I was arrested. I had come to Kenosha to protest against racial injustice. In the process, I saw firsthand some of the problems which plague our criminal justice system. For years I’ve recognized that our country has unfairly criminalized and incarcerated people of color and I wanted to lend a voice. I certainly didn’t expect to have my voice silenced by being swept into a Sheriff’s Detention Center. The curfew ordinance was applied unilaterally. People who looked like protesters and/or came from out of state were targeted, a deliberate action intended to silence political speech. People more obviously siding with the police were left to wander and drive around, but many of us were swept up with the police broom of silence. In this process, I also witnessed a callous disregard for health safety of those incarcerated and saw firsthand how people in need of social services were instead criminalized and incarcerated.
Jacob Blake, an unarmed black man, was shot in the back seven times by a Kenosha, Wisconsin policeman at point blank range as he attempted to enter his vehicle, his three small children in the back seat. Protests and riots ensued. There are other factors involved and without complete investigation, I don’t claim to form a full opinion of wrongdoing by the police, although on it’s surface, it does appear to me as excessive use of force. In either case, I came to lend my voice to the overall movement toward reform in the criminal justice system and support for racial fairness and equity in our society at large.
Most people have a core belief system which in many ways defines who they are and how they see themselves. For some, that core belief may be “freedom.” For others it may be “justice” or “authority” or “service” or any number of other possibilities. My strongest motivating desire is to act and live my life with “integrity.” I’ve been feeling a little out of integrity lately as I’ve borne all-too-silent witness to power-hungry politicians and biased-news media providers who tear this country apart at the seams by stoking the divisive flames of indignation, bigotry and hatred.
After two months away in the midwest primarily trying to be supportive to my two ailing brothers, I was ready to head westward for home in California, but my inner drive for integrity manifested into a right turn south into Wisconsin. A five hour drive later, I pulled into Kenosha in hopes of adding my voice to the justice movement. If nothing else, I simply didn’t want to remain silent any longer. A text alert popped up on my phone announcing that due to civil unrest that the city had a 7pm-7am curfew in effect. I fully intended to honor the curfew, not necessarily because I believed the intended silencing of protesters was just, but rather because pickup trucks loaded with police-supported Dixie-dog-whistlers bearing automatic weaponry is something I’d prefer to avoid interacting with first hand during a stressful time. Two protesters had already been killed and another wounded by a 17 year old armed gunman who appears to have been inspired by radical voices on social media and our president who praises racist militia groups and denigrates as unpatriotic or worse those who protest against racially biased policing and injustice.
I first checked out a Walmart parking lot where vans/rvs are generally allowed to stay overnight, but the store was boarded up and the parking lot empty save for black security vehicles patrolling back and forth like panthers in a zoo cage. I kept driving, curiously feeling my way into the northern downtown district. Most all of the stores over several blocks were boarded up, with the plywood painted over with beautiful messages of peace and community, the art and words clearly intended to add a countervailing voice of healing and positivity to a place that had seen much destruction.
The streets were eerily silent with nary a protester in sight. I drove around taking photographs of many of the storefront messages and at 7pm I made a u-turn to drive back out for the night. I pulled over to take one last photograph and although I hadn’t even left my van, an unmarked police car pulled behind me, flashers on. I laid my wrists out the window so the police would know to not fear my carrying a weapon. “Is there anyone else in the vehicle with you?” “No sir, just myself.” “Are there any weapons in there?” “No sir.” I was then asked to leave my van and asked if I would consent to a search. I said that I was not authorizing a full search but was fine if he wanted to take a peek inside. I looked away for a minute or so only to discover that the officer was inside my van doing a full search with flashlight and pulling things off of shelves, etc. I reminded him that I hadn’t authorized a full search and asked him to please exit my van. He ignored me and continued searching so I turned on my video camera and again reminded him that I hadn’t consented to a full search. He exited the van and said “it’s past curfew so turn around you’re under arrest for a curfew violation.” I’m quite confident he would have arrested me in either case, but he was definitely a hard-ass type cop and I’m fairly sure he didn’t appreciate the exercising of my constitutional rights protecting me from unlawful search in a way that he may not have liked.
