On Being Arrested While White

By: Noah Slon | May 30, 2020

Last night, on May 29, 2020, at approximately 10 p.m., I was detained by the New York Police Department at a protest at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn. Standing on the front lines of the protests, we were face to face with police officers wielding bicycles as both barrier and riot shield, in addition to batons, mace, and tear gas.

I was one of many who was dragged behind the bicycle line by police officers, forced to the ground, and cuffed. I was then led away to the prisoner transport vehicle, which, once filled to the officer’s satisfaction, transported myself and four other detainees to 1 Police Plaza, the headquarters of the NYPD, for processing.

Sometime around midnight, I was placed in a holding cell with perhaps 30 or 40 other men. Before I left the holding cell, I told a friend I had made in the transport vehicle that I would wait outside for him to be released so I could give him a ride home, as the subways were shut down from 1 a.m. to 5 a.m. for coronavirus cleaning. I won’t be using his name or anyone else’s for safety reasons. He and I were brought in at the same time, on the same transport vehicle. I was kept in the holding cell until around 1:30 a.m., at which point my belongings were restituted to me and I was free to go. I waited for him until a bit later than 7 a.m. I am white. He is black. Our arrests were fundamentally different.

For those readers wondering why, officially, I was detained, I was charged with unlawful assembly. I did not do anything. I did not throw anything. After the police made several announcements that the protest was an unlawful assembly, and those who did not disperse would be arrested, they started to snatch whoever they could, forcefully bringing down those closest to them. The only discernible reason that I was detained is that I was on the front line, closest to the police officers’ reach. How irresponsible, then, it must have been of me to be on the front line. So why was I there?

While talking to three black female organizers on the way to Barclays from a previous protest, I was taught that if we white “allies” really want to do something, we ought to be protecting our black counterparts with the greatest protection we have: our white skin. We ought to be standing on the front lines, forming human blockades, and protecting black protesters with our own bodies. Even before we got to Barclays, I understood, in principle, that white people would be subject to a significantly lesser degree of brutality from arresting officers than Black people. I understood, in principle, that white people would be subject to easier times in jails and holding cells. I imagine, in principle, that I will have an easier time in court.

The arrest and detainment was the intersection of principle and practice. What I had been taught, in principle, played out in practice. After I was satisfactorily on the ground with a few police officers on my back, I was cuffed and led away.

Many of the black protesters I met were swarmed by up to nine or 10 officers. One gentleman who I had the pleasure of befriending in our mutual detention told me that 13 officers had participated in his arrest. While every protester and detainee was subject to police brutality, different detainees were subject to very different degrees of said brutality.

Beyond some bruising and damaged glasses, I was fine. Many others I met were bleeding, limping, or battered. My friend, who I was detained with and waited for in the morning, on the other hand, had been slammed on his head, with blood trickling down from his left eyebrow in the transport vehicle. Many told me that they had been assaulted further, be it with batons, mace, or human force, even once they were already on the ground. Many told me that they didn’t even try to resist. That made no difference.

While the brutality affected detainees of all races, the difference in arrests such as mine and arrests such as those of black protesters was, by a vast majority, a difference clearly drawn across race lines. I was protected from a greater degree of violence by the white skin on my back.

Upon being hoisted off the asphalt and led away, the moment my arresting officer and I were far enough from the protests to speak and be heard, the officer leaned into me. In what I thought was a somewhat conspiratorial tone, he asked if I had any prior warrants. After I confirmed that I did not, he said to stick with him, do as I was told, not act up and that he would make sure to get me in and out quickly with nothing more than a summons. It sounded to me like an offer of quid pro quo. I can only imagine that the Black protesters arrested with me were not afforded the same good faith treatment.

Once we arrived at 1 Police Plaza, my arresting officer was very courteous and helpful to me. Indeed, I can’t fault him for any of his behavior toward me, after he and his fellow officers were quite finished beating me to the ground. While in line for processing, he asked me to take my backpack off so he could tag it and put it with the evidence (a pile of other tagged backpacks).

I asked the officer just exactly how he would like me to remove my backpack with my hands cuffed behind my back and, seeing the ridiculousness in his request, he uncuffed me, removed my backpack, and recuffed me. When my cuffs were replaced, they were looser and altogether not wholly uncomfortable.

Many others in detention with me, most of whom were black, had deep cuff marks on their wrists. Some had swollen hands while others felt numbness in their fingers or couldn’t move their fingers at all. While this variation in handcuff use spanned detainees of all races, it too found most of its division drawn across race lines.

As for the backpack, it was tossed in with the rest. Later during our wait in line, he told me he was going to have another officer stand with me for a moment while he went to put my backpack in the corner, distanced from the pile, to make sure no one took it — I heard no such offer and saw no such action for other detainees.

While my arresting officer told me that because I had treated him with respect and manners he would treat me the same in turn, I doubt the same flattery would have been offered to me if my skin were a different color. Because of that supposed reciprocity, when I asked him if I

could text my mother to tell her that I had been arrested, he told me that he couldn’t be seen letting me on my phone in front of higher-ups, but he offered to send the text for me.

Another detainee told me his arresting officer let him send a text himself. He was white. I didn’t speak to any black detainees who had been privileged the use of their phone. One detainee, who I rode with in the transport vehicle, had her boyfriend’s phone. Her boyfriend had her phone, keys, and wallet. In the vehicle waiting to leave from Barclays, she pleaded with an officer that he take her phone, leave the bus, and swap possessions with her boyfriend, who was by the vehicle, so that she would have her things upon release. The officer offered to turn off her phone so as to avoid “draining battery.”

In detention, I was out by 1:30 a.m. and my friend, arrested with me, was not out until 7 a.m. We were not the only example of disparate detention times across race lines. In the hour I was there, a number of men were released as their paperwork was finished. While I cannot faithfully tell you every single one of them was white, I can say that I don’t remember one black man being released in my time in holding. This was not lost on us in custody. Having waited outside with the (exceedingly generous and hard-working) jail support group all night and into the morning, I saw many white people who came in after me released throughout the night well before black detainees who had been detained hours before me.

While walking with three black women to the protest, I learned that the best thing we white people can do is get up front and protect black people. At the protests, that was affirmed by countless protesters screaming, begging the white people to get up front and help with the best weapon we have: our white skin. And having been detained with protesters of all races, I saw how true it is.

Whiteness is a protective barrier against a great degree of police violence. It’s a protective barrier against a racist justice system. And if you truly believe that black lives do matter, and you truly want to help, one of the best things you can do, as I was taught by black activists and learned by being a white detainee, is get arrested. You should not incite violence, and you should not provoke police officers. That would only bring more harm, specifically to the people you’re there to support. You don’t need to put yourself in harm's way, but if you can get to a protest, go to the front lines and be there if and when police start making arrests.

Get yourself arrested. I cannot guarantee your safety, but I can guarantee the nature of your arrest will be different if you’re white than if you’re black. The quality of your detention will be different if you’re white than if you’re black.

Your skin is your protection, and your protection is your privilege. If you want to help, use that privilege to protect those you wish to fight for. If you want to help, get arrested.