Night and Day in Santa Rita
Since I was near the edge of the sidewalk, and closest to the riot lines, I was one of the first to be arrested. There were over 330 people behind me, cornered in front of the YMCA. Shortly after they put the zip ties on me, sat me down on the pavement and put my backpack on my legs, there was a melee in the crowd, and I saw a vague blur of a red-sweatered protester pulled forward and dog-piled by dark blue and plastic helmets. I saw flying black-gloved fists, and I never saw the offending person clearly.
The crying, at least, had pretty much stopped. I had gone out of my way to be civil, to show that I was no threat. I’d never been arrested before, and I had not come to Move-In Day expecting to be arrested. I knew that it was a risk, and I knew that some people surely would, but I mostly believed that those who are arrested are at least partly complicit in the event. Me I had too many things to worry about. The draw that Occupy Oakland exercises over me is strong, and it grows stronger all the time. But I have yet to completely turn my back on the professional world. For the last eight or nine months, I’ve more or less been living as a kind of freelance writer, but I have been looking for full-time work. In fact, just before this action, I might have landed one. My first day was on Monday. Therefore I trusted my own good judgment enough to listen to my instincts when it seemed like shit was getting crazy, to remove myself before I became a party to them. If people started breaking things, I would move away. If people started fighting the police, I would disassociate myself. When the march got too small, I would leave. I would not participate in a fuck the police march. I would go through the action content in the knowledge that I had done nothing wrong.
Which is why I was so fucking angry that, despite all I’d done to stay on the right side, to not do anything worse than anybody else, I was one of the first to be arrested. The OPD had just attempted to put down an entire demonstration, indiscriminately. That was not fucking right. No matter what some of my comrades had done in the past.
So, caught somewhere between fear, shock, and self-righteousness, as the police went about their business, I followed their instructions to the letter, but I couldn’t help but bait them. I could see that they weren’t going to be cruel with me. They could tell I wasn’t one of the “bad ones.” Oh man how sweet it would have been to oh so subtlely prove them wrong. Yes, I have an address, and a bank account, and a fledgling career. But I was not one of them. I was one of the Occupiers. They would not get any sympathy from me. The fire was coming into my eyes. Yeah, I was pissed off. I was really fucking pissed off. Where did they get the right? It was strange to feel so personal an anger at the state. It’s foreign to those like myself, who spent their lives looking on the police as protectors, if problematic ones. I am white, and I am not poor. I grew up in Oakland. I saw what they did to others, but, at least most of the time, I’ve found myself safe in the assurance that it was people like me who their system had been built to protect and serve. Now, the dynamic had shifted. Now, indeed, they were the adversaries, and that’s how they saw me — or, at least, that’s how they saw the movement with which I so closely identify. They were arresting me for no reason that I could easily figure. I was experiencing now what so many down at the plaza had been experiencing every day, and, I suppose, what so many black and brown and poor and homeless people do too. It was not a good feeling. It’s alienating, it’s infuriating, and it’s very scary. Because now, there’s nobody you can call. When the police are the wrongdoers, you can’t exactly call the police on them. You wonder if it’s too late, if you have crossed a line and if there’s no turning back. Or you wonder where exactly that line is, and just how far you will be allowed to push it. You know one thing for sure: you do not want to be told what to do, to be told that what you feel or think is wrong, to be told to be something other than who you are. But that’s just what they were doing. So when the officer “assigned” to me (each arrestee had an officer or two who followed them through processing, right there on the sidewalk on laptops set up on folded out plastic tables) appeared to be friendly, to wish to distance herself from the faceless images of Occupy police brutality we see on the television, I was a little less than accommodating. I did not miss a chance to bait her. I even got her to give me candy out of my backpack (I discovered somewhere in the process that they had to do what you say in terms of your personal property. She followed many a useless directive during our time together).
