Welcome to America...You're Under Arrest
Stories of a Pakistani trying to get by in New York City.
Mr. Sampson, I Presume?
It was about five years ago. I was returning from Pakistan and standing in the immigration line at JFK, completely exhausted after a 20-hour flight. When my turn came up at the counter, the INS agent looked at my papers, typed a few things into his computer, and then asked me to follow him to a large room at the side of the immigration hall. I was informed that I was being detained. Two agents handcuffed me and led me to another smaller room. When I asked what I had done. They said things like, "Oh, you know what you've done. We know who you are."
“Who am I? What have I done?”
“You should know that better than we do, now shouldn’t you?”
When I asked to contact a lawyer, I was informed that I hadn't yet been admitted to the United States, and so had no legal standing. No lawyer would be called, nor would I be allowed to call anyone else. They took my cuffs off, fingerprinted me (very difficult because of my sweaty palms), recuffed me, and then left me there.
It was at this point that my knees went a little trembly. I had heard many stories of Pakistanis being held for months without charges under the Patriot Act, and now I had visions of Guantanamo in my head, and I became almost dizzy with the adrenaline rush of fear. I thought that I must have been mistaken for someone else, God knows who, and there would be no chance to clear my name. I sat in that room for a few sweat-drenched hours before a couple of INS officers came in with two police officers from the NYPD. The NYPD officers told me that they had a warrant for my arrest. This immediately came as a huge relief to me, because whatever it was they wanted with me, I would rather be held by the NYPD in New York, than in some INS facility. I felt like whatever it was, I would be able to clear it up.
That's when things started to get weird: The NYPD officers addressed me as Mr. Edward Sampson, as in, "Let's go, Sampson." When I protested that I wasn't Edward Sampson, whoever that might be, they told me that fingerprints don't lie, and I had a full 10-finger match as one (wanted) Edward Sampson. They told me to stop lying and just admit that I really was Edward Sampson. The name sounded vaguely familiar but I couldn't quite place it in my exhausted state. The INS guys removed my cuffs and the NYPD officers replaced them with their own. I was then led out for the perp-walk in front of all the other passengers, coming out by the regular path where people wait for their friends and relatives to come out. People whispered to each other rather excitedly when they saw me being led out, held by each arm by one of the officers, wearing handcuffs and a nice suit I had had tailored while in Pakistan.
It was then that I remembered who Edward Sampson was, and it came to me suddenly: About a decade earlier, my nephew and I had been having a drink at the West End Restaurant and Bar (where Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg used to hang out) near Columbia University (I had just started the Ph.D. program in philosophy there), when four rough-looking characters wandered in. They looked like skinheads, and they sat at the table behind where we were standing at the bar. My nephew had draped his jacket over one of the chairs on which one of these guys was now sitting, and so he tapped the guy on the shoulder to retrieve his jacket. I saw the guy stand up and get in his face, but couldn't hear what was going on. The man then raised his voice and I heard the n-word yelled at my nephew along with a string of curses, after which the man grabbed my nephew's hair with his left hand and drew back his right fist, getting ready to throw a punch.
I hit him first. I had lunged from the side, and my momentum threw both of us to the floor. I didn't know it then, but I was rolling around on the floor of the West End with Edward Sampson.
We were separated by the bouncers of the West End and all six of us were thrown out. Once outside, these guys ganged up on me and managed to throw me to the ground, where I hit my head on the sidewalk. I was momentarily stunned, and had no chance after that. Mr. Sampson pummeled me pretty good. Then the police arrived, and Sampson and crowd quickly walked off. I explained to the police that my nephew had been assaulted, and while trying to protect him, I, too had been beaten up, and that the guys were trying to get away. The police told me that if I insisted on having those guys arrested, they would have to arrest my nephew and me as well, since they hadn't been there to see who started it. I said fine, go ahead and arrest all of us, but I am not going to let these punks get away with this. I figured we would sort it out later in court. And so the four of them were also picked up and all six of us were driven to a precinct where we had our portraits taken, were fingerprinted, etc., before being released on our own recognizance.
