Why Was I Arrested? and the video
At about 11:30 PM, on 12/6/11, during finals, I was arrested in the main library on my college campus. I spent the next 22 hours under full surveillance (including while I was using the toilet), subjected to verbal abuse, being repeatedly uncuffed and cuffed, patted down on my entire body, stripped naked and made to stand and squat in full view of a man named ‘Dog’, all while being deprived for various amounts of time of things like toilet paper and a place to lie down. I didn’t get my bookbag back for 34 hours on top of that. Why did this happen?
First, allow me to identify myself – my name is Joe Diaz. I am 24 years old. I am Latino. I am currently in the middle of my 2nd year of studies towards a PhD in Philosophy at Emory University, for which I have a 5-year scholarship. This identification is offered freely, on my own accord, during a time which I do not feel threatened or unsafe. I had spent most of December 6th in the library reading and writing, given that the deadlines for 3 15-20 page seminar papers were fast approaching. I had just presented a 7-page paper that night during an Aesthetics & Hermeneutics seminar that ended at 9 PM. This matters only because it’s the reason that my bookbag was full of books. I had returned to Woodruff library (yes, the same Woodruff the park in Atlanta was named after) following my presentation. I was on the 7th floor working while waiting for the study room that my friends and I had reserved for 12-4 AM. We definitely had plans to get serious work done. Around 11:20 PM, I realized that I had left some books for my next paper at my apartment, and my friend, Meghan, said she’d accompany me on (what we thought would be) a quick trip down the road and back.
It was upon leaving the library to exchange the books in my bookbag for other ones, that I saw the police. It’s not rare to see police on Emory campus, but to see them in the library was pretty unusual. Being members of the activist community in Atlanta, my friend and I have both attended “Know Your Rights” and street medic trainings. We have tried to live by King’s challenging words, “Silence is betrayal.” In situations where people may be hurting, we are more disposed to actively pursue peaceful solutions than to keep quiet and look the other way.
In Atlanta, situations involving the police are tense and tend to escalate (see: here and here). So, aware of what is involved in doing so, I walked over to the enclosed area within which the cops were standing. When near, but not inside this entrance area, I saw that 3 large males were standing over an older, diminutive woman, sitting down. Knowing what some of my female friends have gone through at the hands of male cops, this situation in itself made me uneasy. It was then I recognized the woman sitting down – it was Alice!
I was happy to see Alice, as I always am. Alice is an older woman who I am certain that any Emory library rat (by this I mean, any student frequenting Woodruff Library on a regular basis) recognizes. She’s often walking in and out of the library carrying more books and folders than it seems her stature could possibly support (perhaps her and I are alike in this way). We’ve talked on different occasions about changes in Atlanta, Emory’s impact on the city, and the historical development of the Black Church in America. It was this last topic that brought us together. One occasion, while talking on the steps outside the library, I recommended to her Evelyn Higginbotham’s Righteous Discontent: The Women’s Movement in the Black Baptist Church, 1880-1920. We were accustomed to these kinds of exchanges. So, when I saw the police looming over this kind woman, I didn’t know what to think – other than that I could aid in some way, be that by informing the police that she is a frequent Woodruff library visitor, or simply bringing a calming smile to Alice while checking to see if she is physically OK.
Upon slowly opening the door to the library entrance area where the situation unfolded, the officers shouted at me. This is how our interaction began. This is how tension was incited. The first thing I told the officers was, “Hi, I’m an Emory student and street medic, I know this woman, is she OK?” “Identify yourself!” commanded the largest officer in return. The next few moments happened very quickly. I did not get to talk to Alice at all. I did not walk over to her. I did not stand between her and the police. I felt unsafe in the enclosed area, and so remained near the door. As the police asserted their dominion over this part of the library, which I have spent literally hundreds (maybe thousands) of hours in over the past year and a half, I was simply taken aback. I was asked, “Are you an Emory student?” It is no trivial fact to note that this question was hollered at me aggressively. Since I opened my interaction with the police by informing them that I am an Emory student, at this point I knew they were not listening to my words. I knew the officers were in a ‘military mindset.’
