Breaking into jail - a first time for everything
On Tuesday, Sept. 29th, the Private Health Insurance Must Go! coalition held two demonstrations targeting Aetna*: the first was a civil disobedience action targeting in which 17 people were arrested for occupying their office building; and the second was an afternoon rally with around 200 people marching from Bristol-Meyers Squibb (a pharmaceutical company whose medication was prohibitively expensive) to Aetna.
As PHIMG began organizing these actions, a national coalition called Mobilize for Healthcare had developed in an attempt to coordinate similar civil disobedience actions around the country (check their website for the other upcoming actions in other cities around the country in October). The hope was that the NYC action will help inspire a series of escalating actions to move the single-payer movement front and center in the national healthcare debates. This, at least, seems to have worked well. I've posted another article about the other protests since then, but here i'm just gonna comment on my first experience under state custody.
Once we were handcuffed and in the wagons, we began our long (about 27 hours!!) experience under state custody. Basically, state custody involved getting yelled at, waiting, waiting, getting yelled at, being threatened, waiting, being yelled at and then waiting some more. First we waited at a precinct, not knowing whether they'd release us from there or if they'd send us to 'central booking' to appear in front of a judge. In the precinct (somewhere around the Manhattan bridge I think), we were mostly alone (though had the company of a few people arrested for such egregious offenses as selling pirated DVDs on the street or having over-due parking tickets). we spent most of the next 11 hours singing, playing word games (like charades), telling stories and talking politics. The other folks I got arrested with were mostly involved in ACT-UP in the 80s and 90s, taking over government buildings and blocking streets to get HIV/AIDS treatments developed and made available. finally, we got some McDonalds burgers (the NYPD apparently has some arrangement with them and other quality food providers), felt sick, and were moved to 'central booking' for the second half of our ordeal.
Central Booking is at 100 Center Street, and it's the main jail for anyone arrested in Manhattan who is going before a judge (I think the max you can stay there is like 4 days; after which you typically get sent to Rikers Island, according to other prisoners). the big difference between the precinct and central booking (which is affectionately referred to as 'the tombs') is that it is run by the Department of Corrections. These friendly public servants were way more obnoxious, threatening and generally brutal than the NYPD (yeah, I didn't know it was possible either!). After about 5 hours we were moved from one cell to another (they do that sort of seemingly random shit all the time, just for kicks, apparently), we had this one corrections officer literally tell a group of 35 of us that: "You will follow all of my directions, and if you so much as step too far to one side or the other, physical force will be used to ensure your compliance. You have the right to defend yourself and fight back as you wish, but know that we all wear black gloves simply to help us fuck you up, and you will not win any fight. There are no cameras here, and no one to scream to for help. No one will complain and you will simply be fucked up until we feel like stopping. We wear these boots to smash your face; straight 'boot therapy' we call it." Sweet guy, eh?
We stayed in central booking for about another 15 hours until we finally saw our lawyer and got in front of the judge. Lawyer said he's hoping the judge would offer an Adjournment Contemplating Dismissal (an ACD: basically, we're let go and as long as we're not arrested again for 6 months, the arrest record disappears). However, judge didn't offer that, and said something about 3 days of community service and we were given a court date in Dec. Lawyer said he's going to argue for the ACD, and we may not even have to go back to court at all, but in any case, it won't be anything more than a little community service and even that is unlikely. The whole court thing took about 5 min, and i was out around 11:30am on Wednesday (some of the women didn't get out till later in the afternoon, however).
Before wrapping up, however, I have to say that despite being relatively familiar with how fucked up the criminal injustice system is, this experience really helped me understand it in a lot more depth. for example, probably at least 3/4 of the other prisoners were arrested on 'quality of life' charges (like personal-use quanitity drug possession and selling pirated DVDs), with a significant number of them possibly being completely fabricated (like an officer claiming to have seen you fail to pay a fare in the subway, despite a station attendant verifying that you did). Also, of about 75 other prisoners we saw in the tombs, only one other guy (besides half of our group of 6 men) was white, and he was picked up for something like drunk driving. A few concluding thoughts: the injustice system is about forcing society to accept a huge 'civil' policing system that can invade your life at any time, and this is justified largely by focusing on 'quality of life' issues (oh, and of course terrorism); also, in order to maintain itself, the system needs to be arresting people all the time, and so when a 'collar' is needed (explained to us as a cop needing another prisoner for 'his quota'), it's people of color who serve this purpose.
Everyone (including other prisoners and officers) was clear, however, that we were kinda like tourists: we actually had to try to get arrested in order to get to jail, we were with friends, we had legal support before, during and after our imprisonment, and we knew that we'd get out with about a day or so (i.e. the action was planned with specific knowledge of the likely legal implications). So, my experience was way easier from that of the others who did not try to break into jail, but were victims of a giant fucked up mess.