It took about an hour and a half for them to finish filling out the paperwork, to take my picture, to throw my backpack into a big armored truck, and to load me onto the prisoner transfer bus. There were two more waiting on the block. By the end of the night, they would end up putting an AC Transit commuter bus to use for the same purpose. Everything inside the bus was metal. The bench, the gratings, the plates covering the windows, so that we could see out, but nobody outside could see in. The zip ties on my wrist were tight, but not too tight. I didn’t lose circulation, as I’ve heard others did, but I had to keep shifting my weight forward and back. It was getting cold, so I closed the window. Had to stand up to do so.
The crowd in front of the YMCA was still thick and chanting. At one point they started singing “YMCA”.
The bus was divided into three sections by metal grating. They filled all three sections with protesters, to per metal bench. There wasn’t much talking on the bus. There was some, but it was limited, it was subdued, shocked and angry. When the bus driver came on, he told us to “keep quiet. We’re going to North County, but if you do anything to piss me off, I’m taking this bus all the way out to Santa Rita.” This shut us up. I’m not sure that many of us knew what he meant. I know I didn’t, though the name Santa Rita rang an associate bell — one of those awful places, like San Quentin or Sing Sing, a societal black hole where I wouldn’t last a day beyond the protection of a locked cell door. None of us wanted to go there. The guard knew it. Otherwise he probably would have been “Mic checked” until his head exploded. Instead, we talked among ourselves, quietly. One of the girls in the back started singing. This was surprisingly comforting. I suppose we were all scared. But after we found out that North County was only in downtown Oakland, and our bus had long since gotten on Interstate 580, it was clear that the bus driver had lied to us. Indeed, we soon saw the signs for Dublin, and, not long after, we passed through a checkpoint, and another stone sign, proclaiming this to be Santa Rita, a sprawling tan pink cement complex, surrounded by doubled cyclone fences ringed with concertina barbed wire. Floodlights spaced at intervals, recalling government camps and Guantanamo Bay. But I couldn’t see much out the windows. I was hunched forward because of the zip ties and the position of my arms.
The driver pulled to a stop, and unapologetically informed us that we’d arrived at Santa Rita. He warned us that “This is a large jail, and it’s more beurocratic than North County, so this is gonna take a while.” A few minutes later they started taking us off, reading our names out from a clipboard, lining us up against the side of the bus, and then marching us ten at a time into the jail, a timeless world of buzzing white fluorescent lights that run 24 hours a day. Even from the beginning, with the driver’s casually coercive lie, there was a palpable difference in the air around Santa Rita. A deadening sense of oppression for oppression’s sake. Unlike the OPD officers, who, after they’d subdued us, retained a veneer of amiability or at least cordial professionalism, Santa Rita’s prison guards showed no care whatsoever towards pretenses of civility. They made us move fast, and they made it clear in their eyes that they didn’t want to see an attitude, of any kind. They insulted us, and they would not be rushed. There was the feeling that punishment could arrive swift and arbitrary and unexpected. That they would be doing us a favor to do their jobs right.
Lined up now against a dirty white cement hallway, one of them clipped the zip tie off my wrists. He took my wallet and filled out a property sheet. They told us to follow blue lines on the ground and they told us not to talk. They marched us into a holding cell, me and about 10 other young men, the genders of course kept separate. We sat down and looked at each other, with a sort of embarrassment. One of us said, a little uselessly: “We should all be aware that it’s possible that our conversations are being recorded.” We nodded sagely. Though of course the truth was that no one here had any idea what was happening, or what to expect. We didn’t know if we were charged, and we might not even really have been clear what “Being charged” meant. We had seen people beaten, and rumors circulated that some of those that had been caught at the YMCA were being accused of burglary. The OPD officers had assured us off-handedly that we would get home before they would. But we had also heard stories of Occupiers detained for days. We knew that there would be no love for us here. We’d been arrested on a Saturday, and we assured each other that they could only hold you 24 hours without charge, but those are 24 business hours, so we could well be here until midnight on Monday, if the Santa Rita prison guards so decided. It wouldn’t turn out that way. As it turned out, all of the protesters arrested at the Y were ferried to Santa Rita, and together we occupied (for lack of a better word) nearly their entire temporary holding facilities. The cell I was in first was positioned just to the right of the entrance. All night, a steady parade of protesters, young people, middle aged people, men and women, were lined up one by one and frisked. They handed over their belts and their jewelry and the laces from their shoes, then they were taken out of sight. One after the other. Very few of them I recognized. Sometimes they waved at us when they caught me and my cellmates looking. More often than not they just looked embarrassed.
