Arrested for Protesting

(names ommitted until trials are over)


This morning I got out of jail for the first time ever. It was a remarkable experience, one I came to appreciate more and more the longer it went on, or maybe the closer I came to being released. Here's the story.

On Tuesday, Aug. 31, I was just back from a week out of town, had a couple days free, and felt totally out of touch with the RNC protests and the vibe on the streets of Manhattan. I decided to call my friend M., who together with her boyfriend J. had formed a splinter group from the Hungry March Band (they were the splinters) for direct action and protest energizing during the convention; they named the band the Rude Mechanical Orchestra (RMO). I had been talking to M. about playing with them for months, but all their rehearsals conflicted with regular rehearsals or gigs of my own – anyway, although I had never played with them I had a feeling that she’d let me jump in. I gave her a call, she said they needed another snare player, and I jumped on the train into the city with my “second-best drum” (her advice). I was psyched to have a group to join to protest Bush and the Republicans' betrayal of ethics and humanity in more ways than I can list here now. We've got to be willing to step up a little more than normal to get these criminals out of the Whitehouse.

Around 6pm I joined up with the RMO down on Houston at Forsyth. After a pee break at the accommodating Bowery Poetry Club (the RMO had been running around town all afternoon), we jumped in cabs and sped off towards Union Sq. Just outside of Union Sq. the band regrouped, had a quick meeting on 12th St., and then formed a parade line two-abreast, and started playing our way into Union Sq. We started with Baraat from Monsoon Wedding, an infectious little faux-Indian tune, and the flutes and tuba and percussion sounded great on the street. Probably everyone sounded great, but that’s all I could hear, being in the back with 3 other drummers and the tuba player. (For those of you who want to know how the hell I could hear the flutes from all the way back in the rhythm ghetto: they had solo breaks.)

I was impressed with the energy and organization of the RMO. We kept to the right on the sidewalk, and kept formation (being two-abreast is important to city law, I think). The members of the band were generally not feeling up to being arrested, M. said, and coming into an unpermitted rally I think they were being careful to not flagrantly cause trouble on the sidewalks.

Coming into Union Sq was exciting – there were protesters of every stripe around, and a real feeling of excitement. This was the A31 (organized? encouraged?) event, to protest the RNC and celebrate the successful protests and actions of the previous days, and a chance to re-energize with a bit of a party in the streets. It was unpermitted, and I (wrongly) thought that M. felt optimistic that the cops would be there to control it rather than to stop it, because things had been going well with unpermitted actions on Sunday and Monday. I think the crowd knew that it was getting pretty big for something unpermitted, and that taking it into the streets was ratcheting up the intensity and the odds for police interference; so there was a bit of a crackle in the air. Parading into Union Sq up Broadway I didn’t see many cops, just clusters at intersections, though I had heard that the area was pretty hot.

The RMO got into the center of a crowd in the southern plaza of Union Square, and hung out for about 15 minutes playing some great chants and breakdowns that I think they had made up. Energy was high. Someone signaled that we were taking off, and we moved out, doing a u-turn in the crowd and moving with a loosely packed and pretty psyched crowd out of the square and onto Broadway, moving north against traffic. The RMO was careful to stay on the sidewalk, but a lot of people were in the street. Ahead I could see buses stopped. People were dancing and clapping around me. Someone helping the band was taking up the rear behind me, and I don’t know what was going on, but they kept bumping into my back and legs. I had a feeling there was a real push coming out of Union Sq behind us. The parade turned right onto 16th St, and suddenly the vibe focused in the narrower street, a great energy coming up from the music and motion. As we got toward the end of the block, a line of cops on scooters zipped into formation blocking the street at the crosswalk ahead of us (I think that’s 3rd Ave there). (I found out later that our turn onto 16th St. happened because cops were blocking Broadway ahead of us.) I could see this stuff only intermittently when there was a harmonic convergence of tuba bell moving away and only short people being in front of me on the street. The RMO finished our tune. The front of the parade stopped in front of the cops, but people kept coming in from behind. Another band eased up beside us, and sounded big and bad-ass; I loved the way they had their bass drum tuned. Someone told me it was the Infernal Noise Brigade from Seattle, and that they sounded really good because they’d been together since ’99 and they practiced. (Made sense to me: I have a band that’s been together since ’99 and we sound better when we practice.)

