Four New Yorkers detail what it’s like to get arrested during a protest

Following the recent wave of protests in the city, four New Yorkers speak anonymously to The Face about their arrests, cell overcrowding, and treatment in custody.

Anonymous, 23 years old

I’m Black and was born in Yonkers – now I live in Brooklyn. As a Black person, I feel I have no choice but to participate in the protests despite the pandemic. It’s important to me because it has to be. It’s a matter of life, death and human rights. It’s personal.

I was arrested at a protest in Brooklyn, where the atmosphere was tense from the outset. It was a predominantly Black neighborhood, and police were using aggressive tactics to get the crowd to disperse. The protesters were largely peaceful unless provoked by the cops – which happened very often and without warning.

Around 10pm, the cops started advancing, using force. I witnessed a lieutenant – in white clothes – shove a woman to the ground who was filming him. I ran over, yelling not to touch her. He told me to back up. I said no. I noticed another officer [advance], trying to push me with his baton. I blocked him with my backpack. Behind me, I heard [the lieutenant] shout to other officers something about not letting me get away. I ran. Four to five cops chased. I tripped and fell. They held me on the ground and zip-tied me. None of the arresting officers wore masks.

I did notice blood on the floor.”

The cops took us to one precinct, but it was already full with arrests. I asked them to change my zip-ties to handcuffs because they were very painful. They complied, commenting on how incredibly tight they were. When we got to the second precinct, new officers asked why I was arrested. They couldn’t give a reason – only that a lieutenant had told them to arrest me. 

I was put in a cell with three other men; next to us was a cell with one woman. Everyone had been arrested for protesting. Our cell wasn’t clean at all, but wasn’t egregiously dirty. I did notice blood on the floor and various other liquids I couldn’t identify. The bench inside the cell was [just] big enough for the four of us. I remember asking for water, and they said OK, but it never arrived. 

I wasn’t told how long I’d be there for. I had a feeling it wouldn’t be long – no one had any idea why I was arrested. An hour or two later, after verifying my ID and checking for warrants, I was let go and received a court summons. They told me the court would throw out my case, 100 per cent, as long as I show up. I guess we’ll see.”

Anonymous, 23 years old

I began working in politics after high school – most recently, as a housing justice organiser. About a year and a half ago I started becoming disillusioned; I didn’t know what I was fighting for anymore. The politicization of services felt toxic. So when I began attending New York’s protests – I’ve been every day since Saturday – I just went to capture video, not to protest. 

My first day, I joined a group marching in Manhattan. We heard there were police in Times Square arresting people. We decided to go there to support them – not to be violent. I started documenting at the side of the protest, and police began yelling at me: Back the fuck off!” I was knocked to the ground and arrested. 

As they walked me to the bus they were extremely aggressive. For example, I was sitting in the back seat, and asked them, So, what’s about to happen? What’s going on?” And an officer yelled at me and said, Shut the fuck up. Don’t talk to me.”

At the jail, they stuffed about 90 of us into a small cell. There were people in there with their head gushing blood, asking for medical attention, which they were refused. (I was a lifeguard so have some medical training – a few of us attempted to help him as best we could.) We were there for almost 12 hours. They kept stuffing people in. They confiscated all the face masks – we got them back after our mugshots, but they took them away before we entered the cell, along with our shoelaces. After two hours, the water cooler ran out. We begged for water, but they refused. The officers would go to the window with huge jugs of iced water and lemon, smiling, drinking, and mocking us. It was extremely hot. 

It started to become a Covid-19 health hazard – that tiny space, all those people in it. So we barricaded ourselves and the water cooler against the cell door to stop them adding others. At 5am, I was finally let out. Thankfully, there was some support outside; they offered me food and a ride. I got a court summons for illegal assembly. I went to a protest again that night.

A riot cop came at me from behind – I didn’t see him – and bashed my head with a baton […] He then beat my phone in with his baton so I’d have no evidence of his colleagues brutally attacking a woman.””

My second arrest came a few days later. My group, of about 1,000, walked from downtown to Union Square park. When we arrived, there was a huge swath of riot police waiting. It was a white people to the front’ agreement, as we had a certain level of physical protection, privilege others might not have had. 