I was in Santa Rita for about 20 hours altogether. I got some sleep. When there were only 11 of us to a cell, we could all comfortably (relatively) stretch out on the cement floor or the small cement aperture bench that ringed the walls. We could close our eyes, use our clothes or our shoes or our arms for pillows, and wrap ourselves as tightly as possible against the relative chill. The guards gave us “lunch” for dinner and for breakfast, two sheets of bologna and two squares of wheat bread, with a cup, an orange, and two or three quarter-sized cream cookies. They did not answer any of our questions, except when they wanted to increase our confusion. One of the female guards assured us repeatedly that we were going to be here for a long time, and once or twice ominously told us to get ready to “go to jail.” As the neighboring cells filled with Occupiers, we could sometimes hear them chanting, calling for medical help or their phone call or just in plain frustration. Some of the long-term prisoners were tasked with mopping the hallway floors. They peered threateningly in through the wire-hatched windows, muttering and shaking their heads (except for one, who seemed in a good mood and who I’ve heard a lot of Occupiers since speak about favorably, if only as precious proof that the prisoners were “down” with us too).
Me, my best memories were of my first group of cellmates. We were together I believe for the longest period of time, though time was a pretty meaningless concept in there, where there is no clocks or sunlight. Them I could take. We shared with each other our stories of arrest and our feelings of indignation. We realized our collective solidarity, how here and now, we all truly were in exactly the same boat. We understood each other’s stresses, and we explained them to each other.
But when they started cycling us in and out of the cells in groups, apparently at random, this increased my stress a bit. First they took us out to have our mug shots taken (second time that night, first by the OPD), and to print and attach plastic identification bracelets to our wrists, with our picture and our name and a string of nonsensical numbers. In my picture, I stare back at the camera with wide and angry eyes and wild hair. The sort of picture that would be perfectly at home on the 6 o’clock news. Just another as if unintentional reduction, a de-humanization. We all become no more important than the bracelet on our wrists, recognizable, and lumped in with all the others who have been deemed enemies of society.
They took us back to our room after that. We’d been in four hours at least, and we’d only just been fully processed. It was clear our long night was far from over. We watched out the cell window as similar groups of our comrades were brought through the same procedures. Each time we heard the jingling keys on the guards hips as they walked towards us, we all perked up a little bit. Hope that we would be released, that we would receive some unexpected kindness. We were always disappointed.
Every now and then our fellows down the hall would break out into the uniform chants that Occupiers everywhere are famous for. The one we heard several times was: “We need help! We need help!” Apparently this was for a prisoner who had fallen ill. Once the rumor was it was for diabetic medicine. Once for HIV medication. Both times they were reportedly denied treatment. Since we weren’t prisoners charged with any specific crime, we were not allowed access to the Santa Rita medics. Our comrades would just have to wait.
Some time later, a group of us was taken out again, about six of us as I remember, and we were taken to a different holding cell, more crowded than the last, and with mostly unfamiliar faces. We tried to keep the smiles and good cheers going, but it had grown more difficult. I found it harder to stomach these new cellmates, to keep the solidarity full and frontmost. We’d already said all there was to say in our previous group, and these guys had probably done the same, yet our new group hadn’t gone through the experience of saying it to each other. So we were in the same boat, but we had no familiarity. When minor annoyances or irritations reared their head, it was that much harder to just keep on talking, because everything had already been said. I can see how Malcolm X and Mumia call being in prison reductive: the longer I stayed, the more I felt the ruthless imperative to me and myself and myself alone. I wanted somewhere to sit, so I had to make a little room on the concrete bench. I was forced to entertain the possibility that I would be here for a while. That maybe I would be shuffled out of this cell again. Maybe even cast down with the real lawbreakers, the long-timers, where I would be forced to adapt as best I could, where I would really have to see how tough or broken I could be.
