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Reporter-Turned-Occupy L.A. Arrestee On Why the City Attorney's Office is 'Going for the Jugular'

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On Saturday, six Occupy L.A. protesters returned to the City Hall lawn, where the movement had camped out for two months, to speak out against the National Defense Authorization Act. Dressed in orange Gitmo-style uniforms, the protesters jumped the newly-erected fence around City Hall and were promptly arrested for trespassing. Three protesters are currently awaiting pre-trial hearings, but one of the protesters Bethania Palma Markus pleaded no contest to trespassing charges yesterday. She was placed on 18 months probation and ordered to do community service — and stay away from City Hall. Palma Markus, a former staff reporter for the San Gabriel Valley News Group who joined the Occupy L.A. movement in late September, talks about why she jumped the fence and what her experience on the other side of the law has taught her about the politics of our criminal justice system.

By Bethania Palma Markus / Special to LAist

I joined the Occupy Wall Street movement in L.A. with hopes of being part of creating a better world, but nothing made it more clear how critically that better world was needed than my two-night stay in the county jail system after being arrested Saturday with fellow Occupy Los Angeles members on misdemeanor charges.

After Occupy L.A. was evicted from our City Hall encampment and nearly 300 participants arrested by 1,400 riot police on Nov. 30, six of us on Saturday re-entered the public grounds that had since been fenced off. We were protesting attacks on free speech in Los Angeles and nationwide. Not only did the city of L.A. come down on Occupy protesters with an iron fist, the federal government is on the brink of bringing into law provisions in the National Defense Authorization Act that would allow the indefinite detention of U.S. citizens without trial, a direct violation of the U.S. Constitution's Bill of Rights. That's why we wore Gitmo orange scrubs on Saturday.

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We were standing up for the Constitution as any red-blooded American should do. And of course we were promptly arrested for it.

It has become pretty common knowledge amongst Occupy L.A. participants that City Attorney Carmen Trutanich is going for the jugular in dealing with us, and that was painfully clear for me personally as events unfolded over the weekend. My friends and I were arrested on misdemeanor trespassing charges, which I was told by multiple sources would normally require to a cite-and-release by officers.

But as I was being booked at Metro 77, a city jail on Broadway and 77th Street in South Central, the officer told me my bail would be $5,000. He quickly added this was not the decision of anyone at the station.

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Four of us were held for 48 hours on $5,000 bail and denied release upon promise to appear for arraignment, as is common practice for minor offenses by people without rap sheets. This same treatment was meted out to the hundreds arrested on the night of the raid. It seems to be a case of extra-judicial punishment reserved specially for Occupy L.A. participants. We seemed to be the city of L.A.'s very own political prisoners.

As such I got a dose of a world hidden from the view of the American mainstream. Like many in my generation I'm not even close to being middle class despite years of full-time work and an advanced degree. But for all my 34 years, I have always worked, paid my bills and played by the rules. So my involvement with the Occupy movement has been my first personal encounter with the absolute power and injustice that pervades the ironically-named criminal justice system.

I saw this with my own eyes this weekend in the women's wing of Metro 77.

None of the women I met in jail did anything I thought warranted jail time. Some were prostitutes who said they had no other way to make ends meet. Others were mentally ill and homeless. One woman simply had too many unpaid tickets. Another told me that current economic conditions are dictating the desperate actions people are taking that land them in jail. It rang true.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, more than 11 percent of Californians are unemployed. I would wager that number is far higher in reality. Some people have stopped looking after being constantly turned down, no longer qualify for benefits and have made other arrangements for daily survival. A lot of people are under-employed, taking part time jobs that don't quite make ends meet. Some have fallen off the grid completely. Economic conditions in this country are spiraling downward. People are suffering and our government is in a state of incompetent paralysis driven by special interests and influence bought through a corrupt campaign finance system that equates to legalized bribery.

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But the people who are getting the punitive end of the authoritarian stick are not destructive government officials who waste public money, declare unnecessary wars or violate the Constitution, nor are they Wall Street fat cats that created a massive home foreclosure crisis, gambled away other people's retirement funds and basically sank the global economy into chaos. The people that pay the highest price have the least influence and are the most vulnerable. They're people who are trying to survive and sometimes are simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. Or in Los Angeles, they're protesters that criticize the aforementioned government officials and Wall Street fat cats.

