One Reporter's Two Nights In The Slammer

On Friday, May 1, terrifying images of looting, fire, and random beatings in Los Angeles filled television screens around the world. Other U.S. cities were gripped with the fear that the chaos might spread. In San Francisco, the anxiety was especially high--with reason. The night before, looters had ravaged the city's downtown shopping district. Mayor Frank Jordan, a former police chief elected last fall on a law-and-order platform, assured a worried city that he would restore order.

He was as good as his word. On Friday night, police launched a preemptive strike against demonstrators in the city's Mission District. BUSINESS WEEK San Francisco bureau manager Russell Mitchell was in the area. When he stopped to observe the rally, he was caught in a police roundup. So were a host of other peaceful citizens: A drugstore manager, a shipping broker, a suburban homemaker.

Like Mitchell, most of those people spent well over a day in police custody. Their experience raises some of the most difficult questions a free society can face: Are we willing to exchange our civil liberties for protection? Could what happened to Mitchell happen to any of us?

I arrived at 7:20, well before that day's 9 p.m. curfew, to find hundreds of helmeted riot police controlling Mission Street. I wandered into a crowd of 75 to 100 people milling about on 21st Street, which crosses Mission. The few demonstrators were far outnumbered by a rainbow of onlookers: blacks, whites, Hispanics, East Indians.

After three minutes or so, the police ordered the crowd to move down 21st Street. But as we headed down the street, we saw a phalanx of police marching toward us. To our backs were the police on Mission Street. With no warning and no explanation, baton-wielding officers herded us together. At no time had the police asked us to disperse. At no time had they suggested we might be subject to arrest.

HANDCUFFED. But that's just what happened. The female cop who arrested me looked furious--I'm not sure why. She patted me down, then bound my hands behind my back with plastic handcuffs. She patted me down again, and for good measure gave me a sharp slap to the crotch.

We piled onto a bus that took us to a pier near the Bay Bridge. Eventually, about 300 to 400 of us were crammed behind police barricades. At least they snipped off our cuffs.

At about 1 a.m., after hours of waiting, I was hustled into another bus with about 50 of my fellow prisoners. The police cuffed us again, so tightly that some people's hands were turning blue. Only when some of the prisoners were on the verge of tears did the officers loosen their restraints.

Although the cops wouldn't tell us where we were heading, we were bound for a county jail in Dublin, about 40 miles southeast of San Francisco. There, the women were led inside, while the men were kept outside in a chain-link pen for three hours. It was a chilly night, and many prisoners milled around rubbing their folded arms to keep warm.

Sometime after 4 a.m., the guards packed us into holding cells. Ours was a brightly lit 15-foot by 15-foot cinder-block room with a concrete floor. There were 31 of us in there, jammed shoulder to shoulder on concrete benches.

THIRD WORLD? We couldn't do much to pass the time but talk. I fell into conversation with Brett Hamilton, a salesman for a shipping broker in town. "I'm concerned this is just the beginning of a period in America that allows the police to revoke any rules," he said. "How do you distinguish between what happened in the Mission District and what happens in some Third World countries where people can be arrested just because they happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time?"

After eight hours we were let out of the holding cell, and booked on charges of unlawful assembly and failure to disperse. Finally, we were given something to eat--a pimento-loaf sandwich and an orange--and allowed to make a phone call. I reached my bureau colleague, Joan O'C. Hamilton, who immediately set about trying to secure my release.

But it wasn't until Saturday night that the city's Board of Supervisors forced Mayor Jordan to let us out. Since jail bureaucracy moves at its own measured pace, I spent the night moving from one holding tank to another. It wasn't until nearly 4 on Sunday morning that I was put on a bus back to San Francisco. It dropped me off in the middle of town about 4:30--33 hours after I had first hit Mission Street.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.