In response to the recent findings on the arrests made during the Republican National Convention in 2004, I am resurrecting and partially rewriting an essay I wrote ten years ago for Lumpen magazine.
I used to be pretty politically active in my 20s (weren't we all) and I traveled alone from my hometown of Chicago to New York to protest the Republican National Convention held in late August, 2004. At the time, I was Editor-in-Chief of a radical arts and politics magazine that is still around today called Lumpen—a kind of meticulous annoyance to anything representing authority—and as such I felt it was my duty to represent the dissatisfaction and general fuck-off swagger the publication aimed to embody.
Through buddies of buddies I was linked up with artist Paul Chan—who at the time was going through a serious and overt political phase. In the Bush years, before he was re-elected for a second term, it was to be expected of most young artists. We cared not for the self-reflective qualities of the Internet but for things the media called "adbusting" and "culture jamming," and for radical collectives like Toyshop, Yes Men, and Guerilla News Network. In fact, the winter before, I’d traveled with a group of 12 friends to a handful of cities in Europe on a “Regime Change for the U.S.” tour.
We had a whole program, including Situationist films, riot porn, tactical interference. I performed as an unskilled and grossly “sexy” musician character I invented named Misty Martinez, whose idea of “regime change” involved staging a shitty play to my own scrambled and undanceable techno music with themes of freedom and revolt. In Rotterdam, dressed in an ice blue satin thong leotard decorated with fabric feathers and chiffon wings, I belly-flopped off a 14-foot-high lofted platform in an artists’ warehouse, believing I could fly. Thankfully, the seven people in attendance caught me as gravity proved me wrong.
Sunday, August 29, 2004, was the day scheduled for peaceful mass protestors—accounts estimate somewhere between 120,000 and more than 500,000 people were in attendance. I met up early outside the Diesel store in Union Square with Paul Chan and a small group of his friends, all of whom had collaborated on a practical and informative map of the city, political events and venues adjacent to the march, and legal hotlines. Printed professionally just like maps were before GPS devices took over, they called it the People’s Guide to the RNC, and they had a never-ending supply of them to hand out to those about to march.
Remember the fury and threat of insidious anonymous anarcho group Black Bloc? Dressed in all black, per usual, with black handkerchiefs covering their faces, they set fire to a small float—a bicycle rickshaw with a papier-mache dragon—at Madison Square Garden, but it was out before the fire dept even got there. Around this time I saw a guy run his mouth off and get taken away. Otherwise, it was so mellow it was actually kind of boring, though afterward there were several stories of standoffs between police and protestors throwing “blood products,” which resulted in some 264 arrests.
I spent the next day, Monday, making out with a friend. Protesting had turned me on, but it wasn’t quite satisfactory for my mid-20s angst, and I wanted a release. I didn't really know if it was on with my on-again-off-again boyfriend at the time, but on the cusp of feeling like maybe my actions were making a radical difference in the world, I coolly decided there were more important things in life than caring about it.
At the heat of maybe we were going to do it, like “go all the way” as they say, I poured a glass of water on his head. That was just the sort of “whimsical” thing I would do back then, for fun. With the action now cooled, which confused me terribly (why didn’t that turn him on?), he asked me what I was going to do with my time in New York now that the protest was over.
I explained to him that the next day, known in protestor circles as A31 (it was August 31), was dedicated to a day of peaceful civil disobedience. Several small, spontaneous, simultaneous “actions”—no one called it a flash mob then—were planned, all synchronized to start at 4 PM. My friend asked me if I was scared, and I said no.
The next day, while waiting for the 4 PM start time, I wandered toward the East Village and randomly found myself at St. Mark’s Church, where all the crusties were camping out. I was all freshly showered and shiny clean, dressed in a miniskirt and camisole. The official press, identified by their badges, were having a field day with all the “freaky” footage they were getting.
I partook in the free vegan meal and sat by myself in the dirt, feeling a little lonely. Someone announced that a jail solidarity workshop was starting and I figured, What the hell, why not. So I stuck around and sat in a circle and learned a few things about strength in numbers and Jane Doe arrests. At the end of it we all held hands and sang a song about Emma Goldman and Martin Luther King going to jail, which was really corny but it felt good anyway.
At 4 PM I went to the Fox News Shut-Up-A-Thon, where maybe a hundred of us stood outside the Fox building and yelled, “Shut up!” for about a half hour. There, I ran into a girl I’d met through Paul Chan’s crew, who was also there alone. I’ll call her Natasha, and she had the curious cosmopolitan air of someone who’d grown up in New York City and gone to college for something civics oriented, but who wasn’t jaded yet from trying to use it.
