I had just met up with my girlfriend after a hot day of dog walking in swampy Washington DC, and we were going to grab ice cream. “Shall we pay homage to our childhoods with Baskin Robbins or get gelato at Eastern Market?” she asked, as we were inching along in rush hour traffic on Florida. Before I could answer, I caught movement out of the driver’s side window–two policemen were walking purposefully towards a black woman. That kind of situation makes me really nervous, so I kept watching. I watched her try to push them away, then the car moved forward. While I was wondering whether I should ask my girlfriend to turn around, she glanced in the rear view mirror. “They’re really roughing her up.” That decided it for me. I asked her to turn around.
I was so anxious to get back that I tried to jump out of the car before it had even stopped. I ran towards the scene, and at first I stopped on a stoop nearby to watch, hoping my presence would deter the cops from further unnecessary roughness. There were 8-10 people watching the scene as well but they were all black and I got the sense they didn’t want to get in between the aggressive cops and this woman. By now the woman was on her knees, in distress, handcuffed and clearly ill. She was drooling but unable to wipe her face because she was restrained, and it was hot in the sun and she was crying for water. The policemen weren’t manhandling her anymore, but they weren’t helping her or speaking to her kindly. There were bleeding wounds on her forehead that looked fresh. After a few minutes I couldn’t take it, and I ran across the street to a liquor store, where the clerks were watching the scene unfold out of the window. When the clerk who was ringing me up found out why I wanted the bottle of water and napkins he gave them to me for free. As my back was turned I heard the female clerk say (as she watched out the window) “Oh, the hair!” I ran back as fast as I could, concerned that she was now on the ground.
I told the police I’d brought her water and they took it from me and started pouring it on her face. She didn’t like that and although she was very impaired (either high or very ill) made it clear that she wanted to drink the water, not have it poured on her face. I tried to lift her chin so they’d pour it in her mouth. They did momentarily but then returned to pouring it on her head. I did my best to dab some of the saliva away from her face but there was too much and the napkins I had were soaked. At this point one of the cops pulled me aside and told me that I should be careful of the blood because she was “a worker.” After a little while, the police made me back off from tending to her. I waited until the paramedics showed up and then I left. The police had called a lot of back-up and the only person I saw talking to her like she was a person was the one black cop.
I’ve never liked the police. They were menacing and cruel when I was a child, and as I got older I started hearing more and more about police violence, especially against people of color. It’s become very important to me to witness when I can and interfere if I’m able. I’ve stood and kept a weather eye on the police interacting with black people as much as I could since moving to DC, but this is the first time I’ve ever gotten physically involved.
Police brutality is disgustingly common. In DC in 2010, 29 police misconduct reports per capita were reported–higher than almost any other state. If you’re interested in fighting police brutality, you can find information about strategies for combating police violence here, information on how to record police behavior here, and what to do if you are involved in an incident with the cops here.