After the District Attorney heard the whole story, charges against me and my nephew were eventually dropped, and it was decided that Sampson and his friends would be prosecuted under the hate crimes statute of New York. I was pleased by this, and felt vindicated that I had insisted that the police arrest everyone, rather than just letting these guys walk. Except that those people didn't show up at their hearing, and were never heard from again.
By the time the NYPD guys had put me into the back of their van outside JFK, I had figured out what must have happened: Somehow, that night 10 years before, someone at the precinct had made a clerical error and had somehow put Edward Sampson's name and other information on my fingerprint card. Then, when they didn't show up for their hearing, a warrant was issued for Sampson's arrest (and for all I knew, he might have committed other crimes since), and now I had been arrested as Edward Sampson. This was the only explanation I could think of, and it sounded plausible to me. I excitedly told the NYPD guys this theory, but they were pretty unimpressed. One of them said that people often come up with crazy stories when they get caught, but this was one of the best he had heard. I told him to look at me. Did I even look like I might be named Edward Sampson? I just kept repeating my theory to them until finally, one of them, Detective John Regan of the Queens Warrant Squad, started to believe me, at least a little. He told his partner, "Look, it sounds crazy, but it might be true. While you guys see the judge [I was being taken to a courthouse in Manhattan where I would be presented to a judge, and we needed to get there before midnight, which was getting close, otherwise I would have to wait in lockup overnight], I'll go try to find the records from that arrest 10 years ago."
I was appointed a public defender. Now this guy was a complete idiot. He kept telling me to stop lying and just plead guilty to a reduced charge for which I would just get some community service and no jail time. No matter what I said to him, he would not believe that I was not Edward Sampson. Meanwhile, Regan showed up with a file containing the decade-old arrest records, and luckily it had a picture of Edward Sampson in it. But even then, my supposed lawyer kept saying things like, "That could have been you 10 years ago." Finally the judge herself yelled at him and said, "It is unlikely that your client has changed race since that arrest." She told me I was free to go. I was then driven by Detective Regan and his partner back to JFK, where I was released.
A few weeks later Detective Regan called me with a strange bit of news: Edward Sampson had committed suicide in 1996 by jumping out of his fifth-floor window.
Does Your Client Realize He Is Under Oath?
My very beautiful, blond American immigration lawyer and I walk into the Federal Office Plaza building in downtown Manhattan for my U.S. citizenship interview. Though I have been living legally in America for over a quarter of a century, I have only recently decided to apply for citizenship because 1) traveling with my Pakistani passport has become unbearably difficult and expensive (visa fees add up), and 2) it will make living in New York easier for my Italian wife. I am prepared. Or so I think. I have memorized all the answers to the questions in my citizenship test booklet. I know who my senators are. I know the name of my congressman. I know the order of succession of the presidency. I know how old one has to be to run for various public offices. I know all kinds of things about American government that the average American probably doesn’t. I am wearing a pinstriped, navy-blue three-piece suit and expensive shoes. I have shaved my Elvis sideburns off and slicked my hair back with gel to attempt a GQish look.
But it turns out I am not prepared at all. We are summoned to a small office and invited to sit down. The interviewer is a small man from Bangladesh (I immediately wonder how long ago he himself got his citizenship) who is obviously a strict Muslim. He has the regulation neatly-trimmed beard of the modern Muslim, and even has a “gatta,” a mark on the forehead of the devout from pressing it to the floor in prayer a score or more times a day. He glances at my green passport and my white lawyer with an expression of disapproval before any words are spoken. I understand both: Bangladeshis are not too fond of Pakistan since our army murdered tens of thousands of them in 1971 (I don’t blame them), and my lawyer is too sexy in her shortish skirt for his strict Muslim sensibilities. Actually, her legs are distracting even me from the business at hand.
He begins with some routine business: “Are you now or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party?”
“No, sir, I have not.”
“Are you now or have you ever been a member of the Nazi Party?”