As the group dispersed, Natasha and I realized that neither of us knew if anything fun and radical was going on. Why not try to find it, together?
“Have you ever been arrested?” she asked me.
“No,” I admitted sheepishly. I felt like a goodie-good baby. “Have you?”
We figured we could handle it, just in case for some reason we were. We wrote the ACLU’s hotline phone number on our arms in Sharpie, so as to be prepared. And then we wandered through Midtown, seeing if we could catch any exhilarating after-effects of A31 activity.
A march that started at the World Trade Center tribute and ended near Bryant Park with a “die-in,” coupled with all the other disturbance, had the area swarming with bicycle police. One second Natasha and I were walking, people watching and trying to figure out what was going on, and the next we were being pushed by an angry officer using his club. Then the cops used their bikes as barricades and weapons, shoving a whole bunch of us into a circle, giving Natasha some gnarly bruises. Then police threw a giant orange net fence thing on top of a few people, rounding them up underneath like animals. Those of us not under the net went running.
Natasha and I ran until her feet hurt, which wasn’t far. She was wearing shoes for standing in front of Fox News, not for sprinting from a potential beat-down from the cops. She realized we were close to Macy’s and she asked, “Would you judge me if I bought new shoes?”
I melted. I was raised in the suburbs; therefore, I loved shopping, but I never felt I could tell anyone, especially not since I was supposed to be defiantly protesting the consumer monoculture that Bush represented and encouraged.
“Of course not,” I told Natasha, and accompanied her as she bought a new pair of Pumas. In that instant, we transformed from comrades-in-arms to friends.
As soon as we exited the department store, we realized things had become significantly more fucked. We tried walking up 6th Avenue and were told by police to cross the street. We’d try to turn left onto 36th and police stationed on the corner instructed us to turn right. And so on it went for us and every other person on the sidewalk, until Natasha and I realized we were trapped on 6th Avenue. Anywhere we tried to go in a four-block radius we were stopped by police, who suddenly were wielding metal barricade gates.
We were systematically corralled in Herald Square, held in a makeshift pen with a few dozen other people—anyone who happened to be there, protestor or not. As we looked across the street in one direction and the other, we realized these pens were on every corner.
Buses carting GOP delegates started cruising through. Oh, OK, Natasha and I figured. This is just security, and we’ll be let go as soon as these fuckfaces get to wherever they were going. (I later learned their destination was a live taping of Hardball in Bryant Park.)
But we weren’t let go right away. Of course we started chanting! Everyone did. It was totally crazy! Suddenly about 10-15 people broke the police line, sat down and blocked the street, linked arms, and put on black hoods. The police immediately cuffed them, and when they refused to leave, the horse cops came in and formed in a line, threatening to trample the protestors. A police sergeant blew his whistle and the horses started to march. Everyone watching totally freaked out, yelling and demanding not to commit this violence in front of us. Suddenly the horses stopped. A paddy wagon showed up, and they dragged the hooded people away.
The police manning the barricades opened one side, ushering all of us at that intersection to disperse, which we did peacefully. We were told to walk east on 35th Street, and as soon as we turned the corner we saw a wall of police officers and their motorcycles blocking passage. Another similar wall appeared right behind us. Soon the group of a couple hundred of us—regular people just walking down the street—were split into four groups, barricaded again.
Natasha and I asked an officer if we were being held for arrest, and he said no, just hang on a sec and you’ll get to go. Two minutes later we were in cuffs on the curb and so was everyone else, including innocent bystanders and minors. I was never read my rights. This was about 9 PM, on 35th between 5th & 6th. It was the first and only time I’d ever been arrested.
Natasha and I sat next to each other in a paddy wagon, feeling like it was no big deal. We saw the lights and heard the sirens of several other police vehicles in front and in back of us. “We’ll be out in like 10 hours max,” one of us confidently told the other. We were excited for this young radical badge of honor. And then we realized we weren’t headed toward Central Booking in lower Manhattan. We were headed west.
Our destination was Pier 57, a bus depot in Chelsea that was turned into a holding cell for the RNC arrests. Enormous makeshift pens had been erected with fencing and razor wire, men and women held together in groups of several hundred at a time. The floors were covered with a thick layer of grime, consisting of the type of crud that leaks from buses: motor oil, diesel gas, antifreeze, and who knows what else. Toxic waste signs warned us of the pollution we were forced to sit in for 18 hours.
