The Walls Are Watching
After getting thrown into the back of the police van, the cops begin laughing, mocking protesters, as they drive through the streets of NYC, looking for more bodies to fill our paddy wagon. Realizing no one knows where we are, I wiggle my left wrist into my pocket and call my mother: “I got arrested. I am ok for now. I’m only calling because I saw cameras and didn’t want you to find out on TV. I don’t know where they are taking us, they haven’t said. But I love you.”
I tweet a photo, hoping someone will begin looking for us.
Suddenly the car stops, the doors fly open and a cop reminds us, “The van has a camera and I see everything you’re doing in there.” New protesters get thrown in with us, the cop counts the remaining spaces and yells, “There’s room for more!” He slams the door shut, and we continue our drive.
Why I Am Writing This
Last Wednesday evening as I was leaving the Eric Garner protests, I witnessed a police captain grab a man, with his hands up, slam him to the hood of a car and violently arrest him. Being from East Harlem, a journalist, and CopWatcher, I turned on my camera and began recording the police action. Within seconds, the captain saw my camera, threw me to the the hood of a car, and violently arrested me.
These are the two videos of my arrest.After last Wednesday, Mayor Bill de Blasio praised Commissioner Bill Bratton and the NYPD for their handling of the Eric Garner protests. To date, De Blasio has said nothing about police targeting protesters with cameras, the mass arrest of peaceful protesters, the use of military grade LRADs or any of the other questionable tactics employed by the NYPD in the days following the non-indictment.
I write this piece because our arrests, seemingly intended to keep protesters and journalists off the streets, has only served to highlight the injustices that this city —that this nation— perpetuate on a daily basis in communities of color.
The man that recorded Eric Garner’s death and the peaceful protesters arrested after the non-indictment, now face more charges than the cop that killed Eric Garner. (Seriously.)
Three hours pass. We reach our destination. A protester asks: “What are we being held for?”
An officer responds: “You know why you’re here, now empty your pockets.”
We didn’t get told what we were arrested for until our release. We also had different officers for every stage. The officer that violently threw me to the hood of the car wasn’t the one who violently threw me into the van, and he wasn’t the same one that processed me (and stood behind us in our mugshots like a modern day slave catcher). None of them filled out the paperwork as the official “the arresting officer.” Each gave a different reason for why we’d been taken in.
As the cell door opens, 30 detainees erupt in applause.
“Where’d they get you?” one cellmate asks.
“Downtown,” I reply. “Is there any actual crime in NYC today?”
Protester 1: “Nope, just us professional agitators.”
Protester 2: “Hoodlums.”
Protesters 3: “Dudes that think that brother didn’t deserve to die, and that cop ain’t deserve to walk.”
Shortly after I’m processed, a female protester follows, passing our cell en route to hers, we erupt in cheers and she salutes us.
Minutes later a second woman passes but does not acknowledge our cheers. Louder we chant and still she avoids eye contact. One cellmate yells out “Smile!” She is visibly uncomfortable. And then we realize…
Protester 1: “She has no idea we’re with her protesting too, she just sees 30 dudes in a holding cell cheering at her.”
Protester 2: “She thought we were cat calling her!”
Protester 3: “Probably talkin to the other women now like ‘even in here these niggas can’t help themselves.’”
(We all laugh.)
Protester 4: “Put your fists up instead.”
As a group we decide: To stand, fists up, chanting “No Justice, No Peace!” in solidarity with all future female detainees.
Our cellmates were just as diverse as the officers that arrested us.
A Dominican father from the Heights who’d never before gone to a protest, stated repeatedly, “I believe in family first. That’s the problem—the breakdown of the family.”
Protester: “Word, a family lost their father because of this.”
“It’s also hip-hop,” the father says. “It’s the music people listen to.”
Now the cell begins to grumble…
Protester: “Come on man. It’s not hip-hop, man. That’s that shit conservative white people say!”
A Black man, born and raised in Bed-Stuy public housing, comes to the Dominican’s defense:
It’s not that hip-hop is bad. It’s that hip-hop used to be the way we told our stories, sent out positive messages and reflected our reality. It’s not anymore. Ain’t no one buying Versace shit in the hood. I can’t afford Tom Ford. Most drug dealers I know ain’t makin that kinda money. Media paints that life like its the road to riches. Most dealers I know just gettin by. Hell most of these rappers be wearin that fake shit anyway. Snoop said he wears cubic zirconium. We’re being sold poison. Then we’re told to kill each other for this shit. The media don’t put out positive messages. But we ain’t the ones controlling the media.
Protester: “He’s right. How many of you heard the “Don’t Shoot” song with Rick Ross and Diddy and all them?”
Me: “I heard it in Ferguson.”
Protester: “Right but you ain’t hear Hot 97 or Power 105 blasting that did you?”
Me: “But they did play “0-100” like 1,000 times.”
Bed-Stuy: “Those gatekeepers, and they employees, was on air talking for weeks bout’ Free Weezey when he went in, but I don’t see them in here with us now.”
Me: “How many journalists are here?
Five hands go up.
Me: “Is there a way you can get in contact with your editors?”
Foreign Journalist: “Not without a phone.”
Old and Young
We were all denied phone calls, even the minors detained with us. And even they were diverse. Sitting side by side were students from LaGuardia, NYC’s top specialized arts school with a majority white population and Martin Luther King, a zoned school with little resources, serving mostly students of color.
A white kid from LaGuardia turns to the black kid from MLK: “Y’all are the ones that come over and beat up the gay kids!”
