Here's an article written by British historian, author and Times columnist Felipe Fernando-Armesto about his arrest. He tells, amongst other things, about the characters he met whilst in an American jail
He said he still likes America: except the US government and all the nightmare episodes that warp the "American dream": the skewed values, the failures of compassion, the darkness of death row, the poverty of popular culture and the arrogance of the US abroad. As he's of Spanish descent he was brought up to be anti-American.
The Sunday Times
January 14, 2007
Busted, battered, but I love you USA
Felipe Fernando-Armesto, the British professor arrested for jaywalking, tells of a bruising ordeal
For a few hours I belonged to the underclass. I made my first friend among Atlanta’s jailbirds while I was sitting in the cramped, fetid paddy wagon. Ronnie — a gangly, frizzy-haired black guy who claimed, rather improbably, to be a pure-blood Apache — blinked curiously at me through the cage wire that separated us. He was bleary with dope, but I looked worse.
The policemen who assaulted me had left me bruised, with a bleeding temple. They had ripped my venerable charcoal-grey suit. I was traumatised and bewildered. “What dey do to you, man?” Ronnie asked. “Why dey git you?” Almost before I’d had a chance to express my own bafflement, Chico intervened. He was neatly jacketed, dome-headed, dejected and black. He was handcuffed to me. “Don’ let dat guy know none of yo’ business,” was his kind advice. My fellow suspects treated me with politeness and respect I had not got from the police.
I am a middle-aged, middle-class, mild-mannered, old-fashioned professor, of feeble build and studious disposition. I was in Atlanta to attend the annual conference of the American Historical Association, of which I am a life member. I’d got into an altercation with the cops quite innocently: I had crossed the street, without knowing that I had chosen a prohibited crossing point.
In the state of Georgia, according to what locals later told me, this is a criminal offence. After beating me up a bit the police added charges of obstruction and failing to obey an officer. So instead of spending the afternoon with fellow historians, listening to learned lectures on the price of medieval cows or the calligraphy of Ming-dynasty maps, I got to know some of the most underprivileged and desperate members of Atlanta’s underworld.
When you get to the detention centre, you have to submit to fingerprinting, mugshots, intrusive search, medical examination and a series of repetitive interviews. My peppermints were confiscated, presumably on the presumption that they might be dangerous drugs. The nice young woman who took down particulars of where I work had to ask me how to spell “university”.
You line up to get issued with a sandwich of evil aspect and a tiny plastic pot containing a livid drink. Most of my fellow inmates were pathetically grateful for this meal. I felt guilty when I realised I should have taken it for one of the hungry guys alongside me. An orderly in prison fatigues wheeled the food truck away with a piercing squeak. It was not what I expected when the travel agent told me about “old-fashioned Southern hospitality”.
The space I was in was dispiriting. One wall was lined with cells with pockmarked bars, where anyone who misbehaves is shoved. The walls and floors were cold. There were no windows anywhere. The air stank.
Most of the prisoners I met were miserable rather than malign. All but two of my fellow inmates were black.
None was obese: these guys could not even afford to be fat. Some were deranged, some drunk, some drugged, some just down and out.
Typically they began by asking: “Do you mind if I ask you, sir, why you’re in jail?” Ricky — who, if his acne could be treated, would have Hollywood good looks — was picked up for occupying an abandoned building. He had entered, without breaking in, to sleep (this is legal in Britain). Don was a father of four with a cannabis habit who stepped outside so that his children wouldn’t see him smoke.
Stacey — one of only two women brought in while I was there — was arrested because she had no money or ID when stopped for jumping a traffic light. Mac was frank about being an addict who worked for a dealer. He introduced me to another suspect: “Dis guy’s British,” he explained, “so he don’ speak English so good.”
To my shame they talked to me because they pitied me. I guess I looked out of place. Even with my suit torn I looked like a swell, with my Jermyn Street neckwear and a hanky in my sleeve. To my comrades I was a tragic figure — the mighty fallen, a victim of hubris or fate.
The staff showed me particular kindness, because “You really shouldn’t be here,” as the big-framed officer in charge, Sergeant Deberry, said. I was escorted to an ATM machine in the building to see if I could withdraw my bail money. The machine didn’t work. I had now been in custody for more than six hours. I was frustrated and depressed.
