On the morning of February 21, 2012, I woke up around 3AM, hands and feet shackled to a gurney at Bellevue Hospital in NYC. Blood was pounding in my brain, my vision blurred. I was surrounded by the nurses who had stitched me up while I was in and out of consciousness—six stitches across my forehead—and by two men wearing suits. The men aggressively questioned me about what had happened. I yelled that I wasn’t able to talk about it right then. I could feel my blood congealing over my body from the forehead down.
I was transported to the precinct housed in the 14th Street-Union Square subway station in downtown Manhattan. There I sat in a cell for an interminable amount of time. The pounding in my skull, dehydration, and fatigue made it hard to tell how long. They processed me, took fingerprints. Then, along with the others in the cells, I was corralled, shackled at the hands and feet, and marched to a Department of Corrections van across Union Square Park. It was sunrise.
At NYPD Manhattan Central Booking in Chinatown, before the arresting officer and myself parted ways, he snapped my cuffs, leaned in close and said, “Why can’t you just learn to shut up and keep quiet?” To which I responded, “Because I’ll end up like you.” He smirked, shook his head, and sent me off to the jail cell.
As I entered my cellmates almost unanimously exclaimed, “Oh shit, you look fuuuucked up. It was cops, right?” I nodded, well aware how I must have looked (I wouldn’t see my reflection till I got home the next evening), my hair, t-shirt, and jeans matted with dried blood, crumpled like construction paper.
The bars closed behind me. Shortly after, a female guard came by while jotting down notes on some electronic device and asked me a series of personal questions. The last was: “What is your highest level of education?” I replied: “A master’s degree.” She did a double take, shook her head and walked away. My cellmates broke out in a cheer: “Oh shit, this nigga has a master’s?! Yooooo…” A short silence followed before someone asked: “What do you have a master’s in bro?” We talked for hours. I can’t remember if it was night or day. In “The Tombs” (Manhattan Detention Complex), it doesn’t matter a whole lot—time and space are things best left outside.
Two more men in suits showed up. They questioned what I was doing: was I drunk, was I on drugs?—on and on, clearly trying to make a case that was not in my favor. Internal Affairs. The cops had fucked up. They persisted, leering over me, notebooks in hand, as I sat slumped on the steel bench. I refused to speak to them. They warned me that this was not in my best interest. I assured them my best interest was my concern and my concern alone.
A woman guard came by and offered us food and drink—two slices of bread with either a piece of baloney or cheese, never both. And cartons of chocolate or regular milk. I hadn’t seen this since leaving public school as a kid. My head was spinning from significant loss of blood and exhaustion, so I asked the guard for water. She ignored me. I asked again and explained that I was dehydrated and really needed to drink water. She said, “You already got something to drink.” “I know but it’s not water. I really need water please. It’s a basic human right.” I pointed to a sign on the wall outside our cell: You have a right to request water. She turned and looked at the sign, laughed in my face and said, “Well, there ain’t no water.”
Some 12 hours later, I was in a glass cube with my public defender. She looked at me and seemed a bit taken aback.
“It says here your highest level of education is a master’s?”
With slight incredulity she followed up: “What is that you have a master’s in?”
“Sociology of Crime and Social Control.”
“Oh really? And where did you get this master’s from?”
“The London School of Economics.”
“You have a degree in criminology from LSE?”
“Yes, I do.”
“Ok, so where did you go to undergrad?”
“I got my law degree from NYU.”
She asked me to tell her what had happened.
I was offered a violation and community service for resisting arrest, profanity, disturbing the peace, trespassing (I was in a subway station at the time), obstruction of justice, and public intoxication. My public defender advised me to plead not guilty to the six misdemeanor charges. “This is obviously bullshit,” she added.
I mention this because it’s an intersectional issue of class and race politics, one that I had to experience firsthand to see clearly. I am an Indian American. The catalyst for my arrest, a woman who was illegally being arrested without a charge as I intervened, was Mexican American. The officers who assaulted and arrested me were Latino and African American. The guard who denied me water was African American. My public defender was European American, as was the judge. Sitting in that glass cube it didn’t take long to understand that the privilege my education affords me made me probably innocent in the eyes of the latter. I doubt that my cellmates, all men of color in for petty larceny and armed robbery, were afforded the same respect.
When I got home around 11:30PM a day later and charged my phone, I got a call from a friend I hadn’t seen in years. She gasped, “My god, are you ok?” “How did you know I wouldn’t be?” “I saw the video, I can’t believe they did that to you.” Turns out my old roommate was randomly hanging out with a friend who had been in the train station at the time of the incident and they had recorded my assault.
I spent the next year—five court dates—getting jerked around: Violation. Adjournment to Consider Dismissal. Reschedule. Violation. ACD again—before all the charges were finally dropped. I initially pursued a civil case against the officers: I did all the paperwork, had taken photos of my injuries, contacted lawyers. But between the pounding headaches, body aches, the paranoia (the incident had taken place around the corner from my studio and my work), and the depression (we are guilty until proven innocent), I let it drop. Today, I deeply regret that.
Every black and brown man I know growing up in NYC has to varying degrees been in this situation before. I say thankfully that most of them, like me, came out ultimately unscathed. But the trauma to the mind, the heart, the spirit, is deep and unshakable. I never have nor will I likely ever call the police when I’m in trouble. Like many people of color, I simply do not believe their job is to protect me.
The murder of George Floyd stirred the memories of that experience. Not my first encounter with law enforcement, but certainly the most damaging. I have never written about it because there’s a certain embarrassment and self-loathing that comes with realizing you’re a second-class citizen. That stigma is an assured perpetuation of racist trauma.
Last week, my anxiety was overwhelming. I woke up dozens of times night after night, slouching through the day mentally exhausted. How many protests for how many black and brown people killed by cops have I been to in my life? Dozens. But I reminded myself this was different. This was young people in cities and towns across 50 states. And for the first time I can remember, the officers were charged and not snuck out the backdoor of a grand jury, absolved of murder, like nearly every single time before. I take similar solace in the fact that I hear more birds chirping outside my window than ever before.
The extraordinary momentum of the last weeks has sown something that can make lasting change, that sentiment resounds with the folks I’ve spoken to here and around the world. That momentum needs to remain kinetic, yet peaceful. We cannot become our gun-toting separatist, white supremacist counterparts, nor corporate hogs relying on threat and violence to grab power. To my people of color (and our European American allies): We are more than capable of remaining caring and kind, even in moments of absolute sadness and rage.
For the first time in the 31 years I’ve lived in New York City there’s a curfew. Eight PM. People are complaining, some are defying it and getting arrested. I understand those sentiments fully. One of the perks of being a New Yorker is walking around at odd hours on a whim to grab some smokes or a beer, or because you just can’t sleep. Anyone who knows me at all knows I’m inherently defiant to all authority. But if the impact of our defiance—our violence towards each other and our destruction of nature—is to be curbed, if our time on earth is to be extended by good fortune, perhaps staying at home tonight is worth it.
Sidd Joag is a visual artist, journalist and producer working on issues closely related to social inequality and human rights. He is the Managing Editor at ArtsEverywhere.