There were cop cars––hundreds of them stacked into their own sort of blue-and-red-light-flashing traffic jam. Cars with names like Anoka and Bloomington, as far as I could see. It seemed like every city in the entire metropolitan area had sent over their officers.
The loud bangs of continual fireworks melded with the sharper cracks of rubber bullets and chemical weapons. It was less than a week after Fourth of July––each day there seemed to be a new terrorist attack or police shooting––our city, our country was blowing up.
Three days before, a young black man named Philando Castile was pulled over by officer Jeronimo Yanez in Falcon Heights, Minnesota and within 103 seconds was fatally shot. It was a routine traffic stop. His girlfriend, Diamond Reynolds, captured the terrifying scene on a cellphone video that went viral. Millions of people were horrified by the bloody scene and the sound of Reynolds four year-old daughter Dae’Anna trying to comfort her mother from the back seat.
Black Lives Matter organizers had told me and other protest marshals that they weren’t trying to get people arrested that night. But when hundreds of us streamed down the entry ramps of Interstate 94, the energy of the group took on a new ferocity and power. It could not be cut.
“It’s been a big night, huh?” I said, trying to make conversation with my officer. All of us on the westbound side of the highway had been cleared out. Each one––46 in total––handcuffed, and led firmly by our own cop to a city bus that would take us to the Ramsey County jail. My officer ignored me, but I tried again, asking if he might remove the long-sleeve shirt that was still tied uncomfortably around my face as protection from chemical weapons. He said I’d have to wait. I guess I couldn’t really blame him for not being interested in chatting with his arrestee. Yet, even after four hours of a militarized stand off, part of me had held out for the possibility of empathy.
With the line to the front of the bus inching along terribly slowly, I spent the time taking in the scene. The fifty or so officers on bicycles who had been ominously circling us now migrated over to the eastbound side of the highway. There they joined 75 or more cops in full riot gear who were spraying chemicals and shooting rubber bullets at the remaining protestors. I ached to think what might happen to them.
In these minutes after being arrested, I didn’t really feel fear. Rather I felt relief. Relief that I wouldn’t have to use that long-sleeve shirt. Getting arrested felt relatively safe when compared to the alternative of getting maced or pepper sprayed, or worse getting shot with rubber bullets. Rubber or not, I was terrified of getting shot. It was the closest I felt to being in a warzone.
Frankly, I was relieved as well to be getting off the highway. With cops surrounding us on all sides and blocking the entrances, it hadn’t really occurred to me that I could have left earlier. Leaving was not only extremely intimidating, but it would have meant abandoning my fellow protestors. Beyond a few familiar faces, I didn’t really know this group of people, yet I felt powerfully bonded to them. Later, my fellow arrestees shared the sentiment that not one of us had planned ahead of time to be arrested. And none of us were really aware of making a personal decision to stay. Rather, it felt like a decision that we sort of intuitively made as a group.
When my cop and I finally got to the front of the line, another cop wrote my name and a number on a white board, and third cop took my picture. From what I had heard about mass arrests at protests, it seemed likely that they would not want to formally book us all into jail, so I assumed we were probably taking these pseudo mug shots instead of the real ones. When I decided to smile for my picture, the officers seemed surprised, but didn’t say anything. I figured I had gotten myself here by my own free will, so I might as well bring a positive face to the situation.
At this point, my cop took his leave and I was led by two more cops onto the bus where they patted me down and took my valuables. I was then allowed to walk by myself down the aisle to join my fellow protestors at the back of the bus. The attitude among us was pretty relaxed, almost like a field trip, except everyone was sitting with their hands behind their back. We decided to use the time to get to know one another. I learned that the older woman sitting next to me––one of the few people over 35 in our group––had already been arrested more than once in the 70s as a peace activist.
Almost immediately after getting arrested, I could tell that they hadn’t put on my handcuffs properly––for bulk arrests they often use plastic zip-tie handcuffs and, with my small hands, it was easy to get out. I kept this knowledge from the officers but, once safely at the back of the bus, I used my freedom to put back on my long-sleeve shirt as the night air had grown quite chilly. I also helped adjust a few other people’s clothes and even helped one or two with a scratch, always keeping one eye on the front of the bus. This didn’t prove to be too difficult as the officers were still focused on searching the protestors filing onboard.
There was another woman nearby who was also taking advantage of inadequate handcuffs and I heard her friend admonish her––“This is serious, you’re under arrest.” I stiffened at her comment. It occurred to me that my current lack of fear probably reflected my privilege and naivité. I was clearly used to feeling safe in my skin.
When we arrived at the Ramsey County Jail, they took us to an interior section that looked a lot like a loading dock. There, dozens more cops were waiting to meet each one of us individually when we got off the bus. They led us down a long hallway where we were once again padded down, more viciously this time, and then divided by sex and placed in holding cells with eight or so people in each cell.
They determined our sex simply by looking at us. Later, I wondered what would have happened if my sex hadn’t been obvious.
