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  • The situation on Broadway is in a funny kind of equilibrium.

    It’s about 1AM, and 200 cops in riot gear are blocking off both ends of 16th street, where a few hours earlier some anarchist kids broke into a building, built barricades, and set the barricades on fire, while the cops launched tear gas and flash bomb grenades to beat back the kids and take back the street.

    Things are quieter now, but the balance is brittle.

    The cops look like plastic toy soldiers lined up by a kid for a make-believe war. They stand shoulder to shoulder, stoic and silent, wearing helmets, gas masks, and body armor, holding rubber bullet guns, tear gas launchers, and nightsticks, their hands on their sticks or their guns and their badges taped up with electrical tape, making them all look the same except for their height and their girth, which in some cases vary considerably.

    The protestors sit on the ground in front of the cops. They play fiddle and guitar, sing songs, dance tango, wear hats, bandanas, or gas masks, meditate, do yoga poses, hold up posters or peace signs, or simply sit quietly, feeling the night. Some people shout at the cops, right up at the line, but others try to restrain them. “Calm down, Sit down, Back down,” they say. “Aggression doesn’t help.”

    “You’re on the wrong side of the line!” shouts a kid at the cops. “You belong over here with us! You’re part of the 99%!”

    “This is what democracy looks like!” shouts a shirtless kid, slapping his chest with his hands, then stretching out his arms like wings in the air, and gliding through the smoke, tilting side to side and moving.

    “The world will judge you!” shouts another kid. “The future will judge you! Don’t you see the future will judge you? You’re on the wrong side of history!”

    “What will your kids say?” yells another. “What if your kids could see you now?”

    Through all of this, the cops are stoic and silent.

    The standoff seems not to be changing. Neither side — the kids nor the cops — seem to be making a move. I wonder what’s happening elsewhere, so I leave Broadway and go to the plaza, to take some photographs there. A few hours ago, in their dispersal orders, the cops had told us to go to the plaza, so I think it should be a safe and a mellower place.

    I wander into the plaza. I’m surprised to see a line of cops at the north end of the place, with another group of meditating, singing, shouting, dancing protestors lined up right in front of them. The cops are making announcements, but I cannot hear what they are, so I move a little bit closer, to see if I can hear. I walk closer to the sound, but still it’s too muffled to hear.

    I’ve been in the plaza for less than a minute, when I hear an explosion behind me. I turn to look. Back near the camp there is smoke in the air, and then another explosion. BANG! Another one. BANG! Again. Holy shit, I think. What is going on? I see clouds of smoke or gas coming at me, filling up the sky and smudging out the sight of city hall. I see figures in black running through the smoke at full speed. I can see they are cops in riot gear. They are shouting and shooting and I can hear the POP POP POP of rubber bullet guns going off in the air and the TWING TWING TWING of rubber bullets bouncing off the ground and the bodies of people around me and whizzing past my head and touching other things.

    There is a brief instant where several things occur to me: I stumbled into a very bad place at a very bad time; the inaudible announcements must have been new dispersal orders; the cops are in crazy combat mode and this could become very dangerous; I don’t have a press pass; the cops won’t care that I’m only here to take pictures; if I run away right now there might be a chance to escape; if the cops see me running away but they catch me that might make it worse; if I stay I will likely be hurt by the cops or arrested or both; the experience of being hurt by the cops or arrested or both might give me a more complete sense of life today in America.

    I think of all of these things for a moment, and I think OK I will take the experience.

    So I don’t move. I stand where I am. I watch the cops tearing around in the tear gas. I watch protestors running and screaming and coughing and gagging. I watch kids get hit by rubber bullets and shriek from the stinging. I watch cops push kids to the ground and beat them with nightsticks. I watch cops kick kids to make them stay down. I start to feel the tear gas. I start to bend down, to try to get under it. I’m looking around. A cop runs up to me and tackles me onto the ground. “Get on the fucking ground!” he shouts at me, and pushes me down with his nightstick. “On your fucking stomach!” he yells, and pushes me down with his foot. I reach my hand around to pull my camera close to me, so it doesn’t get destroyed. “Get your hands behind your fucking back!” he screams, and pushes my face into the concrete. I fold my hands behind my back, and he wraps them up painfully tight with plastic zip ties. He holds down my head with his hand, and he looks around at rest of the raid.

