24 Hours in the Clink

What a sad city we live in -- run by bullies. I would like to draw attention to a little remarked result of the Bloomberg administration's relentlessly enforced mass criminalization of minority neighborhoods -- the shocking, obsessive and official brutalization of black women in New York City.

Beyond the bright lights, beyond Occupy Wall Street, the police control of minority neighborhoods has no parallel in modern "democracy." As is widely known, the number of police stop and frisks has soared from 97,000 in 2002 to 600,000 this year -- up from 500,000 just last year. Considerable press coverage has rightly focused on the impact of obsessive frisking on minority men, especially young black men.

It is not unusual now for them to report being stopped 20 or more times a year; the stops and frisks, however, are the forefront of an overall obsession with criminalizing minority neighborhoods. It is clear that Bloomberg, after his first re-election, decided on an outright policy of re-increasing misdemeanor arrests -- which had been steadily dropping along with major arrests, as crime, itself, dropped. This policy hardly meant there were more minor transgressions occurring in the city.

What it means is that many "charges" that could easily be handled with a summons or desk ticket now impose an arrest that demands arraignment and "processing" through New York's criminal "justice" system. The number of misdemeanor arrests rose from 353,649 in 2005 to 391,892 in 2010; for its minority citizens, New York City's having the lowest crime rates in decades just meant that more pretexts would be found to arrest more of them.

As I saw only too well during a recent 24 hour detainment of my own, close encounters with New York's criminal "justice" system provide the ultimate perspective on how far we have sunk. (Briefly, I was in jail after the city council speaker had me removed from the city council when I tried to point out the council's failure to undertake proper oversight of the city's federal AIDS funding -- a failure which has seen some 60 percent of the federal millions for community-based AIDS services contracted to Manhattan agencies while 67 percent of the poor people with AIDS these funds are intended for live in the Bronx and Brooklyn.)

Whatever the claimed reasons for arrests, the salient lesson of passage through New York City's utterly filthy lock-ups and holding cells is that the constant seizure, routinely unprovoked, of black women on New York City streets is now absolute policy. There is no way to have some 400,000 "good," justified arrests a year in any event and when that amount of police action is focused on selected neighborhoods there is no way to stay out of its path. The mother dashing next door to retrieve a teen who hasn't come home on time, the housewife out buying a cake for dinner, even the young working woman asleep at home in her bed -- all are subject to seizure any time, and they will mostly be black almost all the time.

Typically after arrest, it takes 24 hours to move from the precinct cell to the borough processing center -- located in Manhattan in the gloomy long corridors of a long basement underneath 100 Centre Street -- to holding cells, until finally at last, reaching the judge and an arraignment.

Naturally during this process -- where the constant flicker of lit fluorescent bulbs mocks the idea of sleep -- women talk about why they are there. My first holding cell, arrived at about 1 a.m. in the morning after being locked in a precinct cell for some nine hours, held some 20 women and two mats, a ratio that left a dirty floor as the main space for trying to sleep. About half the women there were from Occupy Wall Street. (This was after their Goldman Sucks action, a few weeks before the mass removal.) The rest were all black, except for a few Hispanic women, myself and another white woman -- the sole person present clearly contending with a drug problem. The Occupy Wall Street women presented a nice picture of diversity in contrast to the racially focused arrests brought forth by the official "justice" system.

After a few hours of fitful, fluorescent interrupted sleep, we were taken, around 4 a.m., to another holding cell, one of several along a corridor leading toward the court and judge, who could finally arraign and release us for the time being. Most of us wouldn't get to the court for another 10 to 12 hours. Some had already been in process since early the previous morning. The Occupy Wall Street women were taken somewhere else -- I don't know why -- but even with private lawyers at the standby, I saw some of them again hours later and it was clear they could not move through the system either. The system was overwhelmed; and could not keep up with the rule that those jailed after an arrest have to be arraigned by a judge within 24 hours. A sign said we would be fed at 4 a.m., 12 p.m. and, as I recall, 5 o'clock but that didn't happen. Most noxious was the level of cockroaches and the fact that you were being held on an open corridor, where both male guards and male prisoners passed, and therefore were desperately hoping not to have to use the cell toilet, which was only partly blocked from view.