After cuffs were placed on me, I looked around and noticed that there were several people videotaping the entire scene from their front doors or second floor windows. After seeing so many bystander videos of police encounters online it was strange to be the one being videotaped, but I definitely did appreciate the extra sense of security it offered. By this time, there were about 6-8 police on the scene and I had friendly conversations with a few of them. The handcuffs were too tight and several of the police took turns with the key trying to loosen them. Giving up on trying, one officer said “these cuffs are fucked,” words you never really want to hear. It made me chuckle, despite the tight grip on my wrists.
They placed me in the back of a vehicle for transport and then proceeded to arrest an African American woman who had been across the street watching events transpire. She was kind of mouthy and clearly upset, and I believe quite rightfully so. Once they placed her in the backseat with me, it became clear that she was quite likely homeless and suffering from some form of mental illness. She smelled of urine, and at best mumbled answers to the questions the officers were asking her in regards to booking. Her arrest is the kind that screams for police reform. She didn’t need arresting and incarceration. If anything, she was in need of mental health services and quite likely supportive housing. In the eyes of the Kenosha police department, being homeless when there is a curfew is apparently a crime, since you don’t have an indoors to go to to avoid violating the curfew. Sitting in my home (my van) is purportedly a crime too under curfew, but one I’ll hopefully get a chance to explore with a judge at some point.
Prior to my arrest, I had felt in a way that I might be immune within any possible police interaction. For those of you just coming to understand what white privilege looks like, white people within my caste (and yes I am deliberately choosing to use the word “caste”) tend to feel that way. People of color generally have significant distrust of police and for very good reason, evidenced again with the shooting of Jacob Blake. In my particular case, my white privilege got trumped (or is that Trumped) by my out-of-state California plates which put me in a different class of undesirables. White people like me bristle at being profiled. My arrest gave me a first-hand feeling of what it’s like to be profiled by the police. It sucks. Plain and simple. I can only begin to imagine what it must be like to constantly be negative profiled due to the color of one’s skin.
The Lock Up
Off to the Sheriff’s Detention Center we went for various booking procedures. I wasn’t prepared for all the shackling that happens. Every time I would sit or stand somewhere, they cuffed me to a bar of some sort on the wall . Lots of questions were asked and then off into a holding cell I went. They had taken all my possessions, including my belt, shoes and mask. The holding cell I was in was far from sanitary, with old food on the floor. Once they locked me in, I felt something completely new.
I felt like a prisoner.
Being locked up is one thing, but feeling like a prisoner is another. Again, it’s a caste thing, suddenly significantly lower in status, where people don’t offer much eye contact if at all, and you are treated clearly as someone beneath someone else. That’s a sharper reckoning of some of my normal white male privilege being taken away. Being locked up however placed me in a position to have more empathy for the inmate. There is something very dehumanizing about it. By the time my incarceration was over, I realized that locking people up makes no one better. It’s actually just a process which breeds distrust, contempt and oppositional perspectives. Some like myself may have some spiritual gratitude and appreciation through the process, but incarceration in and of itself doesn’t seem to have any redeeming value in terms of helping people to become better humans. If we’re not trying to help each other become better versions of ourselves, what are we here for?
In my holding cell, I found myself up against the door watching events unfolding in the hallway, mirrored by detainees in other holding cells opposite me. One whom I later came to care about quite deeply looked a little creepy wearing tatters of his issued t-shirt that he had previously torn to shreds. Looking out the cell door is definitely an inmate thing to do and suddenly I was just another inmate doing what inmates do. One of the holding cells opposite me had something serious happening which required medical personnel with many guards/deputies entering and exiting. I later learned that a man in that cell had had a seizure which was about 30 minutes in the making without attention before it fully set in. Although I’m generally the one who stays calm under fire, watching and listening to all the activity from my door, some in view but most out of view, I found myself getting anxious. There was an energy in the detention center that was seriously stress-inducing. It’s just tense there, with occasional echoed yelling and people walking quickly through the hallway on their way to dealing with some disturbance or another. I couldn’t lie down to rest and tune it out because it was too filthy and I didn’t trust that any of the surfaces wouldn’t harbor the coronavirus.
