“Hey you! Stop!”
NYC activist Dave Segal reported to prison Monday, where he will serve six months for actions he took to protest the war in Iraq. These are his words about the experience that took him there.
"Hey you! Stop!"
Those words marked the beginning of a year and two month journey that will end in three days when I report to the Fort Dix Federal Prison. In the dark, early hours of January 31st, 2005, I found momentum pushing me to go ahead with an action that I had very poorly prepared for. I had come to the Bronx that night after having scouted out an Army recruiting station next to Westchester Square in the eastern part of the borough. With a few lighter fluid soaked rags, I hoped to put some small dent in the huge military machine. I failed pretty miserably.
I arrived that night with no lookout and a poorly thought out escape plan. The feelings in my stomach, which I should have seen as a warning to turn back, I interpreted as general nervousness. I would just go ahead with the action and any kinks would work themselves out. After hammering out a section of the glass door of the building, I took out one of the rags, lit it, and tossed it inside on the carpet. I like to think it was the adrenaline that made me think that lighting the carpet on fire would burn the place down. No matter the reason, I was very, very wrong.
Quickly, but without running, I made my way across the street and was walking down my escape route when I heard those three aforementioned words. I turned, saw two cops coming down the block towards me, and ran. I could hear them running behind me and after half a block I looked over my shoulder and saw both of their guns pointed at me. In retrospect, I should have just taken off because they probably wouldn't have shot me, but at the time it seemed like I was in imminent danger. This seems like a problem more mental preparation could have solved.
I'm cuffed and led back to the building. The fire department gets called. Detectives get called. One cop, seeing my tattoos, suggests the gang detectives get called (the others ignore him). All the while, pigs were asking me "Why did you do it?" or other questions that implied my guilt. I steadfastly said nothing and just glared at them. At this point, they had taken my jacket and sweater so I was left standing in the bitterly cold air with just a t-shirt and pants on. Even though I was shivering violently and my teeth were chattering so loudly that I could barely hear anything else, no one would give me my coat back.
Within an hour the crime scene was crawling with firefighters and pigs of all ranks, and I was brought to a cop car to sit in. Two cops asked me more dumb questions that I refused to answer, one of them sitting with his baton an inch from my side. When he started talking about his relatives being in the military, I got visions of him cracking my ribs (he didn't). We waited at the scene for a total of maybe three hours before I was finally driven to some precinct building in the Bronx.
After being patted down six or seven more times, I'm finally put in a brightly lit cinder block cell with a single wooden bench. More waiting. Cops sporadically come in and out of the room that the cell is in, to look through paper work relating to my case. Eventually my fingerprints and a photo are taken. Then my stay began to get a bit more interesting.
"Hello David, I'm with the FBI"
I had occasionally heard cops talking about my case "being transferred to the feds," but most of them shrugged it off. I just kept hoping and hoping that it wouldn't be. I guess that night wasn't my lucky night. He came up to the bars of my cell and asked if I wanted to talk to him. I said, very politely, that I wanted a lawyer first. He tried to convince me for a couple more minutes, I just repeated myself and he left. This back-and-forth happened two more times. After the second time, a couple regular beat cops came in the room and opened up my cell door. "Come on out."
I walked out to them and they led me to this smaller room with the door already open. One of the two cops put on latex gloves. We all walked into the room and they pulled the door closed behind us. One turned to me and hesitantly said, "Okay, take off your pants." I looked up at them and as I painstakingly slowly unbuttoned my jeans, I gave them the most shocked/frightened look I could possibly muster up, and just as I was undoing my zipper one of them said "Okay, nevermind, you can go back to your cell." Success.
I don't know if they specifically meant that incident as a way to intimidate me, but not long after, the fed came back again. I said I wanted my lawyer, as always, and then he started to take the "bad cop" approach. He got a little angry and let it be known that he was part of the Joint Terrorism Task Force (JTTF) and that I was facing potential terrorism charges if I didn't talk to him. When the "T-word" was dropped, I'll admit my heart rate quickened. He started talking about prison sentences of 10 or 20 years, and that if I talked now I would make it easier for myself.
