Editor’s Note: This is part of an interview with John Mungai, who over the last eight months has been arrested six times and has spent all most two months behind bars. Part 1 detailed Mungai's first few encounters with the police. The interview was conducted by J. Taddie and B. Davis on April 14, 1995, Good Friday (justice center offices closed at 12:00 p.m.)
Interview Time: 12:00 p.m. to approx. 1:30 p.m.
Interview Place: county jail — former dining room on 7th floor
JM: = John Mungai
BD: = Brian Davis, Homeless Grapevine
JT: = Jean Taddie, Homeless Grapevine
JT: So, what are you in [jail] for now?
JM: Another day I was walking by myself on the west side on February 5, it was on a Sunday. [I'm] all by myself, nobody else [is around]. It’s cold in the morning. I still sleep outside sometimes I take a walk. So I’m walking by myself and my hands are in my pockets — just walking. It’s cold. The police come with two cars. They just told me, "take your hands out of your pockets." I said "why?" He said take your hands out. I said "No, for why, it’s cold." They say for your own safety, we want to see if you have a weapon. I said, "No." They came out and searched me and I’m resisting, you know. So they don’t find anything. Out of the blue...I’m by myself.
JT: So they approached you on the street, you were walking by yourself, you had your hands in your pocket and they searched you for a weapon.
JM: Yeah, and I protested. Then finally he held my cap. I was wearing a baseball cap. He put [it on backwards]...then he said "now you can go." So I said hey, you guys give me your numbers. I have to protest this. When I took my pen out, they said o.k. now you’re going to jail. And they put me in their car and started cursing me — all the way to second district where they charged me with disorderly conduct. This is February 5th. On February 6th, I went to the judge and I told the judge all that I did was to take my pen to write the numbers to complain to the judge. She said "no contest, just go home.’ So that’s how it happened, just out of the blue. This one I remember, it was the week following that when police were harassing me on Monday the [February] 20th. So, the following day, Tuesday, I went to St. Augustine as usual at 5:00 in the morning. So, then I ate breakfast, [and] lunch, and then afternoon I [went] back to Stouffer Tower, cause he has this guy I know [who] has a hot dog cart. But those owners need to get somebody to do the business. So they always [try to get me] to sell the hot dogs. So I had decided to try to make some money [as a hot dog vendor] the snow was almost finishing. I had to come up with $50 to go get a license at the city hall.
JT: To sell hot dogs?
JM: Yeah. So that’s Tuesday, on the 21st. After I ate food, [I] decided to go to sell my plasma to get some money that day. It was starting to snow that day, on the 21st, Tuesday. So I took a bus all the way downtown and I went near here to Picolo Mondo. So I can make a little money on [clearing snow] when people are coming from work here. It’s cold, it was snowy that day. I made some little money there. So all together I had like $42 by the time I finished with the cars. But I was like $10 short to get my license. So I went and slept. And now I was coming down with a cold because that evening was so cold — the 21st when I was helping people park to go to the concert. So I went and slept. I wake up the following day. So, I say that I will just wake up and take a walk. I didn’t know what time it was. So I had somebody who keep my papers down in the projects. And then I go behind the projects to get to the flats. And when I come here there is this townhouse here and this highrise. There was a police car here. There were some guys there, and a police car there. So I come up there, and I ask these guys whether they saw this girl who keeps my papers around. I don’t even know which particular apartment she lives. However, she was always around. So they say, ‘there she goes.’ So she was going to this apartment. So I go to the hallway. It was dark...By the time I hit second floor, she entered the apartment. I decided not to knock on the door. I decided to go back. But when I was going in, there was this guy with a dog who was coming down the stairs to go out. So when I went to the second floor and I try to reach her as she entered, I decided to go back. Soon I was going back down the hallway, I’m eating a peanut. It was dark. I saw a reflection of, like, a flashlight on the wall. And then, these guys say ‘put your hands in the air.’ I said ‘What’s up.’ I put my hands in the air. It’s policeman. He said, ‘come down here.’ So I went, my hands in the air. He takes me out of the building. And he directed me to where the car was. So he searched me—I’m not protesting anything. So this guy searches me, and before he finished, I heard this first one who was far away say ‘put him in the car.’ So he said to me I didn’t have anything that he would be interested in. He directed me around. So he put me in the car. No handcuffs. Then when I got in the car there was another guy — that’s the guy who was coming down the hallway...