By ‘military mindset’, I mean something very specific. In this situation, the officer never saw me as a student or the surrounding area as a library. He never asked me something like “How do you know this woman?” or even, “Shouldn’t you be studying during finals time?” Actual context was irrelevant. For the cops, the scene was a Battle. The cop’s comportment demonstrated that I was being viewed as a Potential Enemy and that the library was being deemed a Combat Zone. In a Combat Zone, one does not discuss, one does not reason – one sees only Danger, fighting against it with one goal in mind: Elimination. My presence, for some reason, was seen as the Threat to be Liquidated – even before my ID was demanded. Even so, I reiterated that I was an Emory student. “Yes, I’m an Emory student,” I clearly, if somewhat nervously, stated. At this time, feeling threatened in the enclosed area, I began to back out towards the doorway opening into the main lobby from where I had entered. This is approximately when the video begins.
In the beginning of the video shot by my friend Meghan, one can see what I mean by Combat Zone. First, a library security guard inveighed against documentation, stating falsely, “M’am, you can’t record that.” Nice try, but that’s a boldfaced lie. This in itself should scare us. We’ve seen recent expulsion and destruction of documentation devices all over America. The normalization of Absolute Cover for police matters is frightening for obvious reasons. Fortunately, Meghan asserted her constitutional rights.
At this time in the video, (0:09-0:15), it can be seen that I am standing with my back to the door. My hands are low and outstretched, my palms open in a purposefully nonthreatening and passive fashion. The two cops, on the other hand, are faced not towards Alice, but me, in wide, rigid and powerful stances. One office can be seen making a “give me” gesture, while the taller office is seen repeatedly thrusting his finger in the air at me. At this point I try one more time to contextualize the situation and diffuse the tension by stating that I was in the library that I always study at, I know the woman sitting a few feet from me, and that I’m an Emory student. This is when things escalate.
At 0:23, the taller officer starts making gestures towards his belt. Was he reaching for pepper spray? Visions of UC Davis run through my mind. Both officers lurch towards me. Tension rises. I feel more intimidated and less safe. These two men were not only much, much larger than me, but irate and armed. Seeing that Meghan was recording the police incident, I walked out of the door so that it can be clear that not only did I identify myself verbally as an Emory student, but also I showed the officers my Emory student card.
At 0:38, the taller officer says, “M’am, take the camera out of my face.” Meghan’s ‘camera’ was her iphone, and she was holding it far, far away from the officer’s face. Why bellow such an absurd command? A reasonable question – but remember, in the military mindset, actual context is irrelevant, and those who are not wearing your uniform or do not cower at your command, are first and foremost Potential Enemies. The same cop repeats the charge for my ID, and I show it to him, but do not hand it to him. Having had a run-in with the Emory police in a civil disobedience demonstration last April, I was thinking that strict identification, if they didn’t already know who I was, could lead these cops to adopt an even more belligerent attitude. Still, I showed them my Emory ID card to prove that I was indeed an Emory student (which may have been obvious from the fact that I was wearing a bookbag in the library during finals). The officer stated that I was “required to release” my ID card. Why is this? Does Emory University have a Identify-Yourself-or-Else policy? I was leaving the scene and returning to the library which I had come from. Am I required to show the officer an ID since he continued to engage with me? Can I not voluntarily disengage from a public police interrogation on my campus? Does his dominion of inquisition extend to wherever he roams? Could he have followed me further into the library repeating the demand, not stopping until I complied or was arrested?
Given the cop’s antagonistic tone, I took out my phone to document the situation myself. As I was doing so, I was multi-tasking, trying to answer questions calmly while keeping myself safe. At this point, I wasn’t as articulate as I would have liked to have been. I should have been calmer, but the cop’s vibes were making me pretty nervous. I began to state again that I was in the library of my university trying to talk to a friend whom I know, and that being compelled to comply with a “Show Me Your Papers” command didn’t seem to speak to the actual context of the situation at hand. Here is where some will say I was wrong. Here is where They will assert that in such a situation the police are Infallible and the only proper response is complete obedience. The cops can’t be expected to exercise calm discretion or allow a situation to naturally diffuse if it is going in that direction. Absolute acquiescence or deserved self-endangerment – there is nothing else, some will claim.