After an hour or so on my own, I was moved to a tall desk for further processing where I was again shackled and asked more questions. Moving to another room I changed into my detention-issue clothes and was led into one of the other holding cells. I was a bit anxious about being in a cell with other people because one never knows what craziness can happen, and the folks I’d seen from my window in the other cells didn’t exactly inspire ease. It turns out I ended up alone again but as the next hour or so progressed, more and more people came in and eventually there were about nine of us together.
Impressions from the Inside
The first to join me were three African American men who came in together. The largest and oldest of the three introduced himself. His presence was calming and voice resonant and reassuring. He has created an organization called Justice for the Next Generation which advocates for racial equity, economic equality, and an end to police brutality and white supremacy for people of color, especially America’s youth and young adults. They were here to report on what is happening in Kenosha. The three of them were from North Carolina and have been traveling to various places to report from where black people have been killed by police, including Minneapolis for George Floyd and Atlanta for Rayshard Brooks. The previous afternoon they had flown to Chicago, rented a car and drove to Kenosha. They had not yet reached their hotel when they were pulled over by the police. Clearly profiled for their out-of-state plates and quite possibly from the color of their skin, the police were not interested in seeing their hotel reservation or press credentials and instead arrested them and impounded their car. Being arrested, of course they were prevented from covering the events on the ground that evening.
At some point, I started laughing, kind of out loud, kind of to myself. Several new detainees had joined us and I was in a holding cell looking down at my pants stenciled with “Kenosha County Sheriff Detention.” All roads lead somewhere I suppose. Charley, one of the new guys, talked incessantly, interspersing every person’s statements with claims to know exactly what they were talking about. “I know that.” “I know him.” “I’ve done that too.” Virtually every claim or statement was something he already knew or had experienced. It was ludicrous. “I know the bible, the whole bible. I’ve memorized it.” He was a sweet guy, but could he just shut up? For a minute? It made me chuckle to see myself in this situation. I’d have thought being locked up could break a person in different ways, but clearly my Achilles’ heal was being driven nuts by incessant fabricating talkers. And why was he here anyway? He clearly had a cognitive impairment and really had no business being incarcerated, harmless as the day is long.
After more arrived, I asked a fellow named Jimmy if he was Native American since his appearance suggested so and he wore a shirt which bore the face of a Native American. He told us of his people and his reservation in Montana. He lives out-of-state and was arrested on the same curfew charge along with his mother and sister who were in a holding cell down the hall. When they were in the hallway at one point he kept waving at them, smiling sweetly. A big gentle young man with a sensitive way about him, he slept sprawled face down on the cement floor when able. No blankets or bunks were provided for any of us. Those of us who were new to this scene quickly learned to use our orange detention-issue slippers as a poor substitute for a pillow. About 2am Jimmy broke into beautiful chanting in his native tongue. Poignant and touching.
As the evening progressed, I felt like I was in the middle of a theater piece with all of us as characters interacting and sharing our stories. We’d move around, pace, adjust, talk, sing, laugh – reclining in all number of positions, trying to find some form of comfort on concrete floors and benches. The dialogue could be such a powerful piece on race and incarceration. Many times I wish I had been able to tape record our entire time together, and take photographic portraits of each one.
Another African American man named Rolando, about 30 years old talked fairly incessantly as well. Funny and sharp, he would occasionally break into song in a sexy, nasally Trey Songz style. Music is definitely his thing and he name-dropped a bit regarding music production. He’s also been in trouble the law since he was a kid for “doin’ nigga shit.” Rolando was relentlessly charming, though, and continued to try to flirt with the female guards. His eyes looked other-planetary, an intensely rich green with a black ring around the iris and large dilated black pupils. I imagined they must have been from some sort of decorative contact lenses. As much as I wanted to playfully ask “your eyes are freaking me the fuck out, what’s the deal?,” I resisted the impulse, partly to not appear naive, but also in case of the slight possibility that they were truly genetic peculiarities. Later in the evening someone did ask what makes his eyes like that and without missing a beat he said “gamma rays!’
Impacts of Incarceration
Lives truly get torn apart from the criminal justice system. Several of those who were incarcerated with me couldn’t afford the $200 bond (or more if they had more complicated cases). Thus they’d have to spend more time locked up until they were able to get in front of a judge later in the day and see if they might get out on a “signature bond.” One particularly frustrated 21 year old white man who preferred to rest with his back on the bench and legs straight up the wall kept saying that he was sure that he was going to lose his job because he couldn’t afford bail. He was arrested for curfew violation while driving home from work at a fast food restaurant but due to other bench warrants his situation is a little more complicated. He unfortunately seemed to understand the criminal justice system pretty well. He’ll also need to come up with another $200 to get his vehicle back. Clearly not a big fan of the police, he gets credit for the funniest line of the night when he said, “the only blue uniforms that matter are the post office and Culver’s!”
