Saturday, August 3, 2013

Virginia is for Lovers -- Unless You're Gay

I can't be absolutely sure my being gay had anything to do with me being jailed overnight in Virginia, humiliated, denied basic rights and roughed up by the cops; although they repeatedly called me "faggot," and even preached some good-old-fashioned Christianity to help set me straight. Officially, I was detained for "reckless driving." A faggot who drives too fast.

Both Lambda Legal and the American Civil Liberties Union reviewed my complaints, and determined there was "insufficient evidence to substantiate a strong case" against the police or county—not enough witnesses, no photos, that sort of thing. In other words: The cops didn't beat me up in front of others, and didn't film it. It's just my word against theirs. And apparently, in Virginia, citizens always side with cops and show a great deal of respect and admiration for authority; I don't blame them—you might get the shit kicked out of you otherwise. So I have no civil case; just fond memories and my side of the story:

On September 4, 2008, at 2:24 pm, I was pulled over by a Virginia County Sheriff for speeding while driving a rental car on Route 657 on my way from Washington DC to Dulles international airport. I had been in DC a few days interviewing for a job with the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, a nonprofit gay rights organization. I was driving 85 in a 55 mph zone, and the cop informed me that in Virginia that is deemed "reckless driving." He was stern, serious, stoic and treated me as if I had just robbed the collection plate at a Baptist Church. And this is speculative on my part, but he seemed to pay extra attention to, and show particular disgust by, a small stack of circumstantial evidence on the passenger seat: A copy of a "Queer Guide to DC," several gay rights magazines, and information regarding efforts to repeal the military's "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy.

The policeman informed me that I had to sign a citation promising to appear in a Fairfax County Court regarding the charges. This confused me, because back home, in Montana, you have the option of pleading guilty and paying the fine on the spot, or mailing the fine in before the scheduled court appearance. I informed the police officer that I lived in Montana, and could not afford to come back to court, and asked for clarification and inquired as to how I could plead guilty and mail the fine in. He became angry, impatient and told me to just sign it. I told him I was confused and wanted an explanation, and again asked if there were other options. He told me if I did not sign it he could arrest me and put me in jail. Still confused, suspicious, and now upset, I asked, "You can arrest me because I can't afford to come back to Virginia?" I said I wanted to make a quick phone call to a friend of mine (who is a lawyer in Montana) to clarify what he was telling me. I reached for my cell phone lying next to the gay literature. He became very aggressive and told me to get out of the car. He shoved me against the car, handcuffed me extra tight, and informed me I was under arrest. Still confused, I asked why. Because I refused to sign the promise to appear in court, he said. Finally understanding the severity of the situation, I told him I did not refuse, but wanted clarification, but would now, of course, consider signing it. His response: It's too late for that, faggot." And so it was. I was hauled off to the Fairfax County Adult Detention Center and assigned inmate number 20051851773. I missed my flight home to Montana.

They took an unflattering mug shot (not one I would put on ManHunt or Adam4Adam), fingerprints, had me empty pockets and turn everything over, then placed me in a small, 15-by-20-foot or so concrete holding cell with approximately 20 other inmates. They told me that I would have to spend the night and appear before a judge in the morning. There were two rows of chairs in the room and a TV mounted in the corner (playing cheesy reality shows all night, including COPS), and a small bathroom (a stainless steel toilet with a drinking fountain built into the top). The only place to sleep was to find space among the other inmates on the floor.

I was told I could make four calls from a phone on the wall, but only collect calls. I tried calling several people, including a lawyer, but received answer machines, which cannot accept collect calls. I finally got hold of my brother, Tim, who is a cop in Fairfield, Connecticut, and he decided to drive from Connecticut to Virginia that night to see what he could do. He did not arrive until the next morning. During the night, I was harassed by several cops and repeatedly called a "faggot." I was laughed at and denied all requests for a reasonable, realistic chance to call a lawyer, or even get a phone book so I could look up phone numbers for local lawyers. I would occasionally curl up on the floor, using my arm as a pillow, and begin to doze off. But every hour or so, up to six cops would swing open the iron bars, rush into the holding cell and yell for everyone to "get on your feet" so they could take attendance, demanding we all speak to them in a "yes sir, no sir" manner, reminiscence of my days in Marine Corps boot camp.

