GREY CITY

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May 25, 2012

The strong arm of the law


Courtesy of Nicholas Shatan

As a reporter, I’m used to seeing my name in the bylines, not the headlines. I want to tell the story, not be in it. I never thought I would experience police brutality firsthand, but I did. And now that I’ve gone through the same trials and setbacks as those I have reported on, it’s time for me to step back into the bylines to tell my story.

I was arrested for saving a girl’s life, not for demonstrating with Occupy Chicago or pro- testing the NATO summit. I did not ask to get arrested as a political statement.

Looking back, I see a seemingly innocuous sign of what was to come. Last March, I had been assigned to follow up with an article for the Maroon on Gregory Malandrucco and Mat- thew Clark, two University affiliates who were allegedly beaten up by plain clothes CPD officers a year ago. Greg and Matt had recently obtained and released surveillance footage of the officers who assaulted them that night, and the interview with them was to see if there were new developments in the case.

One of the most salient memories I have of that first meeting was Greg’s struggle to retell the story of what happened to him and Matt that night. There were moments of silence and reflection—emotional collateral in every word that Greg spoke. I would never have guessed that I, too, would one day share with Matt and Greg my own experiences with police brutality.

My story begins like any other 20-something’s typical weekend. I was out at a nightclub on the West Side of Chicago for my friend’s 22nd birthday. Toward the end of the night, I saw a girl lying unconscious on the dance floor. As a certified first responder, I stopped to ensure that she got the proper medical attention. I went through all the basic procedures. I checked her pulse. It was faint. She was not responding to verbal or physical stimuli, which suggested alcohol poisoning. My questions to the individuals around her revealed that she was there by herself and the woman who was with her did not know her personally. I told someone to call 911 and repositioned her flat on her back with her head tilted to the side so that no vomit got into her airways.

Despite my hesitation about a potential neck injury, the bouncer carried her over his back and out of the club, where I stayed with her until the paramedics came about 15 minutes later.

The police came with the paramedics and dispersed the crowd surrounding the girl. After handing over care of the girl to the paramedics, I backed away from the police perimeter. However, as a matter of potential liability, I wanted to leave any information that might be medically relevant to the girl later at the hospital with a law enforcement official at the scene, especially considering how the bouncer had carried the girl down the stairs over his back.

I approached a nearby officer and presented myself as CPR/first responder certified.

“Officer, I need to leave you information about the victim...”

But before I could finish, he cut me off and said, “You need to back off and leave the area. The professionals are here and have everything under control.”

“I understand that Officer, but I don’t...”

“If you don’t fucking back off right now, I’m going to arrest you.”

He then forcefully grabbed my arm and shoved me back several feet.

I was livid. As I was thrown back by the officer’s forceful push, my friend caught me and held me back despite my vocal protest that what the officer had just done was wrong.

Eventually I broke free from my friend’s restraint and walked back toward the officer with the intent of asking him for his star number and name in order to file a report with the Independent Police Review Authority.

“What is your badge number and your...”

Before I could finish my question, he twisted my right arm to my back. My whole body convulsed in pain when he applied additional pressure and secured my other arm behind my back.

One of my most salient memories from that seconds-long encounter was that, as he dragged me away to his patrol vehicle, I screamed out in pain and desperation to the crowd to no avail.

“Please, please help! He’s hurting me! He’s hurting me! Someone please, he’s hurting me! I did nothing wrong!”

For fear of the same repercussions, no one dared stop him. The officer then pushed me against his patrol car to secure handcuffs on me and “tossed” (as he would describe it at my trial last month) me into the back of his car.

Another officer, who I assumed was his partner, got into the car with me.

“What are you arresting and charging me with?” I asked.

“Oh, it can be a number of things, failure to disperse and follow orders from a police officer. We’ll decide when we get to the station, so don’t you worry about it.”

Growing up in Los Angeles in a culture fostered by memories of Rodney King and knowing neighbors who had the words “fuck the police” shaved into their heads, I knew resentment grew from a history of police brutality and corruption. The stories I heard when I was a child, as well as Greg and Matt’s experiences, all came rushing back. Even one of the readings I did for my Law and Society class, a study on police interrogation and intimidation tactics, joined the maddening thoughts flooding into my head.