Another white guy joined the group and paced for a long time, not interacting with hardly anyone except me, and then only in a limited way. He is a tradesman and was also worried about not being able to show up on time to work in the morning. After he left, one of my new friends suggested that perhaps he was more than likely not in alignment with the Black Lives Matter movement and that he might have been uncomfortable being locked up with this particular group. He ended up in a different holding room, perhaps by request. We don’t really know for sure what his story was because he didn’t tell us, but one truth I’ve learned in life is that everyone has a story. Everyone has something weighing them down to one extent or another. Adding arrest and incarceration to the story of someone’s life is certainly going to exacerbate stresses.
I ended up feeling a particularly strong compassion for the man with the torn-to-shreds shirt that I had seen from the opposite holding cell earlier. For the first five hours or so of our shared confinement he didn’t really acknowledge me, not in a mean way, but likely skeptical of me based on appearances. Rather than sitting or standing on the floor, he seemed to prefer to stand on one of the two benches lining the walls. He would often spontaneously break into rap. I wish I had been able to record his songs and listen to them again. They were powerful statements of the life he knows. After the other chatty folks had quieted down around 2am, I started asking him questions about his situation. He said that he is homeless and had been sleeping outside a shopping center entrance. He read his police report to me and apparently the police saw him as someone they thought might be trying to break into the shopping center. He said he is afraid on the street because he believes there are people out to get him. My sense is that he has PTSD to one degree or another. I don’t think he noticed the tears forming in my eyes as he spoke. The police came to him in an unmarked car and he started running from them thinking they might be someone trying to harm him. Needless to say he is locked up now. He was sharp and insightful and says he has two jobs with a dream of becoming a doctor. He loves the idea of having all the text books a year in advance so he can learn everything and start his first year knowing more than the other students. When lives have no real undercurrent of support it can be so hard to move forward in life. Dreams remain just that. When I bonded out in the morning, I felt particularly sad leaving him behind.
The Need for Change
One of the dehumanizing aspects of incarceration can be seen in the form of health safety. In the heart of this coronavirus pandemic, we had to ask to be given masks and many spent hours locked up in our shared room without them. The masks we did eventually receive did virtually nothing to protect us as they were made of flimsy see-through cotton, seemingly from recycled old thin t-shirts. Sanitary conditions in the holding cells were weak as well including food on the floor and some dried feces on one of the walls. No soap was provided for the washing of hands either. I ended up writing a letter to the editor of the local Kenosha newspaper after my incarceration about the health risk to the community by potentially exposing people to the coronavirus while incarcerated and then releasing them to the public untested. I’ve personally arranged for testing today. just to be sure.
So many of the people I came in contact with during my arrest and incarceration are clearly in need of social work intervention and perhaps housing support, not policing and incarceration. Being poor, living on the street, and/or having a cognitive impairment should not be treated as crimes. Calls to “Defund the police” really means shifting funding from the arrest/incarceration system over to other more healing and helpful social services. In researching the Kenosha County budget, I found that there are 425 full time equivalent employees in the Sheriff’s department yet only 46 in Children and Family Services and 13 in Aging and Disability Services. Fully 2/3rds of the Sheriff’s Department budget is allocated to incarceration. Imagine if criminalization and punitive justice were replaced by more supportive services. People often commit crimes because they are poor and have limited job opportunities.
The entire evening cost me $386. $200 of that was for my release bond, and $186 for the towing and storage fees. Although I do feel the arrest was unjust in its unilateral targeting, for me it was worth every penny and so much more. I can afford that cost so I have the privilege to even utter such words. While I may cherish my time spent alone, life without real connection is pretty meaningless and empty. In this holding cell, we men had real connection. A particularly knowledgable African American man came in later in the evening and gave those of us who were still awake an American history lesson starting with the slave trade. The five or so of us who weren’t sleeping had a very meaningful round-table (minus the table of course) talk on race and life. I talked of how I have been learning to recognize my own white privilege. We can’t necessarily help the privilege that we have, but we can learn to recognize it and hopefully learn to not hoard the benefits of that privilege. We can also learn to recognize the effects that lack of privilege has on others and what we can do to level the playing field.
