The American Dissident: Literature, Democracy & Dissidence

Walden Pond State Reservation—Free Speech in Peril

Incarcerated in Concord on the 150th Anniversary of Thoreau's “On Civil Disobedience,”

As a Direct Result of Free Speech Exercised at Walden Pond

A judge who frequently rules against police officers is likely to wake up next election to find police-organization support and money going to his opponent, perhaps an ambitious deputy prosecutor ready to accuse the judge of being 'soft on crime.'
            —Attorney David Brown, Beat Your Ticket


It is the accumulation of our denunciations that will hopefully someday make a difference. Let the following thus constitute one more account, be it minor or not, of injustice to add to the monstrously large warehouse of testimony.


Inside the replica shack at Walden Pond in Concord, Massachusetts is a page from “Civil Disobedience.” I've often wondered if anybody but I had ever read that page... and if they had, had they really understood it?


Unjust laws exist: shall we be content to obey them, or shall we endeavor to amend them until we have succeeded, or shall we transgress them at once?... They [men and women] think that, if they should resist, the remedy would be worse than the evil. But it is the fault of the government itself that the remedy is worse than the evil. It makes it worse. Why is it not more apt to anticipate and provide for reform? Why does it not cherish its wise minority? Why does it cry and resist before it is hurt? Why does it not encourage its citizens to be on the alert to point out its faults, and do better than it would have them? Why does it always crucify Christ, and excommunicate Copernicus and Luther, and pronounce Washington and Franklin rebels?


During the 150th anniversary of “Civil Disobedience,” I protested in front of Gandhi's grandson who was delivering a speech for the Thoreau Society outside the First Parish church in Concord. My sign, THOREAU WAS A DISSIDENT, NOT A SOCIETY OR SHOP, was either read in disgust or simply ignored by Society members (see Northwoods Journal, Fall 1999 issue). A month later, I was incarcerated for having a simple nonviolent argument with a park attendant regarding rules. Sure, I had uttered the word “fuck” now and then, but I'd later discover that saying that word in public did not violate the Massachusetts disorderly conduct statute. Sure, I was agitated and angry, but remained in my car and did not make any threats whatsoever. Here follows the details:


During the summer, I swam at Walden Pond nearly everyday. On the second day of this past September, a Thursday morning, I pulled into the park, waited behind the car in front of me, and waited and waited and waited as the attendant gabbed, indifferent to my waiting. So, I drove around the car, pointing to my seasonal sticker and parked. The attendant had hollered: “SIR, SIR!” But I kept driving. I didn't like waiting on lines, which explained my being at the park early. I also didn't like being referred to as SIR by a young person in authority. I'd rather be called old man, which would be less hypocritical and certainly more refreshing.


I swam 45 minutes. Walked back up the hill, got into my car, drove out of the lot, pulled over to the control station, and asked the attendant what was wrong. He said I hadn't followed the rules. “What fucking rules?” I replied. I pointed to my seasonal sticker and said I'd paid my dues. An argument ensued about the rules. I remained in my car. But I had sinned. I had used the word “fuck,” which everybody in the world used, even park attendants. “Fuck the rules and fuck Massachusetts with all its goddamn corruption and cronyism!” I said as he continued on his rant about following the rules. Yes, I had sinned again: I expressed anger in public, that is, in front of one public park attendant. Needless to say he got visibly angry at my anger and as he dialed the police, I said, “Fuck this!,” and left.


Soon, on Route 2, an unmarked car was flashing its lights behind me, so I put on my signals, and eventually pulled over into the lot of an apartment complex. I got out of the car. The officer got out of his car and asked for my license and registration, which I handed him. He called in the information. I was angry, now pursued like a criminal, and asked what he was going to charge me with. He refused to respond. “This is fucking crazy, getting arrested for taking a fucking swim at Walden Pond and arguing with a park attendant,” I said.