A courteous lieutenant emerged from an adjoining office to tell me that unless I found bail by 8.30pm I must spend the night behind bars. But he said there was a solution: put myself in the hands of a commissioned bond agent. It would cost me $185 and I would have to hand over my credit card.
Now only one hurdle remained. I had to go to court. I was almost sick with worry, because if I have a criminal conviction I may be banned from America and my livelihood will be wrecked. I knew I should see a doctor to have my wounds and bruises certified in case I had to bring counter-charges of police brutality, but there was no time.
A vice-president of the American Historical Association and a senior editor from one of my publishers were with me in court to lend moral support. The judge, in kindly fashion, told me I could be tried at once if I liked, but that it would be in my best interests to defer the case and get a lawyer in. My supporters were telling me to take the advice. But I had studied Judge Jackson. He was humane, sensible, humorous. I felt I could trust his judgment, so I threw myself on the mercy of the court. Within a few minutes of my starting to speak he decided I was obviously the victim not the culprit.
Suddenly I was a free man with no stain on my character to complement the gash on my temple or the bruises on my limbs.
The judge showed heart-warming glee in exonerating me. He is a busy man with more than 100 cases a day to get through, but he kept me chatting charmingly about his recollections of the Old Bailey. “This courthouse,” he said proudly, “is Atlanta’s equivalent. Like the Old Bailey, only new.”
Thanks to the guys I met in jail, the kindness of the detention centre staff and the compassion of the judge, my faith in America survives. I detest the present US government. And I acknowledge all the nightmare episodes that warp the American dream: the skewed values, the failures of compassion, the darkness of death row, the poverty of popular culture, the arrogance abroad.
I was brought up, moreover, to be anti-American. Spaniards in my childhood — especially those who belonged to my mother’s circle of liberal exiles — tended, not altogether justly, to blame Eisenhower for Franco. Almost all European intellectuals in the 1950s hated hamburgers and Hollywood, and seemed both fascinated and repelled by Elvis Presley’s pelvic gyrations.
It took me a long time and various visits to America to overcome the effects of my upbringing and to begin to perceive the nation’s virtues. Despite all the individualist rhetoric it is a land of remarkable social solidarity, where people make sacrifices for neighbourly feeling and civic pride.
As the Union took shape, for every gunslinger on Main Street or maverick in the corral, there were always thousands of solid citizens in the wagon trains and stockades. Nowadays well over half the population has some kind of further or higher education. Outside the Atlanta police force, I meet — with very few exceptions — decent, kindly people who, if they vote for Mr Bush, do so out of honest delusion.
After my misfortune I remain lucky to be in America, in a gloriously liberal university with wonderful students and colleagues. So it grieves me to see the anti-Americanism with which I grew up renewed around the world. In a small way my own story, much to my regret, is reinforcing resentment of America. After being the surprising quarry of the cops, I became the almost equally surprising quarry of the world’s media.
Almost all the reports concentrated on the excesses of police zeal, and dwelt on the crudities and savageries of life in US cities, without mentioning any redeeming features. I would like the world to understand America better, just as I work hard in my classes and my writing to help Americans better understand the world. But the licensed brutality and barbarism of so many security agencies over here — from the Atlanta police upwards — keeps making the task harder.
Will all the outrage my case generated make any difference? I want to think so, but fear the force of official defensiveness, intransigence and incapacity for self-criticism. The mayor of Atlanta has announced an official inquiry into the way I was treated; but inquiries mean delay and delay is the deadliest form of denial. The best way to reassure visitors would be to issue orders to the police, reminding them that visitors may not always know state laws.
After my ordeal, I struggled back to the historical conference. My notoriety preceded me and I found my story sprouting urban legends. Colleagues hailed me as a cross between Rambo (“It took six cops to hold him down”) and Perry Mason (“He talked himself out of chokey”).
Thankfully I headed for a calming seminar on medieval historiography. But to get to it I had to cross the road where I was arrested. I decided to take the long way round and cross by the traffic lights. The legal crossing was flooded and impassable.
I turned round, headed back to the hotel and ordered a glass of old Southern hospitality. “Y’all come back,” was the barman’s farewell.
Last edited by Blackleaf; Jan 14th, 2007 at 06:13 AM..