“No, sir, I have not.” (“Is there still a Nazi Party?” I wonder to myself.)
“Have you ever used or abused a controlled substance?”
“No, sir, I have not.” (Well, what would you have said?)
“Are you a habitual drunkard?”
“No, sir, I am not.”
And so on. After this boring litany, he starts to look through my papers. Now, one of the things that one has to do is provide reams of documentation for any and all arrests one has ever been subject to, even if they were just traffic violations, and even if the charges were dropped and one was never convicted. I have quite a few. Only one is a traffic violation, but it is a serious one: When I was in my 20s, I was charged with a DUI while driving home from a Halloween party one year. I immediately pleaded guilty, paid the fine, had my license suspended for six months, and was more careful about these things afterwards. He is not interested in my other arrests (for assault — a bar fight — for example) and stares at the DUI papers.
“Mr. Syed Abbas Raza, so you drink?”
(By saying my full name, he is pointing out that I am unmistakably Muslim, because he cannot explicitly bring up religion in the interview.)
“Apparently I did that day, sir.” (Now he really hates me.)
“So you are a habitual drunkard?”
“No, sir, I am not.”
“I see. Do you frequent prostitutes?”
“No, sir, I do not.”
“You see, I have to make a judgment about your moral character, because U.S. citizenship can be denied on the basis of bad moral character.”
“So I must ask you again: Are you a habitual drunkard?”
All this time he is glaring at me with undisguised contempt. His expression says: “You are a traitor to Islam.” And at this point, I have had enough. I feel the anger rising and stare back as I say: “Just because one has a DUI on one’s record does not mean that one is a habitual drunkard for life. It is possible for an individual to admit one’s mistake, and learn from it, and then go on to achieve great success. For example the current president of the United States. Or the current vice president of the United States, who has two!!!
At this, my Bangladeshi friend flies into a rage, yelling: “I don’t want to hear another word from you! You come to an interview for U.S. citizenship and insult the president of the United States?”
“I am not insulting the president. I am suggesting that at least this once George W. Bush learned from his mistake and managed eventually to become the president of this country.”
“Don’t say another word!” And looking at my lawyer: “Does your client realize he is under oath?”
My lawyer: “Yes, he does. Are you claiming he has said something false?”
“This interview is over. You will receive my decision by mail in less than 120 days.”
A few months later I get the predictable notice in the mail: petition denied. My brother laughs cruelly when I tell him, saying, “Just your luck to be denied U.S. citizenship for not being Muslim enough.”
Postscript: My lawyer was more incensed than me about this whole affair. We filed an appeal, won, and a few weeks ago I traveled to New York City from Italy, where I now live, to take the oath of U.S. citizenship. I am back in Italy now with a shiny new blue passport, trying to decide what public office I should run for in 2008.
I Get Busy, Mo!
It was the day after the annual party of the Web site that I run. We’d had an 18-piece jazz band play at the event, and there were a lot of mics and monitors and stands and other junk that I had had to rent, and now had to return. I awoke in bad shape (it was a good party) and barely in time to make it to my nephew’s place, borrow his Jeep Grand Cherokee, pick up a friend who had in a rare moment of stupid generosity agreed to help me, drive to Queens where the party had been, pick up the equipment, and then drive to midtown Manhattan where I had rented the stuff before the shop closed. Anyway, my friend and I got the crap into the car and entered Manhattan over the 59th Street Bridge. I made a left onto Lexington Avenue from 60th Street (both one way streets) behind a bunch of other cars also turning left and saw that we were all being waved to the right side of Lex by a sandy-haired police officer of the NYPD. He then turned his attention to the first of the rather long line of cars he had pulled over. It was about 4:15 in the afternoon, neither my friend nor I had had any food since the previous evening’s dinner, and the sound equipment had to be returned by 5. So we were not too pleased by this (left) turn of events. (Though we had no idea just how sinister things were soon to become.)
My friend and I made some small talk while waiting for the cop to make it through this hapless caravan of unknowing crime, wondering what it was we had done wrong. Finally, it was my turn: “License and registration.”