Here, at 0:54 in the video, is the first time that I was told that if I did not release my ID I was “going to be placed under arrest for obstruction.” At this point, I removed myself fully from the emergent zone of absolute police authority within my library by walking out of the entrance area. I demonstrated clearly that there was no penetration, or ‘obstruction’, of that area of which the cops had taken control. Or so I thought. “This guy is serious,” I stated in astonishment at the cop’s hostility, as I left through the door I entered. “I’m trying to answer him,” I told Meghan, at 1:00 – which is when one can see the cop pursue me out of his ‘scene’ of investigation and into the main library lobby out of which I had just walked. What happens next is scary. I try to describe the situation to my friend Meghan, as I walk away from the scene, and the taller cop places himself directly between Meghan and I, inches in front of me. As soon as I begin to verbalize to Meghan what had just happened, the officer starts screaming. Compare my tone at 1:03 to the officer’s at 1:06. As soon as the roaring commences, so does the physical force. The officers bend my arms behind my large bookbag and slap handcuffs around my wrists in a very painful way. Since my bookbag was so large, my wrists could barley be connected, and my left wrist was yanked, twisted, and cut up. In jail, my wrist was pretty swollen. 2 days later there are still visible cuts and bruises. At the time, my left hand went numb.
In the video, at the point of the arrest, one can discern the military mindset. Be Loud and Forceful. Erase the Problem. Detain the Enemy. Shock and Awe. The arresting officer was in such a raging haze that something truly frightening happens. When reaching for his handcuffs, he instinctively grabs his pistol. Around 1:32, he can be seen pinning me against the desk and grasping his hands around the cold steel about 3-4 times. Some might dismiss this, saying that it was a muscle twitch, but I would warn against such casual indifference. When things happen quickly, cops using physical force can be in such a fury that they act through muscle memory. Hyped-up cops have ‘mistakenly’ grabbed their guns and shot unarmed/detained young men in the past, blaming it on unintentional pistol-grabbing.
After locating his handcuffs, the officer proceeds to bend my arms further behind my bookbag. At 1:51, I shout in pain as my left wrist was bent by the cop. He rigidly clamped the left cuff, digging it deep into the knobby area of my wrist known as the pisiform. As a verbal expression of pain escapes me, the officer exclaims, “Stop resisting!!” Stop resisting??? It is obvious that in my compromised position I was absolutely unable to offer any resistance if I so wished, which I did not. The officer, maybe twice my size in the literal sense, was on top of me, his knee into my legs and his hands around my bent arms, with the cuffs quite firmly around my wrists. Yet the officer repeats, “Stop resisting!”
Like so many other cops, this officer seemingly uses this command whenever he wants to apply excessive force during an arrest. In fact, the phrase “stop resisting” has become a sort of mantra for cops during violent detention (see here, here, here, and here). Minutes later, this law enforcer sent chills down my spine when, as we walked together to the police vehicle, he repeated “Stop resisting” over and over, coldly, like an unholy hymn. The words had lost whatever contextual meaning they may have had. “Stop resisting… stop resisting… stop resisting…” These two words, now risen in their ideality, seem to summarize the cops’ Exalted Mission better than ‘Protect and Serve’ ever did.
What followed this detention was physically, mentally, and spiritually trying. I sat in the backseat of the police vehicle, watching as the arresting officer Googled the Georgia Code, apparently in order to find a law under which to subsume the arrest ad hoc. I was then transported to the Emory Police Department office where I remained for some time, maybe 2 hours. Following this, I was moved to DeKalb County Jail.
Upon entry to DeKalb County, the arresting officer, who also was my transporter, joked with 3 officers as he passed me off in the jail’s initial processing room. All 4 of them started to ridicule me, telling me things like “You can’t talk back to a cop, boy, you ain’t got ‘nuff weight on ya,” “Damn, how you gon’ give first aid when you need a shower ya’self? ” They chuckled loudly. As the arresting officer departed I told him that I’d pray for him. The ridiculing officers then searched my person. They patted down my whole body, roughly, cupping my inner thighs and my genitals. I tried my best to take my mind elsewhere.
