Saturday, May 15, 2010

Imprisoned in a Small Texas Town

'There are, indeed, writers who praise Hiero the Syracusan though but a private person, in preference to Perseus the Macedonian though he was a king, because Hiero to become a prince lacked but a principality, whereas the other had no kingly attribute save his kingdom.'

- Machiavelli, in the preface to his Discourses on the First Decade of Livy

What follows here is simply a series of disconnected thoughts or miscellaneous paragraphs inspired by my recent stay in the Municipal Courthouse Detention Center of Rowlett, Texas, for a total of fourteen hours on the twenty-seventh of July, 2001, following my arrest for a pair of unpaid moving violation warrants in Dallas county and with the Dallas Sheriff's office, two guiding lights of moral integrity - veritable beacons of hope in my life. If there is nothing of special worth or cataclysmic profundity in this article, it is because I believe there isn't anything essentially profound to learn from the police in any case. Read on.

I have never liked the police.

As my friend Christian used to say, quite often, give a man a clipboard and he immediately becomes an icon of authority. Well, what I think is this: give a man (read: a monkey, not even a serpent in my personal anthropomorphic pantheon) a pressed, starched blue or black polyester uniform, a pair of sunglasses, black leather accoutrements, some kind of hat (hats are always symbols of 'authority'), and a couple of hours of training using a painted stick (it matters, of course, what color it is painted - black or white, as it is is some countries, are symbols, again, of authority) and he will not only think he is a dispenser of Truth and Justice, but somehow a 'higher' human being. The uniform, just one of our culture's Holy Grails or cups of Christ's blood, washes away all sins - as it removes one's personality, and thus one's history, reservations, inhibitions, or sense of personal responsibility. A uniform, at its most basic, is simply a covering - a cape, an altar cloth, a cerement, a cassock - transforming the subject, a supposedly 'unique' human being, into an object: a symbol, a tool, a mechanism, a wall, a cog, a wheel, a lever, a rope, an inclined plane (I prefer to think 'declining', or maybe 'reclining'), a soldier. If you drape a blanket over a bird's cage, says the old wives' tale, the bird will be convinced it is night, and will fall asleep indefinitely. If you drape a similar blanket over the nakedness of man (and there would be no organized wars if we were all naked) - the pitiful, misshapen, malformed, raw reality of a man's skin in contact with reality, the truth of the mirror - he, in a sense, falls asleep as well, but only in that part of him that is truly worth something - to me, if not to anyone else. 'Clothes make the man' is the old saying, once again, but shouldn't it really be: 'clothes hide the man'? Clothes...hide away the reality which a man must disguise in order to be considered a man? Clothes...enable a man to enter into areas, realms, locations, reserves of power, where he truly doesn't belong - maybe where none of us belong?

It isn't a secret that a large number of policemen are ex-military personnel, or even worse...people who could never make it into the military, and thus took what for them seemed a disappointing second string source of employment. There seems to be a type of personality that only really feels comfortable within the machinery of a large bureaucracy, or that can only feel safe when enshrined behind the anonymity that a uniform provides. I instinctively shun these people, as I feel them to be among the lowest orders of human life...

As the French writer Jean Genet once remarked famously, and as a thousand others have commented before and after, there is a very thin line between the criminal and the policemen, as they both belong to the same sphere of human events, themes, and ideas. They both believe in the prerogative of moral codes, and the priority and effectiveness of the abstraction called 'justice'. As you would expect, they get along very well together, as they, when confined in a small space in each other's company, are in their true element. For every question the criminal asks, the policeman has an answer - or vice versa, and I don't just mean this in the sense of queries related to judicial processes. The two personality types complement each other and, in a sense, provide a reason and justification for each other's existence.

