It was a lovely day otherwise but, for me, most of it was spent in jail.

From one minute to the next, I went from seemingly free to cuffed and captured. Anyone who has ever experienced such a thing knows exactly what I mean. If you haven’t experienced it, I hope you never do.

It might be best described as a loss of innocence, plus a new awareness that all we love and cherish in the world hangs in the balance. The balance can be tipped, with or without reason, by a slight push by any law-enforcement officer in this country.

It’s my second time to go to jail — the first time was an unpaid ticket — so I wasn’t entirely surprised to revisit that sense of a complete loss of volition and being wholly dependent on others who value you not at all. I’ve been there and it rocked my world the first time. To have others drain you of everything we regard as human is a psychological challenge, and unforgettable trauma.

The second time, it was easier to see on the other side. What these people want — I kept telling myself — is to book me, chalk me up as a statistic to show how essential they are, and then pillage me for as much money as possible. Then it will end.

By day’s end, it was over. Except not really. This one incident is over. But the reality that none of us really control our lives, that none of our property is really our own, that we all stand vulnerable to legal kidnapping at any moment. This is an ongoing reality for the whole population. To be arrested and jailed is to experience first-hand the terrifying realization that there is no real freedom, not under the existing system.

Surely It Won’t Happen to Me

When someone is arrested, people’s first question is: why? There’s an implicit anxiety to the query: how can I avoid this fate? Maybe if I don’t do something stupid like he did, it won’t happen to me. We want to assure ourselves that the problem of the police state is really someone else’s problem. It is felt by people who live on the edge, who do drugs, who are “illegal aliens,” who don’t know how to speak politely to the police, and so on.

These are complete illusions.

Well, here’s how it happened to me. There’s a new traffic law in most states called the “move over” rule. When the police are stopped on the right hand side of the road, you are to move over to the left lane. This makes the police feel safer. For my part, I had never heard of this law or never had it really tested in my driving behavior. The police had set up a trap, stopping there on the side just to test compliance. I moved over a bit but not enough.

The lights flashed behind me, and I pulled over. I gave the officer my license. Another police car arrived. He returned and told me to step out of the car, and asked me why my license was suspended. I was shocked. Then I remembered I was one day late in paying a parking ticket. The lady at the counter told me there might be an issue with my license, so she gave me an official paper labelled “Official Notice of Reinstatement of Driver’s License,” and put the official seal on it.

Remembering this, I told the police that they could find this document in my car. They looked because at this point I was not allowed to move. They brought the paper back and stared at it. One policeman said it was clearly legitimate. The other said, no this was issued by the municipal court, not the Department of Motor Vehicles, so he couldn’t accept it. I protested but he had made his decision.

He stared at me and said: put your hands behind your back. I was cuffed and led to the car. I protested that my computer, my phone, all my stuff was in the car. None of this mattered. They searched my car for drugs, guns, liquor, or whatever. They found an unlabelled bottle of pills (a blood thinner) and interrogated me about it, strongly implying that having an unmarked bottle of pills is illegal (is it? I don’t know).

One policeman seemed to take a slight liking to me at some point, so he let me keep the pills. Then he said he would do me a favor. He undid the cuffs — they were very tight and hurting my wrists — and put my hands in front, re-cuffed me, and loosened them. This did make a huge difference.

My car would be towed to a wrecker lot, he explained. If I get out on bail, I could pay to get it back. Would the lot still be open by then? I asked. The policeman had no answer, no concern. And this is generally what you come to realize. Once arrested, you are a captured animal. Nothing else matters. You are no longer a consumer, a citizen, a person with a job, a normal human being. You are now just fodder, a thing they can use as they see fit.

The notion that you have any rights at all once you are arrested is a joke. What happens to you is entirely the decision of your captors.

The Search

The police car with me in it took off and within 15 minutes I was being strip searched. They dug deep into every pocket, looking for what? I had no idea (I would learn later).

Then I was in the jail, complete with a dirty toilet, some gross faucet thing, and a bench. After 45 minutes or so, I was allowed to use the phone for a few minutes. At this point, I noticed a softening of attitude on the part of my captors. They were actually speaking to me, and lightening up on things a bit.

So they let me fuss around on the phone a bit. It was essential. The standard phone is an old technology. People today text and message. You cannot do that from jail. You have no smartphone. You have nothing. You have to make your call on a regular telephone. These days, people are disinclined to answer a call from some random number. We only answer the phone when we know the person calling. That meant that I had to leave messages and hope to call back.

It is a highly volatile situation. You have to find someone to pick up. If you don’t, you could be in jail a long time. Actually, this is what would happen. You might get bail. Then they would send you out on the streets. No car. You are stranded. I can’t even imagine the fate of someone without a credit card, spare cash, and so on.

A Hispanic man was brought in after me, and I saw how other people are treated. He was cuffed in back, very tightly. They were much more rough on him during the search.