While the officer was calling in, I was taping my voice on a little tape recorder, mentioning his name and badge number, his unmarked license plate number, and the details of the citizen ordeal. When he got out of the car he told me to turn off the recorder or face a five-year felony. Could that really be true? I wondered and turned it off. Because I was a writer, I had the habit of using the recorder, so soon found myself speaking into it again. I didn't want to forget anything. He told me to turn it off again. I told him that I wasn't recording him, that I was simply recording me. I asked what he was charging me with. He wouldn't respond. “Well, this is fucking crazy,” I said. “I didn't do anything wrong. Now I'm being arrested.”


The officer was apathetic, impassive, and utterly taciturn. I told him out of frustration to go ahead and arrest me. Of course, he could have handled the matter differently. He knew I was angry and could have easily persuaded me to calm down. Instead, he arrested me, probably because he didn't like my voice, attitude and physical appearance. Indeed, I was unshaven and dripping wet from my swim with the look of an unemployed rebel, if you will, especially since I was not manifesting overt deference to a supposed public servant and was even being so audacious as to ask questions.


“Give me the recorder,” he ordered. I gave it to him. He told me to face his car. I did. He put handcuffs on me. He told me to get into the car. I did. Inside, I asked him if he had ever read Thoreau. “I don't believe in civil disobedience!” he exclaimed. “Well, maybe you shouldn't be working at Walden Pond then,” I said. He didn't respond. Well, at least he'd heard of Thoreau. He stood next to the car talking on his cellphone with a tow truck company. Then the truck finally arrived and impounded my car, even though there were no motor vehicle violations outstanding or current. Apparently, this is the officer's right and way to punish and fine citizens by proxy. $95!


The officer got into the car, and we took off. I asked him to please loosen the cuffs, that my hands were getting numb. He did not respond. I asked him to read my rights. He did not respond. I asked him what I was being charged with. He did not respond. Later, I asked him again. He remained silent. I asked if he were going to bring me to the woods and shoot me. I said they'd probably never find me. Angered, I asked why the police didn't seem to have anything better to do than arrest a person who had a nonviolent argument with a park attendant. I asked what he thought of the five cops who had tested positive for heroine and cocaine in Boston and about the disbanding of the entire force in the town of Spencer because of profound police corruption. He refused to speak. So, I stopped talking. Next to me was a state trooper's hat. So I suspected he was with the state police, not the local police. He was about 55 and, from his attitude, quite ready to retire.


No, I was not deferent to the officer. I don't like the police. I don't like their fascist manner. I don't like the fear they instill, nor how they behave in front of the poor and other non-pillars of the community. Sure, there must be some good officers out there, but I have yet to meet one. Indeed, things have become so twisted-citizens becoming so indoctrinated by public education and the government-that I assume many if not most people would agree that the officer should have arrested me. Most people seem unable to comprehend that officers are supposed to be servants of the public, rather than vice versa. In that light, officers ought to manifest deference to public citizens, rather than vice versa. Citizens should not be obligated to show deference to the police. Yet because the police are the police of the wealthy and have a long tradition of fighting the poor on behalf of the wealthy (e.g., killing and maiming to break unions and civil rights demonstrations), citizens are obligated de facto to show deference to them.


We arrived at the police station in front of the Concord State Reformatory. The nonchalant officer told me to get out. I got out. He directed me into the building. Again, I obeyed his every command. Again, I asked if he were going to read me my rights. Again, he did not respond. Inside, a couple of officers were talking but didn't even look at me. They were obviously used to men in cuffs. He directed me to a room. In that room, the Miranda Rights were dangling from the ceiling. The officer then finally read me those rights: “You have a right to remain silent...”