For a better off white guy like me, I was able to experience the entire evening as a positive experience. I confessed to the group that this was so and said that I’ve got a really good life I get to go back to. Again this is further evidence that the privilege that some of us have makes it easier to recognize and bask in the blessings in life. But it’s true, it was an amazing evening for me. Fully illuminating, entertaining, and definitely educational. Even the early more anxiety-producing parts of the incarceration feel like blessings for me.
It’s easy to see the injustice within the criminal justice system from the outside, but from the inside it becomes instantly apparent that as an inmate you are “lesser-than.” You are a member of a caste that is significantly under the Guard caste. You are not seen as equal or worthy of dignity. We talk often of racial disparities in this country, but the truth to me is that we have a very strong “caste” system. BIPOC (Blacks, Indiginous, People of Color) are on a lower rung of the caste system. They are expected to stay in their place and maintain their role in the social contract. By demanding equality, they are breaking that social contract which causes many white people to start getting upset. “If he wasn’t out protesting, he would’n’a got shot” or “If he would have complied with the officer, he wouldn’t have had no trouble” are refrains I’ve heard from white folks. In many ways, the police are expected to keep BIPOC “in their place.” If you read up on your history in America, keeping people of color in their place is precisely why many police forces, neighborhood watch associations, fraternal orders and militia groups were created in the first place.
Newton’s Third Law of Motion states “for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.” I firmly believe that what we are seeing in this country regarding racial strife is that the actions of people who function within racist systems (policing, criminal justice, workplace equity) are having an equal and opposite reaction from those who are being oppressed. The uprising of voice, action and anger among BIPOC is engendering an equal and opposite reaction from those who otherwise benefit from the status quo, the racial social contract as it were. Thus we see armed militia groups, white supremacist factions, and even everyday people seeing a threat to their beliefs and ways of life and rising up with their own equal and opposite reactions. Newton got it right with physics, but it seems to apply to disturbances in the social order as well.
“You’re under arrest. Place your hands behind your back,” were not exactly the words I was expecting to hear when I turned into Kenosha. I may have spent 12 hours in custody (a very generous word for sure) yet I walked away from my incarceration not only with my freedom intact, but with much greater insight into the workings of our incarceration-happy society. As I walked toward the early morning sun in search of my van, my friends Greg, Dexter and Sam from the holding cell caught up to me and we went off together in search of a better way, a bittersweet blend of injustice and freedom on our lips.
A few blocks later, we got a ride to the tow yard from an African American man who stopped in the middle of traffic to talk with us. He invited us to a block party later in the day in the place where Jacob Blake was shot. We bailed out our vehicles, and together we ate, reflected, laughed and learned from each other. I learned that in addition to their justice advocacy, one of the men is actually a reverend and a gospel singer who has performed three different times at The White House. We scoped out where the National Guard had a staging area, and eventually found our way to the Jacob Blake block party. The intent of the event was to focus on positivity, change and healing rather than confronting Trump during his visit to Kenosha.
Jesse Jackson came and spoke as did others including a particularly impassioned talk from Jacob Blake’s uncle who talked beautifully and realistically about “Little Jake” and the need for racial equity, justice and community building.
I count these three wonderful men as blessings received from this entire ordeal – friends whom I hope to keep for the rest of my life. In the process of donning drab detention wear and jail socks, I was further inspired towards activism in the areas of racial equity and incarceration reform, and learned invaluable lessons first-hand from people whose lives are unfortunately getting caught up in the criminal justice system. We need more social services and less criminalization. When I turned on my phone, I saw I had a message from LeWarren, a friend to whom I became a mentor 20+ years ago while he was locked up in Juvenile Detention in San Francisco. Believe me we had a good laugh when I told him I didn’t see his message until now because I had been arrested and spent the night locked up. “Aw Ted, for real?…Naw man, you crazy!” Life is indeed precious. I only wish as a people we could all see and treat each other with that same reverence and precious regard.
*some of the names were changed in the writing of this article