The black kid from MLK responds: “And y’all are the ones that don’t have to go through metal detectors to get to class.”
(They both laugh.)
On any given school day, these students, separated by just one city street on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, are worlds apart. Today at the young age of 16 and 17, they were detained together, protesting systemic racism.
Me: “How many people are here for the first time?”
Sixty percent of our cellmates raise their hands.
A protester cries out: “Oh shit, it’s that old white lady! She got thrown into the bushes by the cops just like I did. She’s like 65. She got arrested with us!”
As she passes we rise, fists up, now 40 strong, chanting “No justice! No peace!” for a full minute.
Rights and Entitlements
A man in a suit calls one of our cellmates up. We turn to each other in fear, then, envious celebration: “My man’s getting out!” How’d his lawyer know where he is?”
Ten minutes later he returns.
Me: “We thought that was your Johnnie Cochran, man, suit and all. Why you back here?”
Protester: “Nah, it was a detective.”
Me: “What did he want to know?”
Protester, “He asked:
“How did you get involved in protesting?”
“How did you hear about this case?”
“Did anything in the media inspire you to come here?”
“Are there any other crimes in your neighborhood? Anything we should know about?”
Journalist: “You didn’t say shit, did you?”
As a group we decide: No lawyer, no statements.
The detective interviews move a lot quicker from here on out.
Eventually my name is called.
Detective: “Are there any other crimes in your neighborhood? Anything we should know about?”
Me: “Yeah I heard there’s this guy that got murdered in Staten Island. Choked to death. Don’t know if you heard about it. Aside from that? No.”
In the morning, an officer enters with stale sandwiches and warm milk. A protester asks what he thought about the Mike Brown and Eric Garner cases.
“See: Ferguson had nothing to do with New York,” states the Stale Sandwich and Warm Milk Cop. “I think the loss of life is very tragic. Very sad. But Mike Brown and Eric Garner are completely different and what I don’t like, is people trying to tie the two together.”
I think back to the header on our initial intake paperwork. Each page read “Ferguson Verdict Protests” on the top in bold.
“How long we gonna be in here?” a protester asks.
Stale Sandwich and Warm Milk Cop: “As long it was going to take. It’s a lot of paperwork to process.”
To the left of our cell, we see police diligently typing away at their cell phones, on Facebook, texting, as our paperwork and IDs sit idly by them.
“Can we get a phone call at least?” another protester cried.
Stale Sandwich and Warm Milk Cop: “Look when I’m done handing these sandwiches out, I can ask. But there are people three and four stripes above me here that don’t even want me talking to you. Personally I don’t care. I’m on my third shift now. I’ve been here over 20 hours. What’s the worst they can do to me? Tell me to go home? I’d love that. But I can’t go over their heads. Cause as much as I love you all, you’re not worth even one of my vacation days.”
Me: “I thought we were entitled to a phone call?”
Stale Sandwich and Warm Milk Cop closes the door to our cell.
“They didn’t even read me my rights,” one protester remarks.
“They didn’t have to read you your rights,” replied Frank Roberts, a lecturer from NYU living in East Harlem. “The Supreme Court said they don’t have to read you your rights anymore.”
A new cellmate tells us that he wasn’t read his rights either. But all I hear is that he was arrested above 96th street on the East Side. Protesters reached my hood. I couldn’t make it to East Harlem that night, but East Harlem made it to the cell. I felt blessed.
Since the police injured me on Wednesday, I could not film and report on last Thursday’s #ThisStopsToday marches. But because of my injuries, I was able to simply be present in the march, chant the protest songs we’d heard in Ferguson, build with marchers who had never been to a protest, and see the look in peoples eyes as we took NYC’s most iconic bridges. Like the protesters in Ferguson, we’d simply stopped asking for permission. The police weren’t “showing restraint,” there were simply too many of us to stop.
Most New Yorkers were pissed as hell when they saw we’d blocked the highways and bridges last Thursday evening, but when they saw us walking with our hands up, they realized why we were in the streets.
Looking into the eyes of motorists, you could see their feelings turn from anger to intrigued concern (Can y’all actually can take streets and bridges like that?) to overwhelming joy and emotional approval. Hundreds of motorists honked their horns in support, screaming, “Black Lives Matter” and “I can’t breathe,” Eric Garner’s last words.
So often, because the structures we are working in, living in and breathing in are so much bigger than we are, they can freeze us into inaction. I spent years frozen there. Now at the age of 25, I’m just beginning to thaw out.
So many people have worked so hard and have lost so much to make sure that the names on the coffins we marched through NYC on Thursday are honored, and that no one else, has to lose a loved one to America’s militarized police forces. These past few weeks, most of our city has stood with them.
As the media continues to brand protesters as “Professional agitators” or “Outside agitators” like they did Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X a generation ago, let us remember that our parent’s Civil Rights Movement did not age gracefully. Their movement did not reach the mountaintop upon which a post-racial society was forged. Our parents Civil Rights Movement was literally killed.
It is up to all of us, every color and creed, to ensure this movement does not meet a similar fate.
I don’t know where we’ll be two years from now. But I know we’re not in the same place we were just two weeks ago. For that, I send this wish to everyone in the streets, in their communities, in solidarity with this movement: Love, strength and justice through what’s looking to be a very busy holiday season.
Andrew J. Padilla is a Puerto Rican artist, educator and independent journalist from East Harlem trying to give a voice to NYC’s working class. You can follow Andrew @apadillafilm6 and learn more about him on AndrewJPadilla.com.