Now, I had read so many different zines and articles about how talking to the feds or police will never, ever improve your situation. On an intellectual level, I knew that for sure, but my gut was yelling out that I was fucked if I didn't. Before my arrest, I had never speculated about what jurisdiction my crime would be under if I was caught. It never occurred to me that I would have to face federal charges with mandatory minimums. If I had thought out the consequences of being caught, rather than ignoring the possibility, I would have been in much better shape in that prison cell.
After a bit more arguing with the fed, I finally capitulated and was brought into the interrogation room. The fed that I had met before and his partner asked immediately about my connections with the Earth Liberation Front (ELF) and Animal Liberation Front (ALF). I said I had none. Additionally, there was a long line of questioning, that apparently had come from Army Intelligence, about the group Solidarity. They were asking because I have the word "solidarity" tattooed on my stomach, and they were convinced that meant I was a member of some socialist group based in New York. I hadn't even known that it existed before that. On an embarrassing note, their office ended up getting harassed by the FBI a week after I was arrested, all because of my tattoo. Sorry folks.
In the course of about an in hour in this small, brightly lit, windowless room, the feds played the "good cop, bad cop" game a bit in the beginning when I was still talking about my lawyer, but once I told them my story, they quit. I told them about how I did all of the planning and execution of this action alone, how I didn't know anything about other vandalism that had taken place at an army recruiting center that night. They said how the only thing that could really improve my situation was if I agreed to cooperate with them in prosecuting other "radicals". I told them I didn't know anyone else who had radical politics; that I was just a college kid.
If I had mentally prepared myself for the possibility of being caught, I could have dealt with refusing that interrogation a lot better. To understand the consequences of your action and be able to deal with them is priceless. Also, I can't repeat this point enough: talking to cops or feds is never, ever, ever beneficial. Never. The fact that I talked with the feds didn't prevent them from charging me with the harshest crime that they could (Arson 3, with a mandatory minimum of 5 years). I spent the whole rest of my case trying to work around the fact that the feds had a statement from me admitting my guilt.
Once the interrogation was finished, I got brought back to my cell. I stayed there for the next couple hours trying unsuccessfully to sleep, because the light was so bright, and the bench so uncomfortable. Luckily, I wasn't there for much longer. One of the feds (the "bad cop") and one of the cops who had originally arrested me came to my cell and told me we were leaving. I turned around, they slapped cuffs on my wrists, and we walked out of the precinct to the fed's beat-up, unmarked Crown Victoria.
The sunlight was glaring, so I figured it was about midday, since they didn't have clocks anywhere in the precinct. The fed sat up front and the cop sat in the back with me. I made some remark about not being able to get my seatbelt on to the fed and he told me to shut up as he lit a cigarette. Then we were off. We headed down the FDR and I looked around at the city and tried to memorize everything I saw because I had no idea when I'd get to see it all again. We made it to the Jacob K. Javits federal building in downtown Manhattan, and the fed parked on the street.
We went up into the FBI offices, where they put all of my information into their computer, including pictures of all my tattoos. It was sort of funny making up explanations for them, like my answer regarding the meaning of my tattoo of a man throwing a book with a fuse coming out of it at the Federal Reserve building: "It means knowledge is power." Right.
After going through the FBI's offices, I was given to the US Marshals and brought to their separate offices to be put into more computers. All of this took a few hours, with all of the waiting handcuffed to chairs. It was incredibly disorienting, considering I was never told what was going to happen next or where I was or what time it was. In fact, I suddenly found myself handcuffed to a chair in this hallway where I was to meet with a lawyer minutes before seeing a judge.
