Arrested Protesting Police Brutality


Arrested Protesting Police Brutality


June/July 2000

I am a white woman who recently went to jail to protest police brutality in New York City. Before I tell about the actual experience, I want to say something of what led me to it.

To begin with, I have one of the best lives anyone can have: a great job that expresses me deeply, a marriage to the man I love, financial ease. But it’s just because life has been so good to me that it’s impossible for me to sit by and do nothing when I see others in pain. And it has become increasingly apparent to me that Black, Latino and many Asian persons are in great pain because they are living in what amounts to occupied territories patrolled by Giuliani’s police force.


What People Endure

Young males especially are constantly subjected to all kinds of aggressive police tactics, from degrading stop and frisks to outright brutality–sometimes resulting in death, as it did with Anthony Baez, Amadou Diallo, Patrick Dorismond and others. Ron Daniels, Executive Director of the Center for Constitutional Rights, states that by the police’s own reports–which we all know are vastly undercounted–in an 18 month period, 45,000 persons were stopped and frisked. Of these, only 10,000 resulted in an arrest and of those, 5,000 were thrown out in court. This means that 40,000 persons–the population of a good-sized city–were harassed for no reason other than the color of their skin.

This is no way for my fellow human beings to have to live! I grew up, like most of my white friends, feeling so superior to all those Germans who stood by and did nothing as the Jews were sent to the death camps. I see this as no different. I refuse to be a “good German” and turn my back as though I don’t know what is going on.

As I’ve been taking part in marches and rallies protesting police brutality, I’ve had the chance to learn in a way I wouldn’t have about the everyday persecution people of African descent undergo in this city. One mother told me about her 16 year old son who was riding his bike in the street until a police car forced him up onto the sidewalk. They then arrested him and put him through the system because he didn’t have his ID. Sounds like the former South Africa, doesn’t it? Another mother told me of drilling her teenage son over and over again on what he should do if arrested, until he can just about go through it in his sleep. That way, she hopes, no matter how scared, angry, or tired he is, he’ll have a better chance of not getting beaten up or killed by the police.

Men who are homeless also told me about the continual pre-dawn raids in which police go into the shelters and round up persons with outstanding warrants for minor offenses like drinking in public or jumping a subway turnstile. One man, who was still very upset, told me what had happened the night before: a policeman, while arresting a man at his shelter, repeatedly slammed the man’s face into the cinder-block wall, possibly breaking his nose. When he, the man I was talking to, tried to protest, he was verbally abused–called the N word and threatened with arrest himself if he didn’t get back on his own bed and shut the f___ up.

For mothers and fathers to live with the gnawing fear that their sons might not have a chance to grow up; for young women to tremble in fright that their boyfriends might be cut down next; for men to go through their lives in constant dread of being treated, at best, with utter disrespect and at worst, brutalized, even murdered by the very people they should be able to count on to protect them–all of these things I take very personally. I don’t care what color my skin is, or the skin color of the persons being mistreated: to do this to them is to do it to me, for there is only one race–the human race–and every man is my brother. And further, as I’ve been out in the community there are persons I’ve come to love as though they are my own flesh and blood. I, too, now walk around knowing that their lives are in danger every day as long as these Police State tactics are allowed to continue.


Ready to Go to Jail

Therefore, when Rev. Al Sharpton announced a new round of civil disobedience during Holy Week to help bring attention to this problem, I knew I had to take part. I felt there was nothing more in keeping with the true meaning of Christ and all that I hold sacred.

I have to admit I was scared: in order to discourage people from getting arrested, and to make those who did get arrested reluctant to ever do it again, Giuliani had put out the word that, unlike the mass civil disobedience last year at One Police Plaza, protesters would be kept in the system as long as possible, and their stay would be made as unpleasant as possible. And having been at many demonstrations and seen the frozen expressions and cold eyes of many, many police officers, all too often dressed in riot gear with about 5 pairs of plastic handcuffs dangling from their belts, I was fully expecting to be bullied and probably even knocked around a little.


The Actual Arrest

On Tuesday evening, April 18, I attended the large rally in Times Square and at the proper time, proceeded quietly to the entrance of one of the Broadway theaters my fellow activists and I were to block. About 7:30, there in the lobby, we collapsed on top of one another, prohibiting the audience from taking their seats. When the officers said we had to either get up or be arrested, we refused to move and were put under arrest.

As I was handcuffed, photographed, and loaded into the paddy wagon, it was thrilling to look down the street and see hundreds of persons attending other performances craning their necks to see what was going on with all the noise, chanting “No Justice, No Peace!” and scads of policemen running around. All of them would go back home and tell others that it’s not so comfortable in New York City; there are persons so angry about police brutality they’re even disrupting Broadway plays!

After our arrest–27 of us that night–it was clear that they were, indeed, going to detain us as long as possible. First we were all booked at a downtown precinct where we 11 ladies were held about 3 to a cell for several hours.

There I thoroughly enjoyed the company of my sisters in the struggle–The Boycotting Eleven as we call ourselves–while we all sang, joked, and in general had a very good time together as we waited to see what they would do with us next. As I saw even more in the coming hours, each one of these ladies is tremendously spirited and dedicated to the cause. It was an honor to talk with and get to know some of them more closely during our stay in jail together.


