July 10, 2016 was the first time I had ever heard an LRAD siren. It absorbed the shouts of white allies who were urging other white folks to take to the streets and use their privilege to defend their black and brown counterparts.
I witnessed an armored vehicle plow carelessly into the body of a young woman. I saw another officer grab a photographer and watched helplessly as they slammed him to the ground.
My partner, Akeem Muhammad, filmed the first ten minutes of intense escalation caused by the S.W.A.T. team’s arrival.
Akeem captured an officer’s use of a violent knee drop on Taylor Ely, the same young woman (0:30). Later she told me that officer called her a traitor, reminding her that, “These aren’t even your people.” Seconds after she is kneed in the back Taylor lifts her head, shouting to other officers for help.
Members of the S.W.A.T. team pointed their weapons at us, fingers poised to commit irreversible harm (3:30). We shouted, “Put the guns down!” but the officers only grew more annoyed.
I saw S.W.A.T. team members converge on another man slamming his head into the asphalt so violently he had to get staples to close his wounds (3:47). I was in shock, my partner Akeem was disgusted. He shouted painfully, “Protect and serve, though, right?” He threw a carnation, punctuating his statement.
Akeem ushered me to the sidewalk and I looked on as he continued to document the countless acts of unwarranted aggression and violence taken by the S.W.A.T. team. Minutes later, he was urging the protest participants to cover their faces. Across the street officers donned more armor, more masks, and grew more restless.
My mom, Kristina Brown, drove us out to the peaceful rally organized by members of a youth coalition called #TheWave. Three young women between the ages of 15 and 17 organized the rally: Myra Richardson, Raheejah Flowers, and Jeanette Jackson. It was a beautiful and inspiring affair, seamlessly executed and completely peaceful from beginning to end.
Contrary to the declarations of many media outlets, the chaos that ensued was not a product of the Youth Led March. I did not organize the Youth Led March, I merely supported in an unofficial and auxiliary capacity when asked. The event at which I and many others were arrested was completely impromptu and remained completely peaceful in nature.
We remained nonviolent, we committed to being peaceful. None of us wanted to tarnish the accomplishments of the youth organizers.
I can say with certainty that, at least until I was arrested, members of the community who gathered in a demonstration against police brutality and injustice did not throw anything at police, save for Akeem’s carnation.
As the chaos intensified I received text messages and phone calls from my justifiably concerned mother. She urged me to gather Akeem and Sellassie Blackwell and come back to the car.
The next hour would expose me to intense levels of fear and panic, the likes of which I had not experienced before. As Akeem committed to keeping protesters calm and in compliance with officer’s orders he shouted the phone number to the National Lawyer’s Guild.
I returned to my mother’s car, telling her we would be back soon and not to worry. I gave her a massive hug and told her that I love her. In all honestly, I was not certain I would see her again.
I returned to Akeem’s side, taking a moment to pray to Allah. I did not stop to make wudu, to make sure I was standing behind onlooking men, or check my compass to see if I was praying in the proper direction. Wearing short sleeves and shorts, I began with the takbir.
At around 7:50 PM, I was arrested. As I was dragged into the street an officer muttered, “Really give it to her,” to one of his peers. I feared for my life and I began screaming. When the officers finally allowed me to walk, instead of lifting me off the ground, I turned around and saw that Akeem had been arrested as well. I did not see him again until 3 a.m.
When I was taken to the opposite end of France Street an officer removed my hijab. Visibly disgusted at his colleagues actions, the officer who processed my paperwork removed my unreasonably tight zip-ties and allowed me to put my head scarf back on. I was shaking, and crying. All the while, many of the white folks who took to the streets in solidarity with the movement for Black lives turned to me and mouthed the words, “Everything will be ok.”
While reading Karen Savage’s account of her experience in East Baton Rouge Parish Prison, I realized there are many things I had blocked from my memory. I had sanitized my lived experience and recounted it through rose colored glasses.
The reality of the hours I spent in East Baton Rouge Parish Prison included getting maced through the air vents, being strip searched twice (once with a group, once separately). Like Karen, we were ordered to take off all our clothes, squat and cough as a guard inspected our naked bodies.
I was absent a blanket, as the facility was unable to accommodate the influx of protesters. At 3:30 AM I laid down on a lumpy mattress trying to gather my myself. When the lights came on at 4 AM, we were re-inspected and re-examined for contraband items.
After eating for the first time since the previous morning I returned to my cot, placing the mattress on top of me to keep my teeth from chattering and body from shivering. Even now, I keep telling myself that it wasn’t that bad.
I met amazingly resolute women, with whom I have stayed in contact. They commended us for our bravery and our sacrifice speaking out against police brutality and institutional racism. I attempted to sleep the day away when finally, my name was called with the news that my bond had been posted and I was “free” to go.
From the first moments of “freedom” Akeem and I were bombarded with media requests. We ended up spending the entire afternoon speaking with press and making sure the media did not portray us as violent protesters. A friend of mine from Louisiana State University, texted me that I was on Rachel Maddow. Akeem and I sat back and had an out of body experience as we watched ourselves and the other nonviolent people we marched beside get thrown to the ground, harassed, and abused by law enforcement.
A month later I still find myself crying or trembling after looking at photos from the scene, being triggered by the sound of police sirens, and feeling afraid to leave my house. I feel immense guilt for my sudden inability to function within activist spaces. I’m thankful Akeem and I went through this traumatic experience together. Knowing that we stood together in the face of fear has made our relationship stronger.
I have found sanctuary in the connections I made with with people who experienced similar trauma that day, and the days prior. In those very desperate moments, I was shown compassion and understanding by complete strangers. It is this compassion that will be the driving force for change the world, InshaAllah.