NYPD’s Gift for the New Year: Non-Action

Today I am grateful for NYPDs unintended gift of non-action as I ponder the incredible excesses we’ve encountered with law enforcement in recent weeks.

On every step of the way leading up to the non-indictment announcements and (more so) afterwards, the ones with uniforms and the charge of “keeping the peace” have been the instigators of violent action. After the (police) violence, the mainstream media reports share stories that suggest the object of the violence is the perpetrator. To be sure the protests have been disruptive; there may be individual protestors who have misstepped, but the actions have been and continue to be militant, direct, and non-violent.

The pattern is painfully predictable. Always there are guns and chemical weapons and batons, always in the hands of the ‘peace keepers’ who are facing off with a crowd of unarmed civilians. WalMart Thanksgiving 2

…On the night of the no-bill announcement in Ferguson, a mother’s wails were still in the air and McCulloch still droning on the speaker when the uniformed officers were replaced with fully weaponized riot gear teams. The physical declaration of war we witnessed still stops my breath.

…The absurdity was vivid as we 50 of us stood with candles in prayer at the basilica on Christmas Eve while 70 fully weaponized riot-gear-clad soldiers behind us to guard … what? ‘War toys for the Prince of Peace’ was no longer a peacenik taunt but a virtual reality in a city gone mad.

…On NYE, the “storm” at the SLMP was only a “storm” because some of the officers were trying to pull people in the doors while other officers where pushing people out (read: pushing and shoving by police, NOT protestors). As I reflect on the event (having both lived it and watched the videos), I am appalled not by the citizens trying to (lawfully) enter a public building but by the total disarray and subsequent aggression of the officers. Yes, it was a mess; but whose?

…As I stood in the street later that afternoon, linked with a group of unarmed women, we watched a swarm of now armored soldiers march towards us. Armed to the teeth (quite literally) because a group of civilians (12 women, 6 men) were standing in a line on an otherwise quiet city street. We sat down, making clear our non-threatening posture. frontline faceoff SLMPDThey continued to advance, some beating their batons, others caressing their sticks. Macabre. We laid down. They walked over us, surrounded us, but their weapons were so ridiculously over powering that they could do nothing. Other officers, less militarized, moved in to arrest us.

…The offense with which we were charged on NYE was city infraction (‘impeding’ traffic), essentially a parking ticket. But in a breach of routine protocol we were not only handcuffed, arrested, and taken downtown, we were fully printed (mug shots and all) and kept on 24 hour holds (some of us had family who were able to get us out after 10 hours with@$150). Even the staff admitted that it was a confusing stray from standard procedure. Why?

Tragically, what I’ve experienced in these recent weeks may be new to me but is business as usual for millions of Americans. In other words, if you have skin privilege (I do), these excesses in law enforcement are new and perhaps unbelievable. Tragically what I, as a protester, have encountered is what millions of Black and Brown skinned Americans have been experiencing on a daily basis now for decades. For people with skin privilege, like me, this is the season to listen.

More than a decade ago, the writers of “The Wire” attempted to draw our attention to the atrocity of the “drug war” and the systemic criminalization of the poor (and people of color); in The New Jim Crow (newjimcrow.com), Michelle Alexander offers a painfully clear analysis. With public policy and tax dollars, we have instituted a “whole damn system, guilty as sin” that is, quite simply, codified white supremacy.

The atrocities in “law enforcement” that I’ve witnessed in these weeks trouble my sleep but steel my resolve. My protest is not about bad/good cops (I know many ‘good’ ones), but about a system that is fundamentally flawed, a system that is built on a faulty foundation that must be exposed before it can be safely rebuilt.

As we enter this new year, this is a time to follow the (albeit unintended) lead of the NYPD. This is the season to pause and listen, really listen, to the cries of the people.

New Year, New Resolve

A New Year’s kiss with my dear one at the elevator leaving the St. Louis City Jail was the most precious moment of the evening, with the sight of adult-children posting bail a close runner up. Not quite sure how we reached such a dramatic conclusion from an otherwise ordinary day, I pause to recount the order of events.

Early in the day we had joined up with a march at the Old Courthouse in St. Louis (remember: Dred Scott) that culminated at the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department (SLMPD). The action included a group inside the SLMPD that was serving a symbolic eviction notice with very real (and quite reasonable) demands for justice. The planned action included a 4 1/2 hour ‘occupation’ (sit in).

at the door SLMPD
Denied access to a public building during business hours.

