A week after New York City police commissioner Raymond W. Kelly ordered officers not to interfere with journalists covering the Occupy protests, I found myself sitting in a cage in a back room of the 40th Precinct in the Bronx staring at a travel-size white bottle of Razac Hand & Body Lotion. My workday had taken an improbable turn; I’d been arrested. So now here I was, fixating on a bottle of lotion, wondering why it was there, thinking of it as "free" because it sat on a ledge outside the black iron-mesh cage, and worse, imagining the many uses of lotion in a jail. Better to pass the time trying to accept my present circumstances than trying to figure out the absurd.
I’d been covering the Occupy movement beyond Wall Street, and the Bronx had so far held eight weekly general assemblies of its own. This past Saturday, there was a planned 11 a.m. rally to bring attention to the city’s October bulldozing of the Morning Glory community garden, a long-abandoned lot that area residents had taken over two years ago for the garden. The lot was now grassy and fenced-in.
I thought that I’d report for an hour or so and then meet a friend for an afternoon brunch. Less than 10 minutes after arriving, however, I was in handcuffs.
When I stepped out of the 149th Street station at 11 a.m., my first time at that sprawling five-lane intersection, I found the protest site—a sidewalk beside an empty lot—easily because of a heavier-than-expected police presence. Early reports had indicated the opposite. I didn’t expect to see an officer of rank surrounded by 11 cops, four cars and a police van. I remember thinking, There’re more cops here than protesters.
A cluster of the protesters were walking away from where they had planned to set up. I saw a two-person Bronx News 12 camera crew and a man I assumed was another journalist; he was scribbling into a pad and interviewing. Another guy with a hand-cam, I pegged as a protester. While filming, he demanded to know why officers, in particular the black and Latino officers, were breaking up a protest over a garden in their own community.
I started asking questions, first to the ranking officer, but without identifying myself as a journalist, and then to the dawdling protesters, to figure out what was happening and why.
According to Captain Garcia, protesters had been obstructing pedestrian traffic. I looked around to verify. At this morning hour, on the sidewalk of an empty lot, in the middle of a major five-way intersection, there was no pedestrian traffic. Cops didn’t count as pedestrians, so I dismissed the charge.
I remember thinking, There’re more cops here than protesters.
Then the first arrest happened. A man whose name I later learned was David Suker had been crouching over a crate, fiddling with a stack of Occupy Wall Street Journal newspapers and simultaneously telling officers that he had a right to be stand, sit, or run on a public sidewalk. He didn’t move on cops’ requests, so they moved in. The rest of Garcia’s flank was fanning out along the sidewalk, warning the boldest protesters against standing.
A community-affairs officer gestured for me to move on, so I identified myself as a journalist. He immediately stepped back and said that he wouldn’t want me to “get caught up.” I interpreted his words as a friendly exchange, not a warning.
I kept writing and then I heard Captain Garcia say, in my general direction, “You can not stand here. You have to move. You’ve been so notified.” It’s the last thing I scribbled before police officers surrounded me. I must’ve looked like a guppy mouth; it just didn’t occur to me that Garcia had meant to arrest me.
As officers encircled me, I kept my shoulders down and tried to moderate my tone. That sixth sense had nothing to do with journalistic training and everything to do with my being city kid. I grew up here in southeast Queens; NYPD ain’t never been nothing to fuck wit. I protested that I was a working journalist and asked if they were serious.
One officer took my bag, lifting it off my shoulder and over my head, while another said I was being placed under arrest.
Someone else took my notepad and pen. And another officer pulled my hands behind my back. When I felt cuffs clasp around my wrists, I started to do a weird thing.
Similar to fixating on the bottle of lotion while sitting in lockup, I kept asking after my notepad. Looking back, I see those tics for what they were: poor attempts to assert control. If freedom were an object, in my case it would have been my reporter’s notebook and a forgotten bottle of lotion. On Saturday they held roughly the same value.
As I was being led away from the sidewalk, I suddenly remembered Kelly’s mandate not to touch journalists covering Occupy protests, and I reminded every cop within a 10-foot radius.
The officers led me to the van. Kelly was in Manhattan; this was the Bronx.
The other arrestees, four male protesters, were in the seats behind me; officers sat up front.
I got an uncomfortable feeling of déjà vu. I’d been detained by the NYPD before, except I wasn’t a journalist. I was a kid in high school. When I was 15, while coming home from a dressy night out, a girlfriend and I pushed through the West 4th Street station turnstiles together on a single fare. It was a dumb thing to do.
We were cuffed, packed into the back of a police van, fingerprinted, and kept overnight in jail. I’ll never forget the kitchen chair when I got home the next morning. My mother had positioned it by the window to overlook the boulevard; she had sat there, worrying unnecessarily because I had begged the officers not to call.
Another time, also while a student at Dalton, a prep school on the Upper East Side, my classmates and I were detained in the Times Square subway station while going to an annual minority-college fair at the Javits Center. We were attending during afternoon free periods. Apparently we should have traveled with notarized forms permitting us to leave school premises. Our college-fair fliers weren’t enough. Not only were the officers sneering and incredulous, they paraded us single-file through the station and into a back room to wait while they sorted out “the truth.” I eventually did make it to that fair.