The majority of charges that kept women jailed in these circumstances, as I said, were minor misdemeanors that could be addressed through desk tickets -- drinking beer outside, turnstile jumping, and so forth. From long working in the South Bronx, I was already more than aware that minority women are not exempt from the constant police dragnet of their neighborhoods. One especially sad arrest that came to my attention last year was that of the sister of an employee who lived with her family in public housing. When her teen age daughter did not return from visiting another building at her appointed curfew, the mother went out to retrieve her. Grabbed by the police as she left her building, with the shouted demand "Where's the drugs? Where's the drugs?," she not unnaturally was startled and upset which resulted in her arrest for resisting arrest. I have often thought what that means -- you are trying to raise your children in a difficult atmosphere, keep your teen to a curfew, and your responsible motherly efforts simply result in arrest.

Seeing the concentration of cases like this in a holding cell was quite startling. Two cases particularly struck me. One was a woman who had just bought a cheese cake -- "It cost $13," she said disconsolately -- when she was grabbed by police on the street with the same shouted demand --"Where's the drugs?" Where's the drugs?" She didn't have any drugs but was arrested for having half a marijuana pipe in her purse. The other was a sweet young woman in her early 20s. The police had a warrant charging her brother with dealing marijuana. They burst into the apartment at 4:30 am -- she'd awoken to a gun pointed at her forehead and been pulled naked out of bed. In addition to arresting the brother for whom they had a warrant, evidently the police decided to take in the whole family, using whatever charges seemed handy. She, like her mother and father, for instance, was charged with possessing an imitation gun. "Our nephew's paintball set," she said, in dazed wonder.

What went along with these often flimsy charges was something else striking -- nearly all these women were employed or, reflecting our economic descent, had been working and were now on unemployment. The woman, now in her second day of jail for drinking a beer, was very neatly dressed and wearing pearls. As far as I could tell, only one, a homeless woman charged with taking a hat and pair of gloves from a discount store, might have been on public assistance. Others were terribly worried about losing their employment, especially the young woman charged with illegal imitation gun possession based on a paintball set in the apartment. She was a tutor for pre-school children at a large youth program. Even in the grimy holding cell, her face lit to an energetic smile as she described her work. "I love my job!" she kept repeating. "I love my job!" But then, distraught, "I hope I don't lose my job. I haven't been able to call in since 4:30 a.m. yesterday and that's two days I haven't called in. I'm supposed to call in."

The sense of obsession that drives these arrests is deeply unsettling. It's well researched that misdemeanor arrests have scant impact on real crime because most people involved in misdemeanors don't commit major crimes. The police focus that reduces crime -- surprise -- is arresting major criminals. An interesting New York Post article last year suggested that the Bloomberg Administration's "clearance rate" for murders, or rate of murders for which an arrest has occurred, is tumbling in part because processing misdemeanors has diverted so many police personnel. The financial cost to an almost bankrupt city is huge. The Mayor has told us we "can't afford" Occupy Wall Street which, before its big bust-up, had cost some $3.5 million, mainly for policing. But, at an estimated cost of $1,500 to $2,000 each, even taking misdemeanor arrests back to 2005 levels, much less the levels that other Western nations consider quite adequate, would save the city $60 to $75 million a year.

We all know the historic vulnerability of black women in the United States; yet here, in the 21st century, in America's golden, bright city, even those who have managed to get employed, those trying so hard to raise their children right -- usually single-handedly -- could find themselves under assault from their own government any time they stepped out the door. Actually, they don't have to step outside. A lovely young woman, giggly happy with her first real job, had found that, in New York City, she wasn't safe in her own bed.

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