    There is a girl a few feet from me, screaming about her medication. “Please, officer. Can you please let me go? I just arrived here. I didn’t know what was going on. I need to get home to take my medication. I don’t have my medication with me. Please, sir,” she pleads.

    “Shut the fuck up!” yells the cop.

    “Officer, please,” continues the girl.

    “Silence!” yells the officer, and steps on her back.

    My cheek is on the concrete. It’s cold, and all around me it’s crazy. Rubber bullets are whizzing around, bouncing off my back and the pavement. I see dozens and dozens of protestors lying on the ground in plastic handcuffs, squirming like overturned beetles.

    I hear a new set of shouting and I see that some kids in a doorway just got discovered, and the cops are arresting them too. “Onto the ground!” they shout. “You’re all under arrest.”

    Once my cop sees I’m being peaceful, he takes his foot off my back, so I can breathe more easily. “You have ID on you?” he says to me.

    “Yes,” I say.

    “Good,” he says. “Stay down.”

    A kid nearby is being handcuffed. “The whole world is watching you,” says the kid to the cop.

    “The whole world is watching you, too,” says the cop to the kid.

    My cop takes off his mask, and I see his face for the first time. He’s about my age, probably around 30, with short black hair, a clean-cut, good-looking face, with full cheeks and a tight nose. His badge says B. Hernandez. He seems to be unmarried — he has no wedding band — and his cheeks are red from the running.

    He asks me short, curt, questions.

    “Name? Address? Birthdate? Place of birth? Any medications or allergies? Really, no allergies? Height, what, about five ten? Weight? Any weapons on you? Anything I should know about in your bag? You took too long to answer that one, I’d better have a look. Empty bullet casing? You can’t be carrying that around. I don’t care if it has a good story.”

    I answer all his questions politely. “OK,” he says, “we’re gonna walk you over to the processing truck. Can you get up or do you need my help? You sure? OK, let’s go.”

    As we walk, he gets friendlier. “Look, he says, between you and me, I’m actually sympathetic to a lot of the ideas you guys are out here fighting for. But when you start breaking into buildings and setting things on fire, you gotta understand, we can’t let that happen.”

    “I know,” I say. “It’s a complicated situation.”

    “Sure is,” he says. “I mean, today was pretty peaceful. But then you have this small group of people ruining it for you. Oakland has a long history of anarchists. And what they do is that whatever protest is currently happening, they find a way to co-opt it, and make it their own. They’ve been doing this for years.”

    “How long have you been a cop?” I ask.

    “Four years,” he says.

    “You like it?”

    “Love it. Always wanted to be a cop.”

    “Was your Dad a cop?”

    “Nope, just always wanted to be one.”

    “Are you from Oakland?”

    “I’m an Oakland cop, but I’m from about two hours from here.”

    “So why’d you become an Oakland cop?”

    “Oakland PD was the first to offer me a job. So I took it. And all my friends back home, they’re like, ‘Dude, Oakland? It’s fucking crazy up there. You want to get yourself killed or something?’ But it’s really not that bad. I mean, people think Oakland and they think it’s just people killing each other everywhere, but it’s really not like that. It’s a great city. I love Oakland. And it’s good to be a cop here.”

    He fills out my paperwork, and sits me on a curb. We’re there for thirty minutes or so. The medication girl is sitting next to me, yelling instructions to her unarrested friends, standing nearby. “Jason, can you tell my wife I’m OK? And make sure you guys follow our bus to see where they take us. And can you make sure my bike doesn’t get stolen?”

    She turns to her cop. “Officer,” she says, “can you please give my bike key to that man standing over there, to the one holding the sign?”

    “Which one?” says the officer.

    “Jason, wave your sign,” yells the girl.

    A man in the crowd waves a sign saying, “THE BEGINNING IS NEAR.”

