You should have paid the fine,” said the desk sergeant, an arrogant sneer perched across his face as naturally as a mother bird might warm her eggs.
Context: I was collecting my things. Specifically, my cell phone, my phone charger, my car key and my house key. Not my gloves though. No, those I weren’t getting back. You see, they weren’t on the list of confiscated items. They weren’t in the system. So therefore, as far as they were concerned, they did not exist.
Ultimately though, they were returned. They weren’t in the system, but they sure as hell were behind the desk. Ask and you shall receive, right? At least in the case of property that belongs to you that was stolen after a night to remember.
It was just like any other weekend night, really. Go out to a bar, club, or other social establishment. Drink your money like it’s worth nothing and then take the railroad home like a man with too much time to burn and no good way to use it. We’ve all been there. Many of us are there right now.
What we typically don’t do, however, is get called off the train by some cowboy cops – too hyped up on their authority to even consider listening to the other side. Over a $3 fair discrepancy. That doesn’t surprise me. What happened next did.
The thing about cops is that I don’t really care about cops – or rather, what they stand for, or at least are supposed to stand for. Not having faith in the justice system is such a stereotype these days that it might as well be synonymous with saying that air is breathable or that apartments are nice. But for me – it’s been a little more long–standing and doesn’t just stem from my undying love of 90’s hip hop anthems like “Fuck Tha Police.”
It all started when I was three or four, still frequenting my grandparents’ place, still young enough to find myself lost in the local park, still being picked up by the cops in the parking lot like a rampaging toddler. My arrest record was clean – at least then, and my parents were surprised to know that I knew that the back of cop cars didn’t unlock when it came up in conversation a few years later. I could have learned this from pop culture, but I didn’t. It was learned after I took my first ride in the back of a police cruiser. I wasn’t even in kindergarten yet.
It turns out, resisting arrest is pretty subjective. As far as they are concerned, it is anything that falls under the purview of not completely subjugating yourself, like a peasant that pays tribute to a feudal lord. I suppose turning around for a second constituted resisting, because I was quickly tackled and cuffed by five sweaty Irish cops who wouldn’t have looked out of place in The Departed, swearing, whiskey and all.
I imagined – for a bit longer than I liked to admit, that I was the “Hero of Kavatch” from Elders Scrolls IV: Oblivion and that their reaction was how an Imperial Guardsman would react to my videogame avatar stealing a single Septim.
“You dare oppose the might of the Imperial Legion!?” they would scream, as they came after me in full force, swinging their Roman short swords and wearing their medieval plate like they meant to kill me, assessing my threat level to similar proportions of the Predator versus an unsuspecting military squad led by Arnold and Carl Weathers.
Except this wasn’t an exaggeration or a parody. This was reality. Pop culture wouldn’t help me here, and neither would repeatedly yelling “I’m not resisting!” That just brought on the blows. Like Batman, these may not be the protectors we need, but the protectors we deserve. Or maybe not. Maybe they were just assholes.
Some cops are good though. That feels like something that you have to say. Like telling someone that you are sorry for their loss when you hardly even knew them. It’s a platitude. An empty gesture. I have a PBA card from one though – never knew him but my Dad did. Died in 9/11. Doing his duty. That feels like a different time though, a different era – before Ferguson, Eric Garner and the rest of the police epidemic that has swept the United States.
Ernest Hemingway had no idea what he was talking about when he said “a man can be destroyed but never defeated.” I was definitely defeated. I’d be fine in a day or two, but that night I was defeated. The friends I was with were powerless to stop the onslaught. There was nothing to do but give up – this wasn’t a David and Goliath story. If David had tried to fight the law, he probably would have gotten shot.
About eight hours later, I met a short, fat version of David Lynch, hair–do, mannerisms and all. Named Bob, because what else would this guy in the holding cell be named? It wasn’t just me and Bob though, there were about sixty other of us incarcerated in there, in a room so small and disgusting that even the vermin had decided that enough was enough and fled for more sanitary pastures.
Bob was pretty torn up. He was a doctor and worked on government contracts. Thrown out of his vehicle and arrested on the spot while trying to pick up his daughter and her friends at the airport by some hero rookie cop, trying to make name for himself. Probably had watched one too many episodes of SVU and thought he was doing the right thing. Expired license – they had said. Clearly, the punishment had fit the crime.
“I’m not a criminal. I just play one on TV.” I kept this thought in my head as I was thrown unceremoniously into my first joint lockup of the day, handcuffs still behind my back after having been in isolation for hours. I’ve never acted (at least not successfully) but in casual no–consequence conversation I’ll sometimes make up fictitious details or aspects of my life. Hardened criminal scum came easily.
“This your first time in here?” my sixteen year old cell mate asked me, a lip quiver accenting his peach fuzz mustache.
I remember seeing on Oz that you need to show dominance in the pen, otherwise a Neo Nazi played by Academy Award Winner J.K. Simmons will do something terrible do you. So I tried to show dominance.
“Third time in Central Booking. It’s no big deal,” and in a way I wasn’t lying. At least in comparison to what had happened earlier.
What had happened earlier was like the Shawshank without any of the Redemption, like the Dredd without any of the Judgement. It doesn’t matter though. In the grand scheme of it all, it really doesn’t. A dislocated finger, a bruised ego, and a legitimate beef with being handled like a well–cooked piece of meat.
That’s all well and good. But it didn’t spell the end.
In holding, it was survival of the fittest, and in Central Booking you use whatever you got to get out of there in a timely manner. When you’ve got fifty guys in the room, and you’re not the strongest there is, you have to play nice, even if it’s not really what you do. I had to contact someone. I could only keep up the persona for so long.
I connected with people that night. And the next day. On a human level. A personal level. In a place where all the news and protests and hashtags couldn’t really tell me anything quite like this. Where fellow sufferers sat in squalor for the rest of the weekend for no other reason than the whims of the ones who protect and serve. In a culture of outrage, we get upset about every little injustice so that the big ones don’t even seem to matter that much anymore.
But this does. And it’s not the end.
I got out eventually. Got off with an adjournment in contemplation of dismissal, so if I don’t get arrested again soon, I’ll be OK. Read the police report afterwards. Falsified, said that I became extremely belligerent, shoved an officer, tried to flee the scene and then ‘resisted arrest’ once caught. None of that happened, but no wonder they made me remove my boots while walking handcuffed in the snow. I must have appeared to be some sort of Jean Claude Van Damme, with legs like iron and the will to match.
But I was lucky. I got out. The others – not so much. For every missed day of work at shitty jobs, for every missed day of trying to better their future, they will be held accountable. Only in a world where systematic brutality is accepted do you have to defend yourself legally against an assault.
You can’t get out of a system that penalizes you for being in it. All you can do is get transferred around from one cell block to the next, never stopping, but always questioning.
Daniel Horowitz is a writer that has been published in USA Today, Complex, Heavy, Elite Daily and now Unwinnable, among others. He also co-founded the videogame site Continue Play and writes his own comic books for Cornerstone Creative Studios and elsewhere. You can follow him @HorowitzCentral if you’re feeling bold.