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My Night in the Tombs: Mr. President, You Don’t Have to Make a Mistake to Go to Jail

President Obama is to be commended for tackling the country’s satanic criminal justice system, but he seems to believe that those in prison are there because they have made a mistake. I would suggest that probably half of those in jail are there because of lying cops and their partners, corrupt prosecutors and judges. I spent a night in a New York jail, the notorious medieval Tombs. It wasn’t because I had made a mistake.

In nineteen sixty four I was walking down Avenue B with my friends, Calvin Hernton, whose book Sex and Racism in America was about to be published by Doubleday. Duncan Roundtree, III, another friend, was with us. I saw a policeman exit from a bar called The Annex. He was carrying a brown bag. Said more in jest than indignation, I whispered to my friends, “The Times is right, they’re taking bribes in low places.” In June and July of that year there had been a spate of articles about the ties of some policemen to gamblers.

One of the policemen overheard me. Next thing I knew, he was swooping down on us in a patrol car. He and a burly white officer, packed us into the police car and took us to the 9th Precinct. I was separated
completealifrom Calvin and Roundtree, taken into a room where the policeman who overheard me began punching me. Afterwards, the police took us to the Tombs.

That afternoon, the policeman who had assaulted me visited me in my cell. In contrast to the manic behaving character who’d encountered us earlier that day, he was now calm and even polite.

He said that if I pled guilty I’d just spend the weekend in Riker’s Island. I told him that I was going to hire a lawyer. When we appeared before a judge, we repeated our intention. Our friends came and bailed Calvin and me out. The bail was one hundred and fifty dollars and we were charged with “disorderly conduct.” Duncan Roundtree, who didn’t say anything about cops taking bribes, spent the weekend in jail. I raised the money to bail Roundtree out.

It was months before we went to trial. The case was postponed, and on other occasions the officer didn’t show up. I had just been laid off from my job as a researcher for the Tri State Transportation Corporation and was home writing and collecting unemployment checks, while seeking another job. (I finally got a job as editor of a Newark community newspaper).

On the day of the trail, I dressed in my only suit, a three-piece pinstriped number, and went to court with my lawyer, Attorney Green. I took the stand and gave my account of what had happened that day. Behind me were a number of police who’d come to court as a result of one of the early anti-war demonstrations. The two cops sat in the audience, alternately glaring and smirking at me. They weren’t smirking for very long. I let it all out, while some of the Puerto Rican and black members of the audience gave me support. All of the anxiety that had been building up came gushing out in words. I mentioned the arrest and my treatment once we arrived at the 9th Precinct. I challenged the lies that appeared in the policeman’s report. When I finished, I was prepared for anything that would happen to me. I was relieved. Calm. My lawyer and I stood, waiting for the verdict. The judge pronounced me guilty and left the courtroom without sentencing me. My lawyer said he’d never seen anything like it. The great Civil Rights lawyer and feminist Florence Kennedy was in the audience. She introduced herself and she my lawyer and I had coffee.

To this day, I wonder why the judge left the courtroom without sentencing me. I also wonder what would have happened to me if I had been sent to Riker’s Island. And I wonder about the fate of those who didn’t have my kind of backup, those who accept shoddy plea bargains even though innocent as a way of moving on with their lives.

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Ishmael Reed is the author of The Complete Muhammad Ali.

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