even after such a short absence it felt so fresh. I was exhausted and nearly delusional, but I turned on a mindless daytime television program at random to calm down. I landed on NYPD Blue.

"Hey!" I said to the empty air. "I think I was there!"

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