This piece was given in Augustana Chapel at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago on September 20, 2018. It was part of a larger service of testimony kicking off a campaign against mass incarceration and specifically, bail bond reform.
This testimony piece is dedicated to Michael Brown. We won’t forget you.
I was in front of the burned-down QuikTrip on West Florissant, a place that had kind of become a staging area or headquarters for the movement. A woman handed me a flyer. “Ferguson October” it said. It was August 16. I remember thinking, “October? Why are they waiting so long? All of that will have blown over by then.”
I had no idea. It didn’t blow over. It still hasn’t, my friends in Ferguson and St. Louis four years later still regularly demonstrate and campaign to re-open Mike Brown’s case. My own part in the story of the Ferguson Uprising lasted two and a half years. I have thousands of stories I could tell, and they all feel important and relevant. But today I am going to tell you about what I experienced jail to be like, and the story of my first arrest.
Thousands of people had come to St. Louis for a long weekend of actions we called Ferguson October. On Monday, October 13, 2014, the weekend culminated with an interfaith direct action against the Ferguson Police Department. There were hundreds of us, of various ages and races and genders, occupying the Ferguson PD’s parking lot, praying, singing, and chanting with our hands up. It was a complete downpour, a thunderstorm, but we had decided that we would stay in the parking lot for at least 4 and a half hours – the same amount of time that Mike Brown’s body lie in the street on Canfield Drive in the baking August sun.
The police lined up, shoulder to shoulder, two rows deep in front of us, carrying riot shields and batons. My friend’s little brother, Matthew, was in town. He was 19 and Black. I was only 26 but I felt responsible for him because of my friendship with his sister. He pushed to the front of the riot line and so I followed him until I was face to face with with the police. Although it feels strange to call it face to face with how much equipment was between us. It was surreal how dehumanizing the riot gear was. The police were so completely covered that they looked like cyborgs or robots with their masks and shields and vests. I remember thinking that the shields felt symbolic as well as utilitarian….a physical barrier which represented a barrier between the police and the demonstrators, keeping the police separate from the community. They kept pushing us back with their riot shields until, between the people behind me and the police in front of me, I lost any sense of balance and could no longer stand up on my own and the demonstrators behind us were physically holding up our weight.
I didn’t realize I had started crying until an older Black woman reached over and used her thumb to wipe underneath my eye where the mascara had been running, not only because of my tears, but because of the sheets of rain that continued to pound down on us.
I was so close to the officer in front of me now that I smelled what I thought might be vodka on his breath. I noticed his leg was bouncing, nervously. I looked in his eyes. He looked so young.
The police got quiet and still for a second. Then I saw the shield in front of me come right at me and the next thing I knew my knee was stinging and throbbing and my wrist hurt and I was on my knees on the ground. I don’t actually remember a lot of what happened next, I blocked it out except for a few snapshots. What I do know, I only know because people have showed me photos and videos or told me about it. At a certain point the first line of police rotated out, and the second line forced their way in. An officer started beating me with his club. I put my head down on my knees and covered it with my arms like this [show] and he continued to hit my back and neck. I remember trying to calm myself down by saying if I got hit in the face, it would be ok. It would be ok. I heard an older Black man behind me yell something at the officer along the lines of “pick on someone your own size” and the baton stopped hitting me. I looked up to make sure Matthew was ok. An officer was holding a baton against his throat with such force that he knocked his glasses off and he was choking. I scrambled for his glasses as I said as loudly and calmly as I could to the officer next to him, “Stop him! He can’t breathe! Look! Stop!” trying to make eye contact with him, and then turned to Matthew and said, “I’m right here, Matthew, it’s going to be ok. Don’t touch him.” I was so afraid of what they would do to Matthew if he pushed officer’s hands away.
The police moved back and regrouped and created another formation and Matthew and I moved back from the riot line.
