What happens after you’re arrested at a protest in New York.

I just got back from 12 hours in NYPD holding. If I can get arrested (with all of my white privilege and generally perceived non-threatening stature), so can anybody. In total over 1,000 people protested yesterday in New York, and over 120 were arrested. Here’s what that experience entailed for me:

1 — Protest: Freddie Gray protestors passed our office, marching on Broadway. I decided I should put my money where my mouth is and go out and join them.

View of the protests from my office window before I came down to join.

2 — Arrests: There had been police along the side of the street watching as we marched, but we soon came upon a head-on police blockade. Police started randomly singling people out to arrest. An officer pointed at me and another grabbed my arms and told me not to resist. My arrest was fairly uneventful — nobody slammed me into the ground or a car, but that was happening to most everyone else except me.

3 — Patrol Wagon: Those who were arrested were cuffed and piled into large armored patrol wagons. In our vehicle, men were all together in the back. Women were in single cells or double cells. We waited in the vehicle for over 2 hours without moving until they had filled it to their liking (we ended up with 12 people). The last two people who were arrested were not even part of the protests, they were just walking alongside. Several people had been slammed hard and were feeling faint-headed, or had cuffs tightened to the point of loss of circulation and swelling/color change in their hands.

Technology side-story: My phone was confiscated, but it was being held nearby. I was wearing an Apple Watch for product testing, and was able to send Lian a text message over the watch (the whole time we were held I was not allowed a phone call or any contact otherwise). I somehow doubt that this particular use case is one that Apple will promote, but it was the most compelling one I’ve found so far…

This is the closest image I could find to the type of patrol wagon we were in.

4 — Rough Riding / Police Snapchat: They raced the patrol wagons down the West Side Highway with a full police escort to 1 Police Plaza. There were several unnecessary U-turns and other sharp turns along the way. We were not belted in, and couldn’t brace ourselves against anything because our hands were cuffed. The police officers in the front of the wagon were taking selfie videos of the crazy race-car style driving and posting to Snapchat stories that they shared with each other and boasted about openly in front of us, laughing.

5 — Intake: Through talking with my arresting officer I learned that they had called in officers from all precincts to cover the protests, and that all of the “perps” (as we were referred to) were to be held at 1 Police Plaza instead of the officers’ normal precincts. At 1 Police Plaza, we were uncuffed and our belongings taken. We waited in line outside in the cold for them to fill out some rudimentary paperwork (name, address, birthdate). We were then shuffled over to take the world’s most awkward couples’ photo — this involved each person who had been arrested standing side by side very closely next to their arresting officer. I hope I am able to gain access to a copy of this photo someday, as it was truly a gem.

Aerial view of 1 Police Plaza. I believe we were held in the single story area here at the left edge of the building, but not sure. Image via Civic Center Residents Coalition.

6 — Holding Area: After intake, we were processed into two different holding areas. The mens’ holding area was one giant pen with at least 80 men all crammed together and limited seating. The women’s holding area consisted of a row of small cells each about 5' x 8' in size with a metal bench and a toilet. Each cell had 4–5 women in it. I’ll also note that everyone was sorted based on the gender on their ID, so there was at least one transgender woman in the men’s pen, and at least two transgender men in the women’s cells. Before we went into the cells they invasively patted each of us down and made us remove all strings from our clothing (including shoelaces, as well as the decorative laces on my jacket).

This is a similar layout to the holding cell we were in. Ours was about 20% bigger, and held 4–5 people. I wasn’t able to find any images of real NYPD holding cells. Image via SDM.

7 — Waiting Game: By this point it had been over 3 hours since I had been arrested. I didn’t see my arresting officer or get any explanation of the next steps at this point, or for the next 7 hours. I was not read my rights, was not allowed to make a phone call, and was not told what I was being charged with. The same for all of the other people in the women’s cells. Luckily, one of the people in my cell was a Legal Observer with a lot of knowledge of the system, and they gave us a bit of an understanding of what might happen (although it was their first time being arrested personally). Eventually we were offered stale cheese sandwiches, milk, and water. Nobody was really able to finish their sandwiches, but we found that the cheese stuck really well to the walls of the cell. To kill time, we made up a game where we would guess how long a particular piece of cheese would take before it fell off the wall. We also tried to take turns sleeping on the bench but that didn’t go very well as it was super loud, very chilly, starkly bright, and the metal bench was designed to be cold and uncomfortable. There was a lot of singing and some nice conversations, but there were also some very distressed people and a lot of shouting. We all resolved to stay in touch over social media via the hashtag #‎drycrustnypd . I don’t think anyone has used it yet, but who knows when people are actually getting their belongings back and arriving home.

