Saturday, November 5, 2011

Occupy, the police and....

After only skimming the headlines for the last few years—everything was just too depressing—Occupy Wall Street has turned me into a news junkie, combing Facebook for links and breaking news and  posting them to my page. I’m inspired by the people who are willing to put themselves on the line for what they believe, and fascinated by how the news is handled, something that wasn't easy to evaluate before the internet.  So far, England’s Guardian (to which I subscribe online) has had the most timely, complete, and balanced coverage. For instance, last night a Guardian reporter on the scene broke the story that yet another Iraq veteran had been critically injured by Oakland police, this time wielding batons.  As of this afternoon, although it was in the Daily News, there was no mention of the incident in the New York Times, and Fox News quoted only police sources, which, as one can imagine, yielded sparse information. I’m also intrigued by the police actions and their possible motivations. While both Oakland raids (one to shut down the camp, the other to remove a crowd that had taken over an unused building) were clearly calculated in advance, many of the arrests and much of the brutality that’s occurred there and in other cities, including New York, seems to be spontaneous and personal in nature.
  
With this kind of police action I’ve had my own bizarre experience, in a situation that was neither ideologically nor racially motivated, and certainly never hit the news. The scene was a small art gallery (now it might be called a “pop-up”) on the Lower East Side circa 1988, where my friends, Karen and Julius, had an exhibition in a space their friend (I can’t remember his name, so will call him “Jim”) had rented. Recently Jim had broken up with his girl friend (I’ll call her “Kelly”), because of her drug use, but she kept hanging around. Unbeknownst to Jim, our softhearted friends had allowed her to spend the night in the storefront while they were installing the show.

Kelly was present at the opening, and by the end was out of control, screaming and banging on the floor with a beer bottle. Jim tried to get her to leave, but she didn’t seem to have any place to go on that frigid night when the temperature was below zero. In desperation Jim called the police twice, but no one came. Finally he called and said (in what everyone will agree was a stupid move, and in hindsight a REALLY stupid move) that a robbery was in progress.

Immediately two or three cop cars arrive, everyone is out the street, and Kelly is suddenly composed, quiet-spoken and polite. Jim tries to explain but no one’s listening. Finally Julius, eager to make things clear, gently taps a cop’s arm to get his attention—and all hell breaks loose as the cops grab and handcuff Julius, Jim and anyone else within reach, throw them roughly into their vehicles, and drive off.

[Shoved in with them was a lovely, young visiting artist from Germany who barely spoke English. I never learned what happened to her. Or Kelly.]

Left on the sidewalk, Karen is surprisingly calm but shortly realizes that Julius has their house keys, so my boy friend, Jeff, and I drive her to the police station and wait outside.  When, after a long while, she doesn’t appear, Jeff goes in to investigate. Coming back to the car, he tells me she’s been arrested.

Karen's story was that she went to the magistrate to ask for the keys, and was ordered to leave. She thought he didn’t understand so went back (obviously we were all operating from an impression of the police derived from Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood). That’s when she was tackled by cops who dragged her by her feet (she was wearing a short skirt) to a cell. In the scuffle she reached out and grabbed a pay phone receiver, breaking her arm, and also had a hank of hair pulled from her head. At the time Karen was 30-ish, tall and slender; I’d be surprised if she weighed more than 108 pounds.

For the next two days we sat vigil in the court, waiting for our friends’ cases to come up, listening to cops and criminals make their pleas, and becoming marginalized. Before we would have been rooting for the cops, but now our sympathies were with the other side. (Kid knocks over old lady and steals her purse? Woo-hoo!).

Today someone who’s been apprehended must be brought before a judge within 72 hours or released, but back then, apparently, stays could be infinite. Fortunately Jim’s mother finally had the sense (and the means) to hire a lawyer from the many who were hanging around the court, and immediately our friends were brought up, charged, and released. Karen had been kept in a single cell with other women, many of them prostitutes who turned their fur coats inside out and slept on the floor. There was an exposed toilet, but Karen thinks no one had to use it because the baloney sandwiches on white bread they got three times a day stopped them up. While in jail Karen was told that if she were sent to a hospital it would delay everyone else’s chances of release, so her arm didn’t get treatment until afterward. I’m not sure if it ever healed properly, but I do know that for a long time it hampered her work as a seamstress.

Even though they were released, Julius and Karen wanted the charges against them dropped. I somehow was able to find them pro bono legal counsel and after many months, including a visit to our home by the police’s rigorous internal affairs investigator (who told Jeff and me he wrote detective novels on the side), we all met in police court. My testimony at that trial was the hardest bit of public speaking I’ve ever had to do. Ultimately the charges against both Julius and Karen were dropped, the cops were disciplined (the one who'd pulled out her hair was a woman), and Karen was awarded $30,000.

I don’t know about Karen, but for many years after that, whenever I saw a cop, I’d cross to the other side of the street.

 ***

For a surprising (or, sadly, not surprising) addendum, I found these recent “reviews” on Google Maps for the Avenue C police station:
WRITE A REVIEW
SinthiaV ‎- Aug 14, 2011:

According to a judge in a recent arraignment, these cops frequently arrest people on trumped up charges, which are later dropped for lack of evidence! The disposition says it never happened, but try telling that to your boss or family. This precinct treats the people they exist to protect and serve like irritating garbage. Can anyone out there relate a positive experience they have had trying to get help from the ninth? Once I was arrested trying to get them to enforce an order of protection, which the offender violated in front of several witnesses! All I did was ask them to write an incident report!! They also punched me in the face for trying to write down an officer's badge number. Be very careful dealing with this precinct, as they have a long history of mistreating people and abusing their power. To be honest, I am a bit frightened to be writing this, but they seem to dislike me already, so it seems worth the risk to warn a potential unsuspecting newbie who might expect a certain type of behavior from the police. Don't expect the norm. It seems a little like Wonderland sometimes in this precinct. The ninth plays by it's own rules and it's up to you to figure them out. Good luck.

dawn - Dec 11, 2010:

No one ever answers the phone in this precinct. Doesn't anyone work here?

3 comments:

Blonde Girl said...

Frightening story, Carol. Really, one wonders if anything has changed and how anyone who went into policing hoping to "do good" could become so screwed up by the system that they turn into the cops depicted in your story.

wylie said...

Frightening story, Carol. Really, one wonders if anything has changed and how anyone who went into policing hoping to "do good" could become so screwed up by the system that they turn into the cops depicted in your story.

deb said...

I am energized to see mt students finally thinking that politics is something that concerns them. It is also so sad that some officers give every officer a bad name. We have had a terrible summer here after a state trooper got it into his head that my sin had vandalized his car one night. My son wasn't responsible, but even after they caught who was he never got an apology for all the harassment and questioning.