I imagine I am a street sweeper.
I don’t think I am Michelangelo.
When I was around 10 years old, I was sitting on the toilet (look, this is my story) engaged in one of my favorite activities—thumbing through the World Book Encyclopedia—when I encountered a photograph of Michelangelo’s Pietà, a hauntingly beautiful sculpture of Mary Christ (I think that’s her last name), holding the corpse of her son, a peaceful, unarmed protester who was killed by Roman law enforcement officials. I couldn’t stop crying at how someone who spent his teenage years as a ninja turtle managed to capture this solemn, miserable heartache in a piece of stone.
That motherfucker could paint.
I am just a street sweeper.
I often tell my editors, co-workers and the rest of the staff at The Root not to concern themselves with the notion that I might be sensitive about anything because I imagine myself as a 63-year-old janitor whose only wish in life is to be left alone. I don’t need affirmation or praise, and I am not dispirited by criticism. I don’t consider myself part of a “noble profession” nor do I think of myself as someone who “speaks truth to power.” Just tell me where the vomit is and I’ll sweep that shit up.
On Monday, I heard there might be vomit in Birmingham, Ala.
Less than 24 hours after interviewing Birmingham Mayor Randall Woodfin, I began hearing rumors that the Klan might be descending to respond to Woodfin’s removal of a 105-year-old Confederate monument donated to the city by the white supremacist-adjacent Daughters of the Confederacy.
For three years, I have covered protests, activism and police brutality in Birmingham as well as previously providing in-person coverage of the Mike Brown Jr. uprisings in Ferguson, Mo.; the Freddie Gray uprising in Baltimore and demonstrations dating back to the 2006 protest for the Jena Six.
I have never been arrested.
Even after local reporters were attacked while covering the recent protests, I was not worried. When the protests turned violent, the city council passed a curfew that exempted “credentialed employees of any newspaper, magazine, radio broadcasting, and television broadcasting operations.” Still, two credentialed employees of the biggest media operation in the state were taken into custody on Wednesday night. Another was robbed for his wallet.
Shortly before my discussion with Woodfin, The Root had already obtained audio from a 911 call where a man threatened to “come down there with an AK-47 and start blowing the pigs away…And the protesters.”
I missed it.
Despite what you may have heard elsewhere, I was not arrested covering a protest. When dozens of police officers lined up to surround Linn Park, the site where the rumored showdown between the Klan and the residents of America’s fourth-blackest city was supposed to go down, the protests were over. Everyone had dispersed, except for four stragglers, all white, who later told me that they came with intentions of being arrested.
But the Birmingham Police Department’s plan to break up the violent clash between white supremacists and protesting, curfew-breaking scofflaws wouldn’t be deterred by details like the lack of white supremacists, protesters or even a protest. As Shakespeare once said: “The lack of a monkey doth not stop no show.”
I was positioned in an area across the street from the park, surrounded by reporters and cameramen. One of the cameramen and I discussed the fact that we had intentionally left our neck lanyards in the car after media watchdogs advised journalists covering the recent uprisings not to wear lanyards for our safety. The two reporters who were detained by cops the night before had neck lanyards. One of the reporters who was attacked had a neck lanyard. Neck lanyards are stupid. Wallets are stupid.
Plus, I was actually a reporter. I was surrounded by reporters. I have a digital media credential. I know what the hell I’m doing. In the days leading up to this event, I had already spoken with a few reporting colleagues in and around Birmingham. Trust me guys, I’ve done this before.
There I was, doing my job, sweeping the street, wanting to be left alone when, out of nowhere, I was attacked from behind by a thug who was obviously trying to rob me for my phone. I gripped my phone tighter, turned around and prepared to square up with this street thief as I thought to myself, “Not today, nigga. You gon’ get this smoke. You must not know who the fuck you’re…”
Oh. It was a cop.
To be precise, it seemed like it was all the cops that ever was. I informed them that I was with the media and I knew they were about to be in some deep shit when they rounded up those of us who didn’t have visible credentials. Locking me up was one thing, but arresting journalists for doing their job was another thing. We were not protesting. We were all together. Everyone within 100 feet of where I stood was a media professional who had specifically chosen this spot to safely report on whatever happened.
They did not arrest “journalists.”
They arrested the only black journalist.
As two white police officers led me to a police transport vehicle, they asked how they could verify my press credentials, I told them that I worked for “TheRoot.com” to which they replied: “Oh, is that a local blog?”
I just laughed and didn’t say anything.
“Seriously, I don’t know,” he continued. “is it a website around here or something?”
“Nah,” I smirked. “It’s just the most-read black news site in the country.”
The two officers said they couldn’t let me have my phone to show my digital credentials as we walked past a sea of mostly black police officers, many of whom I recognized and who recognized me. The cops asked if there was anyone they could call to verify that I was press. I pointed to the police officers and called them by their names but my arresting officers did not bother to verify the information. I told them they could just call the mayor’s office to verify my media credentials; they did not attempt to verify it.