In The Tombs

Around midnight, we were taken out of our cells, chained together, loaded back into the paddy wagon, and transported to 100 Centre Street–The Tombs. There we were processed–very slowly–fingerprinted, photographed (for the third time) and kept under guard in various hallways for hours. We weren’t put into a cell until about 4am.

As we stood in the long hallway where “perps” were to stand with their backs against the wall–these instructions were stenciled right on the tile wall–we were treated to the sight of one plainclothes policeman after another swaggering by with some hapless, usually young, African American man he had captured in tow. These officers absolutely reeked of superiority as they strutted past looking not only like they “own the night” but like they were conquerors who owned The Tombs and everyone and everything else in sight. It was a real education.


The Uniformed Officers

But the thing that surprised me most about my incarceration was the behavior of the uniformed officers towards us. To speak generally because I don’t want to get anyone in trouble, there was person after person–male and female, Black, white and Latino–who treated us kindly and tried to get across to us indirectly that they supported, respected, and were even grateful for what we were doing! I was most affected by this behavior in the white male police officers, any of whom I could have seen on the street and assumed to be fully behind Giuliani’s policing policies.

There were also some officers who came right out and said they don’t like how Giuliani has dealt with things, and one told us emphatically that we all have to do everything we can to make sure he doesn’t get elected senator. An African American officer also spoke of his fear for the life of his own son, and told of attending, as a private citizen, a rally against police brutality held at Bethany Baptist Church.

What we women saw and experienced was verified by the men arrested with us that night–including the sight of blatantly anti-Giuliani material gracing the walls of the station. As Conrad Muhammad, host of the WLIB talk show “One on One with Conrad Muhammad” said on his program after his release:

“Going to jail the other night, I talked to so many police officers, Black and white. These white officers from Long Island, white officers from Queens that you would think are supportive of Giuliani, weren’t. I saw so many pictures of Giuliani with epithets written across his face, nooses around his neck, all kinds of foul language written about him. The cops were openly saying they can’t stand Giuliani because they, themselves feel like they’re under pressure to arrest people, and they’re sick of it as well.”


The Incarcerated Brothers

While this made me very happy, the thing that tore me apart was seeing wave upon wave of men under arrest brought into The Tombs. Here it was, the dead of night; yet hour after hour the police just kept bringing them in. The men were almost all of African descent, with a few Latinos and a tiny smattering of Caucasians. I was seeing with my own eyes what African Americans call the “just us” system which I knew existed but had never seen at close range.

Though I knew that some of these men had likely done things harmful to others for which they should be taken off the street, I also knew about the so called “quality of life” crimes like standing on the sidewalk with an open can of beer. Numerous persons in certain neighborhoods are being arrested for things like this–while no one would even dream of stopping someone for that in a white upper middle class neighborhood. As I looked into the faces of these sullen, pained, sometimes frightened young men–one had obviously been crying–came to mind the famous line of Marlowe: “Cut is the branch that might have grown full straight.” I knew I was looking at the ravages of racial and economic injustice which so cruelly victimizes people and also brings out the very worst in them.


The Incarcerated Sisters

When we were finally put into our cell, I also got a chance to talk with women in the general population. I continued learning about the ways people are being pulled into the system for petty offenses and on what really amounts to trumped-up charges. A classic case: a woman told me she’d gotten arrested for trespassing when she went to visit a friend who wasn’t home. She was confronted by the police for simply being in the building, and when she couldn’t prove she knew someone who lived there, she was arrested. Another very young woman who was white had been arrested for possession of a single marijuana joint. She told me that countless times before she had driven home alone through this particular intersection smoking weed and had never been stopped–but this time she was with an African American young man and she was arrested.

Both in the hallway with the men and in the cell with the women, it also affected me very much to see how persons in the general population reacted when they heard we’d been arrested with Rev. Sharpton protesting police brutality. One of the men protestors who is also white later told me he will never forget as long as he lives the look on the faces of the incarcerated men when they saw Rev. Sharpton. It must have really been something, for even though we women weren’t with the Reverend, we saw the great love and gratitude these men and women have for him and the respect they had for us for joining him. It also made them want to show kindness towards us. For example, when I was being held in an outer room waiting to get fingerprinted I said something to a fellow protestor about being hungry. An African American young man just reached over and said “Here, take this” and handed me his box of Rice Krispies. And in the cell, a woman–who had been arrested because they said they have an outstanding warrant against her for loitering–wanted to make sure I wasn’t scared. She told me she’d been in The Tombs 3 times before and all the awful things you see on TV and in the movies about what goes on among prison inmates don’t go on there so I shouldn’t worry.

From arrest to release under my own recognizance pending my court date, I was in the system over 25 hours. It was 25 hours I wouldn’t have missed for the world. I am surer than ever that what we’re fighting for is right, just, and necessary–and I am emboldened to go forward more strongly than ever!


Copyright © 2000 A Person of Conscience and The Multiracial Activist. All rights reserved.

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