At about 2 am, they brought in a young man—25 or so, and cute--who appeared drunk. They treated him pretty roughly. He asked a question, and one of the officers screamed, "You will address me as Sergeant. You are in my jail and you will treat me with respect." To which the young man replied: "Why don't you show me some respect?" Several officers grabbed him, put him in an arm lock, and hauled him away. An hour or so later, they brought him back, threw him back into the cell, and he was wearing a few new bumps and bruises on his face and arms. I was angry, and asked what was going on.

"How can you treat people this way?" I asked. "What country is this?"

One cop laughed and said, "Shut up faggot."

I replied: "You can't treat people this way."

I then found out the hard way that, indeed, they can. Several cops (about four, I think) grabbed me, put me in a painful arm lock, and took me to a very small, concrete holding pen. Again, I was called a "faggot" several times and heard one officer say "We need to teach this faggot a lesson." They pushed me down on my knees, pushed my face into the corner, kneed me and kept me in an arm lock.

One of them screamed, "You will lay here with your face against the floor until we tell you to move, do you understand?"

I replied: "I would like to call a lawyer."

They slammed my face a bit harder into the concrete and yelled, "You will answer 'yes sir,' do you understand?"

Again, I requested a lawyer, and again they slammed my face into the wall. This occurred several times, and I was again repeatedly called a "faggot." I finally told them they could break every bone in my body if they wanted, and it would only make my case better when I finally did get a lawyer. They seemed confused and backed off.

I was left in the solitary confinement cell, and felt pretty sick. I spit up some blood, was bleeding from my nose, and my eyes and nose were in pain. Twice I requested medical treatment and was laughed at, and again called a faggot. (They seem to love the word.) One cop threw a rag into my cell and told me to clean up my mess. I refused, and again requested medical attention and was again denied. One cop with sympathetic-leanings told me to "cooperate" and they would treat me better, and said they had to separate me from the others and do what they did because I might otherwise "incite a riot." I remained in solitary confinement the rest of the night, with occasional visits by cops who would smile, laugh, and continue their incontrollable urges to repeatedly use the word "faggot."

At about 8 am, September 5, I was handcuffed and led to a room to speak to a judge, via TV screen, not in person. It was like watching Judge Judy while also being in her show all at the same time. A cop told her that I was arrested for reckless driving, lived out of state, and that I had refused to sign the paperwork promising to return to Virginia to appear in court. I awaited my chance to speak, but it never came.

"Well, in that case, I set your bail at $5, 000," she said.

That was that, no chance to respond.

I was rushed out of there and taken back to the main holding cell, with the others, apparently no longer a potential inciter of riots. A cop told me I could use the phone on the wall—another collect call—to arrange bail. But the phone did not work. I mentioned it to one of the cops, and he told me to try again. I did. There was no dial tone. I informed the cop again. He seemed agitated, but entered the cell to check the phone. He agreed it wasn't working, but said he would make arrangements to find me another phone to use. Then he left. I waited for more than an hour, when another cop arrived and told me and several others to follow him. I assumed I was going to finally get to use a phone so I could arrange to pay bail and be free.

I was wrong.

Instead, I and the others were led to another part of the building and told to wait in line, where a cop was sitting at a desk filling out forms and asking other inmates questions. I asked several times what was going on and he told me to shut up. Eventually, I figured out that this was a "processing step" for being transitioned into the regular, permanent jail. I tried to explain to the cop that I had already appeared before the judge, and was told I could make a phone call to arrange bail and go. He asked me why I did not make the call in the main holding cell. I explained to him that the phone was not working and another cop had told me he would arrange for me to make a call, but it never happened. Again, he told me to shut up and continued asking me questions as part of the processing procedure.

