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Snatched For Photographing Michael Bloomberg’s Cops
My arrest, or, more accurately, my assault was personal.
I was taking photographs of the police arresting Occupy Wall Street demonstrators at the December 12 Winter Garden flash mob, which had been organized in solidarity with the port shutdowns on the west coast, when I found myself targeted. “That one,” I heard a voice say in a brutal “New Yawk” accent, realizing that a senior police official was pointing me out over a row of people, “he goes. He goes.”
All at once I felt like a high school quarterback getting blitzed by the 1970s Oakland Raiders. Five police officers, all much larger than my 5’11” and 190 pounds, crashed through a line of protesters, photographers, and Rude Mechanical Orchestra band members and slammed me to the marble floor of the Winter Garden. To my horror, I realized that they had body slammed me down on top of my Nikon D200 and bag of lenses, and, to my even greater horror, I also realized that they went out of their way to interpret my reflexive movements to protect my camera equipment as resisting arrest. “Stop resisting,” one police officer screamed at me as I lay pinned to the floor under 1700 pounds of New York City’s finest, “stop resisting.” “Metal cuffs,” I heard one of them scream. “Metal cuffs. Put the metal cuffs on this fucking guy.” Recovering from the initial shock, I realized that I was handcuffed to a chair with a row of 17 other people, 10 men and 7 women, under arrest for “criminal trespassing” and “resisting arrest.” Almost all of us were members of the Occupy Wall Street media team or independent photojournalists known by the police to be sympathetic to the Occupy movement.
The next 36 hours and 55 minutes would be aggressively impersonal, an attempt to use the tediously bureaucratic day-to-day operation of the criminal justice system to give legitimacy to a snatch and grab operation by Michael Bloomberg’s “personal army designed to cow the independent media into leaving the coverage of Occupy Wall Street to Fox, the New York Post, and The Daily News.
After our obligatory “perp walk” past a line of photographers, casual onlookers, and protesters to a “paddy wagon” in the Winter Garden parking lot, all ten male arrestees found ourselves in the custody, not of the big brutes who had wrestled me to the ground a few minutes earlier, but of a group of ordinary men and women who were simply bored. How different they all were from the steroid freaks who had wrestled me to the ground only 15 minutes before. They were the kind of people I went to high school and college with, the kind of people I see at family reunions. They were all happy to have jobs in the Great Recession, but they were all less than thrilled that they were to be required to work long overtime hours to process us through “the system.” If they had been working on a loading dock the week before Christmas, we would have been that truck that came in the hour before “quitting time” that just had to be unloaded before they left for home.
My fellow protesters I, in turn, were all still in high spirits. The tedium of the confinement had not yet set in. We joked. We snuck photographs and “live streamed,” a technique by which cell phone video is posted to the Internet while it’s being taken, inside the police van. Charles Meacham, a talented professional photographer, took our portraits with his Canon 5D Mark II that he was somehow able to use, even with his hands zip tied behind his back. We teased the police at the Seventh Precinct. I flirted with a police woman, pointing out her “WTC” ribbon and expressing my disbelief that she could have possibly been old enough to have been a police officer on 9/11. Elizabeth, a member of the OWS media team who had avoided arrest, casually strolled into the precinct house and started recording the police on her cell phone. “Oh my God,” the desk clerk exclaimed as we all roared with laughter. “I can’t let them live stream me. I don’t have any makeup on.” A police officer at the Seventh Precinct, in turn, teased me. When he heard me whining about how my D200 had been destroyed, he told me he was a “Nikon guy himself,” picked up my camera, and snapped my portrait. “You see,” he said, “these metal prosumer cameras are tough.” He turned the camera around and drew my attention to the LCD. The photo of me, bent over the desk in handcuffs, showed that I now had a black eye.
