Everything Could Be Free

Each additional arrestee meant more strain on the NYPD’s capacity, another extended shift for an arresting officer, another public embarrassment. Lacking speed, strength, or tactical skill, and having nothing better to do for the moment than sit in a jail cell, I resolved to attend protests with the goal of protecting other people from the violence of the cops—and if that meant being arrested, so be it.

The cops called us “bodies”

Photograph by Oliver Hernandez

I decided to join the protests after spending days watching videos of demonstrations in Minneapolis and elsewhere: first the joyous ones of the precinct burning and then the bleak ones, cops shooting people in the face with supposedly nonlethal weapons, gassing trapped crowds, beating the helpless and elderly. In the glass of my phone screen American protest culture seemed to be undergoing a distinct and visible shift. Gone were the large, pointless peaceful protests I had dutifully attended for so long, with their nonthreateningly pro forma police presence, their mostly white crowds, their annoying, Instagrammable signs. Instead a few lootings, projectiles, and arsons had goaded the police into revealing what they always were, a white supremacist occupying force that feared and loathed the people it was supposedly protecting. The streets of American cities were filling up with bewildered people holding up their hands and being repeatedly assaulted, gestures of facile reconciliation rejected with porcine snarls.

Now that the police had revealed their hand, it seemed imperative to challenge their control. Every street they were allowed to clear was a demonstration of their power over us, every burning cop car a pillar of fire leading us to a brighter future. Constitutionally a good bourgeois boy, I was incapable of offering more than moral or financial support to those doing the burning, but I could at least be a body in the street. New York City’s 8 PM curfew was a breakthrough in this regard. Suddenly thousands of us needed to do nothing more than stay outside to be illegalized and subjected to police retaliation. After 8 PM, every protest that remained free in the streets represented the cops’ failure to dominate urban space. Parties of protesters wandered the streets until they either dispersed or were successfully kettled and brutalized by the cops, sending a fresh cadre of arrestees into Central Booking to return the following day.

I don’t think anybody needs another essay about being arrested written by someone for whom getting arrested is an exotic and largely voluntary experience. My hope is that this will be one of hundreds of documents of the current moment of Black rebellion, alongside cell phone videos and analyses by militant scholars like Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor.1 In any case it wasn’t that I intended to get arrested, necessarily. But I didn’t really see how else I could contribute to the struggle. Each additional arrestee meant more strain on the NYPD’s capacity, another extended shift for an arresting officer, another public embarrassment. Lacking speed, strength, or tactical skill, and having nothing better to do for the moment than sit in a jail cell, I resolved to attend protests with the goal of protecting other people from the violence of the cops—and if that meant being arrested, so be it.

I’d seen dozens of vans gathered in the surrounding streets for the approaching denouement. Shortly before 8 PM, the cops pounced. As the kettle tightened, the protest organizers asked white people to move to the front, to be the first line of defense against the batons and pepper spray; they also asked us to put our arms down and take the assault with dignified defiance. Maybe part of the calculation was that it would give us a chance to experience firsthand a form of violence from which white supremacy usually exempts us, and in a moment of extraordinary brutality to bear witness to the ordinary brutality the cops routinely inflict on Black and brown people. I failed at taking a baton to the face, but here, in any case, is my testimony.

I watched through the fogged-up visor of my chemical goggles as the cops dragged the protester in front of me—a lanky white guy—out past their line of bikes and kicked him repeatedly as he lay prone on the ground. My heart sank. On three sides, I was being pushed by other protesters, themselves being goaded into a stampede by cops advancing from the rear; in front of me, pressed against my stomach, was the fat tire of a bike cop’s mountain bike. His face impassive, the bike cop wore a heavy helmet and a suit of armor that seemed designed to terrify. No insignia or badge number was visible. I had two options: move forward, and let the bike cop beat the shit out of me; or sink to the ground, and risk being trampled in the stampede. I chose the second, covering my face with my elbows. Around me people were screaming as the cops attacked. I was still unhurt when somewhere in front of me a cop yelled, “Start taking bodies!” A hand appeared in front of me. I was about to be arrested, but at least I wouldn’t have any broken bones. I felt like a coward.

As I knelt on the asphalt with zipcuffs on my wrists, I thought about how silly it was that I’d hoped to protect anyone from the cops, and how little my resolve meant in the face of an engineered stampede. Strength and speed didn’t really matter: people had fought on the front lines alongside me, had gotten injured while I thought about protecting myself. In the democracy of the truncheon we were all equal subjects, and macho fantasies made no difference. Well, I’d gotten arrested without being beaten, and my arresting officer gave me enough room in my cuffs to move my fingers. Unlike the man in front of me in the paddy wagon, I hadn’t been pepper-sprayed to near-blindness; unlike the man across from me, my head wasn’t broken and my face wasn’t covered in blood. Three others had cuffs that were obviously too tight, and their stoicism quickly gave way to screams of pain; these kinds of restraints, applied for the length of time we were held, could easily cause permanent nerve damage. A young man recounted how a cop had pulled down his mask and spit in his face, possibly a deliberate attempt to infect him with Covid-19—though the frontline cops generally went maskless and, as other protesters said, regarded the pandemic as a hoax.

