Bronx jails: Police power, presumptions of guilt
by Steve Homan
[ opinion - september 12 ]
Horror compared to freedom is now the trend in the United States. Turning away from a police officer and tensing compared to saying, “Hello.” A police state compared to a nation built on laws. The difference is horrifying (and much more than words on paper) when you experience it like my friend Bob did recently. Not at Gitmo or Bagram, but in New York City.
It’s what North Korean and Chinese citizens face each day - the sudden “disappearing” of an innocent man into the system’s bowels without his family’s knowledge. Thus not just that man, but his family and friends are terrorized at once. One false arrest can terrorize dozens, if not hundreds or thousands, of people.
The US justice system is based on someone being presumed innocent until proved guilty. The rationale given is that it is better to let a thousand guilty people go than to punish an innocent man. Sensible.
We all know that this is no longer true. It is distant history since Bush-Cheney’s shredding of the Constitution brought on indefinite detentions of people who were just in the wrong place at the wrong time. Like sheep hypnotized by the 20-something and the 30-something bubbleheads of mainstream corporate media, we’ve certainly accepted it for fellow homo sapiens who have brown skin. See Guantanamo Bay.
As the power of the presidency escalates to include assassinations of US citizens without any evidentiary standards, so have the powers of his henchmen. Hitler subconsciously wanted to use the Jews as scapegoats for his insecurities from his brutal childhood. Now we accept using any middle- to lower-class person - especially of non-white skin - as a scapegoat for our insecurities about losing our empire or having another “sheepherder” kill 3,000 money-crazed capitalist pigs as Bin Laden did on 9/11. Absurd.
Bush-Cheney had their “brownshirted” men and women in place with Cheney’s own intelligence agency and secret meetings shortly after the 2000 election, and their General Rommel in place in the form of Donald Rumsfeld in the Defense Department.
Obama continues to put his own henchmen in place. See the sheep in Congress (see the lobbyists running Congress) and, more specifically, see his militarization of North American for the first time in US history with NorthCOM, which has 50,000 battle-tested US troops encamped in northern states at his beck-and-call at a moment’s notice. Lately, especially with the passage of the Arizona state law that empowers state police forces to profile people of non-white skin, this is getting scary. Whoops! Terrifying.
Placing the US military forces within North America goes against laws drawn up by our founding fathers. Federal forces essentially directing and using local police in Arizona and in New York City clenches a Nazi-like fist tighter and tighter around the innocent, hardworking average Joes and Janes - the sheep, even the white sheep. Since 9/11, an average New Yorker has been willing to gamble that he or she won’t have an arm blown off by an explosive-laden van in Times Square. The possibilities are too small. He or she can close the door to that knowledge and put it waaay back into the recesses of their minds.
Now, however, let’s say you’re like my friend, let’s call him, Bob, an innocent “good German (a sheep)” who recently tried to buy some candy bar at a store in the Bronx. Bob is white so he was carrying a big pocketknife that required two hands to open (making it legal in New York state and virtually useless in any potential fight), but he had thought it might have helped him bluff his way out when or if someone tried to rob him on the mean streets. As he laid it on the counter to get his money out of his pants pocket to buy some candy, the store detective grabbed it saying it was a “gravity knife,” which is illegal because it can be opened with one hand and used as a weapon. The store dick called the police. A glittering squad car screeched to the front of the store. Without even trying to open the knife, the cops - who admittedly have the toughest job in the world and are underpaid for it - termed it a “gravity knife” and charged Bob with criminal possession of a weapon.
No questions. No comments. Handcuffs were slapped on Bob, who had no prior conflicts with police in his four decades of life. And then the “perp walk,” designed to humiliate the red-faced Bob and intimidate store customers, took place to the squad car. Bob, who had had surgery which had left deep bedsore scars on the outside of each ankle and a lost tendon in each foot, was pushed in. There was no room for anyone’s feet on the floor of the backseat unless you were two years old. The squad officers had pushed the front seats as far back as they could go, to give themselves as much comfort as possible. Bob’s foot got caught in the tiny floor space, wrenching his scars and missing tendons with each car movement. He lay ignominiously on his left side, not allowed to sit upright like a man. Already guilty.
The cops drove over the speed limit and used their siren to avoid having to use the correct lanes or stop at red lights.
Meanwhile, Bob, as he was thrown back and forth, sank inch by inch into shock: “What did I do? Do I look like somebody else? It can’t be the knife - unless, since 9/11, they’ve outlawed pocketknives? Maybe I’m on the terrorist hit list because of the progressive rants I go on?” The shock sank in further. Bob’s blood ran cold. His knees started to shake.
At the courthouse for the arraignment, the shock became nearly complete: “They’re not going to let me go are they?” Still no conversation with them. No “CPR” as the squad car advertizes: “Courtesy, Professionalism, Respect.”
Bob was run through a rabbit’s maze of jail-bar-walled corridors and pushed into a 10-foot by 10-foot room with 19 other men. Three benches. Three men were lying on the roach- and cheese sandwich-laden floor under the benches. Others sat. Most stood. Bob stood on his swelling feet and ankles.