The RMO immediately had a meeting (I had heard earlier that they’re very good at this). It was decided that we would all stick together, unless someone wanted to leave, rather than join a mass of musicians and protesters and just go with the flow. We did a u-turn and started marching back towards Broadway, which wasn’t very easy. I think we went about 40 feet and stopped. We stopped playing too. It became evident that cops had sealed off that entrance to the block too. We looked behind us, and we saw a mass of cops moving towards us, some with video cameras filming the bands, others raising a web of plastic orange netting to seal the exit of the block. It became clear that we were going to be here a while; most people around me were bummed that we had gotten sealed in, but felt that at least we’d be able to do our thing in what had become a protest pen. Then riot cops ordered everyone off the street and onto the sidewalks. The crowd obeyed, though it was incredibly difficult to get everyone into such a small area. We were packed in like sardines. I noticed several cops up on top floor fire escapes, and people watching out their windows. Cops were now carefully filming everyone they thought might be important to film, band members and anyone who had a megaphone, I guess anyone who looked like a dangerous anarchist leader to them. The crowd became very nervous. A woman near me started crying; two women behind me started singing Amazing Grace. It was very tense, and frankly I got pretty scared, because it looked like the cops felt like being violent with us. I was still part of a rough layer of band compressed into the crowd.

This next part of the story will be easy to tell, because it is short. Police controlled the center of the street, and had everyone locked down on the sidewalk. The cops were aggressive and seemed pissed. Suddenly many of them jumped forward and grabbed band members. Almost exclusively band members. I was shocked by how suddenly and roughly they were grabbing the young women with flutes and saxes from the RMO. I knew these women really didn’t want to be arrested, they were screaming “no!” and very upset, but any reluctance to go just increased the cops’ vigor in pulling them out of the crowd. It freaked me out to realize that holding an instrument made me target number one. Within thirty seconds the tuba player was pulled out from in front of me, and the bass drum player. Their instruments were pulled off them and thrown to the ground in a pile. A cop pulled me forward, but in the slight delay between the tuba player/bass drum player and me a little space had formed, and suddenly no one was on me. I set my drum down in the pile of instruments and tried to figure out whether to go forward or back into the crowd. I was scared. A black female cop looked over her shoulder and saw me standing there; I think she thought I was about to try and pull people free; I backed up into the crowd before she could actually turn around and grab me. I felt like a wimp and a loser for not trying to fight for my bandmates. I saw our trombonist get pulled out; her slide fell out, then the trombone hit the ground and feet tripped on it and I saw a pile mangled brass, tuba parts, drums. There was a brief pause; people were freaked out around me, making cell phone calls to tell people they might get arrested; remaining band members (the INB was buried behind more people than the RMO) were backing up to buildings and trying to hide their instruments. I tried to get people to cover for the two RMO drummers behind me, thinking maybe we could sneak them into the thick of the crowd. Some cops snarled at us to move toward Broadway if we knew what was good for us. No one could go anywhere. Then cops started grabbing people out of the crowd; a higher-up identified me to another cop and said “you going?” I said “you taking me?” and he nodded. The cop grabbed me and I decided not to resist; I had a feeling shit was about to get bad and didn’t want to get my ass beat by a cop. He told another cop that I was “going easy”, and they were not rough with me. I was cuffed behind my back in plastic cuffs and walked toward Irving Plaza, in a clearing in the street. A National Lawyers Guild volunteer asked my name, and I was glad to have someone to give it to. The RMO had filled out some legal forms and had a buddy system, but I had come in late and wasn’t sure that anyone besides M. actually knew my name. Shit, busted after two songs. I couldn’t believe I was being arrested, my first time. I had known it was possible, but somehow hadn’t thought it would happen.