This new group of about 15 of us was inexplicably taken out and returned to the cell I’d just vacated, T-11. This was good, because T-11 had a more interesting vantage point, and it was larger. But just a few hours later, the door opened again, and 11 more protesters were funneled inside, many of them my fellows from the original cell. 26 of us now in a 10 X 10 room, with a single toilet. At first I was glad to see them, but this didn’t last long. Except for the cement bench on the walls, it was now standing room only, though some did gamely attempt to stretch out on the floor in the midst of the shuffling feet. Now more than ever, it was me and me alone. I couldn’t hold a conversation. I kept wondering how many more I would have. I lowered my head and pulled up my hood. I tried to clear my mind. Sometimes I drifted off to sleep. I have no idea for how long.
My only consistent diversion was the bracelet on my wrist. The familiar face there looking back at me. My face. But not me. A person who looked like me, but seemed to lack the compassion and good nature that I usually strive for. There was something different about my eyes, which people tell me are intense under normal circumstances. Now there was a paranoia in them and a wariness. A strong element of distrust and anger. I was changed, I could see it. And yet I had done nothing wrong. My anger was justified, and in this case my very country, the government, the state, the police, and the Santa Rita prison guards, were the focus. It’s a strange thing to feel a personal anger towards your own country. In this way, Santa Rita was a radicalizing experience.
Some time later (because remember time was meaningless), we heard the jingling keys again. A guard appeared, bearing a clipboard. He opened the door to the cell opposite ours, and selected about 8 girls and lined them up along the wall. We checked. They were already wearing bracelets. He took them off, following the blue line on the floor. We waited, and we waited, and we waited, but the girls didn’t come back. We knew that speculation was pointless, but it was also inevitable. The girls could have been taken to a different cell, they could have been taken to general population, or they could have been taken to Bagram airbase for all we knew. They could have been subjected to yet another bureaucratic hoop to jump through. Or, they could have been taken out. And, as luck would have it, the next jingling key steps of the guards ended at the door of our cell. All 26 of us looked up as he opened the door, and we took a step back. I was in the back of the room, sitting on the bench, so I couldn’t see him. He started reading out names. Told them to line up on the wall. He read about eight names, and mine was the last one on the list: “Aentael Palohny!” he called out. Of course I wouldn’t correct his pronunciation. In fact I thanked him, twice, as I walked out. Then I hated myself for doing so.
Indeed, it soon became clear that we had been chosen. We were going home. They marched us out to another room, this one separated by yet another set of metal bars, from an evidence locker, a desk with a guard at work behind it, phones and papers on the desk, and drawers and boxes and office machinery behind him. One by one, he called us up, and gave us back our stuff. Our shoelaces and our belts and whatever we’d had in our pockets. He didn’t miss an opportunity to speak down to us, but here we could actually hold our heads a little higher. When it was my turn, and he saw that I was from Oakland, he asked me if I was born there and I said yes, and he said, funny, cause one of the officers wrote down that you were from elsewhere. In response I said: “Well, then one of the officers was wrong.” The guard frowned, and gave me back my wallet, my shoelaces, and my belt. When I sat down on the floor and started to lace up my shoes, he yelled: “Hey!” he said, “Take it outside, okay.” I stood up, and I tried to follow his orders sarcastically, but I was also afraid. I also wondered for a moment, if I refused his orders, or if he perceived that I was, would I end up right back where I had just come from. And I didn’t want that. I didn’t want that.
I went out the front door and I laced up my shoes, then I walked ascended a staircase, and found the front doors of Santa Rita. And there was a crowd of supporters waiting outside. They were cheering and applauding, and the sun was shining and the air felt so good, so good, and I smiled, and it was a real smile and it felt good. I thanked them, and oh man, did I mean it. Entered back into the real world, where, in fact, time had continued to move, where people had been thinking about us, even in our seclusion. Solidarity. Fuel to the fire. These motherfuckers didn’t know what they had started by doing what they had done.