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A screwdriver. To the industrious, it’s a tool for driving screws. To the IKEA-assembling poorgeoisie, it’s the only implement they’ll ever need to make their self-conscious-but-still consumerist hovel the hip, sleek, and well-appointed abode they fetishize in their near-pornographic collection of furniture catalogues from Restoration Hardware, Crate & Barrel, and the like. To still others, a screwdriver is a popular vodka and orange juice cocktail.
For much of my life, I probably subscribed to the latter category, but that’s just because I once considered myself a professional lush.
“Sure, I use ‘screwdrivers’ at work. How else am I going to hammer out this tortured, self-mythologizing tome in which I quite plainly make the case for my own sexual selectability, hoping women read my words and adore me despite my glaring inadequacies as a human incapable of readily expressing emotion - if I don’t drink screwdrivers? I’m a writer.”
“Writer,” it should be noted, is often used as a euphemism for “open and unabashed alcoholic.” Forget MFA programs. Forget newspaper offices. Forget the WGA. If you want to find the largest group of people who openly self-identify as “writers,” they’re probably reciting the Serenity Prayer, mic-checking people’s names, and chain-smoking cigarettes outside a church basement somewhere in your neighborhood tonight.
All self-referential, chemical-dependency in-jokes aside: in Los Angeles, if you’re not white - a screwdriver is a deadly weapon. Possession of a screwdriver, if you have a certain pigmentation or a previous arrest, is itself felonious. Of course, in Florida, a bag of skittles and a hooded sweatshirt is enough to get you killed. But let’s stay local today. That’s kinda the point. This is about our own community. And how fucked up the LAPD are.
If the police stopped me and found a screwdriver on me in my neighborhood, they’d assume I was off “screwing things” and allow me on my way. Hell, they’d probably offer me a ride. No problem. Not anything to make a case about. I sure as fuck wouldn’t get 72 hours awaiting arraignment for the “offense.”
Such was not the situation, however, for a 68 year old POC I met during a recent visit to Los Angeles’ new, $74 million Metropolitan Detention Center at 180 North Los Angeles Street. Like me, my new friend was spending his pre-arraignment time being ritually dehumanized in the LAPD’s highly-touted, highly-lauded facility there for nothing more than being charged with a non-violent “crime.” And when I acknowledged how fucked up that was - he hardly shrugged.
That he wasn’t as indignant about it as I was isn’t a reflection that he wasn’t cognizant of how fucked up it truly was - but because his experience over so many years has been so systematized that he believes there truly is nothing he can do.
Indignation is the province of people who still think they have a recourse for their indignation. I am a dreamer. That’s precisely why I fucking hate so much that I see. And I’ve been afforded that luxury. This man, however, had done longer bids for lesser offenses, and had long since decided his anger wasn’t going to change anything. I wasn’t so sure, myself.
However, for most people at the New Glass House - the Orwellian name given to MDC - there is nothing they can do. They don’t have money. And once the state gets you in its grasp, it will never let you go. Have priors and forget to take the screwdriver out of your pocket when you go out to the local market while fixing your own home? Go directly to jail. Do not pass go, do not even think about collecting $200 dollars, and shut the fuck up. You are a criminal. Fuck the presumption of innocence. Ei incumbit probatio qui dicit, non qui negat is just a slogan, just like “the 99%,” except snootier. Blackstone’s formulation is less known in this country than the distance to the nearest Coldstone.
You scream, I scream, we all scream “shit is fucked up and bullshit!”
After my arraignment, after I was released on my own recognizance because I don’t have so much as a speeding ticket in 16 years, I sat through another 2 hours of (joyous) incarceration with the luckier of my fellow inmates. Yet even that was spoiled by the Sheriff’s Department thugs.
To each of my less-pasty complexioned comrades, the Deputy in charge sneered, “You may be leaving this time - but I know I’ll see you all again real soon!” She also made sure to remind them that if they failed to cooperate (these free men who had yet been convicted of nothing) with processing out even in the slightest, she had to power to drag out this release for hours. I would’ve protested - but I didn’t want to delay the sunshine.
While I was a tourist in their world for a mere 72 hours, and yes - my own indignation admittedly bears all the hallmarks of high-falutin’, moralistic, crusading bullshit I will now urge everyone to be wary of - we need to address this as a civilization if we’re going to continue to call ourselves that.
If I could talk to George Clooney, I’d tell him I don’t have to go to Sudan to find injustice to worry about. I can see it with my own eyes in my own neighborhood. I don’t need a high-profile arrest of a celebrity like his or even a publicly masturbating Christian zealot utilizing a slick, overwrought, and decade-late viral video sensation to tell me that shit is fucked up and bullshit. These facts are all around me. I just have to know where to look.