At the paddy wagon I got my first taste of the chaos that defined the next 30 or so hours of our arrest. The cop couldn’t decide whether to put me in the back of the wagon with everyone else, or in the front, and other cops chimed in both ways. Finally they put me in the front, alone. The back was almost full, and then I watched as they stuffed so many people in that the people standing at the back were almost falling out. Then they took some of them out, while three other young men were put in the front with me. The guy who had been playing tuba with RMO was on the other side of the wagon’s divider from me, and we said hey and made sure the other was ok. Cops put two more in the front benches, so we were now six, and got the back down to ten. Up in front with me was a 17 year old high school student from Pennsylvania (who had been next to me on the street), two white guys in their twenties, all of whom seemed to define themselves as anarchists, a young Mexican guy who I think was more of a general lefty, and a young gay Mexican guy who had been on his way to meet a friend for dinner and gotten swept up in the arrest from the Broadway side. It was really hot in the wagon. I mean hot New York streets hot, plus being crammed in an unventilated metal box packed with bodies. We sat and stood for probably an hour or so, watching them arrest more and more people and straining our shoulders getting our cellphones out of our pockets. I was glad they hadn’t taken them yet; I called Jodi and left a message that I had been arrested and had no idea what was going to happen. It looked like they were going to arrest everyone on the block. Some people’s cuffs were too tight and their hands were purple and swollen. The officer in charge of our van was good about cutting them off and putting looser cuffs on. His name was Singleton, and he turned out to be one of the mellow cops we came across. He was a bit of an ass when two other asshole cops were with him in the front of the van, but most of the time (even when we were being lined up and photographed and searched at central booking with a few asshole cops around) he was respectful and a little helpful. He claimed that it was a mistake that he put the heat on in the van (when the two asshole cops were with him). I didn’t believe him. He said it was crazy for them to be arresting so many people. I believed him.

Sometime after it got dark we were driven over to pier 57 for booking. We got there and after much debate and swearing by the cops, were backed out and taken to central booking. (This turned out to be a real boon to my incarceration; later I saw people with chemical burns from the floor of the pens there, and heard awful stories about conditions there.) Once we got to central booking we waited in the van for 45 minutes while cops tried to figure out how to set up a process for taking so many people in, and then were taken out of the wagon, photographed three times with a Polaroid, lined up, had our bulk possessions taken (which now included cell phones), and marched inside. At bulk possessions the officer who became my “arresting officer” told me that for the police, “our biggest concern is you” and so he wouldn’t talk about what had happened to my drum or any of our instruments. He said my friends probably took it. Right. (Thanks for the “second-best” advice, M.!) Anyway that part, from photos to getting inside took about an hour. The whole time the cops were marveling at how chaotic everything was. Inside we had our cuffs cut off, were given a cursory search, and then were manacled together in 5s, taken to our first cell, and unchained. Eventually there were about 40 of us in the cell; I got there around 11pm by my guess.

The rest of the story would be pretty boring if told accurately, because the experience was boring as hell. For the next 25 hours or so, we sat in cinder block cells with anywhere from 5 to 40 people, either sitting on benches on the wall, standing, or sleeping on the nasty floor with our shoes for pillows and cockroaches crawling around. Every cell was brightly lit by fluorescent lights, regardless of the time of day, and we had no way to see daylight. Every four or five hours (or when we said we were hungry) they’d give us a carton of milk and two sandwiches: 2 pieces of stale mushy white bread from the Rykers Island Bakery with either a slice of bologna, a slice or two of American cheese, or a smear of something resembling peanut butter with honey between them. Also they had a soy-bologna one. They were horrible. Three times we got an apple too, once we got some peaches. I tried not too eat too much, not because I didn’t want to (as horrible as it was, when you’re hungry you don’t mind) but because I didn’t like the idea of getting packed up with cheese and white bread and having to take a dump with 40 people around me on a totally nasty toilet with no door and short sidewalls. The guys who did it had my sympathy. It took about 15 hours before I saw anyone brave it.

Protesters were kept together in cells, outside of the general prison population, until just before arraignment. It was amazing to find out that most of the protesters in central booking had actually been trying not to get arrested; many had been following police orders to march on the sidewalk, and then were netted and arrested. (This was especially true of the marchers from the World Trade Center, who had been told be the police how to have an acceptable march, and then were netted once they went where the police told them.) Singleton had told my wagonfull of people that we were going to be charged with parading without a permit, which made sense, but a lot of people who were arrested on the sidewalk were told they were being charged with obstructing traffic, or other ridiculous charges. They were outraged, and rightly so. So the feeling in the cells was pretty intense, charged with a sense of outrage and injustice and anger at a liberal city using a Republican-controlled police force to round up political demonstrators protesting Bush and the RNC. I’d say about a third of the prisoners were considerably more radical than me, talking about how people shouldn’t vote for Kerry and that anarchy (decision-making without a leader) is a better form of government; of course some of the prisoners were not even protesters, and I think they were sort of wigged out by the unrelenting-leftist-polemic vibe of the cells. I gotta say, by hour 20, I was pretty tired of hearing about the problems with the media and government. I think it was about hour 23 that I started telling jokes for a frickin’ break. It helped a lot.