Our spirits dropped as soon as we saw the tiny cell where all 10 of us would be locked up for the next 14 hours. It was about 6 feet by 7 feet, and smelled like urine. I had been locked up in a holding cell after my arrest on the Brooklyn Bridge, but had been transferred to a larger one after only about an hour. None of us thought we would be spending the rest of the afternoon, evening, and several hours of the early morning of the next day packed so tightly that we had to take shifts lying down on the floor and sitting on the narrow bench under the bright fluorescent light overhead. To make matters worse, our cell seemed to be the only one at the Seventh Precinct, and, periodically, as the evening wore on, a plainclothes detective would stop by to drop off his “collar,” in every case save one someone arrested for petty drug charges. That meant that for at least half of those 14 hours, it was more like 13 men in the 6 x 7 cell than it was 10. Stir in the fact that most of us had the usual addictions to nicotine and caffeine, and by late afternoon, we were a pretty surly lot. We shouted at the police, who, by that time, had already been working double overtime. Where were our phone calls? Where was dinner? When are we getting out? Our longest lasting non-Occupy-Wall-Street cell mate, a low-level drug dealer with the street name of “Lucifer” was probably the most personable inmate we met that night, although whether he was genuinely friendly or just intimidated by the fact that he was outnumbered 10 to 1 remains open to question.
One of our group, Al, a 50-something part time actor and stereotypically “tough” native New Yorker, seemed determined to pick a fight with just about anybody. When the detectives brought in a muscular young man in his 20s who had been charged with third degree assault and who was very obviously drunk, Al drove him into a corner like a caged rat and badgered him until he finally begged the police to remove him from the cell. When the police gave in and removed the drunken man, Al turned on the rest of us, calling us young punks, overeducated pussies, traitors who were insufficiently devoted to the cause, and who had hung him up to dry as the only supporter of Occupy Wall Street with the guts to demand his rights. The rest of us, in turn, began to scapegoat Al, then to snap at one another, and then finally back at the police.
The arrest of Stanley Rogouski. Photograph by Jessica Lehrman
In other words, people in confined spaces become very unpleasant, very quickly. People locked up in close quarters will sometimes develop close bonds of friendship and solidarity, but this takes discipline. It takes preparation and hard work. The natural tendency is to squabble, to pick fights over trivial things, to vent anger at the closest target of opportunity. Again and again, I saw the general population at The Tombs, none of whom I was even remotely intimidated by in spite of a few wisecracks by the police, getting into shouting matches over nothing. It was simply to make the time go by more quickly.
The police, I suspect, are quite aware of it, and consider it one of the sources of their power. As the evening wore on, they saw us less and less as a cast of interesting left wing oddballs, and more like the usual petty drug offenders and assorted lowlifes they deal with on a daily basis. They lose all their guilt about the fact that their job is to lock up their fellow human beings in a cage. They cease to be frustrated, petty government officials and become the only “normal” human beings in a room full of “animals.” We became “bodies.” They, in turn, become “pigs.” The more they became “pigs,” the more we became “bodies.”
The 7 female Occupy Wall Street supporters, who were locked up in a cell just down the hall, seemed to handle their confinement somewhat better. They sang songs. They shouted at us through the wall. They straightened their hair and smiled when they were fingerprinted and photographed, the camera being just on the other side of the bars. But even here there was a catch. When Lucifer, our friendly cell mate, stood at the bars and very publicly ogled one of the women, the police officer taking her picture shook his head in disgust. “Lay off,” he growled, she’s only 16, forgetting that it was Michael Bloomberg and the New York City Police who had locked up a 16 year old in the first place. That gave me a real flash of insight into the mind of a police officer. The prison industrial complex creates degraded human beings and then congratulates itself on its ability to protect the rest of society from those degraded human beings it creates. This allows the police officer to justify his existence. The lower his opinion of humanity in general, the more the police officer can congratulate himself on doing his job, on “just following orders.” The more dangerous the world is, the more we need a powerful, militarized police force.
Nobody save maybe a New York Post reporter or three believes that Occupy Wall Street is dangerous. At the very worst, New Yorkers unsympathetic to the Occupy movement see it as an aggressive nuisance, but therein lies the problem. Ray Kelly the crew cutted junior league Stalin who sometimes masquerades as a police commissioner in a democratic state, has milked the terrorist attacks of September 11 over the past decade in a way that makes George W. Bush and Dick Cheney look like amateurs. In his mind, anything that even slightly inconveniences his department, the last defense against two more planes crashing into the skyline of Manhattan, needs to be gotten rid of, even if that thing is the First Amendment.
That New York is indeed a difficult city to govern, that it does have problems with traffic, sanitation, and crowding, problems that have to be managed by a very large and powerful city bureaucracy, means that threats to democratic liberty come not as blatant reaction, but as “necessity,” as the compromises we have to take to keep the overcrowded metropolis humming along. Creeping totalitarianism in what should be the most colorful city in America comes off as strangely gray and banal. Kelly, the police commissioner, whose department can now shoot down planes and conduct intelligence operations overseas, and Bloomberg, the Napoleonic little billionaire who was able to spread around enough cash to buy off all opposition to his stealing a third term in office, have successfully convinced most New Yorkers that they and only they can make the trains run on time.