Two hours had passed since he had been shoved into the squad car. Finally, through a four-inch by four-inch hole in a plastic barrier, a woman officer asked if he was taking any medication. He said, “Yes. I’ve been on anti-anxiety medication, Xanax, for 20 years, Prozac, and heart medication because my heart isn’t strong enough to get blood to my head all the time.”
“Oh,” she said, scribbling illegible notes. “Do you want me to call your wife?”
“Yes. Please. As soon as possible.”
“OK. Will do.”
Bob, like a piece of dust floating on a puddle of water, got bumped and shoved and directed by the other 19 men back to the center of the 10-foot cell.
It wasn’t until eight hours later (10 hours after his arrest) that he discovered that that female officer had never called his wife and had made no effort to get the Xanax (from which sudden withdrawal can lead to seizures) or heart medication (to keep him from fainting and hitting his head on the cement walls, floors, and benches) and that he would have to sleep virtually standing up along with 39 other men in a 20-foot by 20-foot cell one floor above the first cell.
For those 40 men, there was one phone, which could be shut off at the whim of an officer. He called his wife, who was in hysterics along with his young children. It had been 10 hours under arrest without a call to his wife. He had not been allowed to make the call for 10 hours and the female officer had lied about calling his wife. It also had been 12 hours since his last anxiety pill, which was prescribed for every 3-4 hours. He was feeling withdrawal symptoms already and the night was coming. It had been 14 hours since his heart pill. It would be 24 hours at 8am the next morning, if he were to remain in jail - which now had become obvious.
The officers said, “Unless you show symptoms, we can’t call the EMS.”
“Well, I could be dead by then.”
“Are you pulling an attitude with me?”
“No. I would never do that. That would be disrespect.”
Another man in Bob’s cell was diabetic and feeling faint. Still no one brought him extra food without his having to endure six more hours of the “power-high” verbal abuse of the guards. Finally, the cops brought the man two apples, saying again, as though by rote, “Until you show symptoms, we can’t bring the EMS.” A mouse scurried past the guard’s feet, wanting to gorge itself on the discarded cheese/cardboard bread sandwiches on the floor, but not wanting to get squished. The 39 men scoffed and moved back and forth past the one open-air toilet that was covered with urine, feces, and footprints.
The men were edgy as they saw the night coming on. “Hey, quiet down or I’ll have your charge made a felony,” yelled one officer. Absurd, but all too possible.
Rumors raced through the night that the judges would not be there the following morning. Bob sat cross-legged on the filthy floor, listening to the constant chatter of some men interested in the boxing results. Finally, about 2am, he gave up and squeezed his legs in between those of two other men and lay on the filthy floor using his own arm as a pillow. To his surprise, he slept about two hours. At 5am, breakfast came in the form of six-ounce cartons of milk and tiny cartons of shredded wheat, all shoved through the jail bars as though it was feeding time in a barnyard or at the zoo.
The new shift of guards came in. Women officers had had the overnight shift; men came in at about 7am. They quickly placed their black-booted feet up on the desks, paying attention only to their own baseball chatter. They checked no prisoner’s papers or whether any prisoner had any medical needs.
A surge of power-mindset crackled through the cells with the arrival of the male police officers, Bob said. He said he could almost see lightning bolts between the officers as the air thickened. Across the way were two or three smaller cells. Bob said he had apparently been held in the one for misdemeanors, or, in his case, innocents. When this new power surge shook the prisoners’ already weakened reserves--having been in close quarters overnight, goaded on by a new officer that constantly restricted anyone’s chance to lean against the bars to rest - a fight broke out in one of the smaller cells, out of sight of Bob’s cell. Partially shielded by other officers, the fight had been squelched with two heavy thuds of a body thrown against the bars. Then the officers returned to feet-on-desk, you-are-in-my-complete-power mode, issuing any threats to up the charges if anyone made any comments.
“You shouldn’t have gotten yourself in there in the first place,” was the constant retort by both male and female officers.
The power-surge and attitudes of the new male officers made it glaringly apparent, Bob told me later, that if anyone, even those in the misdemeanor cell, said anything at all, even “How about them Yankees?”, it could be interpreted as “attitude” and that person could be taken someplace else for something physical. Bob told me, “This is how Guantanamo happened. Total power over helpless, desperate people.” During all the pressure-packed hours, there had not been one thought in any of the officers that Bob saw that even one person out of 40 in his cell might have been innocent. “We were all presumed guilty and treated as though we were guilty of felonies, instead of either nothing or a misdemeanor. And the power-tripped guards could easily have thrown an innocent man up against the bars a few times for a simple, neutral statement.”
The one phone, for 40 men, had been turned off since 11pm. It finally was turned on at 10am. Bob said he then called his wife to try to reassure her and to have her tell his children that he loved them. He told her the only possible good news: The rumor mill said they had to release him at 1pm if he had not seen a judge in 24 hours. She said she would come to the courthouse.
On the way home, Bob said he couldn’t get his voice to stop quivering. His wife stopped at a convenience store and bought some orange juice and candy bars. Bob took a Xanax and his heart medication. Finally.