September 10, 2012

False arrest in 1960s has lasting impact


---- — It was a warm summer evening, and Jean was not home, so Mort Perry and I walked into the nearby Greenwich Village bar to wait for her.

We set our attaché cases down and ordered drinks. I ordered a rum and Coca-Cola.

“We don’t have any of that,” the bartender said.

“What do you mean?” I inquired, “There is some rum right over there.”

“That’s not for you,” he said.

I got the message. It was the 1960s, and things like that happened from time to time, even in the liberal north.

“I’m going to call the police,” I told Mort, and headed for the phone booth. I made the call, and we stepped outside to wait for the patrol car.

Mort and I both worked at Harper & Row, the book publishers. I was assistant production manager for children’s books, and Mort, a young African-American artist, was a book designer.

We had planned to have dinner and take Jean to the Village Gate, where John Coltrane was playing. But it looked like our plans had been changed for us.

A patrol car drove up in a few minutes. I walked over to the officer to tell him our story, but he passed me by and walked over to the bartender, where they had a hushed conversation. Then the cop returned.

“He doesn’t have to serve you,” he said. “That’s New York law. He doesn’t need a reason. Now get out of here or I’m going to arrest you.”

I took out a pen to write down the cop’s name and badge number, and he and his partner grabbed Mort and me, said, “You’re under arrest for disorderly conduct,” handcuffed us and tossed us in the back of the patrol car.

Needless to say, we were both frightened because we had no idea of what was to come and neither one of us had any experience with the criminal-justice system.

We were taken to a jail, booked and locked in a cell. Mort and I performed volunteer work for the WBAI-FM Public Affairs Department and had recorded and broadcast speeches by a number of civil-rights luminaries. We phoned the station and let them know what was going on.

Sometime around midnight, we were taken before a judge. In the courtroom was the WBAI-FM public affairs manager. He vouched for us, and we were released on our own recognizance. I breathed a sigh of relief because we dreaded the degrading possibility of spending the night in jail sleeping in our clothes.

The next day Mort and I took the day off from work and looked for a lawyer. It cost us $200 each, a good sum in those days.

A day was set, and a few weeks later we were summoned to trial to have our day in court. We pleaded not guilty and requested a trial in front of a judge. In the courtroom, prepared to be character witnesses for both of us, were Evan Thomas, vice president of Harper & Row; the station manager of WBAI-FM; and Dorothy Hagen, our supervisor at work.

The first witness was the arresting officer. He testified that he arrested us because we were committing a disturbance and that I “threatened to throw a glass in the face of the bartender if he didn’t serve us.”

The judge listened to the officer’s testimony for a few more minutes then interrupted him, saying, “I see no evidence of disorderly conduct here. This case is dismissed.”

He turned to us and said, “You know what you can do about this.”

To tell the truth, I didn’t know what we could do about it. False-arrest suits are difficult to win and would have involved the expense of a lawyer and a lot of time.

We were fortunate because we had resources at our command that are not available to everyone. Nevertheless, I will never forget this insulting experience.

Ken Wibecan is a retired journalist. Once an op-ed and jazz columnist, later an editor of Modern Maturity magazine, these days he and his two dogs enjoy the country life in Peru. He can be reached at