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Life

Why I Was Arrested in St. Louis

The hardest part about getting arrested was when they took away my necklace.

I had not mentally prepared myself for it, probably because I forgot that I was even wearing it. It is a gold chain with three charms, each bearing the initial of one of my children. The necklace, and subsequent charms, were given to me by dear friends upon the birth of my first child four years ago, then added to after the arrival of my second, and finally my youngest.

The U.S. Marshal was unaware of the significance as she silently unhooked the chain without any warning. Admittedly, I am sure that she was used to far more invasive encounters with people. Moreover, as she collected my earrings, cell phone, driver’s license, and all other non-clothing paraphernalia, one necklace likely seemed inconsequential.

Yet, in that moment, I felt as if my breath had been knocked out of me.

It is because of my three children that I was paraded into jail that day. It was because of them, because of their innocence and their love, that I locked arms with fellow clergy and people of faith to march to the federal courthouse in downtown St. Louis and protest the treatment of blacks and to demand reforms to the criminal justice systems in St Louis, and in America. It was them that I was thinking of as I chanted about democracy and sang songs of freedom. It was their future that I was thinking of as I climbed over a police barricade onto the plaza. It was their world I hoped to change as I walked past the police line to sit in front of the courthouse.

We stayed there, on that plaza, joining in song with protesters from behind the barricade. We held one another. We sat, we stood, we sat again. We shared water. We held each other closer as we saw dozens of police officers coming our way. My arms gripped my neighbor’s tighter as I saw some with helmets and large rifles. It was hard to believe that we warranted such a response.

When the police officer asked me to stand up, I did so with my hands behind my back. I was the 51st person arrested, out of 57. They brought us directly into the courthouse. We were searched and processed. Our personal belongings were collected. Our jewelry was removed.

I was placed in a holding cell with 20 other women who had sat with me. We laughed together, shared personal stories, learned about one another. Some offered massages, others braided hair.

I was the last one into the holding cell because I had to be taken separately to have my headscarf searched. Others asked me if I was all right, being taken off to a private space with police. I reassured them I was fine; I had requested a private space for the search. Someone looked at me in shock that I was given privacy for my search. An African-American Muslim woman looked at me sadly, her hair down to her shoulders; she, too, had asked to keep her wrap. One woman joked about the knots in her shoelaces, deemed too troublesome to try to untie: “I guess they thought an old white lady wasn’t much of a threat!” We laughed, but the sound was uncomfortable as we looked around at all the lace-less shoes on the group. Some rubbed their fingers absently as they noticed others were allowed to keep rings. One woman had three pins still in her hair, while others were forced to wear their hair down, all clips taken away. I was granted permission to remove my phone and ID stored in my bra, while others had an officer remove items for them.

As we all compared notes, I was affirmed yet again in why I sat in that holding cell. Though we were all arrested for the same peaceful protest, and charged with the same crime, the disparity in our treatment broke down along racial lines.

Police officers put their lives on the line each day, and for that I cannot begin to express gratitude. I do not believe that all police officers are racist, nor do I think that they are bad people. In fact, those who processed and booked me yesterday were gracious, kind, and respectful. And that is precisely what disturbed me so much. Law enforcement officials are trained to assess threats in a split second. Though we linked arms together, sang the same words together, stood together, and were arrested together, those in our group with darker skin tone were deemed a greater risk.

After about three hours, I was booked, issued a ticket, and released. The charge was “Obstructing an Entryway” and the fine was $125. I signed the ticket indicating that I understood, posed for a picture to prove that I received my property, and walked out into the sunlight.

I paused on the steps of the courthouse to find my necklace in the ziploc bag. I detangled it gently and, holding each end, reached around my neck to secure it in place. I stood quietly, breathing in the fresh air, enjoying the quiet plaza that belied the events that happened only hours earlier. I fingered the charms, thinking of each of my children as I touched their initial, even more committed to the healing our broken world so desperately needs.

Maharat Rori Picker Neiss is Director of Programming, Education and Community Engagement at Bais Abraham Congregation.

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