The propagandists at Fox, the Daily News, and the New York Post have, in turn, seized upon this “necessity” as a way to attack Occupy Wall in the name of the financial industry. The interests of the authoritarian Bloomberg, the Stalinist Kelly, the “1%” and their PR departments in the corporate media converge into at least one important directive. The state, the municipal government of New York City, and the NYPD must hold veto power over who is and who is not a legitimate journalist, who can and who can not take photos at a public event. Ray Kelly, thus, becomes more important than the Dean of the Columbia Journalism School in determining what about Occupy Wall Street is reported on, and what is ignored. Anybody who even passively defies this de facto form of censorship risks getting thrown in jail.
At 2 AM, the police officers in the Seventh Precinct, who had quite obviously been instructed to keep us in our holding cell until the last possible moment allowed by law, finally made a move to transfer us to Central Booking, otherwise known as “The Tombs.” Originally built in 1838 in the Egyptian Revival style, thus the name The Tombs, the Manhattan Detention Complex was designed to be a “mausoleum for the living.” It is a vast, labyrinthine structure just north of Foley Square, and it, indeed, can recall the inside of an Egyptian pyramid, a place that’s very easy to get into, but almost impossible to get out of. In reality, it’s more like purgatory than Hades. You will eventually leave. No one serves his or her sentence in The Tombs since no one at The Tombs has had a trial.
You should leave The Tombs within the 72 hours prescribed by law, but the New York Police Department has a way around that restriction, as several thousand detainees found out the hard way during the Republican National Convention in 2004.The 72 hour limit that the state imposes on detentions with no charge starts not at the moment of arrest, but at the moment you arrive at “The Tombs.” The longer they can keep you from The Tombs, the longer they can keep you at The Tombs. Since we had already been detained at the Seventh Precinct for almost all of Monday, we were not looking a three day maximum stay, but a four day maximum stay.
This is not gratuitous sadism. It is a sophisticated “carrot and stick” approach the NYPD uses to get what it wants. In our case, they wanted two things. They wanted to intimidate us, to discourage us from photographing and reporting on Occupy Wall Street. More important, they wanted to profile us. They wanted to put us into their database, and pass our names along to Homeland Security. “Lucifer” the drug dealer who was looking at a felony and six months at Rikers Island was processed through the Seventh Precinct in a few hours. They kept us for 14. They wanted to find out exactly who was moving in on the territory of the NYPD’s reliable non critics at the New York Post and The Daily News, to get our fingerprints, phone numbers, and home addresses. The carrot, of course, is getting to stand in front of a judge which meant, in our case, almost certainly being released. The stick was to be kept for the full 72 hours.
We began our trip to The Tombs locked up by together by the wrists, chain gang style, in the back of an unheated, and unlighted police van. As it made its way downtown to Foley Square, a few of us continued to squabble, a few of us remained silent, all of us banged into the walls every time the vehicle made a sharp turn. I tortured myself by trying to imagine what would happen if the driver of the police van were not just a bored police officer who wanted to dump off his “bodies” and go home, but, perhaps, a serial killer who was planning to park the van in some secluded parking lot out in New Jersey and leave us there until we were found, a few days later, dead of expose and dehydration. We would remain chain ganged for at least 2 hours after we arrived at Central Booking, where we were marched up and down long hallways, taunted by police officers, who, by this time, were as surly from the long hours as we were, questioned, searched, and retinal scanned.
At least I was retinal scanned. While probably one of the stronger members of our group physically, I was also the weakest emotionally and intellectually. Every member of our group, save me, every one, resisted the retinal scan. I submitted. I was the guy you couldn’t trust with secrets. I was the one who would be the first to break under torture. I was the guy who hid in the foxhole while his comrades were fighting the Germans. I was the kid from Saturday Night Fever who was too scared to jump out of the car when they crashed it into the “crib” of the rival gang. I was the punk. I was the wuss. I was the weakest link. I was tried and found wanting.