8 — Charges: Everyone was pretty much there for the same reason (pulled randomly from the protest), but the charges were very different. We started to figure out that the two options were either that you received a desk appearance ticket for a “violation” and released, or that you will be charged with a crime, processed (fingerprinted and have a mugshot taken), and sent to Central Booking. Obviously I don’t know what happened in each person’s actual arrest, but I do know that the criminal charges overwhelmingly fell to people of color and those with more masculine gender presentations. If you are sent to Central Booking, not only did that mean you were facing criminal charges and you could also expect another 6+ hours going through the system that day, but it also meant that all of your belongings that were taken when you arrived would be entered into the system and you would not be able to retrieve them until a later date. This was super distressing for a lot of people, as those belongings usually included wallet, phone, and keys. So after you are done at Central Booking, you are basically left with no possessions or money, and no way to get into your home or contact anyone.

Intake at Central Booking, where people with a criminal charge are sent after holding. Image via nychinatown.org

9 — Bizarre Buddy System: What I also didn’t realize is that each person’s arresting officer had to personally stay and oversee their paperwork processing. So basically for every one of the 120+ of us in holding, there was also a cop who was waiting there too, being paid overtime and trying to get our paperwork processed so that they could go home. Once I realized this I started to get a bit nervous, as one of the processing officers had said something to my arresting officer about it being OK for her to go after I was in the cell, and I had not seen her for about 7 hours since. Was anyone in the station still aware I was there? This fear was compounded by the fact that another officer came by to do a headcount based on a huge hand-written list she had, and was not able to find my name for a few minutes — in the end it turned out she was just spelling it wrong. Finally I got someone’s attention to ask for my arresting officer, and to my relief she came to the cell about an hour later. She told me that she was almost done with my paperwork, but that the entire time we’d been there they had been processing the paperwork through their manual system for the other 100+ people who had been arrested and gone through intake before me. Of course sitting in the patrol wagon for 3 hours before we arrived hadn’t helped with our order in the queue.

10 — Release: After about 11 hours total from my arrest, my arresting officer came back to the cell to start my release procedure, which took about another hour of paperwork and waiting in lines. Almost all of the men I was brought in with were still in the pen when I passed by; I think they would have at least had another few hours on top of the processing time for the women. I finally saw some paperwork with what they were charging me with — I was given a desk appearance ticket for a traffic obstruction violation, and thankfully not any criminal charges. My arresting officer walked me out the door and down the street past the barricade, where there were volunteers from New York Lawyers Guild waiting to provide information on legal resources, as well as donuts and coffee. After 12 hours from my arrest I was finally out the door of the facility. I was never read my rights, or given any access to communication to inform the outside world where I was. I took a cab home.

Final Thoughts:

Going through this process shows me just how disruptive it could be to the life of someone without my level of privilege. Based on the discretion of a police officer in the moment they are making the arrest, people are detained with no access to outside communication and without a clear explanation of what they are being charged with and what the next steps will be. They are held in what can be a very dehumanizing environment. You are forced to use the restroom in very close proximity to your cellmates and in front of an open hallway. There is no comfortable way to sit or stand for any period of time in the small space. Some officers make derogatory comments about “perps” and their physical appearance or gender presentation, or just generally ignore you and talk amongst themselves while boasting on social media about the arrests they just made. If you have medicine in your bag they will not allow you to take it — if you want to take medicine you have to be sent to a correctional facility hospital, as they don’t trust the labelled contents of your medication to be accurate. And that’s not even getting into situations in which people are interrogated without access to a lawyer, which thankfully did not happen to any of us as far as I’m aware. Apparently holding people this way (without having their rights read, access to a phone call, or being charged with anything) is legal for up to 24 hours.

Can you imagine getting randomly nabbed by a cop and just completely dropping off the face of the earth for a full day without anyone knowing what’s up? What consequences would this have for school, a job, or a job search? For childcare or other dependents? What if you are sent to Central Booking with criminal charges, and in all of the anxiety you feel from being held you are willing to take a plea deal just to get out of the system’s clutches and get home? That’s how people end up with criminal records over negligible incidents, and makes it harder for them to climb out of a cycle of poverty and incarceration that’s prevalent in a lot of communities.

For someone like me, an arrest like this is one night of inconvenience and discomfort. For the people who are the ones usually getting arrested, it can destroy hard-earned progress in building their lives, and it can paint that person with the stigma of criminalization. And once someone is branded as a criminal, it’s a lot easier to justify treating them as less than human. History and current events make that alarmingly clear.

(Reposted from my Facebook status that I wrote just after getting out yesterday.)

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