In 1963, Audrey Faye Hendricks put on a neatly ironed dress and a pair of Mary Janes, tucked a board game under her arm, and calmly marched off to be arrested. She was nine years old. Along with hundreds of other African-American schoolchildren, Audrey walked out of the 16th Street Baptist Church and through the streets to protest segregation. A block and a half later, she was arrested for parading without a permit. Up to 800 children joined Audrey in jail that day, a number that would later climb to several thousand. A year later — and after horrors including the bombing deaths of four little girls at the church — President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
I carried a picture of Audrey in my pocket when I went to get arrested in late June, together with about 600 other women in Washington, D.C. We were protesting the government’s unconscionably cruel border policies, in which government agents reportedly have ripped babies from their mothers’ breasts and lied to parents about where their children are. We chanted in front of Trump Tower, held a sit-in outside the Department of Justice, and finally occupied a U.S. Senate building.
For me, this was clearly an issue worth risking arrest for. But my experience was embarrassingly cushy compared to Audrey’s. The U.S. Capitol Police who patrol the Senate buildings were unfailingly professional. They approached each woman, politely told her that she was getting a final warning, asked if she was choosing to get arrested, and then waited for each person to agree and stand up, even helping women off the floor. I had been nervously waiting to have my hands zip-tied behind my back and have my belongings taken and cataloged. Instead, the officers simply walked us in groups out to the lawn, where we chatted under the trees and were processed in a couple of hours by police officers sitting at a long, orderly row of card tables. All I have to do is return within two weeks to pay $50 and resolve my arrest ticket.
What accounts for the difference between Audrey’s experience and mine? It’s hard not to conclude that much of it has to do with race. Most of the protesters appeared to be white — although the majority of the organizers and chant leaders were women of color, which should be no shock to anyone familiar with organizing by African-American and Latina women to oppose injustice. It seems unlikely that an action consisting primarily of people of color, holding signs invoking #BlackLivesMatter and protesting police brutality against black youth, would have been treated with similar respect.
Indeed, examples abound of the punitive consequences of having brown or black skin:
· A study from the New York Times concluded that police were far more likely to use force against blacks than against whites or other racial groups, even correcting for any racial disparities in crime statistics.
· Protests by communities of color against police brutality are themselves often harshly policed, leading to lasting trauma. In the meantime, white people rioting after sports victories or defeats are typically seen as a harmless nuisance at worst; even when they are arrested, their transgressions are not ascribed to the community at large.
· Despite agreement from a majority of law enforcement agencies across the country that anti-government extremists pose a higher risk of violence than Muslim extremism, the Boston Police Department contracted with a software company to monitor social media content classified as “Islamic Extremist Terminology,” as well as phrases like #blacklivesmatter, #dontshoot, and #mikebrown.
· The activities of daily living are no safer: Police have been summoned to respond to people of color mowing the lawn, renting an AirBnB, playing golf, attending a college tour, pushing a stroller, walking with iced tea, and reading C.S. Lewis.
That’s why it felt particularly important as a person who operates with white skin privilege (not to mention many other layers of privilege) to risk arrest. At a time when the damaging consequences of this administration’s policies are being felt in homes across the country, it is incumbent on those who have less to fear to risk more. If a vulnerable nine-year-old could risk a week in jail, taking a day off work to get arrested felt like the least I could do — and it’s reasonable to ask why I didn’t do it sooner. Trump may be doubling down on cruelty, but systemic inequality has been around since long before he came into office.
Civil disobedience is not the only option, of course. There are many ways to heed historian Timothy Snyder’s exhortation to resist “anticipatory obedience”: recruiting friends and colleagues to join marches, giving money to one of the many groups in the trenches fighting for justice, making phone calls to elected representatives, or just speaking up when it’s uncomfortable. Whatever the route, with the president flirting with autocracy and fomenting fear, it is critical to get off the sidelines. Our democratic institutions are worth the effort.