From the Belly of the Beast
Ian Murphy, notorious reporter and artist for The Buffalo Beast, just got out of the Erie County jail after being sentenced to 15 days for “disturbing a religious service,” the prosecutor’s dubious term for disorderly conduct/obscenity at an anti-gay demonstration.
His real crime was to piss off a cop.
A lot of journalists like to play the rebel, but Murphy has always meant it, played for keeps. He got famous for his magnificent prank call to Wisconsin governor Scott Walker. Posing as David Koch, Murphy offered fascistic ideas for corralling Wisconsin’s opposition.
In 2008, he broke the last taboo about Iraq by writing a Beast article titled “Fuck the Troops.” While liberal journalists from privileged backgrounds were careful never to blame our brave soldiers, no matter what horrors they perpetrated, Murphy, the working-class guy from the Rust Belt, said about our fallen heroes: “They got what they asked for.”
We wanted to be the first to interview Murphy on his time in the belly of Buffalo’s other beast, Erie County Holding Center.
Congratulations on getting out early!
So were you in a cell with other guys?
Well, they shuttle you around quite a bit.
The first place was the Erie County Holding Center. And I was sent to the detox ward coz I take Oxycodone for my back. It’s just a 15mg dose, but some dudes in there were going through hell.
But half of them were lying and just high.
Every eight hours, no matter what you were doing, they’d have you go see the nurse. By the time you’ve settled in the detox ward you’ve been through processing for like three or four hours, from one freezing room to the next, where they just take your picture and feed you horrific hotdogs, then you get your oranges, your prison oranges.
What happens the rest of the time? Time must hang pretty heavy.
The first night in the holding center, I think I had a little bit of withdrawal in that I couldn’t sleep. Either that or the monstrous snoring of the guy in front of me, so I didn’t really sleep until the morning and when I woke up, the guard was just beating the shit out of [the] guy who had been snoring. He was crippled. He couldn’t walk that well with his cane.
As soon as this Corrections Officer came on duty it became immediately apparent that there was going to be some sort of conflict between him and this guy. What I made out all day, drifting in and out of sleep.
He yelled, “Dep, I need my cane, to make a phone call” — or whatever, and then when I woke up I heard: “You can walk your fat ass to the phone without the cane.”
I looked up and looked over, the guy put his hand up like this. Then the Corrections Officer just put his hand on the guy’s throat and just started punching him in the face.
And then, about 15 guys ran into the room, just waiting, pouncing on the guy, beating the shit out of him, kidney punches, back of the head, contorting his limbs. The whole time he’s just shouting, “Why are you doing this to me? Why are you doing this to me?”
Was it that he had annoyed them and they were sick of him or something?
Yeah. And I mean, it’s the cop kind of personality – over aggressive, under socialized. They’re just waiting, they’re fucking begging to beat on someone. Through the eight total days I’ve been in prison, I’ve heard "Do you want me to punch you in the fucking face?" about three times.
Addressed to you?
Yeah. It’s like their unofficial slogan. There are some nice guys, obviously, but some of them are just itching to take their day out on these poor inmates. Sometimes they deserve it, but most of the time they don’t.
So after this huge, basically, beating… We’re just all looking on in horror, you know, fighting the urge to help physically or verbally, coz they… one of the later arrival guards said, "Turn the fuck around, look the fuck at the wall!” You know, basically don’t watch us beat this guy. And the subtext was pretty clear – "Or else we’ll do it to you." So we’re all just kind of sidelong glances kind of like, "Oh fuck." And about ten minutes after this happened, they called about ten of us and then when we went through the process of getting our street clothes back on, being processed through various frigid rooms, and then being shuttled in a van, while cuffed, to the Erie County Correctional Facility in Alden, New York, about 26 miles away from the downtown holding center.
Was this for your trial? Or was it some further processing?
This is where they imprison you. I turned myself in at the court clerks; they took me down through these tunnels into the Erie County Holding Center, and then the next evening they took us, me and ten, twelve other guys, in a van to the Alden correctional facility.
Once we got there it was just more processing, a new pair of prison oranges, this time two pairs of pants and two shirts, still pretty fucking cold too. According to the folklore of prison inmates it’s that cold to keep the germs down…whatever the fuck that means. I think it’s just to make people uncomfortable. And if anything it’s weakening people’s immune systems. Aside from being a mild form of torture.
Are you allowed to have other things or is it just you and your oranges no matter how cold it gets?
Yeah. And they just give you these shitty little blankets that barely cover your body and you know, you’re cold the whole time. So that night by about ten o’clock, my second night, they brought me to this, I don’t even know what it is, was going to wait until morning to find out where the hell I was. It was a giant room, two guards on duty, 24 bunks [a top bunk and bottom bunk] so 48 prisoners total. They gave me my bunk number, I walked over, they give you this bin for all your stuff, so I walk over with my bin, and immediately this line of big black guys forms. The biggest black guy goes, “Aw hell no. You can’t live here. Go tell the cops you need a new home.” So, you know, this guy basically looks like he’s late for training camp, he should be a linebacker. I’m a little worried, you know. I’m not gonna lie. I was like, "Oh fuck! Am I gonna have to fight this guy and stay in jail for three months?" And I was like, "Really, is this how this works?" And I went back up the front, and as soon as I turned around to go see the CO, they all just started laughing. They were just like, "We’re fucking with you; you gotta keep a sense of humor in here." And I was like, "Oh yeah, I get it now, that’s fucking hilarious."