The police started beating down on everyone in sight. It was the most ruthless display of brutality I’ve seen. I saw one small Black girl being attacked by three cops with batons. They were kicking her in the face – taking turns, having fun with it. I pulled my phone out to record. A riot cop came at me from behind – I didn’t see him – and bashed my head with a baton. I fell to the ground. He then beat my phone in with his baton so I’d have no evidence of his colleagues brutally attacking a woman. And then two cops took turns beating down on me. They fucked up my left hand. It’s fractured, and I’m left handed. 

They rounded us up with the others they’d detained. Another guy was sitting there with blood gushing from his head, almost unconscious. All of us, especially those with medical training, were begging officers to get him medical attention. It took an hour for medics to arrive. He ended up getting 17 stitches to the skull. I was in jail all night again, with no medical attention for my hand. The cuffs were so tight they almost cut off circulation, which made the break more painful. After five hours I was released, charged with staying past curfew. (Luckily, there’s a good effort to connect people with legal aid.) I somehow managed to go to work, and then went to protest that evening.

If anything, my treatment has radicalised me. They can break my other hand. They can break every limb. They can put me in jail every night for the next month. When riot police are standing over you with batons, you’re utterly at their mercy. You don’t know when it will stop. For the first time, as a white man, I see clearly the privilege I have and I’ve had. If they’re keeping peaceful protesters in these conditions, I can’t imagine how they’re treating Black and Brown people who go there for committing petty crimes. I am more angry than I’ve ever been. NYPD can suck my dick.”

Anonymous, 19 years old

I’m a Russian African-American. I’ve lived in nice neighborhoods all my life, mostly with white people, but was always aware of my colour and have faced oppression because of it, even within my own Russian community. Although I’m not a huge activist, I believe in standing up for what is right. 

I got arrested on my second day protesting. I was physically exhausted: I’d skated all the way to Manhattan from Brooklyn and marched from 3pm to 10pm. By the time I arrived [at the protest] it was already dark. Things were peaceful for a while; people were singing to Pop Smoke. But suddenly, groups started running. I didn’t know why, so I ran too. The police were using pepper spray on us, and I took out my milk, looking to help people who’d been sprayed. It became chaotic: people threw bottles and glass at the officers, and one officer pushed me while I tried to record someone getting arrested. Eventually more cops came and we went down the street.

The cops started chasing us down the street, then pulling back. Whenever they did this I tried to stay calm. I put my hands up and kept walking. They were being aggressive and pushing people. Even people who lived on the block – who happened to be outside – were pushed along with us.

I was going to try free up my phone storage when they again began charging. Again, I walked with my hands up. But a woman cop grabbed me from behind, and slammed me against a car. I was baffled. I didn’t do anything wrong. I thought, As long as I do what they say I will be OK.” I asked her what I was being arrested for – she refused to tell me. I kept asking and never got an answer. She handed me to another cop. I asked, if there was no reason for my arrest, was I free to go? He said no.

A cop came and cut my very nice bag straps. My mom had given me the bag when I first moved to New York. I’m still pissed off about it. He also took my skateboard, claiming it was a weapon – but it was my mode of transportation. I never got it back! Not right! A man who was out with his wife in their neighborhood was also arrested. He also didn’t do anything. Now, thinking back, we were both black, but I don’t like pulling the race card. 

I asked for my phone call and was never answered. I asked to speak to my lawyer and they never responded.”

I talked to my officer as we waited on the street. I told him I was a good kid, never arrested before, a university student. He did not budge, but spoke calmly, which calmed me down … I realised I wasn’t told my rights. I didn’t do anything wrong. So I started talking his ear off. I asked if he was from Staten Island – he sounded like he was. (He denied it, but I knew it was true.) 

