This one time I went to Philly for a convention.
It was 2000, about two weeks after my 18th birthday. I got time off from my grocery-store job that hot summer, and a carload of friends and I filled up the Bonneville and headed to the Republican National Convention. It was the one where George W. Bush was crowned.
I was going as an indignant, disaffected teenager, who cared about the environment, globalization and workers rights. The city was rife with people like me who had traveled from all over the place, ready to march in the streets. People were everywhere you looked holding all kinds of signs and banners, and dressed any kind of way.
I was young and hadn’t really left Charlotte much. It was one of those times in life where you felt like you could lend your voice to something you cared about, and maybe help have a positive effect.
We joined a march for welfare reform, yelling three-word chants, or everyone’s favorite, “Hey, Hey! Ho, Ho! Something something’s got to go!” Aside from hundreds of riot-garbed police and helicopters hovering over the crowds it was a very straight forward, permitted and orderly protest.
We peeled off the march a bit before it was over to go have lunch at a place that served “vegetarian Philly cheesesteaks.” I know, I cringe just typing it, but I was 18 and it was a simpler time.
After lunch we were walking back toward the convention center, rounding a corner when we were stopped on the sidewalk by several fully tactical outfitted police officers that pushed us to the ground.
Without explanation, we were zip tied, our backpacks cut off our persons and left in the street where they fell, and shoved into a sweltering blacked-out police van, where we waited for hours. My wallet and ID were in that backpack, never to be seen again. Sometime after dark my friends and I were led out of the van into a detention center.
I was put in a cold, windowless cell designed for one person with four other people. There was a metal cot fixed to the wall and a toilet/sink combo that had to function as a seat when not in use for its intended purpose. People were screaming about being left handcuffed, screaming because they were hungry, and screaming at how they were being treated. It dawned on me that this was not very normal, and wasn’t likely to end very quickly.
We could really only tell time by the shift change of the guards. At some point the next day we were each given a moldy bread cheese sandwich. At the end of day two the water to the cells was shut off because the plumbing couldn’t handle the stress of that many bodies needing to flush, so with it the drinking water went as well.
At several points corrections officers came into our cell, “hogtied” us, which means zip tie handcuffing right wrist to left ankle and vice versa, and then slapped or beat our boisterous cellmate, who as a union organizer had a flair for being loud and abrasive. Many incidents that took place in that jail I would have only believed happened in Turkish prison movies, but this was in this century in America, in a major city.
I was the last one in my cell to be released. Despite having no ID and wearing a shirt with a stranger’s blood all over it, I was let out with a ridiculously high bail somewhere four or five days later, at sunrise. A very bruised, hungry and dehydrated version of me was being charged with seven misdemeanors that supposedly took place a day after I was already arrested, on a street I had never set foot on in my life. I know because I had to go seek it out later to figure that part out.
My friends faced an equally erroneous list of fake charges including “conspiracy to block traffic” and other ridiculous charges, but oddly all at separate places and times. I found out quickly that I was one of over 400 people preemptively arrested en masse to keep us off the streets, what they called “strategic incapacitation” so as to not disrupt the convention.
Eventually all the fake charges were expunged, but only after I lost my job from being detained, and lots of money and sanity driving back and forth to Philly courtrooms to get things straightened out (and driving my mother completely crazy for the duration of this farcical court drama). I can only hope those outside the RNC and DNC this summer received more brotherly love than I did.
Still, I can’t help but think back to that time, when I thought everyone had the right to say what we thought in the streets of this free society of ours. After that summer, I realized this kind of speech is reserved for those with resources, and only in ways that make everyone comfortable.
Our police system, I realized too, is an extension of our society, police behave the way we want them to and no different, because just like other places to work they have bosses, and those bosses have agendas and goals. The police who wrongfully arrested me weren’t acting on a whim; neither is the one patrolling your neighborhood. The way the 400-plus of us were treated wasn’t an accident; it was crowd control.
At the end of the day, though, I sure am glad things have changed and that now folks willing to put themselves out there can speak their minds, with media capable of covering it fairly. … Wait, What’s that? Oh sorry, I apologize, I just typed this last paragraph in case it happens. Fingers crossed.
George O’Neal owns and operates Lil Farm in Timberlake and is a member of the Carrboro and Durham farmers markets. You can rech him at firstname.lastname@example.org