The Heavy Hand

Here it is, yet another bloody anniversary of September 11, with “my” country about to kill some more Muslim people with the Romanian government’s blessing and assistance, and I don’t know if I can find any words to describe how sad and miserable the whole thing is beyond what I wrote two years ago in The Tigers Broke Free.

However something happened yesterday which helped me put together some key pieces to a puzzle to see a larger picture that I think almost no one, not even those at the top of Romanian society, really understand. I was arrested yesterday, although I am writing this from home so my detention did not last long.

If you are Romanian, the actions of the cops will be completely “normal” and understandable while my actions will seem baffling and nonsensical. If you are foreign, you’re going to have a different interpretation but mixed in here is an amusing anecdote (at least) for you because, of course, it didn’t happen to you.

While I’m not quite yet a full-blown citizen with papers, I am a citizen of Romania in the spirit and over the years I’ve gotten further and further enmeshed in the bureaucracy here. Beyond just the stultifying amount of paperwork and stamps required, I’ve begun to sense a heavy hand here, a tight grasp around the throat of every single person who lives or works here.

In my book Balada Supravietuitorului I told a story about when the “administrator” of my bloc came to me with a ledger and wanted my name and birthdate and other information (including my parents’ names) for the flotant. While that ledger and the need for it is now antiquated and not necessary, the flotant is still very much in existence although it is entirely the purview of the police (and not apartment managers) to maintain these lists.

Without going into too much detail here, every Romanian citizen has what’s referred to as a “permanent address”. If you’re a child then usually your parents first register you at their address and then that becomes your first (and perhaps only) “permanent” address. This address and the proof that you live there is the basis for the buletin de identitate, usually referred to by the short form buletin, the national ID card.

What’s interesting is just how onerous it is not only to obtain this buletin but even to renew it. It is absolutely and positively mandatory that the property owner accompany you to the police station for any and all renewals (or first acquisitions) of the buletin. A signed or notarized letter or anything else will not do.

So what happens is that children grow up and perhaps move to cities like Cluj-Napoca to attend university. They become legally adults at age 18 but because they are just renting an apartment or living in the dorms, their “permanent” address doesn’t change. If they need to renew their buletin they have to go back to their home town (or village) and do it there. This also means that they cannot vote in local elections since, again, their “permanent” address is somewhere else.

Three of the largest cities in Romania (Cluj, Iasi and Timisoara) are composed of up to one third university students (in terms of the adult population) but none of them can vote. I know a woman who has been here in Cluj for seven years and still “lives” (officially in the records) at her parent’s house in another town.

Until you own your own property or a property owner agrees to accompany you to the police and declare that you officially live with them, your “permanent” address cannot change. And if you actually live one place but are registered somewhere else then you need what’s called a visa de flotant, essentially an internal “visa” or permission from the government to live there. So all those years ago that’s what my bloc administrator was doing, filling out the paperwork because I was not at my “permanent” address and here “on a visa de flotant“.

But what does this have to do with my arrest yesterday? Patience!

Yesterday I was crossing a small street with a marked zebra when an inattentive asshole driving a car almost hit me. I shouted at him and then kicked the rear of his car with my “sport” (tennis/trainers) shoes, causing no damage but scaring the hell out of him. He in turn called 112 or the emergency number (equivalent to 911 in the USA) and so we waited around for 20 minutes for the police to show up.

I was with two homeless people I know well and three workers dressed in dusty overalls and all five of them had witnessed the whole thing and so I expected that the police would show up and begin an investigation, which would quickly demonstrate that the driver had been in the wrong. Instead, they did a cursory examination of his car (no damage) and wrote down his buletin information and car plate number and off he went.

Then the police came over to me. “All” they wanted was my buletin, which I didn’t have, nor my passport or any other information. In lieu of that, they were willing to settle for me just telling them my name and birthdate so they could write it in their little notebook (no different than one you can buy in a shop) and be on their way, “case closed”.

They had zero interest in the witnesses and in fact did not even say one word to them. They had no interest in my story about how the driver had been talking on his mobile phone when he almost ran me over. All they cared about was my identifying information. Nothing else. When I refused to lie (because I hate doing that unless absolutely necessary) and refused to tell them my real information, they bundled me into the back of their squad car and off we went to police headquarters.

