Three Days in NYC Jails

Black = Terrorist = Thug: The New Racial Profile?

"Have you ever been arrested?"

"Yes," I said, "but I was racially profiled. The case was dismissed."

"Did you know about these warrants?" she asked.

"This floating jail shared the name of the family that once owned my ancestors."
photo: Marc Asnin
"This floating jail shared the name of the family that once owned my ancestors."

"No, I didn't."

Dole never looked up from the file or made eye contact with me. "Just promise me that you'll show up in court," she said.

"Of course, I'll show up," I said. "Can you just tell me what these warrants are for?"

She got up from her chair and walked away. She stopped at the door and turned to me before exiting. "You know what these warrants are for," she said.

I was led back to the second cell to wait some more. After a half-hour, I was led to a third cell. Then a guard came for me, and I was taken to a hallway where six other inmates waited. Every 10 minutes or so, a door at the end of the hall opened and a guard would come to take one of us into a courtroom. The inmates tried to guess what kind of mood to expect from the judge. I was still wondering why I was there.

Inside the courtroom, Dole stood before a podium, where I was to stand at her side. I was still a few feet away when she spoke to me, loud enough for the judge to hear.

"You actually have three warrants out for your arrest," Dole said.

"I don't know anything about those. They have nothing to do with me," I answered.

Dole said she could have my fingerprints taken again so they could be compared against those that generated the arrest warrants. I told her to go ahead; I had done nothing wrong. She asked that I be taken back to my cell until I could be reprinted.

Dole told the Voice she could not comment, as she had no recollection of the case, but added that it was likely that she would have recommended redoing the fingerprints.

Twenty minutes later, I was once again in the interrogation room. This time, Alison Webster, a slender blonde attorney also employed by Bronx Legal Aid, came in and sat across from me. She said she was just in the courtroom and had witnessed what occurred. Webster took the card given to me by Dole, scratched out the name, and wrote hers above it, along with her phone number. She told me not to take Dole's behavior personally; sometimes things like that happen. They were busy. Overwhelmed. But she was there to help.

Webster's words were comforting, but her appearance was alarming. Her face was hidden behind a surgical mask. Wearing plastic gloves, she extended a hand to shake one of my shackled hands. Then she flipped through my file. "This doesn't add up," Webster said, according to my notes from the next day. "You say you started college in 1991, but what did you say was your date of birth?" Realizing the cause for her confusion, I told her I had skipped two grades before college. "That may be why your numbers seem off," I explained. Webster questioned me further.

"When did you go to high school?"

"I finished in 1991."

"And how did you pay for college?"

"Scholarships and loans."

"You say you went to law school?"

"In Cambridge, Massachusetts."

The questioning continued as I told her I was a graduate of Columbia University, where I had been president of my class all four years, before earning a master's from NYU, and then studying law at Harvard. But my résumé was no match for what she believed to be my rap sheet. She asked why I hadn't responded to the notices mailed to me about the warrants. I told her I knew nothing about them, and then shared with her that I had been out of the country for the past month.

"Where were you?" she asked.

"In India," I said. "Writing and doing research. I teach downtown at NYU."

After that, Webster changed her approach.

"In addition to being an attorney," she said, "I am also a registered nurse specializing in mental illness. And it is my professional obligation to inform you that you may have a bipolar disorder."

I was so shocked I had no idea how to respond. "You probably don't teach at NYU," she continued. "You probably never went to India last month. Frankly, I'm not sure anything you've told me is the truth." I still couldn't speak. "It's nothing bad," Webster assured me. "Sometimes people create alternate realities for themselves as a coping mechanism for dealing with stress."

I told her that if she checked my fingerprints, she would see my real background.

"This isn't anything racist," Webster replied, apropos of nothing. "Sometimes these things just happen."

After she was faxed a privacy waiver required for her to answer questions, Webster failed to respond to at least six Voice calls.

Webster never asked me about my medical history. She never asked if there was any history of mental illness in my family. I was returned to my cell. As I waited, I recalled some lyrics from a poem by Assata Shakur: "They say you're crazy/'cause you not crazy enough/ to kneel when told to kneel . . . /'cause you expose their madness."

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