The guy in the bunk next to me is reading the Qu’ran, and then I got "Welcome to the ghetto." That’s what they said.
And then it was lockdown. Because in the Erie County System, I think it’s four times a day, you just have to lay in your bed. If you’re not in detox, or if you’re in a place with a cell, they actually shut the cell physically, and you’re in there for an hour. I think that’s shift change and lunch and things like that, where they’re short-staffed. So I got in there late at night and it was lockdown. All you could do was get down off the bunk and go to the bathroom if you had to. So I did that a few times, went to sleep.
They wake you up at 5:30 for breakfast. Well, they don’t wake you up. If you wake up ‘cause you hear breakfast, then you’re up. But you can’t get up then till 7:30 after that. So you’re just — you eat, and hopefully, if you’re lucky, you fall asleep. If not, you’re just laying in your bed.
What did they talk about?
Shoes. A lot of talk about sneakers. Michael Jordans and LeBron James. Those are the hot shits. There was a guy bragging about having 75 pairs. And I was like, oh man, you change, I don’t know the brands of women’s shoes, but they could have been from “Sex in the City,” gabbing and bragging about their shoes. It was fucking ridiculous.
Over all, how bad was it? Was it worse than you thought, better than you thought?
It was better and worse. I was scheduled to be released — I saw it right there on my paperwork — minimum release date August 5, maximum August 10. And it’s the fifth if you’re good, basically, tenth if you cause any sort of trouble really. So I was all set and regretting the hell out of having to stay until Monday. What I didn’t realize is that my lawyers had called the prison to find out when I was getting out and shit, and they’d only counted three of my four days that I’d already served, which meant that I was supposed to be released on Sunday, and if you get released on the weekend, they let you out on Friday. So this morning, the guy yelled, "105! You’re goin’ home."
They just call you by the number [of your bunk]. I was sleeping and I was like, "What? I thought I was going home Monday." And he’s like, "Well aren’t you going home?" And I’m like, "Well I dunno, you tell me." And then a dozen black kids run into my room and say, "Don’t question this. Just go!"
Your father died while you were doing the four days. You didn’t find out till you got out, right?
Really, I’m just an awful, exploitative writer. It’s just a cool thing to say: "My Dad died when I was in jail." It doesn’t mean so much to me. The last time I talked to the guy, it was like 20 years ago, he said "I’ll pick you up to see a movie." I think we were going to go see Naked Gun or something — and he never showed up.
Randomly like eight years ago when the Beast was still in print and I was a delivery boy — he was waiting outside of a bar waiting for it to open, and I was just delivering the papers there. He didn’t know who I was. I haven’t seen him since. He reached out to me a couple of months ago when he was just imminently dying and I contemplated going to see him but…I just couldn’t do it.
Can I ask you about the incident that landed you there?
This was July 24 2011. It was the first day same-sex marriage was legal in New York State and the National Organization for Marriage, basically this fucking hate group, organized protests throughout the state, I think four or five of them: NY, Rochester, Syracuse, NY City proper. So I went along to cover the one in Buffalo and brought along a friend. We brought some props.
We were basically going to go and make fun of these fundys. Their basic thing is Leviticus, that you need to be stoned to death for lying with a man, right? So basically the whole thing was we’re going to go there and ask them if they’d ever eaten shellfish, if they’d ever worn polycotton blends. And if they said yes, we said, "You’re going to Hell!" And I asked one woman if she was menstruating, cause she was out in public, so she’s going to Hell. All this ridiculous Old Testament bullshit. And I brought along a dildo, which I managed to cram a cord into the end of and pretended it was a microphone. I brought it out of the bag once to pose for a photo, just some guy I knew who was on the scene. He and other people were there sort of counter-demonstrating. This guy was wearing a Viking helmet, and making fun of the whole Marcus Bachman "Gays R Barbarians" that was going on at the time. So he took a photo of me, I put the [dildo] back. I’d say a little bit later, off to the side of this big gathering, which was maybe 200 people that are chanting and praying and singing, we decided to take out the dildo ‘phone.
Right as the rally was getting under way, some guy went off to the side and we said, "Can we interview you?" We had the camera, it was kind of windy, and under that guise I said "We’re going to have to use the microphone," so I pulled out the dildophone, and I I asked him to define traditional marriage and I held it at the normal length, it wasn’t right in his face… it was what you’d do with a microphone.