Suffice it to say, people didn’t sleep much, and were outraged enough by the American political scene to come to NYC even before they got wrongfully arrested, and all the conflicting information about our detainment and how long we’d be arrested and whether the cops could even process us in 48 hours and whether legally we had to be out in 24 or 72 hours, and being moved from cell to cell (most people were moved about 6 or 7 times), and from group to group, it all added up and got pretty stressful. It didn’t take long before I felt like I was getting into prisoner-mind. It’s hard to describe. I talked very little until the last few hours of my arrest, I was very inward and not so social. I could see people working themselves up and struggling against their position of very real powerlessness, and I imagined how that could eat away at positive vibe. I tried to be very careful with my self, and I meditated some, and tried to sleep some and have times feeling alone in the cell. I kept thinking about how a lot of prisoners turn to religion, and I think I would go deep into something like that in the lockup too; I needed that inward focus to not go crazy feeling the powerlessness imposed by the things external to me. Also there were times when we released some tension by kicking around a milk carton or playing quarter-shuffleboard or charades, which helped a lot and kept up group spirit. Whenever people were called from the cell (which at least early prisoner-mind can’t help but think of as progress, rightly or wrongly) the whole group would clap or cheer them, which really impressed me. There was a good spirit of solidarity, if not actual “jail solidarity”. Everyone shared information and calls to the National Lawyers Guild.

By about the 8th or 9th hour of incarceration I got my mug shots done, and then my medical exam (“any injuries or medical conditions?” no. “did you test negative for TB last time you were tested?” uh, yeah. “okay, move along.”) and fingerprinted (for a “non-fingerprintable offense”: what’s up with that, ACLU?). Or maybe that wasn’t the order, I can’t remember, we were moved so much and sleepless and bored and dealing with the same cops/corrections officers so often that it became a blur. I have to say, the cops and corrections officers treated us well for the most part, and I felt bad for them because they were all working double shifts, like 16 or 17 hours straight. There were some assholes, like the guys who put up all the Bush/Cheney signs, especially where you had to look at the wall for your mugshot, but then there were the guys who came through and took them down, too. Many of the officers were interested in talking about the political situation with us, and arguing their points or sometimes finding common ground. That was surprising to me. I had a couple good earnest conversations with some officers. I think many of them respected that we were fighting for what we believe in. But respect for the officers working with us didn’t change the fact that it was totally outrageous that 90% of us were arrested, and that they were taking a long time to process us in order to keep us off the streets while the convention continued.

Around my 24th hour of arrest (still without charges or access to a lawyer or a judge - habeus corpus, anyone?) I was moved with 4 others out of the basement of the building and up to a cell on the 12th floor. For the first time we could see some evening light through the small windows across the hall, and better yet, through the open windows we heard cheering and then yelling: “Let them out! Let them out!” We freaked out, everyone starting screaming we were so happy to get a sign from the outside, and then we immediately got quiet so we could hear. We just listened to the cheering and chanting for a while, and everyone got a little more energy. I’ll never forget that; our prison system is so good at breaking your spirit that in 24 hours we felt so lost. Think of that, and think of how many Americans are and have been incarcerated.

Eventually they started calling us to wait for our interviews with lawyers a little faster – the court had ruled that they had to work faster in light of habeus corpus – and we were moved out individually into pens with the general population. That was a shock. All I can say is, an arraignment pen in Manhattan at midnight is a pretty depressing place to be. It took some serious adjusting from just being in pens with fellow protesters. But as I got over it, I started talking to some of the other guys awaiting arraignment, and ended up having a good time. One young black guy was brought in for lying down on a park bench (him and a middle aged Chinese guy were brought in from the same park) and we had a good time talking about Manhattan and Brooklyn and why we like Brooklyn better. One young Latino from Williamsburg was very interested in talking to a protester from Fresno I was talking to (Michael) about California, and what San Francisco is like, and what Beverly Hills is like. He thought Beverly Hills sounded pretty exciting, until he decided that the women there are probably too high maintenance for him. I think he was right, and I agree with him for me too. He asked what Michael does, and when Michael told him he’s a college professor, he busted up… he imagined for us a scenario where his students ask him how his vacation was: I flew over 51 states all the way to New York City for the first time, and I got busted and spent 36 hours in central booking looking at cockroaches and tile. The Latino guy said that whenever his teachers had asked him about his vacation or anything, he never told them he’d been in jail or in trouble, he’d just say, it was alright, I worked some overtime…