All of us were in cuffs in the main pen for at least four hours. No bathrooms were available for the first three, so some women formed a line and started a private pee corner, which ran everywhere and smelled really gross. When we finally were offered the opportunity to be released from our cuffs and use a porta-john, we also received a cup of water. And then we were searched and re-cuffed, which was the case every single time anyone wanted to use the bathroom for the first six hours or so.
A man with a badge reading Barrick was in charge of this process. I asked him politely to please not make my cuffs too tight because my right wrist was bruised and swollen. “Oh,” he said, “Don’t worry. I’m always gentle—at first.” He said the exact same thing to my friend right in front of me. But he also told her that if she wiggled out of her cuffs he’d come after her. “And you know what that means, right?”
By my best guess, we were put in individual pens perhaps around 3 AM. Benches were available, but there weren’t nearly enough for all of us to even sit on. Most of us slept (or tried to) on the grimy, nasty floor. Many asked for blankets and were denied, even though we could see a box of them right outside the pen. It was really cold and they had a giant fan blowing directly on us. I asked the guard if she could please turn off the fan and she told me no. “That’s where air comes from,” she explained.
People started breaking out in blisters and burns from the chemicals and they were treated with some iodine, a few squirts of Purell hand sanitizer, and a tightly-wrapped ace bandage. I was feeling really sick.
There was no running water or soap at the Pier. We all ate our delivered sandwiches with contaminated hands.
I know prisons aren’t supposed to be happy funland. I know the food sucks, I know the point is to treat humans like miserable animals. But our treatment at Pier 57 was beyond regular ol’ bad—it was straight-up inhumane.
By 8 AM most of us were coughing, sneezing, and blowing our noses. The cage next to us was empty—the men being held in there had been processed and moved to Central Booking—so it was being power-cleaned. The chemicals were so harsh several of us started choking, coughing, and gagging. Our voices turned really hoarse so we started asking for medical attention. We mostly just wanted these things noted on our records, but unfortunately every single officer (probably ten in all) either ignored or laughed at us. “Yeah, you do need medical attention,” one chuckled.
I got to Central Booking, aka The Tombs, around 2 PM on Wednesday, September 1, but wasn’t searched or put in a cell until about 4 PM. I’d been sitting on the jail bus in the garage, along with several hundred other women on my bus or another. The ventilation was so poor that two women passed out from poor ventilation and weren’t even removed from their seats until they’d spent 15 minutes unconscious. Another woman was severely mishandled on the bus, which resulted in a severely swollen, jacked-up shoulder. Another woman, who has a legitimate heart problem and has to monitor her pulse at all times, started panicking because her cuffs were too tight and she couldn’t get her finger under her wrist. “Oh, your cuffs are too tight?” a woman officer taunted. “Here—” and she zipped the cuffs up so tight the woman had to be rushed to the emergency room.
In Central Booking we were searched again, then put in holding cells. Eight women—including one with a prosthetic leg, which was later removed as it seemingly posed a danger to the police—were strip-searched. Then we were crammed into cells. At one point there were 120 women in one cell clearly meant for less than half that, at the maximum. There wasn’t even room to sit; everyone had to stand.
At the Pier, when we asked for a phone call or a lawyer we were laughed at. At Central Booking, about 20 hours into the ordeal, one corrections guard let a few people use the phone. But that guard did stop people after a while, saying, “Do you want to be processed or do you want to sit around and make phone calls and ask for sandwiches?” Of course we wanted to be processed so we could get out of there, so we collectively stopped asking for phone calls.
I was finally fingerprinted after about 22 hours in custody. Natasha and I had managed to stick together, and we were in a sort of unit of a couple dozen women that was shuffled around together. We ended up on the 12th floor, several cell blocks away from anyone else. My group was told it’d be no more than three hours before we got to see a judge. But it seemed they decided they just didn’t feel like dealing with us. We were ignored for hours and hours. No phone calls. No further processing. No answers.
At this point I had to stop eating, as all the food we were given contained stuff I’m legitimately allergic to and I didn’t feel like getting extremely sick.
Three women in my cell had serious health issues. One had an acid reflux disease and had to sleep with her head elevated or else she’d choke in her sleep; she had prescription medication but it was confiscated. Another had a kidney infection and all she asked for was purified water, because the tap water out of the rusty jail sink could kill her; they denied her over and over again, though we did convince one regular inmate who was cleaning the cell next to us to pour a little of his bottled water into a cup for her. And a third had a serious sinus infection and her face was swelling up; she asked to see the in-house medic but was told no way, she had to go straight to the emergency room, which would tack on another three days to her stay.