“What did I do?”
“May I see your license and registration?”
After the usual shuffling through of dry cleaning receipts, a dental report, and some yellowing misfolded maps in the glove compartment (it wasn’t even my car), to my surprise I found a valid New York State registration card. I handed this and my license to Sandy Hair and he disappeared into his police rickshaw for a longish time. (Is there any police vehicle imaginable which could confer less dignity and much-needed authority upon its occupant?) Meanwhile my friend told me that for reasons of economy (and because they seat only one person) these rickshaws were originally designed and built with a door on only one side. They soon realized their design error as New York’s creative denizens immediately took to tipping the whole thing over (it is three-wheeled, small and unstable to begin with) onto the side with the door, leaving the policeman inside trapped and as immobile as an overturned turtle. And then we spoke with great yearning of the Abbey Pub hamburger and headache-killing libation we were planning to have immediately after our interrupted errand.
“Sir, step out of the vehicle and put your hands behind your back,” Sandy Hair said.
To my friend, as I undid my seatbelt, I said, “This somehow always happens to me. Please call my wife and tell her to call my lawyer. And return this stuff before 5, will you?”
Friend: “But my driver’s license is expired.”
Sandy Hair: “Sir, I pulled you over for making an illegal left turn. There is a sign which indicates no left turns between 4 and 6 p.m., and I am arresting you because your driver’s license is suspended.”
“Why is my driver’s license suspended?”
“You failed to pay a speeding ticket in Florida five years ago.”
“It’s been suspended all this time?”
Click of handcuffs, followed by a futile, “Can’t you give me a ticket or something?”
“No, sir. We are cracking down right now on driving with suspended licenses, and I must take you to the precinct. With any luck, you’ll be able to see a judge later tonight and be released.”
Sandy Hair to friend: “Can you drive the vehicle, sir?”
Stupid friend: “My license is expired.”
Nice Sandy Hair, pretending not to hear, “OK, good, you’re free to leave.”
So my friend drove off (apparently the NYPD were not cracking down on driving with expired licenses that day) and I was taken to a police car and driven to the 19th Precinct. (Or to the one-nine, in cop-talk.) Here I was searched, and everything from my pockets was catalogued and taken, along with my belt and shoelaces. Then off to be fingerprinted and mugshotted. Now only the true hyperhydrotics among my readers will understand why I dreaded this so much. Hyperhydrosis is a real condition in which one’s palms and fingertips sweat profusely, all the time. (You may remember the sudden feeling of disgust you experienced at having shaken the cold, wet hand of one at some point in your life.) Anyhow, I have it. As a result, it is almost impossible to fingerprint me properly. The fingerprints keep coming out as smudges with the deep rifts and valleys of my permanently raisined fingertips instead of the normal loopy, whorly pattern of ridges, even if I wipe my hands immediately before the prints are taken. So there was an hour-long comedy of fingerprinting errors before I finally had my Nick Noltyish portrait taken and was locked up in a large holding cell with about six others.
To my pleasant surprise, there was only one street lunatic among all my cellmates, and fortunately even he limited his display of lunacy to a stream of continuous but thankfully soft-spoken mumblings about the Lord. It was quite soothing, really. And one quickly became used to the initially emetic assault of his odor. The rest of the multicolor crowd was sleeping in various positions, or trying to. That is just what one does to pass time in jail. By now it was about 7 in the evening and I hadn’t eaten in 24 hours. I asked if I could make a phone call and if I could get something to eat. I was told that they had no food and I could make the phone call later.
I called my lawyer when I was finally taken outside to make the phone call. “Please call my wife and let her know where I am, and get me the hell out of here!” My lawyer happens to be a friend so I at least remembered her number.
“I’m gonna’ try, but I don’t think you’ll be getting out tonight. It’s too late. I’ll be there when you get to court first thing in the morning, though. Don’t worry, you’ll be fine.”