Here is the sequence of events: I was pulled over by one 'officer' at around ten in the morning while unwisely driving through Rowlett, and then maneuvered into the parking lot of a grocery store. Another 'officer' arrived in his squad car within minutes. This second policeman, a Hispanic, walked to my window, and asked me very politely (but firmly - they are trained in the methods of voice and diction, traditionally, as any other orator would be exercised) to 'step from the vehicle' (you can see how one unconsiously slips into the porcine parlance almost instinctively, but we Americans are given an education in pigspeak from the date of birth, it is all our television programs deal with). I exited my car and was immediately steered, politely but firmly once again, to the 'rear of the vehicle', where I was asked to produce 'identification'. I did. Then I waited as the two policemen struggled with their in-dash computer systems (which are almost always in error, or failing), calling up my driver's license number, etc. Getting out of his car again, the second 'officer' (it is telling that they are even called this, as the word 'officer', considered from an etymological point of view, merely means 'one who resides in or is a functionary of an office' - in other, words, a bureaucrat) asked me to turn around, and he handcuffed me, almost apologetically. He in fact had to use two sets of handcuffs, chained together, because the 'regulation' restraining devices were too small for my wrists, and if I was placed in them I would be under 'undue strain'. At this point I learned that I had two warrants out for my arrest in Dallas County, which - believe me - was completely a surprise. However, because I have dealt with the police on a number of occasions before, I am well acquainted not only with their language, mannerisms, codes of behavior, strict ideas of 'honor', etc. but also their systems and processes of information. I knew that these two were only minor tools of a much larger tool, and could not provide me with anything I really needed to learn. I simply waited, as one waits when within the grasp or sick embrace of the government, no matter what department or arm of the official bureaucracy - one bides time with the despair of the damned. One of the first things you learn when dealing with the government, in all of its strange forms, is that you must quickly develop a sense of patience, and also the concept of your (meaning your personality, your integrity, your identity) absolute immateriality to their purpose as a whole. As these officers were but valueless tools to me, so I was merely a 'method' to them, not an 'end'. What is the 'end' to these people, then, you ask - what is the single defining motive for all their actions, the blood that drives their machinery, the goal that they pursue endlessly? Money. Pure and simple. The second thing that you learn when dealing with the police or with any other part of the government, especially the judicial system, is that those who have money are relatively untouched by the whole experience...those who have money are escorted - danced, if you will - through the proceedings, surrounded by a protective layer of cold hard cash. Those who are without experience all the horrors that the brutal machinery of the government can inflict upon someone it considers worthless. When the police had extracted money from me, all their claws and instruments of torture disappeared, and their manner towards me changed abruptly. A minute before the money was handed over, though, I was still a cipher, a body, a nothing.

There are those who will argue that the police serve a necessary function - crime prevention - in our society, and in 'enforcing' the laws of the judiciary they prevent civilization from 'sliding into chaos', which is in fact a pairing of two equally egregious fallacies, and, as such, a completely inadequate, immature argument. One, this supposes or takes for granted beforehand that the 'natural' political order of humanity without total police supervision and governmental control is insidious, malevolent anarchy, which I don't believe to be true (this has never been proven to my satisfaction), and second, the idea of crime 'prevention' is in itself a contradiction in terms, as the police have never 'prevented' a crime in their entire history. They only show up or 'take over' once a crime has been committed, and are only authorized (at this time, anyway) to arrest people whom they suspect of being criminals - in other words, the police are powerless unless one first commits a crime in the first people overlook this simple fact is completely beyond me. Do you really think there would be less or more crime if the police were not involved? In fact what the police do is maintain an 'order' (meaning a system) that is specifically designed to enable those who have money and property to manipulate, exploit, and use those who do not. If they are involved in any way with 'preventing' crime, it is only in the chain of events where 'repeat offenders' are lost in a pattern of cyclical behavior - something that the police enable in any case by also repeatedly 'saving' the criminal from those he has personally offended.

So, in any case, I was kidnapped by two men dressed in blue uniforms, placed in a pair of handcuffs, deposited in the cramped backseat of a patrol car, where I had to maintain a ridiculous position in order to stay upright and somewhat dignified (again, this is all part of the ritual, but more on that later as well) in my own eyes, and driven to the courthouse slash police office slash fire department. There is no difference at all between being 'arrested' by the police and kidnapped by criminals - it is just a matter of terminology, of language...or in other words: perceptions and lies. I was held against my will and imprisoned, in a small cage, while my kidnappers demanded a ransom from my relatives or friends. It's all the same. The police are simply the largest and most well-organized (and I dispute this claim, actually) gang of merciless kidnappers around, and so well-entrenched in our perverted culture that we do not question their methods. This is a terrible, terrible mistake.