Now I was having a firsthand encounter with those tactics and those feelings of resentment. The car reached the Wood Street Station in the 13th district at 2:30 a.m. I wouldn’t leave the station to be transferred and subsequently processed at the female lock-up for another four hours. It was during this time that my vague notions of police culture would become a full-blown reality.

Police culture places a large emphasis on absolute authority and its use as an intimida- tion mechanism. In the dialogue between cap- tive and capturer, reason does not factor into the discussion. It is a fruitless conversation based on circular logic and fallacious acts of subordination. The reinforcing fraternal cohesion among the cops at the station and their adamancy in demonizing me shook my own cognizance of what happened that night and even my belief in my own innocence in the weeks to follow.

When I tried to explain myself, one of the female cops replied with, “You think you’re Ms. Hero saving the world? Well, I’m giving [the victim] your personal information so that if anything happens to her, she’ll sue you. Also, if you’re thinking about suing us, we can always subpoena the tapes and we’ll see who’s right. Remember, whatever document you sign your name on is a legal document and you’re held under oath. I can’t wait until the day we can sue you guys back. They need to make that happen.”

They allowed me to call one friend before taking my phone away. Thankfully my friend Jonathan was still awake, and he and another friend took a cab to the station—only to be told that it would still be hours before the station could even book me.

As I was sitting there, watching them discuss the crimes they could plausibly charge me with, I realized this was the B.A. topic I had been searching for all summer. Although this was not necessarily the ideal situation in which I had hoped my Einstein moment would occur, I took it as it was and voiced my gratitude to the cop who had arrested me for his timely role in reinvigorating my intellectual pursuit of knowledge.

I would not be released for another five and a half hours, at 11:30 a.m. the next day. During that time, I was stripped of my personal belongings, fingerprinted and processed, and kept in a cell while I waited for someone to come post bail for my release. Though the officer who arrested me had mercifully allowed me to write down a few numbers on my hand at the police station, they were wiped off my palms when they were cleaned for fingerprinting. One of two numbers on my hand was Jonathan’s, and he couldn’t accept my collect calls without a credit card. The other was my friend Maritza’s, who thankfully accepted my call.

However, I still had a long wait ahead of me before she could arrive, and it was tortuous. When you’re in the confines of a cell, sitting on a cold slab of metal with nothing to occupy your mind, you experience a momentary lapse in sanity.

“This is what you get for breaking the law!” the female attendants kept yelling at me. Pleading with them about my innocence was stupid and pointless.

As I waited for Maritza, fears that she might not find me for another 24 hours before I could get released mentally and physically crippled me. Never had I felt so hopeless.

Maritza and her cousin finally arrived at the station and I was released with two counts of resisting arrest. The minute we got into the car I fell into Maritza’s arms crying. It was an amalgamation of all the anger, indignation, and despair I had suppressed all night and morning.

Despite everything that had happened that night, I still possessed a naïveté that compelled me to believe that my name would be vindicated in a court of law.

My first of many court dates was November 2. As expected, my cop showed up bright and early at 9 a.m. Not as expected was the overwhelming sense of fear that resurfaced when I saw him again.

We set a date two weeks later for November 16, during which I would appear at the 555 West Harrison Street courthouse to schedule the date for my actual trial, which was then set for January 30. I read Malcolm Feeley’s book The Process Is the Punishment for class, and its succinct title captured my experiences in five words.

In fact, during one of my interviews for my B.A. thesis, I spoke to a cop who revealed that there was an unspoken rule that if a civilian asked for the badge number, you arrest them. My cop was getting paid to lose a day of work to go to court, while I had to skip classes that I couldn’t afford to miss. That was my punish- ment for holding a policeman accountable.

On the morning of January 30, I learned that all the cases at 555 West Harrison Street had been transferred to another courthouse at 25th Street and California Avenue. On a day when I had hoped to finally be redeemed in the eyes of the law, this long and arduous process was prolonged by at least another two months. I then had another date scheduled for March 1 in order to decide my final trial date.