We walked to the precinct, where I was searched by a female officer. A cop asked if I had any ID. I wasn’t sure and said, I can neither confirm nor deny,” something my philosophy professor told me a lot of lawyers and politicians say. I tried giving him a hard time by spelling my name very fast. I was then put into a cell smaller than my room – which is saying something. There was a single bench and a metal toilet with a sink. It smelled like piss. No cops were wearing masks. They made no effort to be concerned about Covid-19

There were two girls in my cell. I was locked up at 11pm; they’d been there for at least five hours. Neither knew why they were arrested. Every time a cop came by, I asked for water. They would say, In a moment!” but never bring it. I asked for my phone call and was never answered. I asked to speak to my lawyer and they never responded. They treated us like animals. Although I was calm and even joking around, I did not like being in a small, confined space.

After an hour my officer came and said I’d better have given him accurate information. He told me I would be going to another precinct. I asked for water, which he didn’t bring, so I started shouting for him, as Joe” – I didn’t know his real name. Joeeeeee from Staten Island, where are you? Where is my water, Joe?” It was pretty funny to annoy the officers. I was finally let out and taken into a police car with another girl. The cops signed my paper of summons – we’d be released at another precinct. I had to say goodbye to Joe.”

Anonymous, 22 years old

I’m a Haitian American college student studying psychology. My parents are both immigrants. Admittedly, I was not previously an active supporter for Black Lives Matter. That’s not to say I was against the movement – I just didn’t follow it, even on a casual level. After protests broke out for George Floyd, and for many other Black lives, tweeting my thoughts didn’t feel like enough, so I planned to attend a protest. 

I came across a march in Downtown Brooklyn. Before my arrest, the atmosphere was immensely positive. Being among people shouting, What’s his name? George Floyd!”, What’s her name? Breonna Taylor!”, and How do you spell racist? N‑Y-P‑D!” was thrilling. I noticed that whenever we came across a street where police waited, they let us pass. I believe this is only because it was prior to curfew [ed note: New York City has imposed an 8pm-5am curfew]. I witnessed fellow protestors”, who turned out to be looters, looking to take advantage of the march. I’m not for looting, but didn’t want to get harmed trying to stop it, so I just ignored it. 

I was arrested near midnight in Manhattan. Around this time, one of the march leaders told us the police were going to start chasing us, trying to arrest us. They said to continue marching. Looking back, I feel this was confusing – it led to several marchers getting detained. A couple of officers passed me before two said I would be coming with them. Thankfully, they weren’t aggressive to me. I slowly laid on the ground and let them cuff me. 

Not all the officers were wearing masks. We were told multiple things about our charges at the start: that they were for simply participating in protests, for possible involvement with looters, for breaking curfew. Over 700 people were arrested that night. I was not personally told about my rights and I completely forgot to ask.

The bus had no seatbelts, and with our hands cuffed, it was a dangerous ride.”

We waited an hour before boarding a prisoner bus. The bus had no seatbelts, and with our hands cuffed, it was a dangerous ride. Other protestors sat in cages with seats in them. I made jokes with the police before getting on since I can’t take them seriously – I found the arrests to be completely and hilariously stupid. 

When we got to the precinct, protestors were split into groups. Hundreds of us waited outside for hours before entering and learning what our charges were. We passed the time by talking – hearing where others were from and why they protested.

In the jail cell for men, there were two toilets. Many prisoners didn’t have their mask. I had my mask removed when I had to get my picture taken, and I forgot to put it back on, which was foolish. 

We talked with some of the cops. They complained how they hated the curfew laws, and working late to deal with the protests. It took around eight hours until the paperwork for my court appearance was finalised. I’m going to get legal representation – I was greeted by a representative for public affairs who said they’ll help me when I go to court. I will keep protesting. I’ll try not to get arrested again. No promises though.”

For protestors in New York, we recommend the ACLU’s round-up of your rights – including what to do if you think they’ve been violated. You should also check The Legal Aid Society’s guide on what to expect when arrested (for instance, you will not always be read your Miranda Rights), plus this primer on police encounters.

Before heading out to protest, write the National Guild Lawyers Hotline (212 679 6018) somewhere on your body – they offer bail support and free legal advice. If you’re arrested, try to call and inform them with your name, any AKAs, birth date, and the time and place of your arrest. Good Call is a 247 arrest support hotline, connecting people with free lawyers in New York City. It’s 1833 346 6322.


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