The language - or special discourse and vocabulary - that the police use is fascinating. As any other consolidated or 'exclusive' group of people, they have their own ways and manners of speaking or understanding each other, a discourse that allows them both to maintain a solid, rigid identity or tradition, and exclude others from immediately understanding them - thus their language, like almost all of their mannerisms or habits of behavior, is just another structure of power, a hierarchy. What is so illuminating about the police is that their discourse, their language and vocabulary, always seems to refer to specifics: concrete and easily-identifiable ideas, codes of criminal acts, times, places, locations, durations, and physical manifestations. In other words: material items, bodies, and the manipulations these two are put through. Within the penal discourse, there isn't any room at all for abstractions, even though (and this is the terminal irony of the entire proceedings, one so grim that it can only make me smile) their entire existence is based on the central abstraction of 'justice' and criminal codes that are always changing - based, more often that not, on political machinations the police have no control over. The police and judicial system is a house built on sand, one that is constantly being shored up and patched by a neurotic civilization of servants who can only deny to themselves, through their rigorously 'realistic' discourse, the essential nature of reality itself: beautiful philosophical or thematic lawlessness, multiform, myriad chaos - a world that is completely abstraction. Of course it is both philosophical and political chaos that the policeman fears the most, as chaos (in other words, true 'democracy' considered politically) reduces him to the same status of all other humans, even the ones he imprisons or dominates through terror and strong-arm tactics. Without the 'law' and the judicial discourse in league with their isolating rituals saying, day and night that he is not as others, what is he but another pitiful human, lost on the Earth - another criminal? The police instinctively fear reality, because they know when all their lies and institutions (and what is an institution but the lengthened shadow of one man's lie?) are called out of their solipsistic, self-obsessed coverings, reality can offer absolutely no justification for everything the police holds most dear. His artificial order disappears into thin air. The policeman is as much a walking paradox as he is a living lie.

These two policemen also went through my car, ransacking and randomly searching, as, under the drug laws that have been recently enacted in the United States, they do not need a warrant to do this. Everyone is considered a suspect - everyone is a potential drug user or dealer in the police's eyes - and so searches are carried out almost in a mandatory fashion. After all, who knows what they will find? Because I knew this would probably happen, it didn't surprise me in the least that they did this, and I simply waited for them not to find anything. It didn't even really anger me. However, a few minutes later, one of the policemen came over the squad car, cupping something gingerly in his hand. 'What's this?' he asked suspiciously. He held a Spirulina capsule in his gloved paw, and his eyes were on me, searching for a weakness. I told him what it was - merely a nutrional supplement, which has the misfortune to be a deep shade of green, roughly the same color as Cannabis...but I don't think he believed me, and the Spirulina is probably in a lab somewhere right now, where a team of forensic narcotics 'experts' are training their government-issued microscopes on its inner workings. With a little luck they might actually, in a decade or two, discover its magical hidden properties.

At no point in the proceedings was I read my rights, and at no point was I formally charged with anything. I was simply arrested. It was ten hours later before I could fake being sick and thus gained the use of a phone to 'call my doctor' - i.e., people who could get me out of there. The police - and here I am simply extrapolating from the example of the Rowlett department - do not care at all if you live or die in their cells, but they'll be damned if you can live to claim you weren't given 'adequate' medical care (i.e., sue them) - this is something they have suffered for in the courts many times, and so they have learned their lesson. In many cases, and I am speaking from my own experience here, and the experiences of my friends, the police do not actively pursue a program of actual physical violence against their 'prisoners' anymore...they use stranger, much more insidious methods to punish now: techniques that have been honed through decades of incarceration and jail technology. All I can say is read Foucault's 'Discipline and Punish' if you are a stranger to modern penal techniques, there is enough in that book to make this article but a minor sidenote to what Foucault has already delineated. For one thing, the Rowlett prison is kept at a remarkably cool temperature, right at the edge of actually being 'cold' (but this is just a matter of perception, I agree, even though everyone else in there with me was freezing as well), and because the cells are made of non-insulating materials, all whitewashed brick, varnished concrete, and the prime conductor of steel, they do not offer any method of retaining one's body heat. Instead, there is a pile of blankets at the front, right next to the area where you are fingerprinted, and these are shown to you, as if they will be a prize to the most worthy inmates. My shoelaces, wallet, and all 'personal effects' were taken from me, indexed, categorized, the money counted and recounted, and entered into a registry, which I signed. I was fingerprinted, photographed by a video camera (this goes straight into the computer files), measured, and asked to repeat all the numbers, locations, addresses, coordinates, and histories that the government has assigned to me. In this way I (meaning my body only, the instrument that the police use their levers on) was categorized, registered, rubber-stamped, and manipulated. For a time I, the body that the Powers identify as me, was located in place and time, and catalogued. They even asked me if I was single or married, and what my occupation was - all of this I lied about, not because it really matters, but because I was tempted by the imp of the perverse to thumb my nose at them, no matter how futile this may seem. Of course if you are unemployed they offer you a look of resignation and disappointment, as if you are somehow not living up to the 'rigid' (in reality nothing could be more lax) standards of the status quo - which you aren't, because you are simply not adding to the system's others words, you are refusing to accept that you are just a slave. If anything, being in prison reminds you that no matter what you may consider yourself to be on the outside, in your private life, in there and to the government, as to your employers, whoever they may be, you are just a body - the same body that the government calls to war, the same body that punches a clock, graduates from college, raises children, pays taxes, moves to Florida, and is buried under six feet of dirt. As long as you have a body that the government can manipulate, or the employers can starve into submission, you are someone else's slave. The prison tells you to never forget this...