My heart really sank at hearing this. I was in terrible physical shape. I needed food. And a hair-of-the-dog drink. Or three. But I tried to be manly and asked her to do whatever she could. Then I sat in my cell and joined the rest in feigning sleep. One by one, the rest of my cellmates were taken out just as others were put in. Around 11:00 I heard the welcome sound of my mispronounced name. I still thought there was a chance that I would be taken to court to see a judge, but that turned out to be too optimistic: I was handcuffed, put in a car and driven to the 27th Precinct (which happens to be very near my house). The policeman and policewoman were chatty on the way and told me that all the criminals who were arrested in the evenings in Manhattan were held at the two-seven overnight before being transported to the courthouse downtown early in the morning (I didn’t yet realize how early) for arraignment.
So here I was at the two-seven, at around midnight, standing chained to a wall with a bunch of other prisoners, feeling like I would faint if I didn’t eat, and with a pounding headache. Things would soon get much worse for me. I was eventually searched again, and then led to a hallway with 6- by 8-foot cells on one side. Each cell has a metal bunk about 2 feet wide and maybe 7 feet long on one side, and a small sink and toilet on the other. The cell was quite nice and functional, even if filthy, and wouldn’t have been scary if it weren’t for the completely psychotically violent graffiti scratched onto every available surface. Luckily, I was put in one that was empty.
I figured I’d try to sleep. I used my shoes as a pillow, figuring that dirty as they may be, they are probably cleaner than that bunk. But I couldn’t sleep. There were too many prisoners screaming to each other from their cells, and they kept bringing new ones in. I communed with various violent felons through their writings on the walls of my new bedroom and marveled at the literary qualities of their schizophrenic musings and murals. I wondered to myself whom I might get as a cellmate, and resolved silently to act tough and intimidate him quickly (I have a deep and loud voice which I can usually deploy with frightening effect), if and when one was put in my cell.
As it turned out, the man who was led to my cell and put in it with me about an hour later was a very large (about 6 foot 4, 250 pounds) man wearing a Mark Ecko sweatshirt and white sneakers, both covered in dried blood because earlier that evening he had stabbed someone he later described to me as “that Mexican nigga” during a robbery. He came in and casually pushed my legs off the bunk, not bothering to say anything. I knew that this was my cue to get tough, but at that moment I happened to be far too busy concentrating on not peeing my beltless, falling-off pants to actually think of something to say. It got worse. He looked at me with contempt and asked what I was in for, and when I tried to answer with a non-committal reply (I obviously didn’t want to admit to my fruity suspended-license rap), to my shock and horror my voice cracked out of nervousness and I heard myself stutter something incomprehensible in a higher-pitched falsetto than a goddamned Bee Gee. This, of course, amused my new friend to no end, and out of pity, I suppose, and good humor he reassured me that he would not hurt me. I realized that it is one thing to yell at my cat at home and scare her, or even at some annoying bureaucratic drudge or other behind a car-rental counter, and quite another to try and intimidate someone who is covered in the blood of his last attempted-murder victim and looks as if he could break me in two at the drop of his sideways-worn baseball cap. I now swore to myself that if I made it through this night in anything resembling wholeness, no matter how tempting, I would never ever do anything that had even an infinitesimal chance of landing me in an actual prison, where I now knew with certainty that I would last all of about three nanoseconds.
Despite the fact that Bloody was on probation and was now looking at something like four years in Attica, he didn’t seem particularly upset. In a situation in which I would have been suicidal at the thought of losing four years of my life, he seemed nervously excited and managed to even repeatedly laugh at his own predicament. Indeed, after asking me if I had ever been upstate (meaning, to Attica) and receiving a negative reply, he told me, “I’ss nice up there. Green grass and shit.” It was almost as if he were inviting me to join him by stabbing a Mexican nigga of my own. The only time he expressed any regret was when with a childish and sad expression he told me that his Mama would be upset. It turned out that our would-be killer was 22 and had already spent three of those years in prison. After stabbing the Mexican with his cousin, Bloody and Cousin decided to smoke a joint and were picked up by the police at a nearby corner where they were pointed out from the back of the squad car by the bleeding Mexican. His lack of concern about being caught (not hiding, not running away) made me think the grim thought that perhaps his life was so bleak that he didn’t much care if he spent it on the streets or in Attica.