The courthouse at 25th and California stood in stark contrast to 555 West Harrison. Stand- ing next to a penitentiary, it boasted a menac- ing exterior and an equally depressing interior, with off-white courtrooms illuminated by garish fluorescent lights. My trial date was set for April 18, two days before my B.A. thesis was due.

Much of this whole ordeal had been about waiting. Waiting for the next date and waiting for what sometimes felt like a drawn out indefinite end.

One of the things I have learned in and out of the classroom by this point is the cultish style of operation of the American judicial system. It is a system that favors its own, those who possess an intricate knowledge of its inner workings, from prosecutors to police officers.

As a result, my case depended solely on my lawyer’s experience and connections. Luckily, my lawyer knew the system well. He understood my chances with each judge, the effect each officer would have on the witness stand, and, incidentally, informed me of my arresting officer’s history of being rough with females.

Because at the end of the day, the charges brought against me weren’t an act to deter future disobedience of the law. If that were the case, what kind of Aesop’s fable moral would this send to all the arrogant college students such as myself? That you will be arrested and prosecuted in the court of law if you responsibly help someone?

No. My cop’s attitude told me nothing about respect for the law, only about his desire to punish me for a perceived challenge of authority, the authority of a Chicago Police Department officer. Prior to the trial itself, my lawyer went over what I was going to say on the stand, and a part of me was excited to tell my side of the story.

The judge we got that day favored bench trials over jury trials. Accordingly, my lawyer informed me that opting for a jury trial would actually jeopardize my case. Instead, a bench trial increased my chances of a full acquittal.

The officer who had arrested me and the female officer who had booked me came to the stand. The prosecutor questioned them on what happened that night, basing the case on the fact that I was drunk and didn’t know what I was doing. It did not look good at that point. Every objection raised by my lawyer was over- ruled and I began to feel apprehensive.

However, halfway through the prosecution’s questioning, my lawyer leaned over to me and whispered, “You’re going to be not guilty.” He then decided to waive calling up his one and only witness: me.

Like I said before, my lawyer’s experience with the law sometimes borders on mystical. Afterward, when I asked him how he had known, he replied like a magician who refuses to reveal his tricks, “When you do this long enough, you just know.”

But before the judge gave out his decision, he decided to reprimand me in theatrical fashion:

“Young lady, what you did that night jeopardized what these fine men and women of the law were trying to do to save someone’s life. This is America, a country based on the rule of law, and you are compromising the very values of this nation. I have reviewed all the evidence of this case and I hope you learn from your mistakes.”

The whole time that the judge was reciting this dramatic monologue, my lawyer leaned over and told me to ignore everything he said.

“I find you ‘not guilty.’”

What just happened? Did my lawyer orchestrate a deal before the trial? Was this all a the- atrical production done for reeducating me in a civic lesson? My seven-month-long saga ended not with any dramatic legal banter between the prosecution and my lawyer but with a simple not guilty ruling. I wasn’t complaining, but at the same time I still didn’t understand what had happened.

After court was adjourned, my lawyer told me to stay behind while he went into the room behind the courtroom to the judge’s chamber.

He then came back out and led me out of the courtroom.

“That was absolutely ridiculous! I can’t believe he said all of that. Outrageous!”

The whole time, I was under the assumption that the judge was just putting on a show and I asked, “Wait. So everything he had said about the rule of law...he was serious?”

“He meant every word of it! That was absolutely unbelievable the way he yelled at you like that. Which is why I went back and talked to him afterwards. I told him that all you did was try to help a girl. Given, I stretched it a bit and said you don’t even drink but that was just so over the top. He did not need to say all those things to you. Actually, I don’t think I can try another case in front of that judge after telling him off.”

I’ve often described my experience as Kafka-esque. My experiences served to not only further confirm my skepticism about the law but also highlight the arbitrariness of its enforcement and execution. I didn’t learn any real lessons, and I have no trite inspirational one-liners to move the masses. I have only a compelling story, and I hope you can make sense of the absurdity of my predicaments.