You are systematically debased, humiliated, and shorn of all the merit that you may have in the outside world - which, after all, are only illusions next to the hard reality of hunger, concrete, sleeplessness, and steel. Everyone is (and must be) reduced to the same level, and symbolically assigned a similar status by being treated in exactly (this is all prescribed, or proscribed, by ritual and codes of behavior, to which the jailers are themselves subject to) the same manner and, later, being issued (in penitentiaries) a uniform that in itself just another symbol. Your name is taken from you, and you are given a number by which they refer to your body. I was assigned the term 2A, as I was in the first 'prisoner' in the second cell on the left (the male) block. The humiliations are both subtle and obvious...for one thing, I was asked to sign a form guaranteeing that while I was in the 'custody' of the Rowlett police detention center, I wouldn't commit suicide. Can you think of anything any more hideous than this ritual? Any colder, more degrading, more anonymous? Anything more absurd?

My cell, and I paced it off quickly to satisfy my own curiosity, was approximately ten feet long by six feet in width by eight feet in height. Four hundred and eighty cubic feet of breathing (or suffocating) room, four hundred and eighty feet in which to lose myself. It sounds like a lot, doesn't it? It's not. Laying down, I took up sixty percent of the length of the room, the other forty percent included the stainless steel toilet and sink, the camera and intercom, and the cell door itself. Also in this bare, freezing cold room, which had two bunks on top of each other, each with a stained vinyl cover (mine had blood on it) and vinyl 'pillow', was a phone (which I was convinced was some sort of psychological experiment, as it never worked), a button to call the jailer, and a harsh bank of bright fluorescent lights which never wavered and never, ever, went off. The cells always had exactly the same temperature, amount of light, and the same amount of background noise in their vicinity. In addition they were constructed in a manner and with certain echoing materials (mentioned above) that made privacy completely impossible. One's every whisper, movement, or sound was carried throughout the entire cell block. The cameras were always on, and microphones transmitted the tiniest rustle to the cell watch center. I know that everyone in the block could hear my stomach rumbling, because I could hear theirs.

Within a few hours of being in this cell, I had completely lost track of time. The most common request of the 'prisoners' to the jailers was simply to know the day and time in order to place themselves and gain a small measure of mental equilibrium, as the nausea and disorientation that comes with being completely unsure of the time can be extremely troublesome. Moreover, since the jail operates twenty-four hours a day and is always actively pursuing some end or another, it is impossible to tell by periods of rest, quiet, or noise whether it is day or night. One's instincts for determining such things are rendered powerless, and you begin to distrust your own reserves of observation. Of course, because this was information (the time, etc.) that had a small value for the prisoners, it was more often than not withheld. Anything with any kind of value at all - any private effects, anything that can insure privacy or a sense of personal identity, anything that makes one comfortable or feel at peace - is withheld, or held in order to offer it to you later, as a reward for behavior the police tell you is 'good', which means in their best interest, or for their own profit. The blanket which they gave me - and gave to me in such a way as I was to understand that they were doing me a favor - was in fact just a thin sheet of starched fabric, widely woven, so that it did not allow me to retain any body heat at all when I wrapped it around myself in the cell. Like so many other things in the jail, it was just a cruel illusion, a joke. Heat is withheld, water is denied you, food does not appear, darkness can not be bought, silence is not allowed, and every effect of these privations are designed to remove the traces of one's humanity, to 'animalize' one, and to place one in a state of suffering, where's one consciousness is tortured on the head of a pin, slowly revolving in a timeless, odorless, communal void, where the mind can never escape the present, the here and now, and where this present is always exactly the same. It is exquisitely painful, and yet they will claim they have never treated you violently. Amazing, isn't it - the ways that different perceptions can deny reality...physical violence is probably only the lowest and simplest form of torture. For me, denying me my freedom (as if freedom, and the self-determined nature of my own will, were only a 'privilege' which could be revoked at any time) is the worst form of violence possible. To be treated as an object is to be, in more than one sense, murdered. It is a complete and utter violation of one's mind and identity.