I gleaned most of this from Bloody’s excited chatter with Cousin, who was locked up in the cell next to us. After an hour or so, Bloody and Cousin were talked out and it was then that the voice came from the void: “Son, I live clean now, but I used to be young like you. I done my share of robberies, and you’s goin’ about it all wrong.” This was an older voice, calm and rational. It belonged to a man in another cell that I would eventually come to think of as the Professor of Crime University. The Professor proceeded to instruct Bloody and Cousin in how they should have committed their robbery, in great detail. The advice was brilliant and contained such gems as, “Son, you shoulda’ got some videos and snacks and some weed and put it in your crib beforehand. That way, you coulda’ stayed outta’ sight for three days.” As the Boy Scouts say: “Be prepared.” I was fascinated by all this avuncular instruction and pictured the Professor as an older Malcolm X as played by Denzel Washington, sitting in his cell in suit and tie and hat and professorial glasses, too old for the life of the streets but still proud of his player past.
At 3 a.m. we were ordered out and instructed to stand just in front of our cells. Then, starting at the back, two cops proceeded to handcuff us and attach chains to our feet. Twenty-one of us were thus bound together into a chain gang before being marched down the hallway and out into the parking lot, where in the darkness stood a white windowless bus. Inside there was a metal bench on both sides and along the partition that divided us from the driver, the chain gang managed to arrange itself in a U-shape. I was on the side, bound to Bloody on my right and Cousin on my left. The bus got on the West Side Highway and headed south with far too much speed, and we were bouncing up and down nervously. Bloody excitedly observed: “They gonna’ git us all killed.” Across from me sat a very tall, very thin, very handsome man in impeccable streetwear: a blue Adidas tracksuit and very white sneakers. Suddenly, looking at Bloody, he spoke up: “Son, you should be hopin’ this bus crashes. We all be rich then after suin’ the city.” This was the Professor. He continued to command deference and even awe from Bloody, Cousin, and, of course, me. It turned out he too was in because of the suspended licence crackdown, but was resigned to his fate. This is life, he said. But the strangest thing about the Professor was that he would occasionally, and randomly, and to no one in particular, somberly and emphatically proclaim, “Like the Bronx nigga said, I get busy, Mo!” I still don’t know what that means, but I have been infected, and often repeat it to myself like a mantra.
After standing around in interminable lines at the courthouse downtown, we were led to a large cell with about 15 people in it. At 5 in the morning we were each finally given one of those little boxes of cereal that you can tear open and pour milk right into, and a small carton of milk. I inhaled both almost instantly. The Professor left his untouched. After 15 minutes, I couldn’t stand it and asked if he was going to eat his breakfast. “Go ahead, son,” he laughed.
Our final stop was yet another holding cell just behind the court where the judge would be. There were about 25 people here, including a very scared-looking small Indian man who practically ran to me when I entered the cell, asking desperately: “Vair are you from, man?” I said Karachi, to which he replied, “Me Bombay. Same thing, no?” His relief at meeting another South Asian was palpable and as a good student of the Professor, I took him under my wing.
“Suspended license?” I asked.
“Ya, man, they arrest me in front of my wife and my 6-year-old son. I didn’t even know the bloody license was suspended. You? Same thing?”
“Yeah, same thing. This is life.”
At 9:00 I was summoned to the courtroom first (thanks to strings pulled by my lawyer) and said my farewells to Bloody, Cousin, and the Professor. Then Bombay walked me to the door of my cell somewhat enviously. In the courtroom, I saw my very beautiful, blond American lawyer, who pleaded not guilty on my behalf to something of which I was very obviously guilty. She said she’d have charges dropped later, which she did. I was free. And I have paid my Florida speeding ticket. • 24 January 2008
S. Abbas Raza is the editor of 3QuarksDaily.com.
Photo from Corbis Images.