    “That one,” says the girl. “See him?”

    “I see him,” says the cop. “Sure, I’ll do it.” The cop takes her keys and walks them over to the guy.

    One by one they put us onto the bus. The windows are covered in sheets of metal, painted white, with little dime-sized holes every inch or so. The smell of body odor is overwhelming, like a high school hockey locker room. 46 of us are crammed onto the bus, all men, handcuffed, and squeezed together on the seats. When we start to move, the chanting starts.

    “WE ARE THE 99%! WE ARE THE 99%!”

    “THE WHEELS ON THE BUS GO ROUND AND ROUND, ROUND AND ROUND, ROUND AND ROUND, THE WHEELS ON THE BUS GO ROUND AND ROUND, ALL THE WAY HOOOOME.”

    The jail is close. Only five blocks away. The gates rise up to greet us, and the bus pulls into the loading bay. One by one, they call us by name, and we leave the bus.

    “Take off your shoes,” says the officer. He holds down the heel of my boot with his shoe so I can pry out my foot. With latex gloves, he pulls out the laces from both of my shoes.

    “What’s that, so we don’t hang ourselves?” I say.

    “You got it,” he says.

    “Allergies?” he says. “Medications?”

    “Nope.”

    “Use any alcohol or drugs tonight?”

    “Nope.”

    “Healthy young man.”

    “Guess so.”

    After frisking me, he leads me down a corridor and into a cell with two other protestors. It smells even worse than the bus, and the air is hot and heavy, so it’s doubly hard to breathe. There’s a toilet in the corner, but no one can use it because of the zip ties. The door keeps sliding open, and new protestors are added to the room, until about twenty of us are in there.

    People show off their welts. “Have a look at this one,” says someone.

    “Man,” says someone else.

    “This one’s the size of a tennis ball. Rubber bullet hit me in the leg, just south of my junk. Damn does it hurt.”

    We’re in the cell for about an hour, and then they take us to another one, and cut the zip ties off our hands. This one has urine all over the floor, and partially used packs of peanut butter and brown bread thrown all over the place. Someone’s written the number “827” on the wall in big letters using peanut butter. There’s a phone in the cell, and a big bright poster advertising phone companies you can use to place a call, but no one does.

    After about 15 minutes, they take a few of us out to get mug shots and fingerprints taken, and they put us in a line with our backs to the wall.

    “I smell bacon!” yells a drunk black man they’re leading down the corridor. He doesn’t seem to be one of the protestors. “Mmmm, bacon!” he says. “Fuckin’ pigs.”

    An officer forces him into a cell. “I think we’ll just put you in here and forget about you till tomorrow afternoon,” says the cop. “Then we’ll see how you feel about bacon.”

    “Ahhhh,” screams the man, kicking the door and shaking it loudly. “Ahhhhhhhhhh!”

    “You keep that up and we’ll throw some ankle cuffs on you too, see how you like that.”

    The man stops kicking the door. “I have to peeeee!” he yells. “There ain’t no fucking toilet in here! Ahhhhh! I have to peeeee! Let me peeeee! Ahhhhh!”

    The officer ignores him, and walks down to where we are. “See, boys,” he says, “you talk like that to me and look how you end up. I might just have to forget about you till later this week,” and he smiles. But it doesn’t seem funny to us.

    In the jail, you are robbed of your humanity. The wardens have all the power and you have none. You are moved through the hallways like cattle. You are forced to urinate and defecate in front of other men. You cannot sleep because the lights are always on and there is no space to lie down anyway. You have no sense of time because there are no clocks. You have no idea how long you’ll be there because they tell you different things to mess with you — oh, very soon now, they say, very soon, and then they say, oh, maybe thirteen more hours, yes, probably thirteen more hours or so, but really hard to say, ok, see you later, boys, have fun in there. You are the same as every other prisoner, regardless of your background, regardless of your story. So and so was a legal observer, so and so was only a medic, so and so was only heading to the train, so and so was only taking pictures. Stories don’t matter — in the jail everyone is the same. A man who messed up. A man who broke a law. A man who’s no longer a man but who gave up his rights and made himself into an animal.