Meanwhile, we all begged for blankets. It was unbearably cold sleeping on that cement floor, especially since I was wearing basically nothing. We were told no over and over again. Natasha and I embraced inside her hoodie for warmth, curled up on the floor and sharing armholes in a Siamese twin embrace.
After 38 hours we were still in jail. We could hear the whoops of excitement and support as those being held in cells on lower floors were released. Meanwhile, we’d begun to hear sporadic cheers and chants outside the building. Apparently word was spreading to the general public about the 1,200-some of us being held illegally, and many had come out to hang out and wait for us in solidarity.
I was finally allowed to use the phone, so I called my parents. It was a total, “Hi Dad, I’m in jail” Pump Up the Volume moment. “Are you satisfied now?” my dad asked me. I hung up, crying silently, then called the Chicago Reader, where I worked at the time, to tell them I wouldn’t be into work because I’d been arrested.
Our guard told us that we were being too quiet and nothing was going to happen for us unless he reported to his supervisor that he sensed a threat of violence (wink wink, nudge nudge). Plus, he told us, something got messed up with our fingerprinting, and we might have to do it all over again, and re-start the process from the beginning.
The 24 of us in the cell collectively decided to take action. At 10:15 AM on Thursday we all stripped naked, reached our arms through the pen and snatched the lid off the nearest garbage can, and banged and stomped while screaming. “This is illegal, process us now!” “Take our photos, let us go!” One woman ransacked the saved bits of her dinner the night before and wrote the word HOSTAGE on her belly in ketchup.
Soon the whole 12th floor was screaming and banging. There was a media conference being held outside, and later we discovered they’d actually heard us. After a half hour straight of our monkey business, the corrections guard made a few phone calls to his supervisor. At 11 AM two white-shirt officials came up and told us to put our clothes on and they’d start processing some of us.
Quickly after this, Natasha got to go. We tearily said goodbye, and she promised she would wait for me. I told her to save herself.
About 2 PM I was called with four other women for our mug shots. We were chained together and taken down a hall, and then one officer realized that nope, it actually wasn’t time for us after all, and he tried to put us back in a small cell still all chained together. A corrections officer had to argue with him intensely not to do this.
About 4 PM I got my mug shot and met with the medic. He didn’t ask me anything really, just checked off a bunch of boxes: “I’m sure you got your TB shot, blah blah blah, you get your period, blah blah, no, no, probably no allergies—” and that’s where I stopped him and made him write in my food allergies.
Eventually I was transferred down to a cell near the judge around 8:15 PM. Apparently I had been lost in the system and didn’t have a number to my name until about 6 PM that night. At 9 PM just ten of us were left, most of us there because the police lost our files.
By this point the ACLU had long filed habeas corpus, and the Court had ordered itself to process us and let us go. The city was being fined for every hour per head that we were being held. And still, I was there.
We were told we’d just be released with no charges, but then the main sergeant had to take his dinner break and wouldn’t be back for an hour and a half. Finally an officer showed up and opened the door. He was releasing us and told us to just leave and not look back, no paperwork given, no judge or lawyer seen, no questions asked.
So at 11 PM on Thursday, September 2, I walked out, the last woman held under arrest for … wait, I don’t even know what. I never found out.
As I blinked in the cool darkness of my new freedom, I saw news crews and camera flashes and protestors and parents. My friend Patrick (not the same one I’d been making out with days prior) marched up and grabbed my arm in a gesture of relief and anger. For my trip to New York I'd planned on staying with him and his wife, not in jail, and when I didn’t come back within a reasonable amount of time, he knew what had happened. He’d been camping out with the dads, waiting for irresponsible idealists such as myself to be released.
And then I saw Natasha. She rushed up and gave me a huge hug, and stuffed a spring roll in my mouth, knowing how hungry I must be after not eating for nearly two days. We felt like we’d survived, like we’d fused, and the idea of not spending a night sharing a sleeping surface was just ridiculous. So I asked Patrick if he minded if I spent the night with her, and he let us go.
Off into the night we went, arms linked. We took a cab to her mom’s apartment—I don’t know where it was, I was deliriously exhausted at this point. We fell asleep in her soft bed spooning, whispering jail gossip to each other. The next morning I went back to Patrick’s, and I never saw her again.