They loaded me and four protesters into a van and took us to a nearby area a few blocks away to process us. One of the processing officers told her superiors that I was a journalist. One of the protesters told the cops I was a member of the press. The officers politely explained to the other people (by this time, they had scrounged up a few more curfew violators) that we would be processed and taken to the city jail. They lined us against a wall, where we stood until another officer kindly asked if we’d like to sit down. They rounded up a few folding chairs and allowed us to sit. It’s important to note that every officer I came in contact with behaved professionally and were not forceful or violent in any way.
Until I met Officer (redacted).
While the other officers retrieved chairs for the arrestees, Officer Redacted stood menacingly in the background doing nothing. I immediately noticed him and knew who he was.
He was the “bad apple.”
All police are not murderers. All cops are not brutalizers. But all cops ignore the bad apple. All cops allow a single piece of spoiled fruit to infect the entire bunch with his rotten core. In my experience, this officer is either a respected veteran or a newbie trying to make a name for himself. Officer Redacted was a white guy who looked to be around 30 years old. I had already noticed him looking at me before he walked up to where I was casually standing in the holding area with my hands zip-tied behind my back and said: “Turn around.”
I could tell that he was trying to conjure all of the bass and authority in his voice, so I did. He put his knee against my thigh/butt to gain leverage and pulled my already-tight zip cuffs as tight as he could. I felt them biting into my skin. I knew the other officers noticed how tight they were because, without prompting, another officer said:
“He’s just trying to make sure they weren’t loose.”
They were not loose.
I began pacing in a small, two-step circle while flexing my fingers to circulate blood to my hands. But after a few minutes, Redacted man again summoned his overseer voice and said: “I’m tired of watching you move. Sit down.”
So, I sat down.
It didn’t matter. By then, I couldn’t feel my fingers anyway
They then crammed us onto a seat the size of a living room couch and drove 13 of us to the city jail. I was one of five black people arrested for a violation I am still not quite sure of. The other four said they had no interest in the protests and were simply walking in the area, which is easy to believe because, again, there wasn’t a protest going on when the cops arrived.
After we arrived at the city jail, the employees sat us on a bench and one of the black co-arrestees summoned a cop over to where we sat.
“Aye man,” he said to the officer, nodding in my direction. “Y’all need to check this man’s zip ties.”
The officer asked me to stand up and turn around. When I complied, he looked at my wrists and just said: “Jesus” before rushing into an adjacent room. He emerged from the room with a tool to remove zip ties, which was basically a pair of wire cutters.
He couldn’t get them off.
Another officer tried. She couldn’t get them off. Neither could another officer. My hands had swollen to a point where the makeshift shackles were too tight for the tool to fit between my skin and the plastic zip cuffs. So, the original officer cut the link between the two wrists and warned me: “This is probably gonna hurt” before he basically dug into my skin to remove them.
He was right.
I undressed, put on a jail uniform, waited in a holding cell until they gave me the opportunity to make a phone call. Then, they took a mug shot and interrupted my intimate fingerprinting session to inform me that there was someone in another room who wanted to talk to me.
“Finally,” I thought. “It’s probably the mayor or one of his highest level administration officials who is here to make sure I’m ok.”
It was the FBI.
Two FBI officers read me my Miranda rights and told me that they “just wanted to talk.” When I asked them what they wanted to talk about, they responded that they were “just talking” to all the protesters.
“Nah, I’m good,” I replied.
As I laughed and joked with the veteran female officer who took my fingerprints, they called my name and told me that I was being released. I dressed, retrieved my phone and walked into the lobby where local activists were waiting to bail out protesters and welcome them by clapping and chanting.
To be clear, I do not believe I was arrested because the Birmingham Police Department is racist. I don’t believe I was arrested because two cops were racist. I don’t think they singled me out because they hate black people or even hated me. I sincerely believe that those cops looked at the group of journalists and their instincts told them that I didn’t belong there. I believe they harbored that presumption because they don’t see too many black journalists. I believe the other members of the media said nothing because they didn’t believe I was a reporter. I was filming with an iPhone, standing beside a white woman filming with an iPhone. I had no visible credentials standing next to a white man who had no visible credentials.
I believe Officer Redacted fucked with me because he assumed I was just another one of the countless, powerless people he’s fucked with in a city that’s 74 percent black. And I know some people will say I’m playing the race card (Even though this is the first time I’ve described the incident in detail, I’ve already received emails accusing me of “manufacturing my arrest” to “generate outrage and “play the race card.”)
I was not arrested because the Birmingham PD, the officers, or the media is racist.
I was arrested because America is racist.
And isn’t that the point of this entire thing?
But, who’s going to sweep this shit up?
If only there was someone who had the credentials.