His initial response was, he just laughed at the dildo. Then he got really red in the face, and he was a little bit mad. And he walked away. That was it. He walked away. A little bit later, maybe five minutes, the police arrived on the scene because the counter-demonstrators are right in the middle of the rally. And they’re holding up signs like "National Association of Morons" and they had their Viking helmets on, they were chanting over the prayers and all this. So the cops decided to move them across the street. I followed them and so did my friend, Josh Bunting, who was with me. We followed and we interviewed one of them, and then we were basically just standing around recording things with the camera. At that point Josh had the camera. He started videotaping a cop who was lecturing the counter-demonstrators. She became very agitated, walked up to him, stepped on his foot, slapped the camera down, and insisted that he not tape her. [Josh] didn’t want any trouble, so he stopped, he put the camera away. I later grabbed the camera and started taping things again, including her. She says, "I told you not to take my picture," and so she came up and cuffed me. And I was like, "For real? This is really happening?"
What was she like?
She was a little fascist. Was wearing a little cross around her neck, and she was saying things to the protesters like, "I don’t care what you do in your own bedroom, but you can’t talk about it here." She was really concerned about protecting this rally, basically.
So I tried to hand the camera over to Josh, but no — they took it when they arrested me, and they erased it. By the time they gave it back it was all erased. We finally managed to get all of the footage back except for the final clip of her arresting me for videotaping me. They took extra care to get rid of that.
We weren’t allowed to tell the jury that they erased the camera. We also weren’t allowed to tell the jury that I was originally charged with harassment for following police officers around with a camera.
That was the first time, in 2011, when I was arrested. It was the same old rigamarole — being shuffled through all these cold fucking rooms at the Erie County Holding Center, but that’s when they detained me and went through my shit and went through my bag [that was] the first time they saw my dildo, the cops. And so they started, basically, making fun of me, calling me a fag and, you know, they’re going to smash my head against a wall, and they kept snickering about me being a fag and all this, and it was a little fucking nuts.
How do they feel safe doing that?
That was part of the PR strategy. I told them who I was, and they were like, "Oh he’s a reporter. By the time he gets out, everyone’s going to know about the dildo. They’re not gonna care about your side of the story." And sure enough, they fucking leaked a police report to a writer at the Buffalo News. He gave me a copy of the document several months later.
So it was like the dildo had been transformed from something you were using for political theater, or whatever, into something of your secret vices?
Exactly. So by the time trial rolled around, June of last year? I don’t know it’s hard to keep track. It feels like it’s been going on for fucking ever.
It must wear you down pretty horribly over that long a time.
Yeah, it really does. It’s always hanging over you, this stress.
By the time trial rolled around the arresting officer, Donna Donavan was her name…She has quite the history of flipping out over people videotaping her, looking at her the wrong way. She’s kind of — she married into Buffalo Police Royalty. Her husband’s father was the former Sheriff or Commissioner or some shit. So she’s like some untouchable asshole, she considers herself. And I had another lawyer who is currently representing two other people who she’s arrested for no reason.
But anyway, by the time trial rolls around her and another cop testified that they never saw the dildo. At all. And she admitted, even though it’s completely made up, that she arrested me for calling her an asshole.
And then on cross examination, she was asked, "Is that illegal?" and she said, "No."
Is it illegal to carry a dildo around?
According to the jury of my peers, it is.
The thing I was eventually charged with was Statute 240.20-3: disorderly conduct, abusive or obscene language or gesture in public place. And I was charged with this 74 days after the incident…Because some genius figured out that you can’t charge me with harassment for videotaping cops. So the existence of the photo of me posing with the camera and dildo like this was basically the bedrock of their case. They blew it up to this 3-foot by 2-foot poster, and it stared at the jury the entire three days of the trial.
Was the judge against you or did that matter at all?
Oh the judge hated me, totally. Every decision was against me, basically. It was her job to protect the city from my impending lawsuit, so if she threw out the case, it was basically her admitting that I was arrested for no fucking reason. So in total, I was charged with five things: disruption of servants at a religious service; disorderly conduct; fighting or violent tumultuous or threatening behavior (they claimed I smacked a Bible out of someone’s hand — completely fictional); disorderly conduct, unreasonable noise; disorderly conduct, abusive or obscene language; and disturbance of a lawful assembly without lawful authority.
So I was found guilty of the one, disorderly conduct and obscene language, and this was based solely on the existence of this photo and this lying motherfucking asshole named Roland Cercone. He’s a lawyer from the Buffalo area, and he’s also a member of this Mt. Olive Baptist Church. He and this fucking schmuck guard they dug up, testified that I was running all around the crowd, like sucking on the dildo, whacking it off, shaking it in people’s faces, running around doing this like a maniac. That was their testimony.
Keep in mind, at the same time that they say I’m doing this, there is video evidence that I was across the street, standing there.
Lots of people testified that I was on the other side of the street, including the cops.
Basically the jury couldn’t get over the huge photo of me holding the dildo.
Have you fulfilled your debt to society completely now?
Yes, I can say with absolute certainty that I’m a reformed man.