The cop leaned in and inhaled deeply.
“Been drinking tonight?” His fat jowls spilled over his tightly buttoned collar, jiggling as he spoke.
“I’m gonna need to see your ID.”
I had just crossed the street with my fraternity brother at the crosswalk, but the red hand was flashing. A group of officers stopped us the second we reached the other side. I handed him my real ID, which stated I was under the age of 21.
The cop began patting me down with his sausage fingers.
“Thanks,” I said. “Didn’t think I was gonna get any tonight.”
“Shut the fuck up.”
My brother, also being molested on the sidewalk, was far more hammered than I was. His head hung limp as he stood, legs apart, arms extended. He hocked a loogie and it dribbled down his chin onto his shirt.
I watched the herds of drunken underage kids stumble by us on the packed sidewalk in Five Points, the bar district that serves as the stomping grounds for students at the University of South Carolina. A few students I knew gave me a nod as they passed as if to say “Hang in there, buddy.”
The cop pulled out my wallet and rifled through it. He whipped out my fake ID and shoved it in my face.
“What is this?” he demanded.
I said nothing. I felt the cold metal bracelets clamp tightly around my wrists, and I was led to the back of the paddy wagon. The inside of the police van was split down the middle with a metal cage. A row of men with dreadlocks, missing teeth and baggy clothes sat on one side, a row of college kids in pastels on the other. Much like the layout of the city of Columbia, two opposite spectrums of life were squeezed beside one another.
It was because of the city’s layout — poverty side-by-side with wealth — that I found myself headed to the clink in the first place. There was the campus and the student housing on one side of the city, and the impoverished neighborhoods on the other. The bar district sat smack dab in the middle. Sometimes, the impoverished side would bleed into the campus life, which would cause problems. Earlier in the semester, a stray bullet fired by a gang member struck a sorority girl waiting for a cab, paralyzing her from the waist down. The city’s solution? More cops downtown, ready to arrest any noticeably drunk college kid.
I scooted along the wooden bench and sat next to my brother. The doors of the van slammed shut, where we sat in complete darkness for a while with the other eight or so captured men.
A big black man in thick dreadlocks sitting across from us spoke up.
“Man, what are y’all doin’ in here?”
My brother and I shrugged.
“Alvin’s no place for y’all. Stick with me when we get there.”
He was referring to Alvin S. Glenn Penitentiary, the final destination for the night.
“My name’s Stick.”
A kid sat next to me swearing to himself. He had a big bandage on his forehead and tears welling in his eyes.
“Fuck me. I’m gonna get kicked out of the army for sure,” he said.
I asked him what happened. He told me he brought his beer outside of the bar and was drinking by the doorway when a cop approached and asked if he was 21. He dropped the beer and took off, made it half a block, then tripped and face-planted.
“Yeah, you gone for sure,” Stick said.
The doors swung open and a red-faced man with mangy hair and camouflage shorts was wrestled into the wagon. When the doors slammed shut, he immediately began kicking the caged window.
“Let me out you fuckin’ piiiiiigs!”
Slam. Slam. Slam.
“YEEEEEE BOY WAIT TIL I GET MY HANDS ON YA!”
Slam. Slam. Slam.
The doors flung open. The cop shouted at us.
“If y’all don’t quit fuckin’ around back here I’m gonna pepper spray the whole wagon!”
The doors slammed shut again.
“Calm down, bro,” Stick told the crazed man. “I gotchu.” He twisted in his seat.
“Yo dawg, grab the cigs in my back pocket,” he asked the man sitting next to him.
With his hands cuffed behind him, the man finagled the pack out of the pocket and passed the cigarettes around, feeding them through the holes in the cage. My brother, who had worked his hands under his feet and onto his lap, pulled out a lighter. Everyone in the van took a deep drag, filling the quarters with smoke. We reveled in our teamwork.
“We in this together, baby!”
“Fuck the po-lice!”
It was a beautiful moment. There we were, complete strangers from opposite walks of life, sharing our cigarettes, our frustrations, our stories. I felt the van begin to move.
When we arrived at Alvin S. Glenn, we were herded out of the wagon and into the jail. We posed for our mugshots, received our jail clothes and slippers, and were stuffed in the drunk tank. My brother was taken to a separate tank. Much like the van, the crowded cell was segregated. One side had the college kids and the businessmen with DWIs. The other had the people who were in there for real shit, like meth and assault. The police figured locking us college kids up was safer than letting us roam the potentially dangerous streets while intoxicated and vulnerable. Problem was, they were throwing us in a room right alongside the most dangerous people on those streets. I found a group of college kids, curled up on a bench, and passed out.
I awoke to the sound of shouting. A huge black man covered in tattoos was pacing up and down the tank, beating his chest. I sat up and realized that the room was now almost completely empty. Unbeknownst to me, the guards had let people leave the tank to make phone calls while I was deep in my drunken slumber. Now, I was alone with a few violent, angry, massive men.
“I bench 500!” the large man shouted.
Noticing I was awake, he came up to me and put his face in mine.
“You tryna go?”
I swallowed hard. A few of the men stood in front of the window so the guards couldn’t see inside.
“You probly one of them white boys who say the ‘n’ word then don’t say SHIT ‘round a black man.”
I shook my head.
He slapped me across the face, ripped the shoe off my foot, and threw it at the toilet. Luckily, it missed.
“Go pick it up!”
I didn’t budge.
“Boy, Imma rape yo pretty ass.”
I clenched my fists, ready to die fighting. Then, I heard keys dig into the lock and the cell door open. It was Stick. He came up to the man and got in his face.
“Back the fuck up, dawg.”
The man withdrew to the other side of the cell. No guards budged from their posts just outside of the door. I trudged over to the toilet and picked up my shoe.
The next morning, a few of my fraternity brothers picked me and my roommate up from jail. I stared out the window on the ride home in total disbelief of what had happened.
How could the cops just let us sit in there with people so dangerous? How could they think they are protecting us? How has the racism in this city gotten so bad?
We drove out of the impoverished part of town, crossing “Superior Street” into the college side. We passed the confederate flag flying above the state house, and arrived home..