I began to sense viscerally, and not just abstractly, that the word “violence” as applied by police to their targets was hilariously inadequate as a way of understanding the encounter between cops and people. In this worldview, being pushed onto a bike was a form of violence on the part of the person being pushed, whereas being physically assaulted, deprived of food, water, and bathrooms for nine hours, restrained to the point of permanent nerve damage, deprived of any opportunity to contact the outside world or protect one’s job, torn from children and loved ones—all these things were simply justified retribution. “Sorry, there’s a loss of rights,” said one cop to a woman who was soaking wet from hours in the rain, her hands swelling painfully in her overtight restraints, as she desperately tried to locate her teenage son. (He’d apparently been sent to a precinct across the city, though she was not offered a chance to contact him.)

The cops called us “bodies.” The purpose of a body was to wait, remain docile, and suffer pain and discomfort while making its way through the process. Bodies often complained, but their complaints sounded to the cops like the screams of a chicken in a chicken processing plant: unpleasant, but part of the cost of doing business. Sometimes if the bodies screamed collectively, a momentary improvement in their condition would result, if only to remove the annoyance. “Good cops” treated their bodies with indifference, perhaps even a note of solicitude or regret. Others saw them as burdensome deadweight or opportunities for sadism. One cop lectured us about the importance of Men’s Rights and the inequities of family court, and then interrogated us about who was paying us to protest. Protected by the cage that walled us off in the paddy wagon, he was immune to our ironic jeers. We repaid his indifference with defiance, promising to return the next day, and the next.

Inside the cage, we were all we had. If we wanted to contact the outside world—like calling someone’s mother to wish her a collective happy birthday—we could only do so with a comrade’s concealed cell phone; if we wanted to clean someone’s wounds, we’d have to use whatever water we had on us and manipulate it with our trembling, clumsy ziptied hands. Differences in our circumstances and our physical condition faded before the shared reality of being bodies in a cage. That night I met dozens of bodies. We were Black, Asian, Latinx, and white; trans and cis; high school dropouts and graduate students. We were pandemic America: a laid-off theater seamstress who had been recruited to sew masks until the money for those ran out too; a worker at a mask factory desperate to be released so she wouldn’t have to take off work; a college graduate facing a future shaped like a void; unemployed twentysomethings with nothing left to do but fight cops in the street. It wasn’t that these differences no longer mattered, that we had ceased to “see race” or become a seamless proletarian mass. It was that we were all there for the same reason, a dream built of exhaustion and desperation.

Abolishing cops was not a goal we spelled out with revolutionary élan or theoretical comprehensiveness. These were not seasoned left-communists with well-developed views on Kronstadt and the Spanish Civil War. In the paddy wagon, an impassioned defense of anarchism and its dismantling of all hierarchies was followed by a wistful recounting of Cuba’s achievements in public health; a critique of Hong Kong protesters was moderated by an admission that there was, after all, much to learn from their tactics; modest yet apparently unattainable personal aspirations mingled with traumatic tales of psych wards and difficult gender transitions. These young people—I, 33, was among the oldest of the group—had long ago lost hope of anything changing in America. Aimed squarely at the most obvious of many interlocking evils, the rebellion was not for so much as against. And yet it was a rebellion. We had nothing left but to show up.

I was in the paddy wagon for four hours, our numbers gradually dwindling as people were taken off by their arresting officers. For three more hours I stood in line for booking in Queens, still ziptied, in the pouring rain. Then Queens turned out to be full, and I went to Brooklyn, where I waited for two more hours. Only when they put me in a holding cell were my hands untied and I was allowed to drink water and use the bathroom. There was no food, though others reported being issued the moldy sandwiches the NYPD seems to reserve for such occasions. At every turn I met people who had been brutalized by police, piecing together new elements of the collective experience of the kettle I’d been in. I heard that a woman had gone into labor during the attack, a story that seemed so improbable I believed it immediately; that another woman’s leg had audibly snapped; that a third woman had been left under the immobilized bodies of several others. I met a man wearing a bloody bandage who had tried to negotiate with police in Brooklyn and had been clubbed in the head from behind so hard he had to be taken to a hospital before being booked. He still thought we needed more conversations with cops.

In my final six hours I was alone in the holding cell. This anonymous cinderblock structure, like the other enclosures I passed through, was in every way the opposite of the slick, glass-and-metal façade of the neoliberal city. Dust spilled from every corner of its pale yellow walls. I had nothing to do but puzzle out decades of accumulated scratchitti, the short and simple annals of people whose lives had been irreparably touched by the prison system. Eventually, I was released with a summons for unlawful assembly. Outside the court there was a squad of elated, exhilaratingly sympathetic jail support volunteers and legal observers—people who’d gone through the same process or wanted to help others who had, who showed up day after day to greet arrestees as they emerged from the belly of the beast. They had tables so laden with food, drinks, cigarettes, and medical supplies they looked like they were about to overflow. Everything was free. Everything could be free.

  1. https://www.newyorker.com/news/our-columnists/how-do-we-change-america 

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