Basically, it’s not going to be a picnic. So stick a sandwich or two in your pocket when you go to the demo. Because if you get arrested and locked up for 24 or 36 hours, the food you’ll receive—if any—is going to be repulsive. The advice of activist lawyer and talk show host Ron Kuby: “I’d plan to skip a meal or two.”
During the four days of protests, maybe you’ll be taking advantage of Mayor Bloomberg’s peaceful-demonstrator discounts at hotels and restaurants, dining on fine viands with your signs and banners neatly stacked beside the table. But while the mayor has labored to show his welcoming face to the 200,000 out-of-town protesters expected, privately he’s been plotting a different greeting. According to D.A. Robert Morgenthau, 1,000 arrests are expected per day—4,000 total for the entire convention—so it’s not impossible that you’ll be caught in a punitive roundup. In addition, according to The New York Times, of the 94 arrests during the April 7, 2003, anti-war demonstration in New York, 70 were onlookers who were guilty of nothing more than watching police nab other demonstrators. So don’t expect to evade incarceration by being your usual peaceful self.
In fact, as I write this, the head of the Disorder Control Unit, Deputy Inspector Thomas Graham, is conducting maneuvers at Brooklyn’s Floyd Bennett Field. In these drills, young police cadets dressed up as demonstrators carry authentic signs (“No Justice, No Peace”). In one exercise, the “protesters” surround a bus carrying frightened conventioneers, trying to lure the driver out of the bus on the pretense he’s run over someone. Then cops in riot gear storm in and make arrests.
So, what can you expect when you get arrested? A few years back I got caught in a Giuliani quality-of-life sweep, as four beefy plainclothes cops burst out of their unmarked van in front of a friend’s music studio in Hell’s Kitchen, and proceeded to arrest me and a pal for smoking a roach so small that by the time they got to us, it had disappeared completely. Never mind the lack of evidence, we were bundled off to the Manhattan North precinct and thrown into a holding tank with dangerous shoplifters and guys caught drinking beer out of paper bags, then filed away in a sliver of a cell with no bed but a narrow wooden bench. During a 20-hour jailing, we were fed only two meals, and I’ve remembered them as well as any I’ve ever eaten in my life. The first, thrust through the bars at 11 p.m., fully eight hours after we were arrested, came wrapped in smeary white paper—a fantastically stale bagel with a sodden fried egg between the split halves. No butter, no salt, no pepper. Trying to chew it burned up nearly as many calories as the meal provided. There was also a cup of coffee creamed and extravagantly sugared, the one bright spot in the meal.
After a sleepless night—not because of remorse, but because the wooden shelf wasn’t big enough to accommodate either of us—a guy in a gray shirt with some kind of deli logo popped up at 5 a.m., bearing a big cardboard box of sandwiches. He pulled two out for us, and you can imagine my surprise when it turned out—again—to be a stale bagel. This time there was a thin slice of cheddar and no mayo or mustard. The question occurred to me: “Are the cops aging these bagels like fine wine, or are city contractors taking this as a good opportunity to chisel on their food contracts?”
Unfortunately, you may be pretty hungry after being jammed in a paddy wagon with dozens of others and tied at the wrists with painful plastic cords that get tighter the more you struggle, and enduring a disorienting ride in a windowless van that stops at various arrest sites until the quota of bodies is filled. Then you’ll enjoy a stop at the booking desk of a police precinct, or—who knows?—some outdoor arena secretly set aside for the purpose. (Bill Dobbs, media coordinator for United for Peace and Justice, ticked off for me some of the bizarre rumors afloat about where police would be taking demonstrators. The weirdest involved handcuffed arrestees being marched aboard a commandeered Staten Island Ferry.) Eventually, of course, you’ll probably be fingerprinted, placed in a holding pen, then transferred to a tiny, vermin-infested cell, where you’re likely to experience a long, long wait for a biteful of food.
Showing no compunction, Officer Murray of the Midtown South Public Affairs Office recounted food that jailed demonstrators should expect. “Usually breakfast, they get McDonald’s—an egg sandwich and orange juice; lunch, a bologna and cheese sandwich, I think, and the same for dinner. I don’t know what they get if they go into the correction facility.” Brooklyn public defender Adrian Lesher reports similar culinary experiences on the part of his clients: “The norm seems to be bologna sandwiches.” Not much help to vegetarians and vegans, of course, or anyone who eschews greasy meat, or has other dietary or health restrictions. In fact, accounts are common of diabetics and others in tenuous health being deprived of their medications and ending up in the hospital after a brief prison stay on a minor charge. Ron Kuby cautions us not to confuse prison food—which can be comparatively good, since well-fed prisoners have been shown to be more docile—with food in a temporary lockup: “At the short-terms jails, the precincts where you spend a night or central booking, the food is abysmal or horrific, a watery cup of coffeeish substance, sometimes an egg-like thing, sometimes just bread.”
It’s not different in other cities. Steve Rendall of FAIR (Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting) reports that, when arrested after an anti–Clear Channel protest in San Francisco, he was fed solely on stale white bread slathered with rancid peanut butter that made him retch. Pittsburgh protesters jailed for 30 hours after participating in a peaceful march of 5,000 reported that they were fed three meals: “Breakfast consisted of a small bowl of corn flakes with milk; lunch consisted of a very small soggy bologna and American cheese sandwich, two cookies, and an orange drink; dinner consisted of another soggy bologna and American cheese sandwich, one cookie, and an orange drink.” The objective of the jailers can’t be to ruin your health with a string of bad meals. It’s clearly a case of humiliation via food.
So, is there any way to prepare for your impending culinary deprivation? Among the guides offered online for protesters, United for Peace and Justice strikes a very encouraging note: “For many people of more privileged backgrounds, it is an invaluable education! Even in the post 9-11 climate, arrests for peaceful acts of protest . . . can be a badge of honor!” More realistically, the People’s Law Collective collaborates with several other organizations in its online advice to demonstrators: “If you are at risk of arrest, eat a hearty meal. Prison food isn’t.” The National Lawyers Guild, steadfast to the end, offers what may be the best suggestions of all. Shuck off your personal possessions, expensive clothes, and cache of credit cards and IDs, it says, in its briefing entitled “How Can I Prepare for the Possibility of Arrest?” It goes on to suggest, with admirable economy, “Carry quarters and a phone card for calls, and granola bars, as food is often missed in jail.”