Following my brief meeting with the attorney, I appeared before a federal judge. The prosecution asked for bail to be set at $250,000 and my jaw dropped a little a bit (I didn't realize you only had to put up 10% of that amount). My lawyer countered with something significantly less, and it ended up being set at $150,000. The Legal Aid lawyer I was assigned was really sweet, so when I turned to him and asked "What now?" he put a hand on my shoulder and said really softly that I had to go to prison for that night. I was quickly led away by the marshals after that.
I was moved from cell to cell for the next few hours, neurotically thinking about the different paths my life could have taken, imaging myself as a typical college student just "playing the game" as my dad always called it. The thought of how stupid it was not to have a lookout often came up. It was frightening, but more because I had no idea what to expect. That's why the procedures for moving prisoners around are made to maximize the feelings of anxiety that stem from not knowing what's coming next. It makes you feel really powerless.
I ended up in a cell with a group of maybe eight men, most in their mid-twenties, all people of color. We were all in shackles, our hands and feet cuffed with a chain connecting the two sets. No one looked angry or upset, even, just exhausted. They had that weary look in their eyes that makes it seem like they're looking at something in the distance. No one talked. A few people looked at the half-sleeve tattoo I have on my right arm and gave me a half a nod. Then a couple of marshals came and led us to a van with bars on the windows that I found out later would be taking us to the Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn.
Pulling up to the jail was pretty ominous, given it was the middle of winter, night, and there were high walls all around us with spotlights shining down. Moving in our shackles, we were led into more cold holding cells with other people waiting. This whole experience is about waiting. Then moving somewhere else to wait some more. Over and over again. In one of the first waiting rooms, I was stripped down, had my anus examined, and was given a tan, ill-fitting, itchy jumpsuit and the cheapest shoes I've ever seen. They then gave us the choice of donating our clothes to the prison, or sending them home. I laughed when they told me this, and said that they weren't getting my clothes.
No longer in shackles, me and a bunch of other guys were moved around some more, given ID cards with our numbers on them, and then finally led up to the cell blocks where we'd be staying. While I was waiting before we got there, some guys in the cell talked to me a bit, I think because I was one of the youngest guys there. They kind of reassured me and said that I should just try not to cry, and I'd do okay. I managed to do exactly that until I got to the cell I was assigned to. The other guy in the cell was already asleep on the bottom bunk, so I awkwardly climbed onto the top bunk, buried my head in my pillow, and bawled until I fell asleep.
Early in the morning, my cellmate woke me to tell me it was time for a count. He was my age, maybe even a year younger, and seemed as unsure about the whole experience as I did. We both stood by the small window of our cell door as we waited for the guard to come by and make sure we hadn't escaped. Then it was time for breakfast. I asked my cellmate if I actually had to go and he shook his head, so I just went back to sleep. Lunch came and I woke up, looked around, and went to sleep again.
As dinner rolled around, I found that no matter how hard I tried I could not sleep a single second longer. I managed to rouse myself, jump down and use the toothbrush that I'd been given the night before. I finally saw the cell, and it was sparse. A toilet, sink, tiny window, bunk beds and two small lockers giving not much in the way of comfort.
I ventured out into the main hall. It was a big, open space with tables that had the food serving area on the left, a basketball court in a connected room, and circling three quarters of the room were two tiers of cells with two staircases leading from the top tier to the floor. When I came out of my cell, there was a line of inmates snaking around the room waiting for dinner. I jumped in line and once I got to the food realized that the only vegan options were corn and white rice, neither known for their nutritional value. No matter, I didn't have that much of an appetite anyway, after thinking about my legal predicament.
With little else to do after finishing, I pulled up a chair in front of the two televisions, and read the subtitles that were scrolling below. I was dying for something more substantial to read but there was nothing in sight. The whole time I sat there, I was hoping my name was going to be called to tell me I had been bailed out. I had my lawyer's business card with me, so I kept leaving messages on the legal aid voicemail service asking him what was going on with my case, even though he couldn't have responded.