The cell was as depressing as any jail cell you might imagine. Dirty gray cement floors and walls with a metal toilet bowl in the middle. I was immediately thankful that for once my bladder was not very full––at some point during the protest, I had scrambled up the bank to pee in the tall bushes along the highway. Others had done the same and no one had ended up using the toilet while we were all in there. I slumped to the floor with my back against the wall, my knees up to my chest. The energy in the room was quiet. It was past midnight by now and we were tired. Every few minutes the door would slam open, and then it would slam shut. Each time the slam shut was surprisingly harsh and we would all jump.
At some point, a very large male guard opened the door, a paper bag of food in his hand, and a cart with more bags behind him. Again, it looked a lot like something you’d see on a school field trip. Systems, as I would learn, look and smell similar and the food is typically horrendous.
“If you want anything to eat, this is your last chance until 5:30am in the morning.”
“Is that when we’re getting out?” I asked him. I thought that we would probably only be in jail for a couple hours, so even waiting until 5:30am seemed like kind of a long time.
“No you all are getting booked in and probably won’t get out until Monday. You’re getting charged with third-degree misdemeanor riot.”
At that point I didn’t really know what a third-degree misdemeanor riot meant, but it didn’t sound so good. It was Saturday night, so Monday didn’t sound so good either. I slumped back against the wall. At first, the room stayed fairly quiet and I wondered if I was the only one who was starting to feel more than a little uncomfortable with our current predicament. Eventually, people started opening up and as it turned out no one was very happy. One woman, barely out of high school, had promised her parents she would be home that night. Another had a dog waiting for her. Yet another had a friend who had flown in from California for the weekend.
No one in this group had ever been arrested before, but we all thought that being arrested for protesting probably involved being in jail for a couple hours and possibly some type of citation or minor charge. No one had expected 48 hours, or this ominous sounding third-degree misdemeanor.
This would not be the first time over the course of the two days I was in jail that I would be surprised and vaguely uncomfortable to find myself in the position I was in. Getting arrested for protesting had been a possibility for some time now given the type of activism I was involved in, but it had never been a particular desire or plan of mine. Each time I felt fear of my situation or questioned the decisions that led me here, I looked toward others in comparison. Each time, I was surprised how much I fit in. They hadn’t planned to get arrested either. Instead of fearing I made a mistake, I could relax into a more vague understanding that there was a larger reason we were all here.
After a long period, the door started periodically opening again and a guard would shout out a last name. More often than not, no one in our holding cell would actually have that last name and the door would slam shut again. Then, a few minutes later, the same guard would yell the same last name and, again we’d tell him that no one in the cell had that name. SLAM.
Eventually my name was called. I was ushered over to an area where they took my fingerprints using a gooey ink that I couldn’t entirely get off, even with their special chemical soap. The rest of booking proceeded in a blurry, disorganized fashion. When I went back over it with my cellmates later, it seemed that not one of us had the same experience. Kate and I had been asked if we were suicidal, but Sarah was asked if she ever heard strange voices. Madeline was drilled extensively about the meaning of her tattoos, but I don’t even remember being asked if I had tattoos. I don’t remember being asked about my height either and I later realized that, on my ID bracelet, it said I was 5’8 even though in reality I’m only 5’3.
At some point, a different guard took electronic fingerprints––a task that seemed like overkill after the standard ink prints––and for some reason he couldn’t get it right and had to keep redoing each finger over and over again. But this guard was kind and I was grateful that he touched my hands gently.
For some period of time, I was back in another holding cell. For another, I was sitting in a chair in the lobby. At one point I was allowed to make my phone call. The person on the line was calm. I told him to call my mom, that she would not be surprised where I was. They took my real mug shot. This time I did not smile.
Eventually, three other women and I were ushered out of the booking area and into a room that simply contained shower spigots and small wooden benches. For a fleeting instance, I felt like I was in a gas chamber. Two female guards had us strip off all of our clothes. They inspected each of our cracks and crevices––anywhere we could possible hide something––told us to put all of our street clothes into a bin, and handed us each an orange shirt, an orange pair of pants, and a pair of underwear in the most awful shade of brown.
Neither my shirt nor pants fit right, but it was the underwear that was hard for me to swallow. I had seen a lot of ugly underwear in my life, but this was without a doubt the ugliest. I asked if we could keep our bras and they said no, we were not allowed a bra.
In this instance, the reality of jail hit me hard. I was not allowed control over any part of my life, even what I wore in terms of my underpants. Never before had I not had control over my underpants. Once we were dressed, the two female guards gave each of us a small plastic bag containing a tiny toothbrush, a tube of toothpaste, a bar of soap, a stick of deodorant, and something that looked like a debit card. I marveled that, in this moment, these were my only possessions.
The guards then led us down a long hallway, through several more doors, across some sort of large circular open space, and into a small room with every inch of its floor covered in cots. As it turned out, they had booked so many of us into jail that they couldn’t fit us all into cells––so they squeezed nine into the “rec room” which was about the size of a small circular bedroom with high ceilings and windows that you could not see out of. In the hours to come, I would learn how lucky I was to be there compared to what would have been the alternative. But, for now, I was just glad that all the women in there were fellow protestors and there wasn’t a toilet––we’d have to use the toilet in the cell next door. I was one of those people who didn’t mind being naked in front of other people or peeing in the woods, but pooping inches away from even one other person was on the bottom of the list of things I ever wanted to do.
