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Arrested for Non-Violently Standing My Ground
Although my right-wing friend thought that my e-mail to my caseworker was too accusatory to be effective, nevertheless, the morning of July 19, 2013, I attended a mandatory meeting with my caseworker and the director of the shelter on the basis of that e-mail. I was told that normally, an outburst such as the one I made on Monday would be grounds for immediate transfer, but they told me that they were taking the issues I presented seriously.
They told me that what I needed to do was to go to HRA and get documentation that I am no longer eligible for storage payments, about the only thing i see as a perk of being in the shelter system. With such a denial letter, they would be more than happy to rebudget my savings plan to account for my monthly storage expense, especially when I brought up that moving the contents of my storage unit would probably be too expensive to justify. They told me that I needed to have the documentation by Wednesday, so I said that I would go that day, being a Friday, when HRA was least busy. They looked at me as though they had just assigned me a mission with the total confidence that I would be able to complete it successfully.
Once it was made clear that the previously scheduled doctor’s appointment had been postponed because the doctor called out, I proceeded to the Science, Industry, and Business Library without stopping for a soup kitchen in attempt to be on time to meet up with Picture the Homeless for the 12 PM community land trust popular education materials development meeting at CUNY Grad Center, which is the other side of the same building. The library opens at 11 AM on Fridays, and I arrived before they opened.
I ended up being slightly late to meet the group in the library, but one of the representatives of the New Economy Project, whom I recognized from the Picture the Homeless Meeting that I facilitated the day before, came in at the same time, and the security guard gave us the wrong room number, which was someone’s locked office. The original meeting location was to be the 8th floor cafeteria, which the guard claimed was closed, although this was only true of the serving area, not of the table are, which was filled with people. We knew in advance that showing picture identification was required, and when I got out my Kenneth Cole wallet, some coins and papers came out that I had to retrieve. As we were going up in the elevator, I told the NEP representative that I had bought that wallet in December, and it was already a ruined mess. I should have known better than to buy it, I told her, because it was tough to get one card in the card slots, let alone the multiple I knew that I needed to store in it, but it was $15 versus $50 for for wallets with wider card slots at Century 21, a store known for its low prices.
At the meeting, I impressed PTH’s main video guy with my graduate transcript, which I thought had been of little use to me, whereas he has equipment and can go make videos, while I am able only to write screenplays. He said that he’d rather have the degree, that his equipment isn’t so good, but that he is skeptical that the government wants people to use their camera phones to record their activities for surveillance purposes.
Since the meeting let out around 1:15, it must have been shortly after 2 PM that I arrived at HRA, almost as big a metal detector hassle as an airport, as I learned when I went home to my father’s memorial service in 2008.
It was quick and painless to get a ticket to customer service, but there were over 60 people ahead of me, and I must have used the restroom five times before I was finally called because I have not had my pills in over a month. I was told “about two weeks” when I went to Medicaid on June 7, but still nothing. The HRA Police office door I passed caught my attention several times. I think I was amused by the paranoia of HRA using actual police over real security. Of course, if I had actually thought that on a conscious level, things might have proceeded differently.
At around 4:50 PM, I was called to window number nine. I explained to the worker, a bushy-haired Latino with a poindexter look, that I do not have an open case, and as such, they cannot provide me with the needed documentation. I asked him simply to provide documentation of what he had just told me verbally. Again, he refused, saying, “There is no documentation.” I told him that if he didn’t provide me with a written statement to the effect of what he had just told me, I would be transferred to a Next Step shelter if I paid for my storage out of pocket. He said that my case is with Food Stamp Center Number 19, and that that is where I needed to go. I said, “This has nothing to do with food stamps. It has to do with my closed PA case.” When he refused again, I demanded the documentation in a strong, clear, loud voice.
At this point, he brought in his supervisor, a dark-skinned black man in dreadlocks with whom I had had an argument on a previous occasion, also with regard to HRA payment of my storage. We went through virtually identical rigmarole.
My hands flat on the surface of the counter, I firmly demanded that he provide me with the documentation my shelter requires. He told me again that there is no such documentation, and said “Goodbye” to me in nearly as obnoxious a manner as the flight attendants of Saturday Night Live. Keeping my hands firmly on the counter, I said that I was not leaving without the documentation that would prevent my transfer to a Next Step Shelter for paying my storage out of pocket.