When he was done, he started asking me questions. “I thought you just told me I had the right to remain silent,” I said. “Yes, but not about this,” he mumbled. “Well, I'm going to remain silent until I have a lawyer,” I said. “If you don't talk, I'm going to lock you up for 24 hours,” he said. “Go ahead then,” I said. “I didn't do anything illegal.” He directed me into the jail area and into the first cell, where he uncuffed me, then ordered: “Take off your sneakers!” I took them off, put them outside the cell, then he shut and locked the door. Inside, everything was dark and painted thick navy gray including the cement slab bench without a cover or mattress. I lay down on it. Next to my head was a toilet without a seat and without toilet paper. On the wall on the other side of the bars were three or four typewritten pages. The writing was too small to read. Also, there was a sign: THIS AREA IS BEING VIDEO MONITORED AND TAPED. Indeed, two video cameras were affixed to the wall staring down into my cell. The minutes crawled. I had 24 hours of them with absolutely nothing to do. The constant sound of the air conditioner blowing in on me was peaceful though. But it was damn cold. I was shivering-didn't even have a towel to dry off-, dressed in tee shirt and wet bathing suit. It must have been 50 degrees. A great void of sensory deprivation soon overcame me.

It was sad, dreary cell. I quickly became saddened… and for all those people in jails: two million in America alone, 500,000 more than in Chinese jails, desperate or simply beaten and mentally crushed. I felt really and viscerally saddened. A tear came to my eye. “I want to make a phone call!” I said for the record, gazing upwards to the video cameras. “I need toilet paper! It's freezing in here! I want a blanket!” Nobody responded. Time went by. “I want to make a phone call!” I repeated. “I need toilet paper! I want a blanket!” Again, nobody responded. I sat up. I lay down again. “Et le poète soûl engueulait l'univers.” I said in French, standing up to face the video monitors. Then I repeated and improvised on that line from the poet Rimbaud: Et le poète soûl engueulait l'univers. J'engueule, moi, tous les mardeux d'Amérique. Qu'est-ce qui se passe, mon Amérique? Mon Amérique, pourquoi tu me fous en taule?”


“YOU WOULDN'T EVEN BE IN HERE, IF YOU HADN'T OPENED YOUR FUCKING TRAP!” hollered a black-haired, gestapo-looking officer who'd suddenly entered the cell area. “FUCK YOU!” I stood up angered, if not provoked. “WHO THE HELL DO YOU THINK YOU ARE? I SUPPOSE THE CAMERAS ARE BROKEN. I DIDN'T DO ANYTHING WRONG. IT'S FUCKING COLD IN HERE. I WANT A BLANKET! I WANT TO MAKE A PHONE CALL!” For some reason, he didn't come into my cell and beat me to death. He left with sadistic smile and slammed the cell area door. I lay back down. Only 23 more hours to go! The other cells were empty. I'd go crazy. I needed something to read, even something I could eventually use as toilet paper. I hated the sensory deprivation. What could I do, but lay down and close my eyes. I wished I had memorized poems or sections of essays that I could regurgitate. But I had nothing in my head, nothing but anger for the state of Massachusetts and America.


Finally, after a couple of hours, the arresting officer opened my cell, put the cuffs back on, and directed me back out to his car. We took off and arrived at the Concord Middlesex Court House. Inside, he dropped me off with a probation officer who asked questions. “I thought I had a right to remain silent,” I said. But she assured that her questions were simple fact questions to help identify me. “If you don't answer them, I'll send you up to Billerica state prison for the night!” said a less than amiable guard. “You know, I really don't feel like going to Billerica,” I said. “Ask me the questions.” “Smart choice,” said the guard.


I was put in another cell, where I waited and shivered and requested a blanket and got no response. An hour later, I was directed to the court where I stood on an elevated tribune next to another guy wearing shackles. I felt bad for him, realizing he was probably going to be staying in one of those nightmare cells long enough to break his mind and spirit. “Well, we don't know if he is who he says he is,” said the judge talking to the probate officer, regarding me. “So, we'll have to put him back in the cell until after lunch break.” The judge then ordered recess.


“These are yours!” said a guard, directing me down the hallway. “Hey, here's your license!” he said looking in the manila envelope. The implication was that there was the proof that I was who I was, but, well, tough luck, you'll have to go back into the cell for another hour and a half. I entered the cell; he shut and locked the door. THANK JESUS and THANK YOU JESUS were scraped on the yellow wall in front of me. A half hour later an officer came by and slipped a baloney and cheese sandwich on white bread accompanied by a generic orange soda through the food slot. I ate like a prisoner, slowly and unemotionally. I imagined the judge sitting in some fancy restaurant in Concord center, joking and having a good time.


