September 10, 2012

False arrest in 1960s has lasting impact


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.”

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