The first thing we noticed when we entered our holding cell was the smell. It stank. And no wonder. The toilet was right inside our sleeping quarters, and it stuck right out of the wall in the open. We had a fountain that was supposed to double as a sink but it didn't really work, and when we asked the jailers for water they said we could only get it from the malfunctioning fountain/sink thing. There wasn't any soap so we couldn't wash our hands after using the toilet. We were in for two nights and never allowed to shower or brush our teeth. Apparently the people who designed the L.A. County jail system thought they were in the Gobi desert. Or maybe they were just sadistic.

The lights were on 24/7. Our bunks had no bedding except thin, scratchy blankets handed out as we marched to our cell. And those blankets are hot property, I tell you. Because the jailers made sure you gave them back instead of handing them to a shivering cell mate when you left the place. And it was cold in there. Some of the ladies were wearing shorts or skirts, not expecting to get locked up in a nasty refrigerator for days.

Considering that many people in jail have not yet been convicted of a crime, it's despicable such deplorable conditions are allotted for the accused in a country where you are supposed to be innocent until proven guilty. Then you add in the class factor. If you're struggling financially, you don't have the option of bailing out and have no choice but to sit in jail until your arraignment.

The most insidious thing about jail, though, is the complete isolation built into the system that cuts you off from the outside world. There are no clocks and no windows. There is no way to know what will happen to you next or what the status of your case is. No one tells you anything until it's happening. The jailers come by, bring food and pick up trash and then they're gone after dodging or ignoring questions. It is totalitarianism and it becomes quickly clear that if you're in jail you're considered less than human. (Unless you're Paris Hilton, of course.)

The psychological impact of being captive and having zero information about my near future, coupled with the effects of a hunger strike my fellow Occupy LA inmates and I had agreed to undertake in protest of our wrongful imprisonment, began quickly eating away at me. I was only in custody two nights but even looking back on it now it seems like an excruciating, timeless limbo. Night time was punctuated with noise and fluorescent light and sleep for me was impossible. Every door slammed like a thunderclap and every toilet in the wing could be heard flushing through the walls. Every voice and footfall seemed to echo right through the hard bed and straight into my ear canal.

I'm not sure what triggered this, but on the second day I started to lose it. I was experiencing extreme anxiety and that night I started shaking and crying. I was having what I think would be considered panic attacks and also trying to hide it from the jailers because I was afraid of what they would do with me if they knew. I experienced for the first time the meaning of the phrase "cold fear" upon waking up after briefly falling asleep on the second night and realizing where I was.

Every time a door opened and slammed, or the jailers came by or the intercom beeped, I jumped, hoping beyond hope they were going to call my name to release me. But it never happened. At my lowest point I had a vicious and terrifying epiphany when I realized the reason they took our shoe laces and belts before booking us was because the thought of hanging myself wasn't so irrational to me at that moment. People must have done it in the past.

They know what they are doing to inmates, but instead of making humane changes to the system, they tweak the process to prevent signs of cruelty from manifesting to the outside world.

On Monday morning they called our names to go to court for arraignment. At this point I was beginning to get concerned that what I was experiencing may have lasting effects. Mental illness is no stranger in my family tree. I couldn't stand any more uncertainty about my future and about when I'd be released.

By the time we got to court I had reached the limit and knew I couldn't mentally or physically put myself through anymore. For this reason I made the decision to accept a plea deal offered by Trutanich's office that would allow me to go home. In exchange, the city would force me to do community service, be put on probation for 18 months and keep away from L.A. City Hall.

Before experiencing the system first-hand, I had always thought I'd act heroically like my fellow Occupy LA inmates did, plead not guilty and clog up the unjust system like a good activist. But that day I made a decision out of sheer self-preservation.

While in court I saw our attorney pointing me out to the deputy prosecutor, who was looking at me with a strange smile. It was a bemused, gleefully surprised smile, as though he had just found Waldo in the court room. On Wednesday I realized why. The city attorney's office had apparently issued a press release to the Associated Press touting that I had pleaded guilty, and news outlets all over the state picked it up. Trutanich's office spun it to their own benefit, of course. I had actually pleaded no contest. Either way the fact that I was tormented into submission must have been like Christmas come early for Trutanich.

Yes sir, you can bend people to your will using overly-harsh punishment and fear tactics. Ask any dictator worth his salt.

But there is a flip side to the city's heavy-handed treatment of a bunch of energetic, socially-active and politically-minded activists: Hundreds of people like me, who have never before had run-ins with police or been to jail, are now learning first-hand how brutal and hypocritical the government and criminal justice system are, something that has been known since time immemorial by communities of color and the poor. This lesson we're learning will only make outrage grow and outreach for the Occupy movement easier. So maybe it's time for the city to question which party is really getting the early Christmas present.