One guy drove (the police car was your standard Dacia Logan with the only police modification being a small gadget that activated the lights and sirens, i.e. no grill, no locking back doors, etc) and one guy behind in the back seat with me. His pistol was right by my left hand and I could’ve easily snatched it out but I refrained from doing so because “playing” with guns is dangerous and wrong.

They took my mobile phone away from me, to be used as a bargaining chip as I later found out, but otherwise did not search me and took me into a back room, which clearly served as a “ready room” or classroom type space under normal circumstances. Despite the fact that I had been speaking English the whole time, they were convinced I was Hungarian (one guy came in the room and tried speaking Magyar at length to me) or else from the Republic of Moldova for some odd reason.

They kept insisting over and over to have my name and birthdate. They had zero interest in the near-collision, my insistence on interviewing the witnesses or anything else. Just “name and birthdate” over and over and over again. A whole parade of people came through, including three people in civilian clothes (including one woman) and nothing changed – NAME AND BIRTHDATE.

Finally the Commissar was summoned, a title which I thought was exclusive to Communist regimes but was surprised to find out exists here as a kind of chief. Later research on the police website showed that all of the upper echelon brass have the title Commissar. The “sef de tura” or ranking commander on duty was also summoned to the room where I was being detained.

The police officers’ sole “threat” to me was to keep me in detention “all day” and I kept rejecting it, refusing to tell them who I was until my own needs were met, meaning 1) I wanted to know why they had refused to investigate or write a ticket (amenda) for the guy who almost hit me, 2) I wanted to know what my rights were and 3) I wanted to know the names of the officers who first arrived on scene and did nothing.

I’ve written before about the “mascati”, the cowardly officers who work in Romania and hide their faces behind masks. But what’s very curious is that even the uniformed officers on duty who don’t cover their face have no identifying nametags anywhere. In America (and I presume Britain, Australia, etc) officers have their last names on their uniforms but here in Romania they don’t. All they have is their cheap blue nylon uniforms and hats. And they all refused to give me THEIR names.

So we were in a real Mexican stand-off. I was refusing to give them my name and information and they were refusing to give me theirs. I had done literally nothing wrong and yet here I was being detained behind a locked door and surrounded by up to eight police officers. Finally one guy told me to empty my pockets, which I did with no hesitation and then he did the world’s most pathetic and half-hearted pat down. I could’ve had a .45 Magnum stuffed into my sock and he never would’ve found it.

Mind you, this is all taking place in the nation’s second-biggest city (or third as some people calculate it), an international city with tens of thousands of tourist visitors, foreign students (entire departments of the local universities teach courses exclusively in English) and business people and yet it’s like I was dealing with the Romanian equivalent of the Mayberry PD, a bunch of village cops.

Leaving me unrestrained in the back seat of a car, my hand just inches from a pistol that I could’ve easily snatched? FAIL

Not searching me me once I was inside a secure part of the central police headquarters for 15 minutes? FAIL

Doing an amateur and lazy pat down to “search” me by a fat and out of shape cop that could barely bend over? FAIL

Having no one on duty who could speak half-decent English in an international, cosmopolitan city? FAIL

Deliberately refusing to tell me their names or ranks? SUPER FAIL

All the yelling and hostility lasted for a good 45 minutes until a younger man with blue eyes, first name Iosif, came in and both spoke good English and treated me decently. We ended up making a “deal” whereby the cops would drive me home, where I would get my passport and show it to them, thus fulfilling their overwhelming need to know who I was.

Except that I refused to leave the police station until I knew who they were, the names of the cops that arrested me and then failed to do even a preliminary inquiry into the near-miss of the car almost hitting me. I knew I was hitting a sore spot because they refused to even tell me verbally, not writing it down, and kept insisting that I would receive an amenda (ticket/citation) and there and only there I would get the officers’ names.

Remember that while I am speaking almost only English to these guys and my Romanian isn’t perfect, I sure as hell understand Romanian. I spend a lot of time around homeless gypsies with missing teeth that speak in rapid slang so understanding what the police were saying was easy.