One of the questions, which I had already heard him ask others, is whether I identified as a "heterosexual, homosexual or bisexual." I said homosexual.

He replied, "So you really are a faggot?"

My angry response: "Jesus Christ, what the fuck is wrong with this place?"

He told me to watch my language, and not to bring Jesus into it. "He is your lord and savior."

"And now you're going to preach to me?" I asked.

"As a matter of fact, I will," he said.

And he did, rapidly reciting several bible passages, but more in a manner to show off his knowledge of the Good Book. I wasn't impressed. I interrupted him to once again try and explain my situation.

He asked, "Are you going to listen to me, or do you just want to talk?"

To which I replied, "As a matter of fact, I would like to talk."

He sat back with his hands behind his head, with a smug smile, and sarcastically said, "Well go right ahead and talk."

So I did, and tried yet again to explain that my bail was already set and I just wanted a chance to arrange bail, or call a lawyer, and that until I could see a lawyer I did not feel comfortable answering any more questions.

"Are you done?" he asked.

"Yes," I replied.

Then he became aggressive, yelled for me to get on my feet, turned me around, put my hands behind my back, held me by my wrists, and took me back to the solitary confinement cell. On the way, he shoved me ahead of him and used my face to open some double, swinging doors.

"That's not very Christian like," I said.

He didn't seem to care. When he left me in the cell and shut the door, he smiled and said, "Good luck getting out of here."

I was left in there for another few hours. In the meantime, my brother Tim had arrived from Connecticut, paid my bail, and was asking when I would be released. The only response he would get from cops was, "Your brother is causing trouble, and not being very cooperative." About the same time, an officer told me I could be released if I were more "cooperative" and "showed more respect." At my brothers continued insistence, I was finally released in the early afternoon. I had two black eyes and a sore nose, and my mouth and teeth hurt.

I smoked a cigarette, and went and had a few drinks.

Though I did get my injuries documented at an emergency room, I could not interest any civil rights groups in the case, and could not afford a lawyer to take on the cops or the county. It was all I could do to afford another plane ticket home. In the weeks that followed, I received numerous solicitations in the mail from Virginia lawyers:

"This charge, as you may know, carries with it the potential for a sentence involving up to a year in jail," one of the letters stated. "Whether you are guilty or not, it is very important you have an attorney," read another. "They will vigorously prosecute you by trying to prove your guilt and to get as heavy a punishment as they can," yet another . . . "We have been attorneys for over 30 years, and we practice in all the Courts in Virginia and know the prosecutors, Judges, and the systems peculiar to the Court where you must appear." . . . "We charge reasonable and competitive fees." . . . "My office is located in Lawyers' Row, directly across the street from the Fairfax County Jail/Courthouse Complex. I conduct business in the Fairfax County Courts almost every business day. Perhaps you can benefit from my personal representation?" And so on.

Speeding is apparently a lucrative business for all in Fairfax County, Virginia.

I paid one of the lawyers $700, and he appeared in court on my behalf on September 5, so I did not have to fly back to Virginia. My charges were reduced to speeding (the speed changed to 65 mph), and I paid a $250 fine in addition to a $62.00 processing fee. But I got a decent beating for the deal, and even a bit of preaching.

My religious beliefs fall close to those of writer Edward Abbey's: "There has got to be a God; the world could not have become so fucked up by chance alone." If, by chance, the Christian notions of a particular Fairfax County Sheriff are correct, it would be fun to observe his judgment day -- But I have a hunch God doesn't allow witnesses, and certainly won't be filming it.

Postscript: A few weeks later, driving with some friends, I was pulled over for doing 90 in a 75 in rural Montana. The highway patrolman gave me a warning, told me to slow down, be safe and enjoy my trip.

I love Montana.

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