JT: With a dog?
JM: With a dog, when I went. I know him. I know he sells drugs around. No question about that, I wouldn’t say I don’t know. So I just stay there. The black policeman who brought me here went back to the building. He came back and soon another car came. I think their boss, the sergeant. And they all—with the other Spanish police who searched me—they all went and talked. Then, the Spanish guy came and opened the car and took me out. I thought ‘hey, I’m going.’ Then the boss came and asked me, ‘Where are you staying?’ I said ‘West 11th.’ So he said ‘the other project?’ I said, ‘no.’ Then he left. Then this guy handcuffed me.
JT: From the new car that came up with the sergeant in it or was one of the original guys.
JM: The sergeant walked back to the black policeman. He [left] me with the Spanish [officer]. So the Spanish [officer] tells me "turn around." He had to cuff me. Meanwhile I’m thinking they [are] gonna charge me with trespassing or whatever. Then he opened the car and he put me in. So he went. They all talked — three of them. Then the second car left, the sergeant left, then they came in the car. The one who brought me from the hallway, he is not saying anything to me at all. So this police told the Spanish guy, "Take information from him." He is avoiding to talk to me. So then the black policemen say, "I have the right to remain silent." I say "what are you charging me for?" That’s when he lifted a plastic bag, he [said] "trafficking with these drugs." I went crazy, I started cussing him. He said ‘trafficking.’ I went crazy. I couldn’t believe it. I started cursing—I don’t even curse. Then he let the guy [with the dog] go out of the car, they talked and then he let him go. And they take me to the district [police station], charging me with trafficking. And all the way, I’m cursing them. So we went to the district and I couldn’t give them my name. So they called the captain of the police there and he was mad too [that] I couldn’t give the name. So one of the [desk officers at the station], He was a black guy and he called me and he separated me. He said, "Most likely, I will not be charged." When the CMHA arrests you they will just go for investigation. So I decided to give them my name. This black policeman was still avoiding me, he was not even coming close to me because he knew he was being dirty. It was the Spanish guy who was trying to get information from me. I asked him ‘hey, why are you guys doing this?’ He told me ‘Hey, this is between you and that guy there [the black officer].’ Meaning, he understands what was going on...
JT: The Spanish guy told you that?
JM: Yeah, he told me it’s between you and that guy.
BD: So where did he get this bag of drugs?
JM: I believe, from my understanding that building has three stories. And it is getting dark— there was no light. This guy who sells drugs must have seen the police car coming and he went to the hallway and went all the way down the floor and left the drugs there in case they are searched. And so when the police saw him coming from the building, and they know he sells drugs, that’s why they had stopped him and put him in the car then and there. So when he came in the hallway, and came by chance across me he was going to take what maybe that guy had left. That’s my theory and I think that’s what it is.
JT: So you think they might have found it, so the guy with the dog might have thrown it down or something?
JM: Yes, he must have left his drugs in the hallway.
BD: And they just thought it was yours.
JM: No, he knew it wasn’t mine. He knew completely.
BD: Had you had any dealings with this guy before?
JM: Yes, I had. Because before, I...This is West 25th, when you come from the office going to that hospital there on Franklin. Once I came from the flats to go to the Malachi church there. And I went along West 25th and take Franklin behind the projects. So I was— I came Franklin— and I was almost all the way down by the restaurant Hoffbra Haus and I hear... It was a little bit cold so I’m jogging and I heard a car stop. He asked me, this policeman he asked me "what you running from?" I said "I’m not running from anything." So, as usual, I ignore them. I started with my journey. They say "stop there." I say, "No, why?" So I saw it was a CMHA car. And here, this is not there property. This is a city street. So I ignore them. So they came from the car immediately pointing a gun at me. This, Kevin [O'Neill of the ACLU] knows about this.