My experience in DeKalb was lengthy, but I will try to recapitulate it as succinctly as I can. I was placed in a small holding cell with over 20 others, in which every spot on the bench was taken, so 4 of us, including myself, laid down on the filthy floor. I had only a t-shirt on my upper half, since I was in the library. It was cold in the cell. I was taken out for medical evaluations. Thinking of Foucault’s concept of bio-power, I took note of the tests done to me, including a forehead scan (to check for temperature?), a blood pressure test, and the injection of something into my arm, which I was told was TB test. I was moved from the more crowded holding cells into smaller ones. I was taken out of the cell and made to face the wall, place my palms against it, and spread my legs “as wide as [I] could.” I was felt up again by an officer’s searching hands – all the way up. For strength, I thought of my Savior, who faced much tougher trials…again, I tried to separate my mind from my body.
After several hours of being alternatively being searched and scanned and made to wait in cold cells with metal benches and dirty tile floors, I was given an opportunity to make one free phone call… at 8:22 AM, the next morning. It cut out after 3 minutes. I was then cuffed together with 11 other inmates and marched to a larger room, a kind of grand cell with smaller 2-person cells inside of it. The 12 of us were ‘greeted’ by a large officer who told us they call him “Dog.” Maybe he’s called that because he’s got quite a bark. I don’t know, but he talked loud and talked often. He made comments on everyone’s arrests as he read our papers. For some reason, he took to calling me “copbeater.” At this time, my fellow inmates and I were split into 3s and marched into the back end of the room. Dog, in a disturbingly gleeful tone, told us to “strip-down butt-naked,” practically singing to us that “This is what we do in Dee-Kallb!!” And so there I stood, in jail, naked, in between two other naked male strangers, with a 3rd male, a Law Enforcer named ‘Dog’, eyeing me over. Just hours before I was presenting on Gadamer’s Truth and Method. Now, I was made to put my arms by my side and stand up straight so that Dog could get a good look at me. Dog took the liberty to comment on my body. Us 3 inmates, while still naked, were then told to face the wall and squat.
Sometime later, with my clothes back on, the other inmates and myself were marched to an even larger chamber. This was where I’d spend most of the rest of my time in DeKalb County. The cell had concrete walls painted all white, with high ceilings. There were 4 or 5 metal tables with connected seats. Most of the inmates sat in one of the ~ 10 plastic chairs connected together in a loose-U shape positioned around a blaring television. I was exhausted, losing track of time, and struggling mentally. I was shivering. Although I sprawled out on the floor in the holding cells, I didn’t get any sleep. It must have been around 10 AM by this time. I asked an officer to open the cells within this chamber so that I could lie down. Nope. I set down on the floor, which was not much cleaner than those in the holding cells, with my arms inside my shirt, trying to fade out of consciousness. Some “Good Day” type morning show was blaring on the television as I lied on the hard floor somewhere in consciousness limbo. When I couldn’t sleep from the discomfort and cold, I just stared at the high, white ceilings. The room was so bright, too bright for my sleepy eyes. My thoughts however were turning dark as I rolled around trying to balance the toll taken by each shoulder and my back.
I never really made it to sleep before we were rounded up again, cuffed, and taken to ‘court.’ ‘Court’ was held in a concrete area about the size of my living room. We were told that we shouldn’t have anything to say, that we were just being informed of our bail/bond conditions. Occupy Atlanta, which I have been involved with, had provided me with a lawyer who attended. I was so grateful. The judge granted me a signature bond, meaning the $500 initial bond was reduced to nothing, just a signature. It was around noon at this time. Great, I thought, maybe I’ll be out in a couple hours. I was wrong.
After court I was cuffed again and marched back to the large white-walled cell. The TV blared on. I talked to some of the other inmates and exchanged stories of our mistreatment at the hands of the cops. Many of the stories were similar. One man told me how officers shouted at him to stop resisting as he was seizing. We compared bruises and cuts. We talked about organizing on the outside. 1 PM passed, 2…3… Day-time television rang out loudly. Television does not agree with me – I never watch it; I don’t have one in my apartment – so I asked a guard if I could either be taken to the library I saw near the ‘courtroom’ or at least given a Bible to read. Nope. In the holding cells, for the first 6 hours of my time, there was no toilet paper, so I couldn’t use the bathroom. There was TP in this chamber, but there was a camera placed high behind the toilet. I shuddered at the thought of the guard (who I knew was watching the video for that camera, since she’d buzz in and yell at inmates if they crossed a red line of tape put in the front of the chamber) watching me as I defecated. But I had to go – I had no other choice. They watch everything.