The Commissar finally decided to end the Mexican stand-off by showing me his police ID and badge as well as his normal buletin and I agree to be escorted home and show the three of them (Commissar plus two original responding cops) my passport. So we pile into the Dacia Logan with me wedged in the middle between two cops, where I began making jokes about how I was Omar Hayssam, which relaxed everybody.

On the ride home I kept asking about the amenda and how much it was going to be since I wanted to pay it right away instead of having to deal with the hassle of it later. This ticket or citation was because I had “broken the law” by not having ID on me in the streets. The Commissar then said I might get an avertizment or warning, which I’ve seen many hundreds of times before as the homeless people get them regularly. It’s the same as an amenda except there’s no monetary fine, essentially a warning.

The two other cops however were in a pickle. If they wrote me out a ticket or a warning, their names and ranks would be on the paperwork (albeit handwritten in a cramped style I can barely decipher) and then all of my threats of “calling my lawyer” and doing something about their earlier failure to investigate might come true.

So what happened “magically” was we got to my apartment, I showed them my ID and then we stepped outside so the cops could smoke and we had a little chat, mostly to reinforce how essential and mandatory it was for me and everyone else to never step foot outside of the house without government-issued identification, and then they were on their way. No amenda, no avertizment and no idea whatsoever what the officers’ names were.

All of that took about an hour and a half from start to finish. The cops lied to me (a small one) and told me that there were “surveillance cameras” in the area where I almost got hit so I could go to the traffic police and write out a complaint if I wanted to. The fact that I could make a complaint is true but there are no cameras as I went back there after the cops left and looked.

Now what exactly happened here and why am I telling you all this?

First of all, if you’re a foreigner and worried about this happening to you, don’t. My advice has always been to leave your ID at home (or in your hotel, etc) and that hasn’t changed. If for some reason the police stop you, just tell them your name and birthday etc and they’ll be on their way. If you’re Romanian, you’re obviously so cowed by the system that you’ll give up your information (or physical buletin, since you likely carry it with you at all times) in two seconds.

Because a car had been involved in the incident, the “regular” police that arrested me were right in one sense. There is an entirely separate division of police called the Politia Rutiera or “traffic police” who handle those kinds of incidents. The reason the “regular” police showed up was because for some reason the driver called 112 or the emergency number and the dispatcher thought it was more about a fight/confrontation than a car/driving situation.

Ironically if I had been hit and injured (or killed), then the regular police might’ve done something but because it was only a near miss, then it’s the exclusive jurisdiction of the traffic police. And you can be damned sure that the separate departments never work together.

Likewise there are also gendarmes, who are subordinate to the Interior Ministry (responsible largely for “public order”), and the “local police”, which are subordinate to City Hall and these four police units never, ever work together, communicate or do anything else except in extremely unusual situations. The “regular” police, FYI, are subordinate to the county, not the city.

The “regular” police are completely disinterested in everything, up to and including what should be their responsibility, such as physical assaults, as I know from the time when a homeless person I know was beaten up here in town (as I’ve written about before, and the case never even made it to court). They don’t photograph alleged damage to cars. They don’t interview witnesses. They don’t secure prisoners or search them or even fingerprint them. All they care about is what’s called legitima or identifying people.

If all of their information was put into a computer and networked together nationwide then we’d have here an Orwellian superstate that tracks the movement of its citizens. Any time anything happens and the police are involved, their first and overriding priority is getting the ID of the citizens. I’m not a Romanian lawyer but I suspect the cops were right when they said that any uniformed officer (and it has to be a uniformed officer) has the right to stop anyone, at any time, in a public space and ID them.

Luckily for me and everyone else, this information gets written down by hand on a piece of paper and lost in a mountain of documents that are stacked haphazardly everywhere in the building. There is no national database and monitoring system. The main reporting office at the central headquarters in Cluj-Napoca has zero computers at all except for one that handles the radio traffic. Even back in the secure area where the officers work, there is a single computer that just contains information about people wanted on criminal charges.

All the contact information, the amenzi (tickets/citations), the warnings, the “stopped so-and-so”, the responses to 112 calls, none of this is logged into a computer. It’s just buried somewhere in piles of handwritten documents in case someone truly needs to go find it.