At that moment, a hand grabbed my shoulder so firmly that it is still sore a day later. I jerked away, shouting, “Let go of me!” Too late, I realized that I was yelling at HRA Police Officer Austin Tso, a name almost as ridiculous as scandal-plagued actor Edison Chen. The coward grabbed the handle of his gun, in spite of knowing full well that I could not have entered the building armed, but he let go, presumably realizing that shooting me at point blank range before an audience of public assistance clients would not bode well for his life. With a brazen epinephral rush, I shouted, “Don’t touch me again!” in Officer Tso’s face, with a spontaneous thrust of my open-handed arm straight up into the air, a simple gesture of emphasis, but all the easier for him to handcuff.
I had last had civil disobedience training on September 15, 2012, and it took several seconds to remember the instructions I had received at the time, not having come prepared for a civil disobedience action, and indeed, on all previous occasions appearing only in a support mode and avoiding getting arrested. I didn’t have to ask if I were under arrest, because he stated so clearly, although I did not get my Miranda rights read, which I’ve known for years is standard practice just from reading non-fiction. I was swarmed by other police at this point. I stopped resisting having them finish cuffing me after remembering the training, but I was still resistant to them removing my bags until one of them said, “We’re not taking them; we’re just taking them off.” At this point I stayed quiet other than asking them to retrieve the pen that fell from my pocket, which they did.
I was led into the HRA Police Office room, cuffed with my New York State Benefit Card stuck in my hands. Officer Tso began filling out a summons for disorderly conduct. An older, stockier, Asian officer said that they needed my ID in order to fill it out, and asked me if I had anything sharp in my pockets, to which I said “no.” Carelessly pulling out my wallet, papers, cards, and coins flew everywhere, and my driver’s license with my former address in the Bronx was pulled out the small tear in the side of the pocket rather than the built-in opening. I then attempted to sit down on the brown vinyl office love seat with my hands still bound behind my back, the Benefit card still in my hands. A young, black, stocky female officer then asked for my side of the story and took notes. She then lectured me as to how she thought I should have communicated with the worker, which reflected exactly my initial approach. I told her this.
A beer-gutted Latino officer, whom I had I wanted to tell off when he complained of the weight of the bags, but thought the better of it, then claimed that I had been violent and was throwing tables. I said, “What table did I throw? There are no tables out there. Why are you lying?” He stood there pokerfaced and I repeated my second question. It is absolutely impossible that I could have thrown tables, much as I liked the allusion to Jesus, since I considered myself as in the right as Jesus, then remembered that this is the stuff that got him executed as I tried to break apart the handcuffs that felt like plastic but were nevertheless quite strong. At that moment I hoped that there were cameras and audio recording being made, both inside the room and in the customer service area. The counter is nailed down, and the only tables in the room are in the cubicles to the side, between me and them were a crowd of cops, empty and occupied chairs, a barrier, and the employees and clients at those desks, which are covered with desktop PCs with heavy tube-style monitors. It would be absoultely impossible for someone with my level of physical fitness to accomplish the task of which I was accused.
The young officer continued her lecture to me, explaining that I have problems communicating. I countered that my bachelor’s degree is in communication, the methodology she presented to me was my first resort, and that I began to get loud only after he had demonstrably refused to listen to what my issue was and why I was there. She reiterated that I should have never even been in the building, because my open case is with Food Stamp Center Number 19. I asked her why I would go to the food stamp center for something that has nothing to do with food stamps. She said nothing. I asked her again, and she got up and left the room.
Soon after, they took off the handcuffs when I agreed to sign the summons, after Officer Tso made clear that signing it is simply an acknowledgement of the charge and not an agreement with it. He then explained that I would need to report to the Queens Criminal Court in Jamaica at 9:30 AM on October 3. I gathered my things and left. They followed me to make sure that I left the building immediately. I needed to go to the bathroom again, but I didn’t bother asking, because they showed me to the door. Angry as I was, I was relieved that they had stopped following me.