I have always hated the sounds human beings make. For whatever reason, constantly being reminded of the existence of others around me and their incipient mortality has only served to weaken my equilibrium. In prison, you are not only placed with the 'private sphere' of others' existences, through sound amplification and other surveillance techniques one is cruelly put in a position where existences - lives, bodies - overlap and intersect with each other. At first I was in a cell with another young man, who first asked me the time, and then, after exclaiming upon the lateness of the hour - as he has been in that icy hole for two days - told me his entire 'story', meaning that he bragged about the exploits that had landed him there. He was probably in his late 20s, white, a little shorter than me, and sported not only a very confused hairstyle but a large diagonal gash, bloody and encrusted, across his face from right to left, ending just beneath the left eye. One inch higher on that side and he would have been looking at me without any depth perception. I never learned his name, but I did learn that he has been in some kind of altercation with his wife two nights before, and she was the one who had cut his face, with a broken beer bottle no less. He has the bottom bunk, so I arranged myself on the top bed, and tried to rest while I waited for my one phone call, which I expected as some sort of right, for whatever reason. This man soon left, and I was to enjoy the solitude that only comes to one in a jail cell (as you are alone only within the confines of that four hundred and eighty feet) for the next twelve hours. The flourescent lights shone directly in my eyes, and no matter which way I twisted and turned, I could not appropriate for myself even the merest hint of absolute darkness. Also, as I have related above, I soon grew wary of the fact that every movement I made, no matter how small, caused an echo both within the chamber and without. As my ears adjusted (and I prayed, before long, for a set of headphones - or at least earplugs) to the 'silence', I noticed that I could hear every single thing going on in the entire cell block. I could hear muffled words, benedictions, curses, threats, promises, the unceasing cacophony that comes with the pitiful wide-awake reality of human beings. I could hear chewing, lips smacking, knuckles cracking, men urinating, and all of the constant, unending complaining that is the lot of criminals - the bending, scraping, wheedling, whining, and boot-licking that these people employ as a manner of discourse. Before long, a man two doors down, who didn't stop talking the entire time I was in the jail - either berating or begging from the wardens and his fellow prisoners - started to read aloud from a pocket version of the New Testament, from Psalms, and it was all I could do to stop myself from groaning and pounding the walls with my head. His long, slow Southern drawl, smoothing over the harsh consonants of the judgements and related miseries of the Hebrews, bore its way like a pernicious worm into my ears. I consoled myself with glorious visions, hallucinatory in their intensity, of somehow sneaking into his cell under the cover of some accident in the jail's normal proceedings and strangling him with my bare hands - watching as his face twisted back and forth, turned purple, and contorted with the strain of clutching his portable Bible to his chest. I would then spit into his lifeless eyes.

Such is the strength of hate. And I have to say that it was merely hate, and really nothing else, that allowed me to maintain my composure through the entire confinment. Hate for my oppressors, hate for my 'fellow' humans, and hate for the reality which allows such things as this to exist. To be sure, it was not even a full twenty-four hours, this entire torture...but those who know me also know that I can not stand being forced, against my will, to take part in anything which I disagree with, no matter the duration or intensity. I am completely incapable of being coerced, and anyone who wants to take my freedom from me must be prepared for the direst consequences. This is not something I agree or disagree with, or have fostered in my own personality, it is simply a trait of my character, and an urge or capacity which is so deeply ingrained within me it is really biological or physical rather than psychological. However, I know I am not alone when I relate these sentiments...I share this attribute with many others.

I am tired of writing about all of this...

U. Amtey
28 July 2001