Occupy Wall Street Protester, Arrested and Jailed for 30 Hours, Tells Her Story for the First Time
By Barbara Schneider Reilly,
Posted on October 26, 2011, Printed on October 30, 2011
I spent a weekend in jail.
On Saturday, October 15, I went to
Park to take a closer look at the
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
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
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
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
c 2011 Independent Media Institute. All rights reserved.