It was during the holiday season. My buddy Southwester and I stood on the corner of Telegraph and Haste Street in Berkeley, sharing a cigarette and talking up the propeller caps he was selling to the tourists when three cop cars pulled up, their lights aglow. Southwester began gathering up his wares figuring they were about to cite him for not having a current vendor’s license. I stood quietly, running down an inventory of my pockets trying to recall if they were holding anything illegal.
The next thing I knew I was up against the wall being searched. Southwester was in one cop’s face asking what the story was. They ignored him so he started talking louder. Three more cruisers pulled up as a crowd gathered. I considered struggling, but changed my mind as I saw six cops get out of the three recent vehicular additions to their forces. Southwester backed off a bit and the cops started pushing people back with their sticks. Our friend Creamcheese pushed a cop out of the way and he whacked her once with his club. I was told there was a warrant out for my arrest for being present during a marijuana sale to an undercover cop. Happy Holidays, I thought.
I sat in the cell an hour later. My memory was replaying itself. After arriving at the station, the cops told me I had been present when a bag of marijuana was sold to a woman officer posing as a college student. According to a new California law erroneously called the Victim’s Bill of Rights, this made me as liable as the person who actually sold the weed, even though I had nothing to do with the transaction. So much for the concepts of illegal search and seizure or the bill of rights. I had finally recalled the instance the cops were talking about and was turning it over and over, hoping to find some flaw in police procedure which would help me get out of this mess. While I sat on the metal bed in the cell, my cellmate threw up in the corner, apparently sick from alcohol.
Jail. Folks have written about it since before Daniel’s time with the lions. Jesus spent some time there and so did Barrabas. Emma Goldman and Huey Newton. The so-called witches of Salem and Joanne Little. Thousands of poor men and women and even a few of the rich and powerful. Johnny Cash and Merle Haggard. John Brown and Angela Davis. The place where the keepers keep the kept. Breakfast before dawn. That sadistic cop who beat the shit out of me in the holding cell and then, when the jailer came to take my name and other information, told me to watch my fists because it was a felony to assault cops. The junkies trading their breakfast away for a cigarette since they’re too sick to eat anyhow. The big mean mothers looking at the skinny boy’s ass. The skinny boy acting crazy like he’s a homicidal maniac. The jailhouse convert who discovered the straight and narrow a bit too late.
While I sat in jail that weekend not knowing whether I would be free or heading off to the county slammer known as Santa Rita and maybe the state prison system that a notion hit me. Not a revelation, but a notion. What had begun as a rejection of the consumerist American life had become a life similar to that of a renegade. The choice implicit in my rejection of the capitalist way of consumption had been removed. Not just for me, either, but for everyone of my generation and those to come who wanted as little to do with the capitalist rat race. Now my choices were being made by men and women who embraced the laws that maintained and protected that way. What had begun as an attempt to be free had become a classic exercise of staying a step ahead of the law. I had no choice at that moment. It was up to me to create a life that allowed me freedom again. I spent the night. But first, I had to get out of jail. The next morning after breakfast my name was called. The jailer opened the gate and I walked to the front of the block. Southwester had somehow raised my bail. I was out until my court date.
When I finally appeared in court on the charges, the judge who sentenced me could hardly wait to get out of his robes. It was his last day on the bench and as soon as my case was over the bailiff brought out a bottle of champagne. I suppose because it was the judge’s retirement, but maybe it was because it was also New Year’s Eve.
Somewhat ironically, I had attended a couple demonstrations a year earlier demanding that this particular judge be recalled on corruption charges that were related to some of his real estate dealings and a number of related decisions he had made from the bench. The recall drive was organized by the Berkeley White Panthers-part of the West Coast remnants of John Sinclair’s Ann Arbor group. A bunch of us showed up at a benefit concert the rocker Eddie Money was giving for the judge holding signs asking, “Why stop with one? Recall them all.” Apparently, Money’s gesture was repayment for an old debt left over from the his days on the streets.
The judge was not recalled. But he did give me a glass of champagne.
RON JACOBS is author of The Way the Wind Blew: a history of the Weather Underground.
He can be reached at: email@example.com