Men in Black and Blue
At Mission Station they took me around back and
walked me in. They closed the big heavy metal door behind me.
They took my watch. They took everything that was in my pockets.
They took my wedding ring. I was fingerprinted and sat on a
stainless steel bench with my hands handcuffed to a pole behind
me. I sat across from two women arrested for prostitution. One
had been arrested some 78 times. I heard I was being charged
with two felonies. Each charge against me could result in a
prison sentence of two, three, or four years. Someone said my
bail was $25,000.
I looked blankly at the green cinderblocks, and
I started painting mental pictures of what would happen to my
life if I were sent to prison for four years. I played those
pictures over and over and over in sheer dread and astonishment.
My bookstore would go belly-up. Iíd lose my apartment. I would
lose my friends. My family would be devastated. What would
happen with Khadija and me? Iíd lose everything.
With these thoughts I began the San Francisco
Police booking procedure. A sheriffís van came about 1:00 am to
drive me and a couple of others to the county jail. I asked the
man how my wife was and he said I'd better just worry about
myself. My possessions were sealed in a large manila envelope
and held by the sheriff. The van was like a dogcatcherís van.
They put me into what seemed like a big dog cage.
At County Jail I was stripped and searched. Body
cavities were examined. I was given orange underwear, orange
pants, an orange shirt, and an orange sweatshirt. In a daze I
walked too close to an officer and another one yelled at me and
There is a very distinct relationship between
prisoner and jailer and they let you know it: they own you. I
was taken to one of the many holding tanks filled with men, all
wearing orange like me. During the next grueling thirty hours,
as I was booked into San Francisco County Jail, I sat in one
crowded holding cell after another. I had my picture taken.
Fingerprints. Medical questions. Background questions.
a plastic band with my picture on it attached to my
wrist. Most the time I stayed in one of the holding cells,
trying to lie on the floor and use my shoe as a pillow. Just by
reaching out, I could touch five or six other men. I kept
imagining a future with years of prison.
Iíve tried to explain what this booking
procedure is like. The best I can say to anyone is, "You know
what itís like to go on a trans-Atlantic flight? You know how
tired you are when itís over? Well, this is like going on three
of these trips in a row, New York to London, back to New York,
then to London again, but being knee to knee, elbow to elbow
with prisoners on hard concrete floors while youíre in great
mental anguish." In the very early morning of the second day, I
lay in shock and exhaustion and couldnít stop the tears rolling
down my face. I wanted to stop them but I couldnít; I could only
try to hide them. What made me the saddest was that my wife
would do this to me.
At the very peak of this strain, I was let out
of one holding cell and taken to an interview room to talk to a
man in a suit. He was friendly and polite. He seemed interested
and concerned about my case. He wanted to have a talk with me.
He was a detective from the domestic violence unit. When he
spoke with me, I made it clear to him I did not attack my wife.
I did not hit her, push her, or threaten her. Not when I had
been arrested, not ever. I told him I felt Iíd better speak with
an attorney. I wanted to tell him a few more things, but the
moment I mentioned an attorney he said he could not have any
further conversation with me. They left me alone in that room
for another thirty minutes. Maybe they had it reserved.
How can I put this in words? This incident
revealed to me the basic truth of the situation: that man, the
San Francisco police detective, pretending to be impartial,
pretending to conduct an objective investigation into the facts
of a case, was in fact only interested in how he could get the
charges against me to stick to me; he didnít want to help me; he
was another wing of the prosecution.
I was sent to another holding tank with another
group of men. Hours later I was called to go to court. The Hall
of Justice building is connected with the jail building. The men
in my group were chained and walked into the holding cell of
Courtroom 18. About sixteen of us were put into a space the size
of a bedroom. By that time I was so tired it hurt. Eventually I
spoke with a public defender, who informed me the two felonies
had been reduced to five misdemeanors. I couldnít understand how
they came up with so many charges. Each misdemeanor had the
potential of one year in jail. But in his opinion it was very
unlikely Iíd do more then one year.
The remote hope I had at that moment was that
Khadija would be in the courtroom trying to help me. That her
anger would have passed and she would come to rescue me. That
she would come and tell what really had happened. I stepped into
the courtroom. She was not anywhere to be seen.
I wanted to speak with the judge and explain
some of the particulars of my case. I was not allowed to say
anything. They have no time for that. They have too many cases.
They read the police report, the prosecutor (the deputy D.A.)
studied it, the judge studied it, and my public defender read it
over. The police report controlled everything. The police report
would follow me every step of the way through the entire system.
When I was called before the judge, I was told I
would be released on my own recognizance later in the day on the
condition I made all court appearances and immediately enrolled
into a program of domestic violence counseling (which Iíve
written about). The case would proceed toward trial. The judge
also extended the order to stay 150 yards away from my home and
my wife for three years. I could have no contact in any way with
my wife, even through a third party.
The D.A. handed this order to my public
defender, who handed it to me. There was my wifeís name and our
home address. How could they do this? I loved my wife. I missed
her; I needed her. I wanted nothing else but to be with
her, to see her eyes and talk to her. There is no rhyme or
reason for love, but for me seeing her is like taking fresh air
into my lungs. Not seeing her, I felt something like the panic
and pain of a psychological suffocation.
For my wife to tell the police something untrue,
something that never happened. For the district attorney to
point at what she said on a piece of paper. For the judge to
study that piece of paper and say my wife and I are to be
separated, divided for three years. How can I describe the
weight this put on me? The pain this put me in? Because I was
not screaming and howling in that courtroom does not mean that I
wasnít inside. I most certainly was.
The police never even heard my side properly.
The detective did not hear my side. The attorney gave me 90
seconds. The judge gave me three minutes. They had it all
decided. It was so perfectly like a Kafka story. Such a huge
bureaucracy with such utter blindness. A meat-packing factory
but with reports on paper and folders stuffed
with papers which are moved about as peopleís lives are being
cut up. If you want to hurt someone, just take away the people
they love. Use an overwhelming show of force. Pour shame all
over them. Psychologically torment them by playing cat and mouse
with truth and rights. The system had all this equipment, all
these polished devices to inflict the most astonishing amounts
of emotional pain. They had put away all the methods of physical
cruelty and come up with these. I started to doubt who the
actual criminals were. Who was hurting whom? What was their
excuse? In a compassionate society, why would they even dream of
treating people like this?