I was there.
For a week whenever I’ve heard my fellow middle-class Clevelanders armchair-quarterbacking “that mess with the protests,” I’ve had to decide whether to bring that up or bite my tongue.
I was on East 4th Street on the night May 23 at around 8:30 or 9:00 pm – I’m not sure, my phone wasn’t working at the time – when everyone went scrambling to leave the alleyway only to see a wall of cops in full riot gear advancing toward them, intent on a mass arrest.
Let’s not be coy about this: I was there because I was protesting. Marching down the middle of the street last Saturday, shouting “Hands up, don’t shoot!” and “My hands are on my head, please don’t shoot me dead!” and “No justice, no peace!” The whole shebang.
I am, in fact, really angry about the acquittal of Michael Brelo, a police officer who was acquitted this month after firing 49 of 137 shots at Timothy Russell and Malissa Williams as they sat unarmed inside a car. I am really angry about police violence against black Americans in general, as I have written about at great length.
If being on East 4th Street on a Saturday night disturbing people’s nice quiet evening by being angry about police violence is a crime, then I should have spent the weekend in jail, alongside the 71 other people who were arrested for apparently that reason.
But I don’t. Instead, I spent the week in my comfortable home, fuming, fretting and eventually writing this article, instead, because I’ve never had such an up-close-and-personal demonstration of the selective, arbitrary nature of law enforcement.
Bluntly: I didn’t spend the past two days in a filthy cell with yellow water, rotten milk and spiders because I’m not black.
This isn’t a fresh allegation–the Plain Dealer has reported a civil rights attorney alleging “indiscriminate” arrests of both “protesters and onlookers”.
But I’m here to tell you exactly in what way it was indiscriminate. That I was pegged as an “onlooker” because I’m not black – and a guy a few feet away from me doing nothing I wasn’t doing was cuffed and shoved into a squad car because he was black.
Here are the details that I observed from that night: A peaceful protest was underway on East 4th Street. A crowd of people were standing in the street, chanting, waving signs, and the people sitting outdoors at restaurants and cafes were mainly filming us on their smartphones and watching us with bemusement. A street musician struck up “This Land Is Your Land” in support of us. One onlooker struck up a conversation with a young black dude near me — he’d recognized him from our march past Progressive Field after the baseball game earlier that day — and wanted to praise him for peacefully handling a confrontation then.
Then, two women stepped off the street onto the property of Greenhouse Tavern. They got in a shouting match with someone at a table. I don’t know who made the first physical contact or threw the first punch – all I know is I heard a glass break and then I, and everyone around me, was running for the mouth of the alleyway.
As far as I know, the only people who “crossed the line” at that time were those two women. It may be that others joined in the fight afterwards, but I didn’t see — and it certainly wasn’t 71 people. I’ve seen accounts saying protesters were “pepper spraying” people — all I can say is if there were protesters armed with pepper spray or anything at all they were a long way away from me.
And as for the actual crime the 71 detainees were charged with (“failure to disperse”), I and everyone around me were sure as hell trying to disperse. People only failed because their way was blocked by a row of riot cops marching into the alley, shoulder to shoulder, as though they’d been waiting for this very moment.
And then came the most surreal part. As the cops bulldozed their way down the alleyway, one of them tapped me on the shoulder and politely asked me to move out of the way.
A few minutes later, the young black man I mentioned — the one a few feet away from me, who wasn’t shouting slogans at all when I saw him, but chatting with a street musician and an Indians fan about being non-confrontational — was led out in handcuffs, saying he didn’t hit anyone or do anything. He was followed by another black man, whom I didn’t see anywhere near the fight when it went down, insisting “I told those girls not to go over there!”
I am not proud of what I did next: I left. Cops in riot gear are no joking matter. I walked out of there as fast as I could – right under the noses of the cops, who just saw me as one of the many, many white and Asian restaurant-goers who were still moving freely in and out of East 4th Street while protesters were being arrested. As I walked away I saw van after van speeding down, sirens wailing, ready to collect all 71 people being handcuffed.
I mean, yes. I wasn’t only lucky in that I was Asian. I was also lucky in that I was dressed fairly nicely, in a dress shirt and slacks, and not carrying a sign or wearing a t-shirt branded with a slogan.
But neither was the kid I first saw being dragged out of the alley. He was dressed more casually than me, but not dressed “like a protester” – and he was actually on the sidewalk, out of the way, last I saw him, while I was standing in the street with the others.
I never got the kid’s name, I never found out what happened to him afterwards, but I can only assume he spent the next couple of nights in jail–or, possibly, in a filthy workhouse (a term I’m only familiar with from Charles Dickens novels) repurposed as a jail. I got to spend the next couple nights in my own bed, eating in my own kitchen. If I’d wanted to I could’ve sat down right next to one of the people clapping and cheering for the cops and ordered myself a beer and some ribs.
He gets to spend the rest of his life with an arrest record listing the misdemeanor of “failure to disperse” while my record continues to be shiny and clean. Why? What separates me from one of those other, unlucky people? Why are they criminals and not me?
The cops would likely say they just made a split-second judgment call, that I blended into the crowd and others didn’t.
More accurately, I got away with blending into the crowd and many others didn’t. I was able to “disperse” while 71 other people got charged with “failure to disperse” by cops who intentionally trapped them. I benefited from my model minority privilege – the fact that cops expect Asians to be among the “good citizens” and not the “troublemakers” — and while I’m not volunteering to spend two days in jail to correct this “error,” I’m also not proud or happy about it.
Of course there wasn’t deliberate, systematic racial profiling here, nor were all the detainees black. Kris Wernowsky of the Northeast Ohio Media Group got arrested for the mistake of not being close enough to the edge of the crowd to transform from “protester” to “onlooker” when the shit hit the fan — though you’ll note he was released as soon as he was able to present a copy of his press pass, which magically makes it “lawful” to stand in a certain place while other people start a fight, whereas lacking that press pass apparently makes standing there “unlawful.”
The point is that this kind of mass arrest shouldn’t be happening in the first place, and when it does happen it will always lead to this kind of haphazard, unjust double standard.
The point is that racial prejudice is built into law enforcement. Whenever things get heated and cops make snap judgments, those judgments will default to racist assumptions. Sometimes that leads to some people getting arrested while others walk free. Sometimes that leads to some people getting shot dead for their car engine backfiring, or for being a 12-year-old boy with a pellet gun.
That’s why we were there in the first place.