“Words aren’t criminal, ma’am.” That’s what the cop said in response to my feeble attempt to bring a little levity into the situation as I sat in the back of a squad car, hands cuffed behind my back. He had just asked whether I had anything criminal in my knapsack. “Just one of my students’ dissertations,” I replied. “And I haven’t read it yet, so I can’t tell you whether it’s criminal.”
“Words aren’t criminal, ma’am.”
Then what was I doing there? After all, he’d busted me for a remark.
I had been running late when I headed down the steps to the number 1 train at 50th and Broadway on Monday afternoon. I followed the signs through the tunnel to the A train, figuring it would get me home faster, landed on an uptown platform on the other side of a turnstile and couldn’t find any underground passage to the other side. A young, white cop was leaning against the wall nearby. I approached. “Excuse me, isn’t there a tunnel to the downtown side?”
Those are apparently fighting words in these post-Diallo, post-Dorismond days. Maybe the cops were preparing for the release of the Civil Rights Commission report on racial profiling and figured they had better start treating everybody the same. So any human being is a potential perp.
Faster than you can say CCRB, our exchange escalated. “Can’t they just put up a sign that says Downtown Only?” I blurted in exasperation. “What for?” replied the cop. “Most people are smart enough to get it right.” This is New York, so there’s only one civilized retort, and I made it. “Oh, don’t be an asshole,” I said, in a tone more put-upon than accusatory. I started to walk away, but he grabbed my sleeve. “Oh, come on, this is absurd,” I said, as tourists glanced up from their Times Square visitor center maps.
“You’re under arrest for disorderly conduct. Let me see some ID.” When I hesitated, he threatened, “You want charges for resisting, too?” I handed over my license, and inspected his badge for his name: Virtukas. Patting me down, he demanded to know whether I had any drugs or weapons in my coat. “Just a cell phone,” I answered—and couldn’t help adding, “please don’t mistake it for a gun.” The cuffs went on, tight.
At the precinct, I was thoroughly searched—pockets pulled inside out, entire body groped, crotch sort of goosed in a couple of swift upward strokes. In spite of knowing that humiliating me was the sole purpose of this exercise, I started to cry.
The two cops who removed my cuffs, took my belt, and put me in a holding cell were surprised to see my cuffs so tight, and asked me what had happened. I told them. When Virtukas walked in, they greeted him with “Hey, asshole” and broke up laughing. They let me have my student’s dissertation to read while I waited an hour and a half for Virtukas to fill out my paperwork.
But I could hardly concentrate on Queer Dramaturgies: Contemporary Gay Male Culture, Politics, and Theater. I kept looking at Vincent Virtukas, wondering what might happen to someone who isn’t a citizen or who has a darker complexion than mine or who just doesn’t have ID on them after an innocuous run-in with a hair-trigger temper in uniform. I asked Virtukas about what kind of conflict-resolution training cops get, how they’re taught to de-escalate tense situations, but he wouldn’t engage.
He did offer me some friendly advice, though, when he unlocked my cell, handed me my summons, and warned me that if I didn’t respond there would be a warrant out for my arrest. “You wouldn’t want cops banging down your door at four in the morning one night, or to have them come looking for you on Thanksgiving when you’re with your family,” he explained. “That would be absurd.”