As the marchers reached the police headquarters we discovered the doors (to the public building) were locked. At some point the doors appeared to open and several of us attempted to enter; simultaneously those on the inside were (quite literally) being pushed outside and the two groups met at the doorway. If there was clear direction, I didn’t hear it. If there was an officer in charge, it was not apparent. What was clear was that I was in a place in between and I practiced breathing. At some point I became aware that an officer had thrown my dear one out of the front doorway and I saw her land sprawled on the sidewalk. As I was taking that in, I felt myself airborne and landed on top of her. Another young woman landed on me, and another on her. Before we had managed to get up from the pile we heard screams, “pepper spray!”. Keeping our backs to the officers, we scrambled up and ran.  When I turned around, I saw an officer who still had his can pointed at the crowd and I saw him spray (again) in a wide arc. I spun around and (thankfully) caught the spray on my backside. Others were not so lucky. Medics scrambled as people fell to the ground crying out in agony. As water and milk of magnesia was poured into people’s eyes, it became apparent that the unannounced and indiscriminate spray hit protestors and reporters alike. It was an ugly way to begin the day.

(Note: The is a restraining order currently in effect banning the police from using chemical weapons on protestors without clear warning and reasonable time to vacate. Neither were offered.)

The action was intended to share 4 1/2 hours of occupation, in remembrance of the 4 1/2 hours that Mike Brown was left lying on the street. As people recovered from the spray, the action continued with the crowd gathered in front of the police department for several hours, singing, dancing, strategizing, and eating pizza. When we began to shiver, the cold-weather chant began: “Brr, it’s cold out here. There must be oppression in the atmosphere!” It was a time of connections and centering with the police blocking the roads on either side of the gathering.

frontline at SLMPD
The guys in riot gear were advancing, the unarmed women linked arms.

Near the end of the time, we got word that scores of police in riot gear were headed toward the location. Once again SWAT style commandos were being sent to face off with unarmed civilians. Why? The event had been clearly announced as a 4 1/2 hour event, it was coming to a close, and there was absolutely no inappropriate or disturbing behaviors. Admittedly I was more than a bit annoyed having already been man-handled by the police and pepper sprayed, and I wasn’t in the mood to cower. So I chose to stay, and pray.

frontline faceoff SLMPD
As the armed militia approached, the unarmed women sat down.

The scene is macabre as the riot gear line approaches peaceful protestors who are literally lying in the street. Their shields are ridiculously useless and all they can do is step over the bodies. The excesses of their violence has rendered them impotent. One by one the protestors in the street are rolled over, handcuffed, and placed in the awaiting police wagons by more sensibly clad officers. 12 women and 6 men were arrested in this sweep. And so it was that our New Year’s Eve celebration at the St. Louis City Jail began.

This was not my first foray in jail doing civil disobedience, but my prior experiences had been decades ago and with a police force that was not the object of the protests. These are tense times and civil disobedience in this context is much more dangerous on many levels. Although the charge (“impeding”) is a city infraction, we were held on 24 hour holds, fully mugged and printed, and given every opportunity to be searched, scolded, and humiliated. Dehydration was real, but so too was the camaraderie. As several hours passed, the 12 women shared laughter and stories and occasionally burst out in song.

Women who hold the line and share jail-cell solidarity. Love.

When the shift changed late in the evening, the new guard introduced herself by letting us know that if we weren’t quiet she would “spray us”; after a particularly artful song pleading for more toilet paper (raucous and fun), the warden came in threatened us with a 48 hour hold. Then they split the group, taking several of the women to an undisclosed location.

It was nearing midnight when an officer came to get my dear one and I. Hours earlier he had told us that someone had posted our bail and so ours was a hopeful walk from the cell. Soon we began the gauntlet of the out-processing which is long and also intentionally intimidating. At the stroke of midnight, we were standing on the free side of the door waiting for the elevator. Relieved, empowered, humbled, humored, and very much in love. (Her story here.)

As we came out of the elevator, we passed through the jail support folk who had spent their New Year’s Eve working to get everyone out. This is an incredibly important group in the movement that are always in need in both money and volunteers. As we went around one more corner, our eldest and her dear hubbie met us with hugs and love and laughter.

The New Year begins with family. Family of origin and families of choice. And it is very good.