Indeed, by 4 AM early on a Tuesday morning, I was willing to do anything just to speed the process along, and I knew that the police would use every little excuse to slow us down and keep us for as many of those 72 hours as they could manage. The importance of the retinal scan became all too obvious when, after passing through a metal detector operated by a surly female police officer in her 40s, spitting mad that she had been pulled out of bed to work overtime, I noticed that she didn’t even bother to check our pockets or have us patted down. On the contrary, she made us empty our pockets into a basket and yelled at us that we were idiots who couldn’t follow instructions, while she, herself, failed to follow procedure and check our pockets and clothing.
In other word, the NYPD couldn’t have cared less if we snuck a cell phone, a joint, or a few other unauthorized items into Central Booking. What they wanted was a picture of our eyeballs, and they got one set, mine. After the metal detector, we were brought one by one into a room where another female cop, also surly and in her 40s, was watching a 1980s sitcom on TV. “Put your eyeballs up to the scanner and open them wide, no, wider, no wider, can’t you listen,” she barked as I did what I was told. I was led back out to our chain gang, by that point too physically and emotionally broken even to feel any shame over what I had done. I just wanted it all to be over, to get back home to New Jersey, take a shower, and collapse on my bed.
It was far from over. We would be kept in The Tombs for another 17 hours, from 4 AM early Tuesday morning until 11 PM that night. But at least we were finally at the actual Tombs. Those 72 hours had begun.
“Remember there are no cameras in those cells,” a police officer taunted us before we were finally deposited in a somewhat larger, though still urine stained holding. “You know what I mean, don’t you?” I did but by that point I was too exhausted even to be scared. Had someone shanked me, I would have simply rolled over and gone back to sleep. As it turned out, the police officer was making an empty threat, and, indeed, after I noticed that none of our cell mates was terribly intimidating, just the usual drug possession and shop lifting charges, I lay down on the hard floor and fell asleep under the bright fluorescent lights.
When I woke up the next morning just before 11 AM, I had no idea if I had been asleep for six hours or for six minutes. There is no way to tell time inside The Tombs since there are no clocks and no windows. I sat on the bench, my arms around my legs, my head buried in my thighs, trying not to burst into tears or throw myself against the bars. Would we ever get out of this cell? My fellow Occupy Wall Street detainees seems to make better use of their time. Guy, the youngest of our group, 18 years old, but well over six feet and well over 200 pounds, snoozed on one of the narrow benches for most of the morning and most of the afternoon. Al, the oldest, the man who had had the epic freakout at the Seventh Precinct the evening before, slept just as soundly. John Knefel, the independent journalist already seemed to be composing the piece he would publish for Salon. Knefel looks like John Boy Walton, the picture of innocence, the very last person you would imagine in The Tombs, but he seemed to take it all in stride. Lorenzo, another member of the media team, lay in the corner in a surly pile, nursing his nicotine withdrawal. He was in better shape than I was emotionally, but he clearly needed a cigarette.
Justin Wedes, a prominent member of the OWS media team, a 25 year old ex school teacher who had been on the Stephen Colbert show, and who had scored a hit piece in the New York Post the day before, seemed the most productive. While he had spent most of the 14 hours at the Seventh Precinct curled up in a fetal position on the floor of the holding cell, sound asleep, once at The Tombs, he sprung into action. He stood against the bars of the cell for hours talking to our fellow detainees on the other side of the hall. While the yuppies at the Winter Garden seemed to have mixed feelings about OWS, the detainees at The Tombs were universally positive. This had little to do with class. While most of them were black or Hispanic men in on the usual petty drug charges, there was an Asian kid who was a sophomore at Harvard, a middle aged man with gray hair who looked like the very image of the “1%,” and of course, us. The universal sympathy for Occupy Wall Street was based upon the fact that it was seen as a movement antagonistic to the police. If Ray Kelly and Michael Bloomberg hated it, it must be OK.
A little after noon, when we started getting desperate for news, we finally managed to contact Gideon Oliver, a lawyer at the National Lawyers Guild, who told us he would file an injunction at 6PM to speed the process along. We had our docket numbers and we were all set to go, but the office of the Manhattan District Attorney, Cyrus Vance, was still stonewalling our release. Towards the middle of the afternoon, Justin Wedes, and another detainee, Jeff Smith, another independent journalist, a man with a name that sounded so generic it was easily to believe it was an alias, come up with the idea of live streaming interviews from the phone in our cell. That turned out to be more difficult than we imagined, but several people did manage to record rudimentary interviews of our ordeal though the crackling headset with the shorted wire.