Very rarely have I talked about these incidents with the NYPD. It’s not because those milestones didn’t deeply affect me. They did. But heavy-handed or discriminatory policing was so commonplace when I was growing up, nearly all of my black and Latino friends had experienced or witnessed it at least once—or had close friends who did. Compile our testimonies in a book, scatter the leaves in the air, and they’d blanket the city from tip to tip. I didn’t see the point of adding one more.
I began to rethink that approach on Saturday. After the umpteenth time I asked officers, who weren’t paying me any attention, why I’d been arrested, someone answered. From the seat behind me, Suker said, “Because you’re a black woman with dreads.”
That shut me up because for the first time that day, it occurred to me that Suker might be right.
“Black woman or not,” I said to no one in particular, “You don’t know who I know.”
But my confidence game was up. The statement sounded rushed. Plus, my voice cracked on that second, “know.”
What recourse did I have? I’m a freelance journalist working up a story about Occupy spreading into the communities of color that I had not yet sold. I didn’t have an assigning editor to call. I was in trouble and it was time to think about how to get out of it. Dwelling on how officers perceived me because I’m a black woman with natural hair was not going to help.
The only thing I knew how to do was my job.
The preceding intimidation, the arrests—they weren’t right. The charges didn’t match what I had seen, which, with the exception of Suker, was a small group of people shuffling along at officers’ requests, and grumbling, sometimes yelling, about having to do so. Nothing major. By the time the police van left for the precinct, the few remaining protesters were simply huddled on the opposite street corner.
In the van, I interviewed the four arrested protesters. I wanted to know who they were.
I asked officers questions like: What’s next? What am I charged with? (To which I never a straight answer.) Why are you doing that? How long is it going to take? I sounded like a 5-year-old on a long road trip. Maybe that’s why an officer twice insisted as I was standing in the station house waiting to be frisked, “You must’ve pissed somebody off.”
By the time I was released about three hours after being arrested, "disorderly conduct" had been added to my summons, and Captain Garcia warned me not to engage in similar criminal behavior. I had no intention of listening.
In what alternate universe is it disorderly conduct for a journalist in a U.S. city to scribble on a pad and question police officers in a normal speaking voice? In what upside-down town is the right to freedom of the press—and the right to assemble—considered a technicality? Oh. Right. New York City post-Occupy Wall Street.
While the four protesters left, I stayed behind to complain to Captain Garcia. His flank, as always, stood close. I made some good points but so did he. Unless I carried a press pass from the office of the Deputy Commissioner, Public Information—which I didn’t and which no officer had asked to see, either—then I’d be treated like a protester, he said.
“You don’t say who or who isn’t a journalist,” I said. He seemed to concede the point but also fell back on the policeman’s answer, “It’s the law.” Our "discourse"—his word, not mine—was over. I was way too angry anyway, both at being treated like a criminal and at myself for feeling afraid, to remain professional.
Looking back, it’s hard not to conclude that the four or five officers who helped to arrest me weren't just using a strategy of overwhelming force but a tactic of disorientation. I can’t identify who arrested me. I never got a reply as to whose handcuffs were on me. From the moment of my arrest to my release, I’d passed through at least 10 different officers’ hands. If I were to complain, whom specifically would I complain about?
I opened the door of the 40th Precinct to a boisterous crowd that had amassed across the street. A dreary morning protest of roughly 12 people in front of an empty lot had multiplied to about 70 people chanting in the precinct’s front yard for prisoners to be released.
Occupy the Bronx had gotten lucky. A local anti-gun-violence group from Patterson Housing, a public housing development visible in the distance, had planned an unrelated 2 p.m. rally in front of the 40th Precinct. After hearing that cops had arrested five protesters, though, they temporarily joined forces with Occupy. In the surrounding apartment buildings, heads were peeking out of their windows.
A familiar face, Mychal Johnson, a member of the local community board, crossed the street to greet me.
I’d walked to the side of the station to get my bearings, but also, I was uncomfortable with the protesters’ loud embrace. I was grateful for their presence; I’m not sure I would’ve gotten out of jail in a couple of hours without them. We shared a common interest in protecting the public’s right of assembly. I, too, had been a victim of the police tactics with which many of them were intimately familiar. But I wasn’t one of them.
“They weren’t leaving till you came out,” said Johnson, smiling as he walked over to introduce himself.
I’d first seen Johnson inside the precinct when the five of us arrived, although I didn’t understand his role, then. Turns out, Occupy leaders had called ahead, told him about the arrests at 149th Street and asked him to get to the station to observe the officers. It’s an old strategy among older activists in disadvantaged communities: policing the police.
“Because of Occupy Wall Street, the police are in a heightened state,” said Johnson, but, he explained, intimidation tactics in his section of the Bronx are nothing new.
We were trailing the enlarged protest group, which was now marching north toward Patterson. The anti-gun-violence group led with the call, “No guns in the community.” Occupiers closed the rear with, “No guns with the police.”
“They arrest first and find out later if you’re innocent,” Johnson said. “The system has it backwards because by the time you get to court and the judge tosses out the charge”—like, trespassing or disorderly conduct—“you’ve already been handcuffed, detained, and your name put into the system.”
Johnson stops walking and turns to face me as if emphasizing the point. “It shouldn’t work that way,” he said.
My court date is Feb. 16.