Michael and I shared an amazing moment in this pen, a perfect piece of theater I’ll never forget. In addition to us and the Latino guy and the Chinese guy and a sleeping black guy there was a hippy-looking white guy with dreads and scraggly beard who at first I’d assumed was a protester. Turns out the guy was charged with assaulting three people that night, and was probably schizophrenic. At one point he was pacing on our left, and the Latino dude was softly circling on our right, and out of nowhere he turned to the Latino dude and said, I have some advice for you, stop grabbing your crotch with your hand, it’s disgusting. The Latino dude considered that for a moment and adjusted his dick with his hand, I thought partly to consider what it might look like and partly to piss off the dread dude. Dread dude says, I hate it when men grab their crotch in front of other men, it gives me a heart attack. He keeps pacing. I’m laying down some groundrules in here, he says. Because I have a consigliore. No crotch grabbing. Would you do that in front of your mother? At which point the Latino sort of snaps to attention and faces dread dude and says what did you say? And dread says Nothing. Nothing. I’m your nothing, I’m your nothing. And Latino dude says alright, because see this? (he bangs the bars of the cell) I can’t do nothin’ about this. I can’t do nothin’ about this. And they can’t do nothin’ about me, nothin’ to me in here worse than this.

Believe me, the time and staging was unbelievable. Michael turned to me as it continued to unfold and said, these guys are actors. I was right there with him, and the surreality of the whole experience started to cohere for me into a point and an experience with a distinctive feeling. I realized that I had no idea of time or day or location, except that I didn’t feel that I was anywhere near where I normally am or where I live. I started to feel that there was a prisoner part of me that had a life that was not my life, that didn't live in Brooklyn and have drive a car down East Village streets and listen to Charles Ives. It was surprising and subtle, like some sort of sleight of hand, and profoundly disorienting.

After that everyone was processed except me, and I found out that they lost my papers, and I waited for a couple more hours, with some more characters going through the pen, until finally a lawyer found my papers. He told me that I was being charged with violations, two counts of disorderly conduct and one count of parading without a permit (that part was reasonable), and that he figured they’d give me what they were giving most people, an AVD? VCD? ACD? Whatever the hell it is, it means that if you don’t get into any trouble for six months the charges are dismissed and dropped from your record. Since I had been parading without a permit, I figured this was a reasonable way to go, and I agreed (unfortunately I've since heard that it precludes me from participating in a lawsuit protesting arrest without a warning or opportunity to disperse). Then they forgot about me for a while, and finally came and got me to go before the judge. Before they took me in three cops said to the guy holding me, do you know where Moran is, and I told them I did. They asked me all sorts of questions about me and my arrest and who my arresting officer was, shaking their heads the whole time, and when we finished up storytime they laughed and shook their head, and I said what’s up? And they said oh nothing and left. Then I went out of the pen area and suddenly was in a dark-wood large courtroom with nice lighting and people dressed in suits, as if 5 feet in the other direction there wasn’t cinder block and cockroaches and jail bars with 90 years of paint on them and graffiti all over the place, and I stood beside my lawyer and he said words very quickly after confirming with me that we’d go for AC/DC or whatever it is, and the thin middle-aged female judge with her dark hair pulled back severely looked at me seriously through her glasses and said we’ll let you go now there little junior with the grey hair but you just stay out of trouble now and I turned and walked away and there was Jodi and she had brought me nice things to eat and we left. It was about 4am on Thursday, September 2, 2004.

And that was it, except I found out that some people had picked up our instruments off the street and out of the garbage (nice touch, officers) and have my second-best snare drum.

Coda: I was really lucky. I didn't have to endure a night in standing water and chemicals and oil on the floor of Pier 57. I was among the first arrested on 16th St., and was among the first released. Thursday night I went back to claim my property, and people who had been arrested with me were still getting released, after being held for 50 hours without being charged and without access to a lawyer. In fact, one of them is also named Matthew Moran, is my age, and lives in Brooklyn, just like me (maybe that's why the cops came asking about Moran?). I gave him a ride home; he'd been locked up for 49 hours after going to buy cat food in Union Square, and he was tired. Strange world, huh?

See a movie of the protest posted on

Movie of the crowd moving out of Union Sq, up to arrests.

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