JT: And this was the same black [police officer] of night you were arrested?
JT: How [close were these incidents]?
JM: Three weeks.
JT: About three weeks before?
JM: Yeah, and he knows me because of my talk—the way I talk. No policeman would forget,
because I only talk with sense and I will try to prove to them what they are telling me is not proper. So he knows me. So he came with the gun— Kevin knows about this, and Bryan [Gillooly, former director of NEOCH] even knew, I [had] complained to Kevin and Bryan about this instance.
BD: So CMHA cops were the ones who picked you up then.
BD: And then, are they allowed to bust people like that?
JM: Yeah, yeah
BD: And so then they take you to the police station?
JM: Yes, yes, and then they file the paper. The [local] police file the papers. So this time I was...when they came with the gun — the guy who was driving was the black man — that guy. [He was with a different] white guy. So they came with the gun. And I said, "You can not do that." And they told me, "We can do this we are law enforcement." So I told them "who pays you? Does the city pay you?" So they can remember me and they don’t like it. So they say let me search you. They came across the FBI card. I had the card in the pocket. So when they came across the card they asked me, "why do you have this card with you? Are you wanted?" I said "No. This FBI protects me from the police who harass me, like you." See we had that talk. So he gave me, immediately, the card and told me to walk. So, you see, we had that confrontation with him. So this is the same guy. And another time he had stopped me... They asked me "why did you go through the projects?" They don’t even know that I stay there. And I had a talk with him again — that’s the same guy. So I know for sure he did this [pinning the drug trafficking on me] because he doesn’t like me at all, at all, at all. That’s why he did this. It’s not out of hate. If and when he got them, I don’t even know whether he got them in the hallway or in his pocket—I don’t know.
BD: Now, Bryan Gillooly [former director of NEOCH] told me that the week before you were arrested, you were running through some of the bars because they were chasing you.
JM: Yes. Yes, that’s the week before. That was February 15th. It was on a Wednesday. And they were there — like a little before 8:00 p.m. That’s when I called the police station. And then all of them started joking with the police lady. And then I had to run to the bar. When I came out, they were gone. So the following day, the 16th, on the next day I went and told Kevin. Kevin told me he called the FBI and called the city to talk about me. The same day, I went back downtown to the same place and then....I was near by and then this guy who owns Hilarities he came up to me. [He said that] I cannot be around that block selling the papers. I said "Why, I’m not by your door?" or something like that. He told me, "go across there to the other business." I said "why the other business?" So then he called the police and the police came—one of them is the previous one of the two the previous night. So he came with another one and they put me in the car immediately. They told me...They gave me a deal, they said, "John, either we will take you to jail or you agree you go away — you leave downtown." Then he said, "Or either we will not take you to jail, but we will make sure you don’t sell your papers." So I just decided o.k. I will go. And I had to leave. So I left and went to the West Side. I went to sleep. That was the 16th. So the following day I went to see Kevin, and Kevin was going to act on it. That was on a Friday, 17th. The following day, the 18th, I went downtown. A group of them that were harassing me on the 15th, I saw them again and they came and talked to me. I told them, "Will you let me make some money." That day they left. I didn’t see them again.
JT: So, what I’m hearing is that it’s not just one person that is bothering you. But some of the police officers aren’t giving you trouble. Some are and some are not.
JM: February 16th, when the owner of Hilarities had called, and he put me in the car. He was one of the previous night harassing me. He was working Tower City off duty. He told me, "Hey, John, you know so many people don’t like you." I ask him which people. He said, "Most of us [meaning the police]" So he was telling me flatly they don’t like me. He was telling me those police don’t like me. And he said they don’t hide. His partner, the previous day in the flats, they had put me in the car with another [police] and we were driving around. And here I’m scared so I say "Well, let me call my lawyer." I showed them Kevin’s card. And they told me, "These days you better be careful because you’re going to see yourself on the ground." Saying we can shoot you.
JT: You’re going to see yourself on the ground —saying they could shoot you?