Eventually the police started arresting people. I was arrested by a middle aged Highway Patrol officer who cuffed me with zip ties tight around my wrists. I watched them body slam my friend, a Black pastor with long locs to the ground as the officer screamed “stop resisting”. They led us into a garage to fill out paperwork, but it took forever because the pens and papers were soaked and wouldn’t work. There were so many municipalities and departments there, the police were arguing about how to fill out the paperwork. The person writing on the slip of paper just said, “I am charging them all with disturbing the peace, resisting arrest, and assaulting an officer.” The Highway Patrol officer who arrested me said, “She didn’t touch me, just put disturbing the peace.” I later learned that the Black pastor, my friend that the police had slammed to the ground, was charged with resisting arrest and assault of an officer.
I asked multiple times during the initial processing if I could go to the bathroom. Each time, the officers pushed me off, saying “maybe later.” I remember being in the back of the police vehicle with several other arrestees and feeling intense pain because I had to pee so bad. My comrades urged me to just pee in the back of the vehicle, that they didn’t care, that it would be fine. I very seriously considered it, but I was unsure how long I would be held in jail and I didn’t want to be stuck in pee-soaked clothes for days. My clothes were already soaked and damp from the rain, they were uncomfortable enough as is.
The police vehicle drove around for what seemed like forever. My hands started to go numb from the zip ties. No one would tell us where we were going. No one would answer when I might be able to use a bathroom.
We finally stopped at our first location. The police cut off our zip ties and put metal handcuffs around our wrists. We waited on cold, metal chairs until we were called back, one by one. Once I was called up, an officer gruffly told me to face the wall while a female officer slid her hands up between my thighs, up and around my groin, and then under my bra. I took a sharp breath in and tears sprung to my face. I wanted to tell her I was a sexual assault survivor, but her face told me that she probably wouldn’t care, so I tried to just keep breathing and wait for it to be over.
We had been able to keep our belongings so far up until this point, something that is not normal in regular arrests, but because of the mass arrests that had taken place, the system was overloaded and they didn’t want to deal with trying to return our belongings to us. At this point, though, they made me remove my wedding and engagement ring and hand over my small knapsack with my work cellphone inside as well as my wallet and a homemade tear gas treatment kit.
At this point it had been nearly four hours and I still hadn’t been able to go to the bathroom despite asking every person that I had encountered. I finally begged the officer who had me sign paperwork and he took pity on me. I only had to wait a few minutes longer for two female officers to take me to the bathroom.
They uncuffed me right before I went into the stall. I was told I could shut the door most of the way, but not to lock it, and they stood right there keeping watch and listening to me use the bathroom. After I got out of the stall, I caught a glimpse of my reflection in the mirror. I had thick streams of mascara running down both of my cheeks all the way to my jaw. I asked permission to wash my face, and they shrugged. It seemed like a silly thing to ask, but throughout this whole process, I hadn’t been in control of my body and so I wasn’t sure they would allow me. After I finished, they put the handcuffs back on me.
I started to worry that Adam and Alice would not know where I was. I wasn’t even sure where I was. They kept taking us through different hallways and rooms, but the groups of people I was with kept changing. I hadn’t see the people who rode in with me in the police vehicle. I still hadn’t been able to make a phone call.
They lined a bunch of us up against a stone wall and walked us to a back door. There was another police vehicle waiting. We were taken to the so called “Justice Center” for processing and put into cells. The cell was cold. I was still damp from the rain and couldn’t stop shivering. There was a heavy door with a small window and a hard bench. I was taken to see a nurse who asked questions about my health where I was pressured to just say that everything was fine even though my hands were still numb from the too-tight zip ties and my knee was throbbing. I could see that blood was soaking through my black leggings.
I eventually got a phone call in a room with several phones in booths with metal dividers. I called the jail support number that I had memorized.
The police led me into another room and took our mugshots. At one point I misunderstood directions about where to stand and a police officer barked at me to shut up. They gave us brown bags for dinner. I was grateful because I hadn’t eaten since before the action, about 9:00 am that morning and it was now evening. I opened the brown bag. It was a piece of bologna between two slices of white bread.
They had us line up in another hallway, and again, I was with people that I didn’t know. They kept separating us and moving us around, never telling us where we were going. When I got to the front of the line I was surprised when a plastic bag of my belongings was shoved in my hand. I turned to the young, Black policeman who held open the door for me to leave. I looked him in the eyes and said, “I am praying for you.” He held my gaze and swallowed hard and promised to pray for me too.