    A Chinese kid named Hu is standing next to me, and he’s called up to get printed. He’s thin, well-dressed, and wearing glasses. “Ho!” says the cop at the machine. The kid steps forward, smiling slightly. “What’s so funny, Ho?” says the cop.

    “It’s my name,” says the kid. “It’s Hu, not Ho.”

    “Sure looks like Ho on this form,” says the cop.

    “It’s Hu,” says the kid.

    “Well that’s certainly the loopiest U I’ve ever seen,” says the cop.

    The kid’s got his hand on the glass, and the officer’s moving it around, squinting at the screen. “Damn,” says the officer, “I’ve seen crack pipe users who have prettier sets of prints than you.”

    At the wall, we look at each other and try not to laugh, grappling with the utter strangeness of this statement. I try to imagine what the hands of a crack pipe user would look like, and all I imagine are burn victims running from a flaming house.

    “OK, follow me, gentlemen,” says a new cop, leading us into a third cell. “Get comfy,” he says.

    The cell is empty except for a man in the corner, his black tee-shirt stretched out around his wrapped up knees. He stares at us silently as we come in. Above him is a TV protected with plexiglass, with small green letters at the center of the screen saying, “No Signal.” We debate whether “No signal” is better than infomercials, and we agree that it probably is.

    About every 30 minutes, a new group of five or six protestors enter the cell, until there are 27 of us crammed in there.

    The feeling is rancid. The smell of body odor and urine. The look of bright fluorescent lights. The sound of screaming down the hall, and metal doors clanking. The sound of snoring, and lights buzzing. The feel of the cold. The shivering. The toilet in the center of the room, fully exposed, with unflushed toilet paper falling out of it like a person vomiting spaghetti. A metal sink for water. Urine on the floor. Peanut butter smeared around. Concrete benches on cinderblock walls, all painted white and dirty. Not enough space on the benches, so people on the filthy floor or standing. Banter. Stories. Jokes. Silence. Sleep. Snoring. Groaning. Anticipation. Speculation. Exasperation. Meditation. Appreciation. Timelessness. Boredom. Discomfort. Regret. Memory. Hope. Perspective. Perspective. Perspective.

    In our group are three very smelly hippies. “I haven’t showered in a month,” says one. “Woohoo! Guess I can shower in here!” He turns on the shower, which sprays all over the floor where people are sitting.

    “Dude!” says one of them. “What the fuck?”

    “Whoa, sorry man,” says the hippy, smiling. He finds an uneaten package of brown bread and peanut butter on one of the benches. He eats it, and then he takes the empty cardboard and plastic wrapper over to the toilet, sticks it in, and flushes it, but the wrapper gets jammed in the hole.

    A guy gets up and pulls it out and throws it on the floor, glaring at the hippy, who’s back at the wall, giggling merrily.

    “So, what do you guys think of the building takeover?” I say.

    “It was a bold move,” said one of guys. “I mean, it took balls. And it was super well-organized. But you knew it wasn’t gonna end well.”

    “Who organized it? It seems like it was this top secret thing. Did people know it was happening?”

    “I think it was those crazy black bloc anarchists. I think they planned the whole thing. I think they want to start a fucking war with the state.”

    “What’s the deal with those guys?”

    “They’re super secretive and super loyal. They dress all in black so their numbers look bigger than they really are, and the anonymity of not seeing their faces makes them hella intimidating. It’s the same thing as the cops taping up their badges and wearing masks. It’s all psychological. And basically, they move in packs and when one of them does some shit, he merges right back into the pack, so the cops can’t tell who did what. And if other protestors try to intervene, the black bloc will all converge and beat them away.”

    “Who are they?”

    “Basically, to go to one of their meetings, you have to be personally vouched for by someone who’s already a member, and that person vouching for you has to be at the meeting, too. So it keeps things super closed and secret. And then I think they just get talking, and people throw out ideas, and pretty soon they’re planning actions and shit.”

    “Are they all from one place? Like, are they all Berkeley students or something?”