As I was watching TV, I heard somebody calling "Hey you" in my direction, and when I looked up I saw this guy beckoning me over. A little hesitant, I got up and sat down at a table with him and three other guys. They all had been looking at the tattoo on my arm and wanted to see it up close. All of them were impressed, and started talking about their tattoos. When they got around to asking me what I was in for, I told them that I was accused of setting fire to an Army Recruitment center. They all started cracking up. "Yo, why'd you get your crime tattooed on your arm?" I couldn't help but laugh.
We bullshitted for a couple more hours (mostly them spouting sexist rhetoric) and they gave me advice which amounted to obeying the concept of "doing your own time." In other words, minding your own business and getting through your sentence without causing a stir. Although I was more interested in finding ways to radicalize prisoners, I just nodded and agreed. While talking to people helped get my mind off my situation, it all came rushing back once it was lights off at ten. Then all I had to occupy myself with was my thoughts, and I inevitably ended up crying into my pillow again until I fell asleep.
By the next day, I had resigned myself to the idea of not getting out on bail. I hadn't had my name called to go to court or anything, so I guessed that my parents had heard what happened and were disgusted. Memories came rushing back of the time my dad refused to pick me up after I fell asleep at the wheel and wrecked my car. I started trying to find ways to fill the time besides TV. I worked out a little bit in my cell, borrowed a newspaper from someone, left messages for my lawyer, and wandered in circles around the cell block. As far as food went, I kept asking the guards about vegetarian meals and they just ignored me, so I had a tiny piece of breaded chicken along with the soggy, limp vegetables at dinner. I didn't understand at the time the potential outside support that existed for vegan prisoners. I just figured I was going to starve to death. That night I managed to only cry a little, as I started to get used to the idea of prison.
As it turned out, I wouldn't have to get used to it. At about five in the morning, the guard came into my room and woke me up to tell me I was going to court that day. I literally jumped out of bed, threw on my shoes and stood in front of my door looking out the window waiting for the guard to come and open it up. An hour later he finally came back and I moved out into the main hall to sit with a few other guys who were going to court that day. It took at least another hour and a half before we were finally all shackled and ready to load into the van to go back to Manhattan.
It was well past noon by the time I stood before the judge. My lawyer informed me that my parents and my sister had been cosigners to my bail and the terms of my release were decided. When my next appearance date was set, concluding the hearing, I figured I would be allowed to go free. On the contrary, I ended up being led back to the cell that I came from. Everyone else in the cell told me how I was definitely going to have to spend the night in prison again because that was normal procedure. Then I just had to wait there, not knowing what was going to happen.
The guards would show up periodically taking someone from the cell with them, and they finally came for me. All of a sudden I was in a room where my literal and figurative chains were taken off and I was given a pile of clothes that my mom had brought from home. A marshal stood outside and kept shouting at me to move faster, but I knew there was nothing he could do to me since I was getting out, so I just ignored him and it felt great.
Finally, as I stepped out of one last door, I saw my mom standing there. I didn't really know what to say so I just gave her a hug and we walked out. Luckily, my attorney had told her that she should never discuss the case with me so I never had to have any awkward conversations about my actions, which made the ride home a lot easier. Before we could leave, though, we had to stop at my lawyer's office. There he laid out the whole situation for me. I'd be looking at a mandatory minimum of five years under the federal laws regarding arson. As he explained it to me, the only way to get around that was to agree to inform on people for the FBI. I told him what I had told the feds before: "I don't know anybody who's into politics."
So, when my mom and I left the office that day I was facing a mandatory five years without any apparent way around it. Over the next few months, I came down for various status checks with the judge, but most importantly, I was introduced to Marty Stolar. A friend of a friend called me and said it would serve me well to have Marty as my lawyer, instead of someone from Legal Aid. There was a lot of wrangling with my parents over the issue since they were afraid that Marty would turn it into a "political case." I was kind of at a loss to understand how it could not be a political case, but I just said that with the Legal Aid attorney, I was just waiting it out until I could start serving my five years. With Marty, at least we'd have a fighting chance of getting a deal.