An hour later, I was herded back out to the court in handcuffs. A few words were exchanged between the probate officer and the judge, who then ordered the cuffs removed, because he was now satisfied that I was who I was. “You can speak with Madame the Prosecutor to make a deal if you wish or come back for a hearing with or without a lawyer,” he said. “I'll speak with the prosecutor,” I said. I rubbed my wrists. Yeah, I was free. I walked down the hallway and met the prosecutor. “I'd like you to tell me what happened,” she said. I thus told her what happened. “I'm willing to drop the charges if you pay the $100 in court fees,” she said. “No, I can't do that,” I said. “I didn't do anything wrong. Why should I have to pay court fees? Do you know where my car is? It was towed by the arresting officer.” She knew nothing about the impoundment, seemed surprised, then said she'd look into it. I went back into court and waited and waited for the judge to get back to me. When he did he set a pretrial hearing since no deal had been struck. It was for November 5th. “If you do not show up, you will be arrested and spend 90 days in jail and will be fined $5,000,” said the judge. The prosecutor handed me a slip with the tow company name and address.


The sun was an inferno. I waited for my girlfriend, Jeanne, to pick me up... and waited and waited. I paced on the lawn of the courthouse while several officers cast dirty looks my way. I was a beaten man, quite depleted. It had been a very long day. Well, Nietzsche had said even the strongest men had moments of fatigue. I ended up walking five miles in the blazing heat back home. When I arrived, it was 5:30. Jeanne had thought I was going to call back. I hollered the guts of my wrath out upon her, then she drove me to the tow company, where I paid $95. Days later, I drove back to the police station to request a copy of the police report, which indicated: “Disorderly Conduct 272 F53.” Why had the prosecutor thought I'd be willing to pay $100 in court fees when the judge had mumbled, “fineable $50”? Well, I'd soon discover why after talking with the ACLU. “Because the judge can fine you some crazy amount if he wants to,” said the representative. “He can do anything. You could have been arrested at four o'clock and spent the night in jail or the whole weekend if it were a Friday. The judge will always take the policeman's side if there are no witnesses.” Perhaps the prosecutor realized that with no prior criminal record whatsoever, no resisting arrest and no complaints of threat, I was not the best candidate for the cell. The ACLU refused to represent me. The total lack of indignation expressed by the representative relative to what had occurred surprised me. Well, what should I have expected? “Where the hell is the ACLU?” had once said Lenny Bruce.


Since the ordeal, I, of course, have pondered it over and over and over. For example, what is disorderly conduct or public disturbance in the state of Massachusetts? I had no idea. The very term seemed vague and highly subjective, especially when totally nonphysical. It would seem that, in my case, it comprised a simple dispute between a citizen of the Commonwealth, myself, and a public servant or servants. The subjectivity of the charge is underscored by the fact that there were no other people present to support or not support claims made, though the officer noted in his report “visibly upset” people. It is nonetheless difficult for me to believe that even “visibly upset” people could put a person in a jail cell for four hours. If they were so “visibly upset,” couldn't they have simply walked away? Well, I didn't remember seeing a soul around, let alone “visibly upset” ones.


The police report noted: “Irate and Confrontational” and “Argumentative/Irrational.” Apparently, citizens can be arrested for being angry. They can be arrested for being confrontational and argumentative. In other words, a citizen should not argue with a public employee, or risk arrest by doing so. Yes, that was the real America I'd discovered. Yes, taping an officer can put you in jail for five years, and a cop can have your car impounded for no reason at all. That was what the ACLU confirmed.

