Occupy prison: an (old!) woman’s story

This story hit close to home. The author is “70 plus years old.” I’m only 68, and have no intention of spending the weekend in jail, especially under conditions akin to medieval torture. Barbara Schneider Reilly didn’t intend to get arrested, either.

Thanks to alterneg.org.

An AlterNet exclusive: Manhandled, arrested, cuffed, searched, and locked away in the Tombs, this is her uncensored story, in her own words.

October 26, 2011

by Barbara Schneider Reilly|

Photo Credit: OccupyWallSt/YouTube

I spent a weekend in jail.

On Saturday, October 15, I went to Washington Square Park to take a closer look at the Occupy Wall Street movement. There were many young people who could be my children or rather grandchildren, but many older people, too, all generations united, it seemed, under the banner: “We are the 99 percent.”

Different groups decided to go to a bank. I joined one that went to Citibank at La Guardia Place and Bleecker Street. As we entered, there were a couple of customers and a few banktellers inside. A teach-in ensued. The story the students told, surprisingly calmly and politely, was shocking.

“I am $100,000 in debt. The costs Citibank charges me go up and up. I do not know how I can repay it. I find it deeply irresponsible that Citibank makes the kind of profit they do from our indebtedness.”

Another student said, “I’m not $100,000 in debt, only $30,000. So far. And I still have two years to go. This kind of profit-taking cannot go on. We are here to say we will not tolerate it. We need fundamental change.”

And so it went. After we were told to take our action outside, some people stayed and continued to tell their stories.

I, by far the oldest, had not come to get arrested, but as we tried to leave, several enormous undercover cops in sweatshirts and jeans appeared, blocked the exits and quite literally pushed us back into the bank. One giant in particular seemed to have it in for me, saying, “Oh no, you’re not leaving!” his right arm shoving me. Ready to pounce on us, they made leaving the bank impossible. Two of the student participants had come to close their bank accounts; customers in every sense. They, too, were to be arrested. Police officers in white shirts seemed to swarm from everywhere. They rushed into the bank and told us we were being arrested. At no point was there a warning from anyone in authority offering a chance to leave without being arrested, As they handcuffed us, we did not anticipate the next 30 hours that was in store for us.

The ride to Central Booking in the paddywagon was an ominous beginning. Either New York’s potholes are beyond repair or the shock absorbers of that car were non-existent. With our wrists handcuffed behind our back, there was no way to hold on to anything as we were thrown off our seats into the air during that ride in hell. After hours of “booking procedures” — standing in line, being handcuffed, getting uncuffed, backpacks, wallets, phones and any other object, even a single tissue, taken from us, our names shouted as we were inspected and lined up spread-eagled across a wall – we were finally led into three cells, allowed for the first time to sit down. It was early evening by now but we were not allowed an extra piece of clothing for the cold, just a T-shirt or whatever first layer of clothing we wore.

During an inordinately lengthy fingerprinting procedure, with the male officers operating the machines and the female officers locking and unlocking our cells as we were called out one by one, it sometimes seemed the police outnumbered us. But still, it took what seemed like hours.

Barely back in our cells, we were taken out again, handcuffed again, this time with a chain between our cuffs, and led “upstairs.” But there had been some mistake. A female officer told “our” officer that, no, she couldn’t process us. Some paperwork was missing, some order, some stamp. Time to cuff us again and go down the stairs back into our cells. How many more instances of handcuffing, uncuffing, leading us up and down stairs and long hallways, waiting, returning, repeating what seemed nonsensical procedures and reversals then followed I do not know and did not count. But a deep sense of disorganization, competence fighting incompetence, if not chaos, reigned. It seemed as if, in the name of bureaucratic rules and regulations, in the name of “security,” we were witnessing a dysfunctional institution and people not used to daylight shining in; people generally accountable to no one but themselves.

Finally, we were driven to the Tombs. We landed in a large collective prison cell; there were 11 of us plus an Indian woman with her own sad story and two run-down black women on crack or some other drug who occupied the only three mattresses in that medieval cell, and whose intermittent yells, shouting, and appalling screams made rest, let alone sleep impossible. We spent many hours on extremely narrow, hard benches, no blankets, with pieces of dry bread and a dry piece of cheese or peanut butter for food. The young women, all in their early 20s, somehow managed to bend themselves into shape to catch an hour of sleep here and there. For my 70-plus-years-old bones and K., a 68-year-old lifelong environmental activist, it was tough going.

The experience was depressing in every way. All of us could see the irrationality, the nearly obscene bureaucratic time, energy and money spent on our (probably illegal) arrest. During that constant cycle of being cuffed and uncuffed at every step and during each transfer, some of us couldn’t help feeling that the 9/11 terrorists have indeed won. The culture in this institution seemed a noxious mix of breathtaking incompetence, disorganization and open or just-beneath-the-surface-always-present brutality. Hardly a verbal communication without harsh and loud shouting and orders to stand here, move there, stop doing this or that.

Searching our bags and moving our belongings somewhere else took an inordinate amount of time. Then everyone’s IDs had to be returned for the next step in the “arresting process.” Which meant a new search by the female officers for everyone’s ID; all the bags and wallets had to be painstakingly searched a second or third time. As it turned out, my ID had somehow been overlooked. Or rather, the officer responsible for it couldn’t be found. Again, everyone had to be uncuffed, led down the stairs, locked into their cells until the officer who had my ID was found. Low-level chaos is the only word to describe it.

During the long, cold night in the Tombs, at some point we asked a female officer if we could have some blankets. “We have no blankets.” Some mattresses since we were 12 or so people? “We have no more mattresses.” Some change in exchange for dollar bills so we could call parents and loved ones? (The one public telephone in the cell would only take coins.) “It’s against regulations.” Some soap? “Maybe we’ll come up with some soap.” After no, no, no to every reasonable request, we wound up with a small jar of soap. Distressing is hardly the word for a culture of willful neglect and the exercise of what power those officers held over us for those 30 hours.

But there were a few — mostly black cops — who, as we were transferred from point A to point B, told us openly, “We support you. If I could, I’d participate in what you’re doing.”

The initial charges of criminal trespass were finally reduced by the district attorney to disorderly conduct, with the invaluable help of our lawyers from the National Lawyers Guild. When we were finally released, we were greeted like heroes from people in the Occupy Wall Street movement standing in front of the huge 100 Center Street Building. They offered us hats against the cold, dried apricots, chocolate bars, tampons, water, self-rolled cigarettes. It was really touching.

But even the young women were seriously exhausted, physically and mentally burnt out. Perhaps I and my older compatriot were better prepared, at least psychologically. But by and large these young women were very impressive. After this dismal experience no one even considered leaving the movement. No hues and cries. Society must be changed. They insist on it, and, I hope, will continue to insist — and, not withstanding the difficulties ahead, fight for it.

Barbara Schneider Reilly is a playwright, teacher and citizen (of New York and Berlin).

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