Then something remarkable happened. They found what looked like small flakes of marijuana in his pocket, no more than ¼ of a teaspoon. They immediately changed his charge from “failure to appear” — he missed a court date for a traffic violation — to a felony: bringing illegal substances into a correctional facility. Once this happened, the officer shouted to everyone with great glee: “we’ve got a felon!!” They high-fived it all around.

He was in my cell. He is a wonderful man, now with a broken life. I suddenly became aware of how fortunate I was, or, let’s just use the word: privileged. I am white, just like the arresting officers. I wore a suit. I was well-spoken and calm. Yes, I was still captured and pillaged but I realized I had not experienced the worst of it.

I would leave at the end of the day. But this Hispanic man was not so lucky. He had tattoos, an accent, and generally seemed more dispensable to his controllers. He seemed poor. He would be entangled in this mess for months, maybe even serving time, maybe even years. This sounded to me like a ruined life, all for pot flakes in a pocket.

In other words, this is why they were searching me so thoroughly. They want to find any excuse, any small reason to intensify charges, to spread more misery and wreckage. One of the guards seemed less excited than the others, and I asked him how he can stand to watch this kind of thing happen all day, every day. He told me that you just get used to it.

The Functionaries

“Just doing my job.” I must have heard that phrase 15 times during my ordeal. The cops use it. The clerks use it. The guards use it. The whole system sees itself this way. It is just doing what it is supposed to do. It seems a bit like war, how soldiers do terrible things every day, morally objectionable things, but come to terms with it because they have no real choice. They do what they have to do.

And so it is for the whole criminal justice system in America today. Everyone is just doing what they have to do. No single person is responsible for judging the morality or justice of it all. It is the system, and they work within it. They can’t change it. They cooperate with it. They live by the book. It’s the book itself that is the oppressor.

The Law Is an Ass

We routinely refer to the justice system as a monopoly of “the state,” but it couldn’t work without the private sector. The cop cars are made by private enterprise. The guns and clothing they wear are privately produced. The handcuffs and tasers are a product of capitalism. The jail is built by private contractors. The steel on the bars too. The company that towed my car: private. The bondsman: private.

The more you look at the system we call the state, the more it becomes clear that most all of it is built by the power and productivity of the market economy. Everyone who is part of that system, every contractor and payee, has a stake in its well being. They want the system to continue and they are ready to defend it because defending the state is the same as defending their livelihoods.

So what makes the state different? What is this thing we call the state? In the end, it is about the law itself. That is to say, the law is the teeth. The law is what allows the state to do to us what we cannot do to each other. The law possesses this extraordinary thing, a full monopoly on the use of aggressive force against person and property. The state, then, is the one agency in society that is permitted the full power of unmitigated coercive control over everyone else.

And who makes this law? Some elite group somewhere. Could be a regulator. Could be a politician. Could be some administrative edict. A judge perhaps. It could be that everyone responsible for the law in its inception has long passed from this earth. The law stands as a living monument to dead ideas, dead people, a dead past. But it stands nonetheless. And it does so because of the intricate network of interest groups that benefit from it.

Who Are the Exploiters?

This is a system of exploiters and the exploited, exactly as Marx himself had explained. But the difference is this: the law is the exploiter and the population is the exploited. It’s not complex. But misidentifying the identities of who is who — a mistake that characterizes centuries of political thought — can have terrible consequences.

The politics of our time are all about identifying the exploiters. The socialists say that the exploiters are the capitalists. Trump and his army of fools say the exploiters are the immigrants. The white racists say the problem is the blacks. The theocrats say it is infidels and atheists. The neo-Nazis say it is the Jews. The war between the sexes follows the same path. Generally, the right says the problem is the left, and the left says it is the right. And the masses of people follow these claims and push their agendas, which are always about building the law code, higher, thicker, tougher, more and more horrible.

And yet, every law ends in the right of a tiny elite to capture you, pillage you, and, ultimately, kill you. Every addition to the law code intensifies the violence.

After I was freed — but of course not really freed — and reclaimed my car, I ended up at McDonalds, where I was greeted like a visiting dignitary, even though they knew not my name and had never seen me before. I was immediately offered free fries and drink and invited to order the hamburger of my dreams.

There it was in living color, the astonishing contrast between the jail and the fast food restaurant. The former is a hell, created by law. The latter, a product of the emergent social order and civilized by exchange and commerce, is the closest thing to heaven that this world offers.

Read more:
Society in Jail
What is Murder? What is Police Work?
The Prison System is a Violation of Human Rights
Minarchism Found Dead at Ferguson
The American War Zone
How I Became an Anarchist
Commerce and the Happiness of the Human Heart
#WeCantBreathe, The Tea Party, and Occupy Wall Street: All Part of the Same Revolt

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