By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
Saturday night, November 23, 2002,I was pulled over on the Bruckner Expressway because of a broken taillight. The police officer who ran my license claimed I had multiple warrants out for my arrest, and I was thrown in jail to begin a weekend I will not soon forget.
During the next three days, I was interrogated about "terrorist activity"whether I was involved with a terrorist group or knew anyone else who waswithout an attorney present. My Legal Aid lawyer claimed she was also a medical professional and diagnosed me as mentally ill when I told her I teach poetry at New York University. After my bail was posted, I was held behind bars another night because central booking ran out of the receipts required for my release. On my third day in jail, accused of two misdemeanors and a felony I knew nothing about, I was finally found innocent, and allowed to go home.
These events are not in themselves that extraordinary. Black men and women in this country have for centuries experienced far worse episodes with law enforcement. This incident is striking because it occurred at a time when I have been working to expose the injustice and inhumanity of the prison crisis in America, and because it was not the first time I was unjustly jailed.
Six months after I was racially profiled in 1999, The Village Voice published a story I wrote entitled "Walking While Black," recounting the wrongful arrest I experienced with my brother and cousin outside the now defunct Latin Quarter nightclub in Manhattan. The story was read by several hundred thousand people and received a response unprecedented in the paper's history. The 400 pages of mail sent to me in the following weeks indicated how widespread the epidemic of police misconduct is across the nation.
By May 2000, months after my initial arrest, the organization my family founded to empower communities of color using the arts, education, and activism began developing a national campaign to raise awareness about the prison-industrial complex. Months later, Blackout Arts Collective launched the Lyrics on Lockdown Touran annual road trip that brings hip-hop and spoken-word poetry to correctional facilities and community venues around the country. In November 2002, Blackout received the Union Square Award for our grassroots organizing efforts. The next day, I was arrested, strip-searched, and thrown into jail. (As a result of events detailed here, a notice of claim has been filed reserving the right to sue the culpable parties involved with the second case.)
Day 1 Saturday, November 23
It began with a familiar request: "License and registration, please." My truck had a flickering light bulb from a recent accident. I expected a traffic ticket, but one of the policemen said they were required to run a routine check. With the requested documents in hand, Officer Caraballo and his partner returned to their vehicle. Ten minutes later, I heard, "Get out of the car and come here!" As I walked nervously toward them, the partner approached me with his hand on his gun. I was told to place my hands on the hood of their car. I was searched, then handcuffed.
"Why are you arresting me?" I asked. "I haven't done anything wrong." The partner removed the wallet from my pocket and rummaged through its contents. He confiscated my driver's license, saying it was suspended. There were warrants out for my arrest, I was told. We raced to the 41st Precinct, where I was fingerprinted and had my mug shot taken. No one ever told me what charges were on the warrants that bore my name. I was not allowed to call a lawyer. I was in jail for the night, period.
Hours later, I sat in a Bronx cell with 12 other inmates and a backed-up toilet. An elderly man in the adjacent cell insisted he needed desperately to use the bathroom. He was ushered into our space. As they let him in, he ignored all of us and went straight to the stool. "Spray, spray! Guard, get the spray!" yelled an inmate who knew we were entitled to disinfectant. The guard said they had run out of spray. The older man was taken back to his cell, but we were left with an inescapable reminder of his visit.
Day 2 Sunday, November 24
As the next day crept by, I watched a pair of inmates trying to break into a pay phone. Another boasted of how adept his attorney was at getting him acquitted of major felonies he had actually committed. We were given bologna sandwiches for lunch. When asked for my dietary restrictions the previous day, I had informed them I am a vegetarian.
I was later moved to a second cell with another set of inmates. Shortly thereafter, I was taken to an interrogation room. A court-appointed attorney walked in. Rachel Dole, a brunette of medium height and build, handed me a card identifying her as an employee of the Bronx Legal Aid Society. She sat across from me and talked as she looked through a file. Her questions were general and our dialogue direct. Recalling our conversation to the best of my ability, I wrote it down the next day.