Seven hours later, the injunction was filed, and our names were called. Finally, I thought, we were about to go in front of the judge, but it still wasn’t over. We were released from our holding cell, only to be brought up to another holding cell. I would spent another fours in lockup. The rest of our group, who resisted the retinal scan, would spend another five. In our third, this time graffiti covered cell of the past few days, we met with lawyers, chatted some more, and waited, just waited. By this time the routine had become familiar, sleep for a half hour, get up and chat, sleep for a half hour, get up and chat with another person. After our lawyer had assured us we would finally be released that night, my spirits perked up. It was still only 8 PM and I would probably make an earlier train back to New Jersey, but, alas, Kelly and Bloomberg still had another trick up their sleeves. We would be held until after the court’s break from 9:30 to 10:30 PM. That was cutting it close. The court stopped operations at 1 AM. Would we have to spend another night? We would not, but they still wanted to draw it out until it got as near to 1AM as possible.
Finally, at 11 PM, Paul Sullivan, another independent photojournalist and I had our names called by a turnkey who barked out words as though he were committing an assault. “Sullivan,” he bellowed, “Rogouski.” I did not have to be called twice. We were led out into the courtroom, the door to the street only a few hundred feet away. Finally, I thought, we were close to our freedom, but, you probably guessed it, there was one final hurdle, one final attempt to get us to submit to the retinal scan. Since I had already gotten scanned, I submitted without question. Paul Sullivan refused the scan and was led back to the holding cell. I realized that, unlike the previous evening, if I submitted to the retinal scan now, I would be outed as a coward. I didn’t care. I just wanted to leave. I would get my wish.
My lawyer stood in front of the judge. I was called in front of the bench, and offered an ACD, “adjourned considering dismissal,” a kind of 6 month probation under which the charges are dropped if you don’t get arrested during that time. Since I have every intention of continuing to take photos of Occupy Wall Street, and since that means I have a good chance of getting arrested again, I pled not guilty. I would put off the final decision until I had further consulted with my National Lawyers Guild attorney, who suggested that I plead not guilty provisionally until we looked at all the evidence. I was free. I was finally free.
I walked briskly out of the courtroom onto the street, got onto the PATH and had my first good meal in days, two slices of pizza at the Newark Train Station. I felt reborn, no longer a “body,” but a human being. When I jumped on the New Jersey Transit train, I found that the state, the government that had confined me for the past 37 hours, was now taking me home. It was once again benign. The conductor who I was sure would smell the prison grime on me, politely took my ticket and called me sir. A few kids chatted in the next row. Two Polish immigrants talked loudly in a language I could not understand. A teenage girl talked loudly on her cell phone. It was normality.
I jumped off the train at Linden, and had the most glorious 3 mile walk I’ve ever had in my life, every step a confirmation to myself that I was at long last, free. The night was fresh and cold. My heart beat with joy, my lungs took in and expelled air that did not smell like urine or body odor.
At the back of my mind, however, was the idea that a photo of my eyeballs had been given a one way trip to the Homeland Security database in Washington, that the eyes I used to take photographs would now be used against me, that due to my own weakness, I was a marked man, a potential “low level terrorist” who could be rounded up after the next national emergency and locked up for society’s protection.
Nevertheless, I was not yet angry at myself for giving in. Freedom in the short term felt better than standing up for my rights. Like most Americans, when given the choice to protect the Constitution or to get home on time, I chose to get home on time. Had a line of Occupy Wall Street demonstrators blocked my way and shouted “we are the 99%” at me, I probably would have shaken my fist in their faces and growled “get a job hippies.” All I wanted was to take a shower and sleep in my own bed.
Later that night, at home, in front of my computer, I found out that my fellow OWS detainees, all of whom had refused the retinal scan, had been released less than an hour after I was.
Stanley Rogouski is a 1986 graduate of Rutgers University where he studied under Steven Eric Bronner. He became politically active in the late 1980s as a volunteer for the Committee in Solidarity With the People of El Salvador. For two months, during the occupation of Zucotti Park, he served as an embedded photojournalist, and a totally non-objective supporter of Occupy Wall Street. His photography appears in Noam Chomsky’s pamphlet “Occupy” published last month in the newly launched Occupied Media Pamphlet Series. His articles on the movement have been posted on Counterpunch, Znet, MichaelMoore.com, Huffington Post and elsewhere. His website is stanleyrogouski.com. He can be reached at email@example.com