So why the obsession over IDing people? Why haul me down to the police station for an hour and a half just to get my name and then let me go? Why is there still the bizarre system of internal visas for citizens and the totally unnecessary rigamarole of “permanent” addresses and the strict adherence to forcing property owners to show up in person at police stations so that people can renew their ID cards?

Well it’s the dead hand of Ceausescu, obviously. Back when this was an authoritarian police state, those kind of controls were necessary to monitor the citizens. Dissidents and non-conformists were tracked. Central planning agencies decided who would work where and where they would live and thus the need for the flotant or internal visa or permission to live in another city. The right of the police to ID and record citizens’ daily activities was central to the kind of authoritarian Communist state that Ceausescu ran.

Here in 2013 it’s all completely unnecessary of course. Romanians have the right to live anywhere they wish to in this country without needing the government’s permission but yet the system of visa de flotant still persists. Crimes go uninvestigated and even basic safety procedures like searching prisoners before bringing them into your building, the fundamental essentials of policing in other words, are all neglected because there’s this overwhelming obsession to identify people. And all of it goes into notebooks that nobody will ever read, to satisfy the directives of a dictator that has been dead for more than 20 years.

The dead hand of Ceausescu still has its tight grip on everyone in Romania. It’s almost laughable how the mechanisms for a police state still exist in Romania and yet there is no one up there on the top floor even using any of this information. Almost no one gets imprisoned here, and certainly there are no prisoners languishing in jail for being dissidents or speaking out against the state. Billions of trees are dying to provide the paper that is stacked up in every police station in the country and yet nobody is reading it or using it to track and monitor anybody. It’s all just a train that’s rolling down the track with nobody at the switch.

I remember the original September 11 in 2001 in the United States and I saw with my own eyes how my country became crippled with fear and how the government’s response was ever-increasing surveillance, the revelations by Edward Snowden about the NSA being the latest piece of that puzzle.

Here in Romania we have far more intrusive mechanisms of control and surveillance and yet the irony is that they’re all just legacies from a former institution, almost entirely unused and unnecessary, left in place because nobody ever bothered to scrap them and put a better system in place. Even the police buildings themselves have never been renovated, updated or painted since the bad old days.

The police in America, including the federal agencies like the FBI, don’t have a tenth of the powers that the Romanian police do (in the USA, for instance, it’s quite legal to never identify yourself in some situations and there is no such thing as a “permanent” address), and no one in America has a national ID card and yet the irony is that those powers are unused here, existing for nothing except to crush the windpipe of the Romanian people and its visitors under a ton of paperwork, internal visas and stamps, the dead hand of Ceausescu and his Securitate police tactics that he and the Soviets put into place having lost none of its grip nearly 24 years after the so-called Revolution.

I did what I did with the driver who nearly hit me because I refuse to acquiesce to the dangerous recklessness of motorists here, who are given paltry fines even during the rare occasions that the (traffic) police intervene. And I did what I did with the police officers who arrested me because I refuse to acquiesce to the heavy hand of authority, clothed in cheap blue nylon but refusing to give me their names while single-mindedly pressuring me to give up mine.

Does it matter? Will anything change? Probably not. But I refuse to be a ghiocel and give up my rights without a fight. As I’ve said many times to my Romanian friends and colleagues, cand altii vorbesc, eu fac, when other talk, I am doing something and that will never, ever change no matter what ultimately ends up happening to me.

Image above and the bandwidth to display it unabashedly “borrowed” without permission from the Cluj police department’s website

13 thoughts on “The Heavy Hand

  1. I agree with most comments above – here is Belgium we also have police commisars, legal home adresses which can be different from where you live, and compulsary ID-cards on you at all times. But we don’t always have policemen who know how to defuse a 1 1/2 hour luring international crisis with a car ride, some jokes and a smoke.


  2. It’s not an Orwellian superstate, it’s just a normal bureaucratic state. Don’t worry too much about having your data taken, this state will require a tremendous increase in efficiency before becoming a real orwellian state. You just have to read more Eugen Ionescu than Kafka to get in the right mindset for living around here.

    But still, kicking his bumper for a traffic violation without any victims, that’s a bit disproportionate. What would you do if a burglar enters your home? Shoot him?


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