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 was—without 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 Tour—an 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.
“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.
“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.”
I looked around at the cell. Someone had tagged “Problem Child” on the wall. I stared at those words so long they began taking shape in my own impromptu poem. More time passed. I wondered how long I would be in jail. The poetry was flowing, but there was nothing poetic or just about where I was. No one took my prints again.
At a poetry reading during my last semester of law school, a Liberian filmmaker who had been a finalist at the Sundance Film Festival the year before asked me to audition for his latest project. I had no prior interest in acting, but read for the role anyway. Several months later, I received a call from the director, Kona Khasu, asking me to play the lead. His movie, Hunting in America, told the story of a young attorney who is racially profiled while driving a black truck, almost exactly as I had been. Khasu knew nothing about my incident with the NYPD. And here I was, in jail again. This was life imitating art imitating life.
I wondered if anyone would believe me when they heard I had been wrongfully arrested again. I could hardly believe it myself. Since I was interviewed on 60 Minutes in 2001 about the first incident, I have had more than a dozen cases of identity theft. Funds have been removed from my bank account; credit cards obtained with my Social Security number have been maxed out.
A security guard at Columbia University arrested a young man carrying an ID card with my name and his picture. My law school dean was called by a judge in New Jersey who claimed I had interviewed with him, clerked at his courthouse for a week, and then stolen his bankruptcy files. During a telephone conversation a few days later, I discovered several inconsistencies on the résumé he had with my name. It was only after the judge received a copy of my law school photo ID that the judge believed I was not the thief in question.
Later that same day, while prepping me to return to court, Alison Webster advised me not to mention having a law degree or teaching at a university. The judge gave me a $50 ticket for having a busted taillight. (Months later, I received a notice from the Department of Motor Vehicles. The reason my license had been suspended and confiscated was that the DMV had failed to process records proving insurance coverage for my truck.) But there were still three warrants for my arrest, one of which included a felony charge of grand larceny. The judge said I would have to return to Manhattan Criminal Court for another hearing. He set bail for me. My family arrived that evening with the money. The clerk counted out $3,000, then apologized.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “We don’t have any more bail receipts. Mr. Bain will not be able to go home with you today.” The prison was out of paper. So I spent another night in jail.
Day 3 Monday, November 25
Before the sun came up, I was among a dozen or so inmates chained together to board a bus for Rikers Island. An iron-barred door was locked to separate the driver and a correctional officer from the rows of inmates seated in the back of the bus. Just before we pulled off, I overheard a senior officer change our destination to a place he called “The VCBC.” We went to a dock at Hunts Point in the Bronx, and drove onto a boat. It was a floating jail. The sign in front of the gates read: “Vernon C. Bain Correctional Center.” The irony was overwhelming. This boat shared the name of the family that once owned my ancestors. And here I was, centuries later, being loaded back onto a ship in chains.
We were ordered to strip naked and prepare for cavity searches. A young inmate who voiced his reluctance to do so was dragged into a back room by three guards. Every man in line heard his cries as he was beaten.
At dawn, I was taken with several inmates to the criminal courthouse in Manhattan. The officer who processed my paperwork laughed when I said I wasn’t guilty. His response echoed a cliché from countless films: “Sure you’re innocent. So is everybody here.”
A well-dressed young attorney, Eric Williams, introduced himself to me. I began to discuss strategy with the namesake of the man who fought to liberate my parents’ native Trinidad from colonial rule. This Williams was a former student of one of the leading defense attorneys in the U.S.: Jill Soffiyah Elijah, whom I had called collect from jail the day before. We had met at Harvard’s Criminal Justice Institute, where she teaches and represents clients from Dorchester and Roxbury.
Williams asked the court for my prints and photos, but his request was denied. He told Judge Robert M. Stolz that this was the seventh case of identity theft I had experienced since I was unjustly arrested two years prior. The assistant district attorney, Justin Herdman, interrupted him. “Your honor,” began the dark-haired young man in a blue suit, “to avoid any potential conflict of interest, I should inform you that I know the defendant. He was in my law school class at Harvard.”
The press secretary of the Manhattan district attorney’s office and Herdman both said the ADA could not comment on the case.
Stolz ordered the delivery of the arrest photos and fingerprints just before the afternoon recess. He ordered me released on my own recognizance, but I was told to return after lunch. I was then taken back to my cell to sign release forms. Three documents were handed to me.
One had my name printed on it, and the others had the name “Anwar Bostick” typed above my Social Security number. The papers seemed to suggest that Bostick had obtained my name and personal information. When arrested for the crimes with which I had been charged that weekend, he somehow passed off my identity as his own, was released after making bail, and then failed to show up for his court date. His three arrest warrants were thus reissued—in my name. Because our arrest photos and fingerprints were never compared when I was arrested, it was nearly Monday evening by the time anyone in the system found out we were not the same person.
I refused to sign the release forms. “You’ll sign them if you want to get out of here,” a guard said. Another officer agreed.
“Anwar Bostick is your alias,” the second officer informed me while flipping through the forms. “Are you refusing to sign this? Because if you are, you’ll just have to sit in jail and wait until whenever they get around to calling you back to court.” I refused to incriminate myself. They ignored the judge’s ruling that I be released, and returned me to a basement holding cell.
After lunch, a captain and lieutenant for the Department of Corrections showed up to settle the dispute. Following a lengthy debate, it was discovered that my signature was not even necessary. According to the captain, someone without the authority to do so had introduced the mandatory signature policy as “a rule” and it had become the standard.
“You do the wrong thing long enough,” he explained, “and it becomes right.”