    “They come from all over. They started in Germany in the 1980s, and they got really popular during all that WTO Seattle shit in the 90s. They basically take a really extreme, violent approach to revolution. They think the only way change happens is after total collapse. And they kinda have a point, but it’s just so violent. I mean, mainstream people are never gonna get behind that kind of violence. But they’re clever as shit. They basically come in, incite a situation, make a big speech, and then they disappear, and they leave other people behind to deal with the cops. They’re hella smart like that. Like, look around this jail. How many of them do you see in here? Almost none. It’s all people like us. First-time arrestees. People caught in the wrong place at the wrong time. They always pull this shit. Leave others to get caught for their actions.”

    In the cell, there’s only one guy dressed all in black. He’s in black jeans, black shoes, black socks, and a black hoodie, with a big black X in criss-crossed black electrical tape stuck on his pocket. He doesn’t speak once the whole time. He lies on the concrete bench and stares at the ceiling. He’s older than the rest of us — maybe mid-forties — and he’s thin, with tight, stretched, sinewy skin. He could just be a sleepy guy in black, but we all watch him nervously.

    Time moves on. Conversation dies down. People come in and out of sleep. There is snoring. Your body start to ache and shiver. The buzzing of the lights makes you feel crazy. You’re not sure if it’s only in your head or also up on the ceiling. You’ve gotta pee but it’s just too weird to go in front of everyone. You’re hungry but you can’t imagine eating and there’s nothing to eat anyway unless you want peanut butter. There is the clanking of doors in the hallway. There is the screaming of inmates in faraway cells. The ground is hard. The smell is revolting. How long has it been? Six hours? Eight hours? Ten hours? How much longer will it be?

    You think of the world outside. Is it morning now? You think of people getting coffee, eating a bagel, sitting in Starbucks, waiting in line for the bathroom, and that antiseptic coffee shop has never seemed closer to paradise. You think of the sun and the feel of the heat on your face. You think of the clean air, and of breathing it in, and how delicious it is. You think of women in sundresses, and their calm and happy presence, making jokes and smiling. You think of mothers pushing strollers. You think of kids sitting in booster seats at a restaurant, eating grilled cheese and ice cream. You think of your car, and the radio, and driving under trees and through beams of glowing sunlight coming through the leaves and landing on the road. You think of your bed, your soft sheets, and your warm blanket. You think of pillows. You think of the low light in your house, and of sitting on your sofa next to the lamp and reading through The Grapes of Wrath, holding a pen in your hand to mark the parts you like. You think of going to the fridge to get a glass of milk. You think of cows. You think of grass. You think of farms and fields and living there. You think of the full moon over the ocean, and all those pelicans, diving. You think of the BART train, and all those law-abiding commuters, heading off to work and staring at their phones. You think of the clean, pleasant facade of modern American capitalism, propping up the illusion that everything’s fine and people are happy. You think of the Occupy camp at City Hall, and all the dirty tents and angry people, poking holes in the happy facade. You think of all of this the way you never thought of it before, and you want to go back into it, to live it more completely.

    Everyone else in the cell is asleep, except for the guy sitting next to me. He’s wearing baggy black slacks, with a blue dress shirt hanging loose around him. He was on his way to the train when he got nabbed by the cops. He’s spinning an orange in his hand. “This sucks,” he says.

    “It’s an interesting experience,” I say, “but it’s an awful experience.”

    “There’s no way I’m getting arrested again,” he says. “No frickin’ way.”

    We look around the cell at our sleeping cellmates. “Wanna play catch?” he says.

    “Sure, why not,” I say. I realize I don’t know his name, and he doesn’t know mine.

    He gets up and walks to the other side of the cell, carefully stepping around the people on the floor. He flips up the orange a few times in his hand, testing its weight, and then he throws it underhand to me. I catch it, I feel it, and then I toss it back to him. He switches to his other hand, and then he throws it back to me. We toss it back and forth for a while, all the time without speaking, and when the orange is gliding through the air, you can see its tiny shadow move across the snoring, sleeping bodies.
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