The police report noted: “offensive and assaultive language.” The Forest and Parks Rules (Title 304, Chapter 12.00), which I found in the public library using Premise, notes “obscene language.” Clearly, in the absence of witnesses, the officer could have simply stated that I said “fuck” to him and the judge would have sided with him. The System clearly favors lying police officers over honest citizens. I tried in vain to find a list of illegal words that might have constituted “obscene language.” Clearly, because of vagueness, the charge of disorderly conduct may be applied arbitrarily and capriciously, which I assume is often done, a horrendous situation, but no less quite American. What words then pronounced in front of a public employee warrant arrest and incarceration? It is my humble opinion that no words should warrant such punishment. Indeed, and surprisingly, my research discovered that according to the statute, “mere use of obscenities in public does not make out crime of disorderly conduct (Com v. Johnson 1994).” In other words, I never even should have been pursued by the officer, let alone arrested, jailed and fined $95 by proxy. Now, who can justify paying the outrageous fees of a lawyer to obtain retribution?


There are so many questions and curiosities and inequities in our justice system. For example, why do so many people wrongly think they have a right to make a phone call when incarcerated? Surprisingly, the Concord Journal agreed with me on that point. Yet the editor, who called me up because of a letter-to-the editor I'd written wondering why my arrest had not been listed under the paper's police blotter, did not wish to inform people about that misconception. Nor was he interested in publicizing just how horrendous conditions are in the holding cells. Indeed, the cell where I was placed at the courthouse had toilet paper crumbled all over the floor.

Why do our schools not teach students basic rights? Sure, they teach the Bill of Rights, but not the basic everyday rights, nor that constitutional rights cost roughly $100,000 to defend. Why do so many of us know nothing about our basic rights or lack thereof? Must common citizens stay in their cars when an unmarked car arrests them? Does the law require citizens to stop for unmarked cars? What if I had forgotten my wallet and didn't have any identification? Would I have spent a week in a prison cell? Does the law actually provide a five-year felony charge for a citizen who records an officer's voice? If so, why did legislators enact such a horrendous law? Police lobby? Indeed, the police lobby is so powerful in Massachusetts that the governor himself had to back down when he tried to cut the gross excess of police moonlighting overtime. Why is the government and public education content to perpetuate ignorance of basic rights amongst the citizenry? Thoreau had asked that very question over 150 years ago. The government has yet to provide an answer.


Finally, I admit that deep down, while standing next to the officer's car, I was curious: Could he actually throw me in jail for having an argument and saying the word “fuck”? Indeed, as a writer, I was in need of an eye-opening jail experience. Every citizen should have one. How else can citizens attempt to comprehend those two million compatriots rotting behind bars? In any event, it is a sad day for America when a police officer stops a common citizen, refuses to tell him why he has been arrested and does not read him his legal rights. It is a sad day for America when a police officer stops a common citizen because of a nonviolent argument, arrests and incarcerates him for roughly four hours in a cold, concrete cell without mattress, without blanket, without toilet paper, and without that one phone call. It is a sad day for America when a common citizen without any prior police record is treated like that. It is a sad day when citizens are made to fear the law and police officers, rather than respect it and them. It is a sad day when police officers are not required to tell arrested citizens why they're arresting them.


The judges seem more concerned with keeping the police content than keeping the citizenry informed. It is a sad day when intelligent persons are not permitted to serve on the police force (see Boston Globe, 9/10/99, “Smarter than the average cop: Force's rejection of high-IQ applicant upheld”). It is a sad day when the community newspaper and ACLU don't give a damn about any of these things. But most of all, it is a sad day when the large majority of citizens do not care about their ignorance of the law, nor about the two million prisoners in America. Three months after my citizen ordeal, I am now ever on guard when leaving the house and fear getting into an argument, for I am by nature questioning and challenging, thus “confrontational.” From my citizen ordeal, I now sometimes hold my head lower and try to look obedient when in public. I keep my eyes peeled for the police when driving. I fear the law much more now though respect it much less, because I have come to realize that it is purposely vague and unpublicized, and that the greater our ignorance of it, the more power to the powerful, including the police. Most of all, I fear that the law will eventually make obedient automatons out of all of us. So what happened in court? Find out next week.