We read the following account about a protest action earlier this week in St. Louis, one person’s story, on social media. The source (who knows the author) and the author asked others to share it. We don’t have direct confirmation, but we know and implicitly trust the source.
A new friend of mine, a white, suburban mom, participated in Tuesday’s highway action. Please read her account. We’ve needed to pay attention for a long time. We can’t make up for that, but we can at least stop making things worse by starting to pay attention now.
“6:30 am. a long time I had watched the clock tick slowly all night long, and this was the time I’d been dreading. It was the time I knew my kids were going to be waking up, and when the minute hand clicked to its post, I knew without a doubt that a certain innocence of their childhood was forever lost. It shattered me to be locked away in a box away from them, unable to guide them and love them through their pain and confusion.
6:30 am, and I was in jail. 6:30 am, and my kids were waking up without me. 6:30 am, and I was worried about whether or not Tim had remembered to leave the tooth fairy money under the pillow. I began to cry, but then I laughed, because a pillow was the softest thing I’d thought of during this hard night, and I was so tired. It was so incongruous.
At 6:30 pm the night before, I’d gotten in the car with a friend to join a protest in support of change to our racist police and justice system here in St. Louis. Once we arrived, I was surprised and a little scared by what I learned the details of the protest would be, but I had come with the resolve to stand up for the morals and ethics I believe to be right, and I talked myself accordingly into the highway shutdown action they announced. I reminded myself of the clear details of protest that I’ve been teaching to my kids: disruptive is uncomfortable but okay as long as it is not violent or destructive; real change comes from pushing back against the status quo; the push is not always comfortable on either side, but that’s okay. The disruption and discomfort is okay, because it is carefully intentioned to create a more just reality. So, I took a breath, got in the car, helped my friend navigate, and as the protest caravan deliberately slowed across the lanes of the highway, I knew what was supposed to come next: I was supposed to exit the car and join other passengers exiting their cars to form a march that would briefly shut down the highway before proceeding up the exit ramp and then to police headquarters.
My anxiety was huge, and I don’t quite remember getting out of the car and beginning to march. But I am very clear on the details of the march itself. The organizers had laid out a situation that felt safe for all those along the highway, both protesters and non-protesters. I felt very protected by those details of care, and I found my voice pretty quickly. I also found a strong calm. I was flooded with the clearest sense that it is okay to stand up and say what is true. It was okay to say what is true; it was good to say what is true; it was the most right thing ever to say what is true: Black Lives Matter, This is What a Community Looks Like, and This is What a Democracy Looks Like!
We were loud, we were full of love, we were clear in our purpose, and yes we were disruptive. I felt okay with the disruption, though, especially because the organizers had explicitly stated the protocol in case of a fire truck, ambulance, or vehicle carrying someone in distress was to open up the shoulder and let them pass. That sounded fair to me.
As we continued the march, streams of people came to the overpasses to cheer and chant with us. We proceeded to the designated exit ramp and then began to tighten up and attempt to get everyone onto the sidewalk to continue to march to police headquarters. I was in the middle of the group, and about two blocks up we saw a line of police cars form to block the upcoming intersection, and rows of riot-gear clad police starting to march toward us. As I approached that intersection, I could hear some kind of muffled announcement over a bullhorn. I was unclear if it was from police or protesters. There was a bicycle police officer near me, and I asked him if he could hear what was being said. Was it an announcement from police? Was it a direction that I was being given? Could he tell me? He didn’t respond verbally to me, but flicked on the headlamp of his bicycle helmet in an attempt to blind me for a minute. It worked. I turned around and squinted to find a different officer to ask, and again questioned as to what was being said, and was there a certain directive I was supposed to follow? He told me that I should leave or be arrested.
I attempted to pivot and turn to a sidewalk that would lead toward a parking lot and over to a gas station, but he blocked me and said I couldn’t go that way. At that point I realized we were completely surrounded by police (an illegal maneuver referred to as kettling). I asked him which way to go, and he said I wasn’t allowed to leave. I asked quite naively but sincerely, “But didn’t you just tell me to leave?” His response? “Shut your bitch ass mouth.”
Police near me began calling out with their voices that we should all sit down where we were on the sidewalk, and so I did that. We all did that. Then the lines of riot police marched at us and next began using their shields to beat on some of the people sitting down. They didn’t beat me. I don’t know why, and it will forever haunt me as to why they didn’t beat me. Did they see something in me that reminded them of themselves? Did they look at me and think I was safe to them? They began dragging some people off the sidewalk into the street, and then roughly handcuffing them with zip ties that went on so tight people screamed. The screams made me sick to my stomach. But again, I was treated differently. Two riot officers came to me, and I cowered. No blows came, so I peered up, and one was offering a hand to me. I took it, appreciatively, because I had really stiffened up sitting on that sidewalk. They cuffed me tightly, but they weren’t gleefully demonic about it as some other officers had been. One officer picked up my backpack and looped it over my fingers behind me. I asked about my sign that I had carried (“White Moms for Black Lives”), and the other officer laughed, stepped on it, and kicked it into the gutter opening.
As they were loading us into vans, I was so grateful to see people across the street holding up their cell phones and live streaming. They were asking us to shout out our names and birthdays to them. I did that and then also shouted and asked if someone could call my husband, and gave our phone number.
