Last week I traveled to Washington DC with thousands of other women to participate in this mass action against the Trump administration's horrific immigration policies – I'll write more about that incredible experience later! I learned a lot in the 2 days that I spent in D.C., but there was one stand out moment that I want to write about today. On Thursday night, about 6 hours after I was removed from the Hart Senate Building, I encountered the DC Metro Police investigating an apparent robbery. What transpired highlighted the stark differences between the ways that white women, like me, and folks of color, specifically Black boys and men, experience the Police.
I spent the day among thousands of women who were lifting our voices for the rights of immigrant families. I, along with 575 other women, made the active choice to risk arrest by engaging in peaceful civil disobedience. I was walked out of a building by Capital Police with my fist raised – there was not a handcuff to be seen. I sat in a park behind the building for about 90 minutes with a group of women that I had been protesting with. We were able to sit in the shade, talking with one another, while we waited to be processed. Not 6 hours later, after going out to dinner with 3 other white women from the protest, I was confronted with the image of what it means to be Black and engaging with the police.
As we returned to the church we were staying in, St. Stephen and the Incarnation Episcopal Church in NW DC, after dinner we saw 3 Police cars and at least 6 officers who had 4 young Black boys in handcuffs. I was stunned and immediately looked at one of the other women I was with, we agreed that we would stay there to bear witness to what was happening. We watched and waited for over an hour as the Police questioned the boys, keeping them separated from one another – they were in handcuffs the entire time. One of the boys was visibly uncomfortable and we heard him complaining to the officer about his handcuffs being so tight – the officer didn’t do anything. Finally, one of the white onlookers called on the officer to loosen the cuffs. After a remark to the boy that he “should have said something” the officer finally loosened the cuffs. Why did it take the intervention of a white onlooker to have a 14-year-old boy’s handcuffs loosened? Why was a child in handcuffs at all?!
As we watched and waited, we learned the these boys were being held while the police were investigating a robbery – they thought these boys may have committed a crime. Again, 6 hours earlier I had actually committed a crime and never so much as saw an handcuff, while these boys were in handcuffs as the police investigated their potential involvement in a crime. Finally, after about 45 minutes, the officers told the boys that the detective was on his way. Another police car pulled up on the road adjacent to where we were all gathered. It had large search lights blaring off the front of the car. One at a time the officers walked the boys into the street to stand in front of the car, lights shining blindingly onto their faces. One of the boys was walked right in front of oncoming traffic without anyone blocking or monitoring traffic.
Once each of the boys had been paraded in front of the “detective” and into the drowning brightness of the search lights, three of the four boys were let go. The boys told us that they were fourteen years old – 14! They had been there for at least an hour and a half and hadn’t been allowed to call their parents. They were scared and hungry. The fourth boy was taken to juvenile processing because he had two cell phones in his pocket. The boys reported that they were initially told that the police were looking for a gun, but somehow that evolved to a cell phone. It seemed to me that the real crime they were investigating was walking while Black. As they took the last boy, still in handcuffs, towards the police cruiser, I asked the officer if they had contacted his parents. I was told that he’d be able to call when they got to processing. I shouted to the boy and told him that he didn’t have to talk to them at all and that they had to let him call his parents or another adult. But I couldn’t help but fear what would happen to him if the police saw him as “non-cooperative” because he wouldn’t answer their questions. Not 6 hours earlier I had been arrested for actually violating the law and no one even asked me questions.
The 14 year old boy was searched, had his belongings put into a plastic bag, his shoelaces were removed, and he was chained into the back of a police car and taken to processing. Because he had two cell phones in his pocket.
His friends called his parents to let them know what was happening. Then they called their own parents. We talked with them briefly to ensure that they could get home safely. They were shaken, certainly, but they weren’t showing the kind of anger that I was feeling. And they certainly didn’t seem surprised. One of the boys even told us about how his parents had prepared him for what to do if this happened. They were 14.
The next morning a group of us from the protest had to go downtown to pay our fine. Afterwards we went for coffee and breakfast. We sat together, a group of about 6 white women, and the conversation went to what we’d witnessed with the police the night before. One of the women asked how we knew to stay and watch. She said, “none of us knew how to engage in civil disobedience, but they trained us. Once someone told us what to do, we could do it.” She noted how the two were similar – if we know to stop and watch the police, then we can do it.
It is in that vein that I decided to share this story. I'm not interested in debating whether or not this is a reasonable sentiment - I can certainly appreciate why it may be met with frustration! However, I am choosing to offer my thoughts on what white people can do with the hope that at least some of them will do it.
You don’t have to look very far to see countless examples of how interactions with the police are deadly for Black men and many other folks of color. As white folks, we can bear witness. We can intervene in small ways. We can put our privileged bodies on the line – in much the same way as we did on Thursday! – to try and disrupt the systemic racism that plagues our criminal justice systems. Now, I am not even close to an expert on what to do in these situations or what a person’s rights are when being questioned by police. But I do know that I made a promise to myself after Philando Castile was killed by police, in front of his girlfriend and small child, that I would stop and watch when I saw a person of color being confronted by police. I call on you to make a similar commitment today. Watch. Pay attention. Don’t escalate the situation, as you could cause further harm to the person being confronted, simply be present and attentive.
When I walked over to the scene last Thursday night, two of the boys were in my direct sight. Each of them looked at me and made eye contact. They kept their eyes on me, looking into my eyes. They were telling me something. I won’t soon forget those looks.