As the hours passed, I remembered that I was supposed to hand in a 15-page paper at 2 PM, 12/7. It was the paper for which I was leaving to grab books when I was detained. On Tuesday night, I was excited to write on the movement from Perception to Understanding contained within Hegel’s Phenomenology of the Spirit. Now, I remember being in jail, around hour 16, rolling on the ground and laughing with slight deliriousness at this fact.
The hours dragged on. I stretched, meditated, went through recent conversations with friends in my mind, basically just doing whatever I could to keep my thoughts off of the droning of the only sounds in the chamber: the buzzing of some temperature system and the dreaded TV – Maury, 4 PM local news, 5 PM local news, 6 PM local news. It wasn’t until almost 10 PM that I was released. I was so happy to see Meghan, and our two other closest friends, Kayla and Ezgi waiting there for me. Almost a full 24-hours passed since the police arrested me in the library. Having not eaten at all in prison (they offered some meaty foods, but I didn’t eat them – I did this on my own accord), all I could think about was food and getting my bookbag back. My friends brought me the former. We went straight to Emory PD to get the latter – but ‘property’ is ‘managed’ during ‘normal business hours.’ I couldn’t get my bookbag until the next morning. So, during finals week, not only did my University arrest me in its library, but they also kept my books from me for a full 34 hours.
How should we judge this situation? The proposition “Joe Diaz was arrested in the library and charged with obstruction of a police investigation” is true. But what is our value judgment on it? Ought we ask – what was being ‘obstructed’ and how? Was excessive force used? Is it right that Joe was jailed and treated as less than human? Is it right that anyone is? Was this an instance of Justice? Answering these questions involves looking at more than the 3 minute video. The question, “Should he have been arrested?” in this context translates to, “Should he have been forcefully detained, effectively deprived of sleep, separated from his belongings for an extended period of time, felt up and down, stripped nakedm ridiculed, and given a court date for a hearing in March?” The ‘arrest’ was all of these things, it wasn’t merely the act of the cop censuring me for whatever reason. If your answer is yes, this ‘arrest’ was deserved, I’m genuinely interested in hearing your justification.
There has been some commentary concerning what took place. How do I feel? I’m exasperated, incensed, tired and melancholy. But it’s not only about what happened to me. The police use combative force recklessly and with impunity all the time. The prisons have been proliferating rapidly and getting worse in quality for years. As far as the University goes, not so long ago, it was considered an autonomous space for learning and growing. Police had little presence on campuses, if any. They were seen as interferers of the state in a setting that was supposed to look more like the Lyceum, not the Bastille. Decades ago, having a student arrested in the library during finals would have been an outrage for the whole campus community. But in 2011, it seems that authoritarianism has become so normalized and sleepwalking so normative, that some Emory students and professors may barely bat an eye at what happened. Some might even support it. Emory seems to be more interested in teaching their ‘future leaders’ market manipulation than Socratic questioning. Don’t even get me started on the doubletalk that are Emory’s slogans: ‘Ethical Engagement’ and ‘Courageous Inquiry.’ The joke has lost its humor.
Even so, maybe people will merely ‘keep calm and carry on’ as the old British slogan enjoying a renewed popularity states. I’m reminded of a quote from James Baldwin’s Notes of a Native Son: “People who shut their eyes to reality simply invite their own destruction, and anyone who insists on remaining in a state of innocence long after that innocence is dead turns himself into a monster.” Maybe those monsters lurk about us. Or, perhaps this episode will effectively freak out students, professors, and others paying attention. Maybe they’ll see it as an unacceptable offense in the name of Authority and Order – History’s perennial towering Agents of Oppression. Whatever will come of this, it is clear that we who love freedom and yearn for democracy’s actualization certainly have our work cut out.