When I entered the subway station, I saw that my cards were so jumbled that I could not determine which was my unlimited ride Metrocard, which I normally keep in a different part of my wallet from the others. I kept running them through the reader one by one, but the reader didn’t seem to be working, as often happens. This was at the 36 St M-R station. I then left, grumbling about the worthlessness of cops, and tried the 39 Av-Beebe Av N station, where my annoyance was met by obnoxious grins by the station agent. I told her to stop grinning at me, because she is more responsible for the machine not working than I am, and she looked offended for a bit, then started grinning at me again. I left the station grumbling even more about cops, walked to the Queensboro Plaza E-F-R station, got a reader that actually worked, and quickly determined which card was the one I needed to use. I became convinced that the shelter staff did this to me intentionally in order to further humiliate me, as well as get me onto the prison pipeline, which even applies to people with adfvanced degrees these days. I was going to accuse them of setting me up, but I don’t think that is an appropriate first tactic, which should be to have them advocate for me. I will not return to HRA alone until this matter is resolved.
At the Occu-Evolve meeting that night, I explained what had happened, told them about the shoulder pain, and showed them the red marks where the handcuffs had been. Their advice, other than to write a detailed account of what happened, was to not let anyone talk me into pleading guilty, not to do civil disobedience without a group, and to always have someone from the National Lawyers Guild present. I showed the summons and learned from the breverse side that Officer Tso’s insturctions had actually been the procedure for pleading guilty. He didn’t bother to explain that not guity pleas, as I intend mine to be, are submitted by mail within 48 hours. Although I show only the front side of the summons here, I did scan both sides (the person who receives my mail woulodn’t want me advertising my mailing address). One woman explained that this is all a game, the guilt of the system we keep discussing with the Trayvon Martin issue. Every person in this situation other than me did what they did because of their job, the profit motive, when none of these people did the human and ethical thing. “I was just doing my job” is a common enough excuse, but it wasn’t acceptable at the Nuremburg Trials and it isn’t acceptable to me. The comparison is apt, because we live in a fascist police state where police go for quantity of busts rather than quality. I think my arrest was unlawful because my speech is protected by law. I was expressing loudly, for all the room to hear, my griveance against a government agency that they refused to resolve. I did nothing wrong, and the police officer’s first move was physical, which was completely inappropriate and probably not a legal response to a raised voice. The woman said that the government stopped paying for insulin for her insulin-dependent son. He was hospitalized and not expected to live. She went up to Albany with a certificate of mailing (which she said is less expensive, not advertised, and more legally binding than certified mail, becauser the postal worker acts in the capacity of a government official) and proved that they were lying when they claimed that they never got the paperwork. Her son nearly died, and she believes this was their goal. As I left early to make my current shelter’s 10 PM curfew, one member, who had earlier imitated a judge telling him, “a man of your age won’t like jail” after he was arrested for occupying his own home broke up the meeting to give me a round of applause for my act of civil disobedience. This was done, but in spite of this, I felt glum, as though the battle for justice can never be won, before I even got to the door.
I think back to my greatest activist hero, Alice Paul (whose name I was pleased someone else invoked along with Martin Luther King, Jr. and Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi at the Albany protest I attended), and what she went through (I previously did a brief entry about her linking to the Wikipedia article on her). I don’t think that I could do what she and her followers (apparently all female, although many women’s suffrage activists were men, including L. Frank Baum, who wrote in an editorial in The Aberdeen Saturday Pioneer that a man who would not allow his mother, wife, or sister to vote does not truly love her) did, but the fact that she went with a group certainly made a big difference. They were told to pay a $10 fine on allegations that they were obstructing traffic, when in fact they were occupying only half of a public sidewalk in front of the White House–public property, as is the HRA office, but refused on the grounds that that would be an admission of guilt, so they went to prison, where they rebelled, damaged property, and went on hunger strike and Paul and a few other ringleaders were force-fed until they were finally set free by an executive order. Two years later, their arrests were ruled unconstitutional. This was what was required to get the nineteenth amendment passed. Of course, she had a group to protect her from abuse by other inmates, something I lack in this situation. Based on my experience in traffic court back in Indianapolis, judges take the word of police officers as gold even if proof can be provided that the officer is, in fact committing perjury. There is a scene like this in my play, Misused Minds: Curse of the Educated Youth, which I will post in my next blog. It is based on my traffic court experience, where it was my word against the officer’s, and someone else’s traffic court experience that I learned about on an old MSN group called Mensans on the Web in which photographic evidence was dismissed as irrelevant because it couldn’t be determined when the pictures were taken, even though the condition continued to exist after the judge ruled in favor of the police. I suspect that I will be found guilty in court and ordered to reward the government for the unethical, outrageous, and violent behavior of its employees.