So, with the tuition money my school had refunded me after they kicked me out (at the request of the ROTC), my family and I retained Marty as my attorney. It was the best decision I've ever made. While I worked doing landscaping in Connecticut, Marty was busy hounding the Assistant District Attorney for a plea bargain, which they were initially refusing to even offer. At the same time, my friends from New York were calling me and asking what they could do to help, which at the time wasn't a lot since Marty wanted to keep everything as low profile as possible. The best support the anarchist community in NYC gave me, though, was making me feel so welcome when I would come down to visit on my days off. There is no way I would have been able to stay strong throughout my case if I hadn't had such a supportive group of people. With my future being so unsure, and me being isolated in Connecticut, I just wanted to feel like I was not alone with this, which I never did.
After some failed attempts at getting a plea bargain, due to intense resistance at the Washington level, Marty finally had a breakthrough; I would plead guilty to felony "malicious mischief" which didn't carry a mandatory minimum. The maximum sentence was ten years, though, which would give the judge a lot of leeway. In order to help my chance of getting a short or suspended sentence, Marty and I put together a packet of letters from professors, teachers and others speaking highly of me, as well as a psychological evaluation that said I was on sound mental footing.
Once again, there was more waiting in the dark to deal with in this portion of my case as well. It would be months before I would hear of any new developments from the government, so I would just do my best to live my life in Connecticut, visiting NYC when I could (the only two regions where I was allowed to travel to). While I was waiting around, I kept hearing reports of anarchists being arrested all around the country, including NYC, as part of the FBI's intensified campaign against us. Even though I was upset over my own situation, when I heard of people having possible life sentences levied against them, my case didn't seem so dire. Then, nearly a year after I had first broken the glass of that Army recruiting center, I traveled to downtown Manhattan to appear at my sentencing.
In the course of berating me for my actions, Judge Richard Berman remarked that my plea bargain was the "most extraordinary he had ever seen" and that I probably deserved worse. I ended up receiving a six month sentence, followed by four months of house arrest as part of three years of supervised release, along with some assorted fines. Additionally, we had the judge write that I needed to be given vegan food. The entire time this was being read to me, I thought of the others who had committed crimes not much more effective than mine, but were in the process of serving much more lengthy sentences.
I was lucky in a lot of different ways. I was lucky to be both white and upper middle class, to have the resources available to hire a private lawyer, a family who was willing to let me stay with them as I was weathering this out. I realize that these things are rare and that the outcome of my case was dependent upon them. At the same time, I know that had I not been supported by the anarchist community not only in New York, but in Connecticut and Kansas and other places, my sense of self and direction would have been completely lost. If you are wrapped up in the legal system for committing a politically motivated crime, and you are without a group of people to help you sustain your identity and beliefs, you'll be adrift.
It's easy to slip into tunnel vision and lose sight of the bigger picture of worldwide resistance to oppression when you are facing such specific repression. Without that greater picture, though, it's a lot easier to lose your hope and conviction that led you to commit the act in the first place. Whether you are behind bars or free, you have to place yourself in the context of a broader movement. That's the only way that you can stay strong when you are completely unaware of what's going to happen to you. I only hope that others who have been subjected to the repression of the state have the help of their local communities to do exactly that.
At 2 PM on Monday afternoon, Dave Segal reported to prison at Fort Dix Federal Correctional Institution in New Jersey, where he will be spending the next six months of his life. He is doing alright and has not had trouble receiving vegan food. He is very eager to recieve letters For the next six month he would very much like to hear from suppporters.
FCI Fort Dix
Federal Correctional Institution
PO Box 7000
Fort Dix, NJ 08640
Mail regulations are unknown at this time, but be cautious, don't put glitter or stickers on letters, number your pages, and be smart. Make sure to write your return address on the paper, as he may not be receiving envelopes.
He currently has plenty of books set aside and will have a friend send them to him periodically.
More information to come, and for more information about Dave, go to www.supportdavidsegal.com.
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