Wednesday, May 13, 2015

24 Hours in America’s Gulag

Lori Marso
Union College

I can understand why Toya Graham, Baltimore mom, smacked down her only son to keep him from becoming “the next Freddie Gray,” desperate and violent as it was. After her actions were caught on video and went viral, the nation congratulated her for “keeping order” in her family. She later clarified, however, that her motivation was not to discipline her son, but to keep him out of jail. Her Facebook post said: “Really, do u know what they will do to u?” “They” are the police in America’s gulag. And all parents should be afraid.

I have been thinking about the desperate 24 hours I spent about a year ago in the Schermerhorn Courthouse in Brooklyn where my 22-year-old son was being held and I worried about his safety. Aside from police and court officers, my niece and I were the only white people present. We were the only whites among over one hundred family members of those jailed in the basement below, unseen and unheard, awaiting arraignment. I alternately waited on a bench, or stood in line, clutching my “prisoner’s” assigned number, the line slowly snaking to the small closed window, where there were white people, the bureaucrats assigned to looking up our cases. The man behind the window would inform us that there was no information, and that what we could do was simply wait, and get back in line. 

So I waited, fending off panic attacks by listening to and speaking with the family members around me. I had just taught Michelle Alexander’s book, The New Jim Crow, in my African American Political Thought class, that semester, and so I should not have been surprised by the stories of police harassment, police violence, surveillance, and the day to day experience of it being made known that your life simply does not matter. But the stories took on a new urgency, book learning turning into my own experience, as it was now me who was there, waiting to hear about my own son, and being told by family members, kindly but also in a warning tone, that as long as I did not find his number on the list moving to Rikers Island, that the worst may not happen.

The emotions closest to the surface for me were helplessness and rage. How could my son possibly be sent to Rikers? How could he have disappeared into a bureaucracy, worst yet, a basement, in confinement, and I had absolutely no right to speak to him or have access to a lawyer? I worried about the worst, and the families around me confirmed these nightmares. Yes, the conditions below were horrific—those jailed were in overcrowded and unsanitary quarters with scant food or water, completely beholden to the discretion of the jailers. No, we have no rights until after arraignment which could take up to 72 hours, and even then, our rights are a crapshoot, depending on which courtroom and which judge to whom one’s prisoner was assigned. Listening and sometimes holding hands with other mothers, I was told that the daily lives of the families I spoke with were full of constant abuse, dehumanization, and ever consuming fear for the safety and well being of their children. 

What was most amazing to me was the help I received in navigating the situation and the solidarity extended to me, an outsider to the system. It was obvious that I was out of my element and I turned immediately to others for consolation and commiseration, but also for advice. When I was advised to go out and retrieve bail money in anticipation of arraignment, a woman held my prisoner number and promised to watch the lists for me. She informed me that if there is not a family member present in the courtroom, it is highly unlikely for the prisoner to be brought up for arraignment and that my son should not miss his chance while I was out getting money. I was so discombobulated at the ATM, however, that I locked myself out of my account using all the wrong passwords and returned with nothing. A group of people promised to get bail money together, whatever my son and I needed, so that given the chance we could get out “before night court was over.” The level of organization and solidarity was striking to me, emerging as it did under such tense and difficult conditions. I was deeply grateful and also quite impressed. 

Unlike for so many of the protestors arraigned recently in Baltimore, in my son’s case, bail wasn’t needed. After 24 hours, we left the Courthouse, all charges (riding a bike on a sidewalk, petty drug possession, and violation of park curfew) dismissed for “time served.” We escaped, but families like the ones I met in the Schermerhorn Courthouse are treated every single day as less than citizens, made to realize, in a brutal and direct way, that they have diminished control over their future. Parents know all too well the anxiety of feeling they cannot even keep their children safe, much less hope for a decent education and good jobs. Just for a moment I shared their fate and had to bear the burden of this intense feeling of helplessness, but thankfully, my son and I were able to walk away. 

Most of what white Americans hear, see, and read is framed by the dominant media with its racist and classist assumptions about the sanctity of property and respect for the law, a position that disavows state violence while highlighting the violence of protestors and “rioters.” The media framing of Toya Graham’s actions are a case in point. How can we begin to understand the conditions of life in Black America without hearing from those directly affected and trying to understand their perspectives?

To ignore the daily conditions of life for non-white and poor Americans is a national crime. My experience with the police state in New York City has profoundly affected how I have understood events in Baltimore in response to the murder of Freddie Gray, and the many other black lives lost this year (and every year) to police violence. Because of my experience, the physical violence of incarceration and the emotional violence inflicted on families are now a little closer for me in my imagination. Having experienced police power more directly, even though only for a short moment, the irruption of the anger of those who live within this “other America” seems to me viscerally clear and compelling. These are the responses from the depths of America’s gulag. 



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