JM: Yeah, of course. That was the day I was running to the bar. I was running away because that’s the police who had told me few days earlier, or a week, that I can be shot. That’s why I ran to the bar. On February 15th I was scared because I know they can.
JT: When they were following you, you were afraid?
JT: Because you were threatened?
JM: By him.
JT: By that same police officer?
JM: Yeah, yeah, yeah. So that’s why. I was scared.
BD: Now, do you regret, then, being a part of the homeless dumping lawsuit?
JM: No, I don’t regret.
JT: It’s lonely after 52 days isn’t it? You want some company.
JM: And sometimes its so dangerous, because I’m in a room like this — 35 by 30 — and there’s supposed to be twelve people. Right now we have 21. We go to 24. And there is a TV And then 7:30 I turn the news. They want to see cartoons. Sometimes it’s scary because your dealing with irrational people.
BD: So, do you regret standing up for what you believe was right with the police? Do you regret telling them...
JM: No, no, I can’t regret. Cause you know...It’s, it’s, I don’t know... Maybe I’m sick in the head or something like that but sometimes, you know, I say I’m a realist and I know that if I have to argue with somebody, I will only argue for what is good. I will not argue just to argue. No, not at all. This I don’t regret because that helps me to understand the world more. I wouldn’t like to be like that policeman who accuses me of this. I’m not saying I’m happy to be here. But I don’t regret, because I use this situation positively to understand human nature. And in a sense, because it’s so scary, but I would rather go to jail even five years than to be in the [police] man’s shoes.
JT: So you’re sitting here because you haven’t seen a judge who can lower your bond. And in the meantime, they have up to 90 days to decide whether or not they want to go for an indictment.
JM: Yeah. Still, even today the bond now if I was to get out is $500 for one. But I can get out any minute, nobody’s holding me. So that bond is just usual process. Because they are crowded here and there is nothing for them to hold me for.
BD: So you think the business interests downtown are putting pressure on the police?
JM: Yeah, no question about that, of course. It’s the businesses. The policeman tells me. They were telling me before this arrest happened to me. They were telling me all these people from suburban are scared of all these people on the street. And I know they were referring to the black people. I know that, no question about that. So then, you know, I try to talk to them consciously, like when we were near Hilarities and they had put me in the car, they were telling me why, ‘these people are paying taxes and all this to come to Hilarities.’ And I said, ‘hey, wait a minute, you’re telling me that me just saying “excuse me do you mind for a paper" I’m harassing them?
BD: What are you going to do if you get out?
JM: What am I going to do? Go and sell hot dogs.
JT: You’re going to sell hot dogs?
JM: Yes. I don’t know, I don’t know when I’m going to get out.
BD: If you are cleared of the charges, would you consider staying in Cleveland? All these police are..
JM: I would... Nobody is going to make me move here — not them. No, no. I’m a realist. I
know they are capable of harming me. And I know that some
policemen hate me so much, so much, that he might say... Like one, [Badge #641] he had even banned me from around public square completely. And I think since Kevin complained about him, I never see him there anymore. And this man hated me so much. Because I’m the type of a person, they will come and they will shout at you this and this. And I will tell them "hey, you don’t shout at me," you know. And they don’t like it so.
I only stand there and only I will talk to you if you come up close to me and say ‘do you mind for the paper.’ I cannot come block you or approach you — I don’t do that. And then maybe some people who work there, they come... They bring me soup, they buy coffee, they bring it to me. And you know, I don’t know how I can express thanks to them. That also is like, I don’t know... I use my situation more like, you know, like to know people are good. Actually, people are good. We’re all good in general, but sometimes we become bad like those policeman and some other people. Like some one who may walk by and curse you, ‘why don’t you be a this and this.’ So my message to the people in the streets is thanks for their support.
JT: Well, we both thank you so much for your story. Maybe it will cause somebody else to look and see what’s going on. So hopefully, because of your story, maybe somewhere down the line, somebody won’t have to go through it so much.
Copyright by the Homeless Grapevine Issue 11, August-September 1995, Cleveland, Ohio