So, it’s weird: I thought I was being arrested, but I wasn’t really sure. No one said, “You’re under arrest for xyz.” No one read me the Miranda Rights. It sounds stupid, but I literally got into a police van in handcuffs, and wondered if this was an official arrest. It felt a little bit like I was being kidnapped at gunpoint, and that was terrifying. I wondered if I was going to be carted off to a building somewhere no one knew about, and what might happen to me.
Thankfully(??), we were brought to the downtown justice center. I was one of the first few batches to arrive, and they took us up to some sort of large room with benches. We sat there, and we started singing protest songs of the 1960s to help welcome the literally hundreds more coming up after us and reassure each other that we were there united in spirit. It was actually quite beautiful and felt deeply caring. They called me up to a table to ask me some questions, and it just so happened that they called Representative Bruce Franks up to the table at the same time and I sat next to him. He wasn’t in any better legal position than I was, but it felt safe to me, him being there next to me. I trust him. However, I’m sure the very last thing a black man feels in any justice center in front of any cop is safe, and the cognitive dissonance I went through with those clashing feelings of a privileged white woman using a black man to feel safe hurt my heart. There’s just no other way to say it. It just hurt my heart.
The first small (maybe 8’ x 15’) holding cell they brought us to had a group of 28 in it. I asked about making a phone call or seeing an attorney, but was told to “Shut my mouth.” I’m a big believer in looking at badges and getting names, but the hard thing in the justice center is that very few people have name badges. They wear polo shirts and have nametag lanyards, but if they are wearing their lanyard at all, they turn it around to conceal identity. So, unfortunately, I don’t know the name of the first officer on that floor to whom I inquired about phone use. I do know the following, however: A woman in our packed cell was bleeding on her wrist from her zip ties, and there was a huge knot growing on the back of her hand that looked like blood pooling internally. I do not exaggerate when I say that it was the size of an egg. We knocked on the door to try to get help for her, but only received the response of an officer using her middle finger to “count” each of us inside. A few minutes we decided to chant “medical emergency” to see if they would respond. An officer did come to the door, but he did a little dance to the rhythm of our chant, and then walked away. It was disgusting. We worked together to help her loosen one of the zip ties to get that hand out, and then had her hold that hand up above her heart. I saw her later being moved, and she had an ice pack and looked okay.
Throughout the night, we were all randomly moved and shuffled to various other cells for no apparent reason. Sometimes the group was 35 or larger, sometimes around 12. They left the zip tie cuffs on for various amounts of time for different groups, but my cuffs were on for 3.5 hours. All told, I was held for about 15 hours. In that time, we weren’t given information, they didn’t tell us the charges, I wasn’t read my rights, we weren’t given food, we had to beg to get a sip of water from a drinking fountain, and we weren’t given an opportunity to make a phone call. That’s not how you think it is supposed to be, right? Right.
But also in that time, the highly educated and wise women I was jailed with created our own opportunities. For instance, we held a teach-in, going around the room and taking a few minutes to educate about something we felt passionate about. I talked about Prop P in St. Louis county and the need to organize to demand that our municipalities use a racial equity lens in crafting their budgets with this new windfall of money they’re each about to receive. I learned about a new social-work based approach to computer coding, legal observer training, and the effects of new immigration policy in the social structures of San Antonio communities. Much of the time, however, we simply sat quietly and waited for the time to pass.
For a few hours in the night, everyone around me in the cell stretched out on the floor and benches to sleep. I remained sitting up and awake, because it didn’t feel safe to sleep. I thought it was important to document anything that might occur in that time. For instance, during those hours in the middle of the night, there was no organized watch for us on that floor. I honestly think they forgot we were up there. If someone had experienced a medical emergency, I hate to think what could have happened.
There are so many other injustices I witnessed in these 15 hours that I could name for you, but instead, here is the crux of what I need you to hear: I’m fine. I was there awhile and now I’m home. That’s really all there is to it. Volunteer Jail Support workers stayed up all night to make sure we were all okay and that our loved ones knew where we were. We came out to applause, pizza, donuts, coffee, and hugs. If the worst of the worst happens and you’re arrested with a huge group of protesters, now you know what it looks like to have that happen. It’s uncomfortable, but it is nothing that should scare you away from the work that needs to be done.
The really important part is this: Do you have any idea how many people aren’t fortunate enough to say that they are home now? So many. Too many. Tamir Rice. Philandro Castille. Walter Scott. John Crawford. Trayvon Martin. Freddie Gray. Michael Brown. Eric Garner. Young black men are nine times more likely than other Americans to be killed by police. NINE TIMES MORE LIKELY. One in every 65 deaths of young black American men is a killing by the police.
I am a middle aged suburban white woman, and I’ve described the unjust and illegal treatment I received when I exercised my legal right to protest a broken system. Please think about what that means for those who don’t look to have all the obvious privilege that I have in my life. If you have a voice, it is time for you to use it. If you have feet, it is time to put them on the ground and march. We need 2,000 out there, not 200. We need so many that they simply can’t arrest us all. Because make no mistake: The police are coming for our rights. We’ve threatened their status quo, and they are on a massive power trip to show us who really owns the streets. It’s not supposed to be them, but unless more people start showing up to check their power, it will be them. The good news is that our numbers are growing, and we have righteous justice, love, and truth on our side.
It’s coming up on 6:30 am again before long. What are you doing today? #joinme”