The first place I’d suggest people look isn’t in some remote corner of the world, far away from America’s shores- it’s within the sound-proofed walls of the LAPD’s newfangled MDC. Shit is fucked up and bullshit all over America, and we aren’t doing the people of Sudan or Uganda any favors by overlooking the plight of those around us and continually externalizing injustice as something that happens “over there.” On that score - fuck you, Clooney. And fuck Jason Russell, too. Take off your parachutes and come on down to Skid Row.
For all of you “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere” Martin Luther King, Jr. rote-reciting pacifists - I expect to see you out in full force at every FTP, noise demonstration, and anti-police brutality action. Because selective enforcement, such as described in simple story of the possession of a screwdriver, is a hallmark of tyranny. And such tyranny is rampant in these United States of America today. And that injustice happens every day in your community.
I’m not an expert on incarceration or the prison industrial complex. I spent 72 hours in jail. As a white guy. Without so much as a speeding ticket in the last 15 years of his life. Be advised: your personal experience in the Prison Industrial Complex may vary.However, as a white male entering jail, the first thing you’ll notice is that the “presumption of innocence” is not just a myth, but an outright lie. There is no such thing. If you aren’t bailed out awaiting arraignment, you are considered guilty. That is the natural order of things.
If you aren’t convinced by the way the police treat you when they brutally arrest you, observe the jailers. They aren’t carrying those green shotguns into your “pod” every two hours because they respect that you have merely been accused of a crime and have yet to be convicted of anything. To them, your incarceration is proof enough of your guilt. You are a criminal. If you weren’t, you’d have posted bail. In its simplest form - in America, money equals innocence, poverty equals guilt. There is no other way to parse that reality once you’ve awaited arraignment in jail.
If the presumption of innocence was real, the time it took to process you out of jail would be a lot different. You’d constantly be receiving apologies for how long it was taking to get you out. The staff would fete you and empathize with the inconvenience they were causing you.
“We’re so sorry the judge can’t see you until Monday, fellow citizen,” jailers would say. “Is there anything we can do for you to make your stay here more enjoyable? Would you perhaps like your pillows fluffed or a chiatsu massage? Tomorrow, we’ll be having our daily yoga session in South Block C. I hope you plan to attend. It’ll do wonders for your chi.”
Which brings me to my next point: if you get arrested as an activist, have no prior convictions - and force the movement to post your bail before even your arraignment - you are a fucking asshole. You are wasting the movement’s limited money.
Do the time. Talk to fellow inmates. See the judge. Go home and tell everyone what you learned. Even if all you learned is that mystery-meat slurry is not your favorite amuse bouche. Even if what you learned is so laden with bourgeois bullshit, like this…
Yes - jail is fucking scary. There are dangerous assholes in there. They look at you as if you are inhuman. They will point at you and whisper. They will yell at you and taunt you. They will take your food from you, physically accost you, threaten you, systematically abuse you, and do things purely to put fear into your heart, and they will openly and unapologetically try to reduce you to nothing more than a quivering pile of teary, human-shaped pulp if you let them. They will break you down so you don’t know what time it is, what day it is, and they will leave you forever guessing what is going on. And the ones doing this will invariably be the ones with the badges on.
But yeah - “presumption of innocence.” That fucking canard! When you are in jail, probably for nothing more than wearing provocative clothing (like a black hoodie), you will soon realize that the only thing jail serves is someone’s bottom line. That’s why people are released after midnight (how else to pad your numbers to claim ever more funding from state and federal troughs?) That’s why the jailers seem so unsympathetic.
It’s funny that the words “capitalism” and “capital” come from chattel (“cattle,” too). Private property in the terms of the PIC reduces humanity to a head count at bed check. That’s what matters. How many inmates they hold. It’s how they receive funding. Cui bono? The people who keep you in there as long as they can.
In jail, you are chattel. Nothing more. Your presence there is the reason the jailer has a job, the reason builders and architects are getting paid to draft elaborate designs for ever-fancier facilities, and the reason that R & D at major weapons manufacturers continue to explore new “less than lethal” toys to sell to municipalities charged with “securing” these facilities. The Bail Bond Industrial Complex, the Legal Services Industrial Complex, the City/District Attorney Office Complex, and on and on. Anything tangentially related to the courts and so-called “justice” has a fundamental interest in making more money. And how do they do that? Convict more people. Twist more people in the intricate (and oft-inescapable) web of the so-called “justice system.”
The “free market” so adored by neoliberal theorists will create only what is most profitable. And what is most profitable for the few is the subjugation of the many. Let’s at least recognize that. And fight it.