Sleep. It didn’t matter that there was only approximately an inch of fabric covering my hard, plastic cot, and no pillow––I lost consciousness almost immediately.
Waking up. There was yelling, but it was still dark. More door slamming. A gruff voice saying this was our only opportunity to eat. They would come back and dispose of any food we had after 10 minutes. It was 4:45am and we’d only been asleep for approximately 2.5 hours, but they were waking us up for breakfast. At the time, I was too groggy to really understand what was going on, preferring the cold comfort of my cot over whatever was in those paper bags. Later I regretted it as I would soon learn that the hard-boiled egg they gave you with breakfast was the best piece of food we’d get all day.
When I became conscious again, it was light in our cell and I could see the orange-clad bodies around me. Throughout the entire time I was in jail, waking up did not cease to be disorienting. At first I would have no idea where I was and then it would hit me, I’m in jail. The rows of cots would remind me of camp, or a slumber party even, but it was the orange uniforms that gave it away. Looking around at us all, it was some weird mixture of terrifying and funny. After being at protests where every moment is captured with cell-phone photos and videos, it was hard for me to get used to the fact that there was no way to visually document our experience. As obvious as this may already be, it really hit me why most of the world does not know or care about what goes on inside jails or prisons. There’s no way to really see.
Looking back, it’s hard for me to remember if that first day in jail passed rather quickly or stretched out interminably. The presence of my eight jail-mates both preoccupied me and cradled me. Each of us ebbed and flowed through moments of patience and strength, and moments more akin to panic. Two women weren’t able to take their anxiety medication for the first time in years and lamented that, of all places, jail is one place where they really would have liked to have it. One woman worried what would happen when she didn’t show up for her shift. Two women were social workers and two of us thought we might like to be. All of us wondered how a third-degree misdemeanor might impact our futures.
In the morning, Karin felt like a camp counselor, asking us if we wanted to process why we were here and then make a plan for the day. At night, when they finally gave us books, she read aloud to us in a beautiful voice that lulled me to sleep. But her mind had been too busy for her to sleep that first night and, by the second night, she had grown exhausted and scared.
Here and there, the guards had been mentioning something about lock-down, but it took me a while to understand what that truly meant. Lock-down meant that everyone in the entire jail was locked in their cell and that no one could leave for any reason throughout the entire day. I would eventually learn that this was a pretty standard practice in jails during periods of social unrest as a way of insuring that inmates were kept under control. I couldn’t help but feel bad for the non-protestor inmates who were made to suffer these same consequences.
Lock-down for us meant we couldn’t walk around, couldn’t make phone calls, and for much of the day weren’t given books or writing paper either. But our door was unlocked so that we could walk the five feet to use the toilet in the cell next door. And occasionally, a few of us even dared to walk over to the guard station to ask them a question. True lock-down––what the majority of my fellow protestors and inmates experienced––meant being locked into an approximately 12 foot by 8 foot cell all day, with no escape, not to mention nowhere to poop in private. I have never had a problem with claustrophobia, but when I was transferred into my own cell that second night I immediately felt it in a way I never had before. I literally could not and still cannot not imagine how people can survive one entire day locked in a cell let alone dozens. It’s difficult to even think about it.
Back in the rec room version of lock-down, we grew aware of our enormous privileges, but didn’t cease to take full advantage of them. Karin thought we would all benefit from some movement so, after lunch that first day, we all stacked up our cots, giving us a delicious 14 by 14 foot square to move around. We began our activities by me leading the group in qi gong. I was a little nervous as the leader, not having practiced qi gong for months myself, but I was pleased to notice the calm energy in the room after we were done. Then Kate led us in yoga after which we had an in-depth discussion about the cultural commodification of yogic practice in America. After that, I dozed on a mountain of cots while the rest of the women sat in a circle, playing Pictionary telephone and making group drawings of monsters. We waited until after dinner to put the cots back down so that we didn’t have to eat on our beds.
I looked forward to meals because they broke up the day and meant time was passing, but in reality they were nothing to look forward to. Imagine the worst school lunch and then imagine something infinitely worse. Lots of soy meat, scalloped potatoes and watery canned fruit. No fresh produce in sight. It’s hard to imagine how someone could be remotely healthy after a week, a month, a year of being forced to eat it. Right along with the inability to go outside at all, it’s frankly one of the facets of jail that horrifies me the most.
Safe in the knowledge that my time behind bars would be marked in hours, I resolved to do my best with the food. I felt that not eating would only make my time here more uncomfortable. Despite the fact the meals either left me hungry or gave me stomachaches, I was ultimately glad that I still had energy to function. Stella, went the other route, refusing to eat or barely drink anything during the entire time we spent in jail. She’d stand over us with her arms crossed while we ate our meals. We learned that she was recovering from anorexia and that the situation was highly triggering for her. I knew we couldn’t make her eat, but worries about her would flit in and out of my mind, particularly by the second full day when she seemed more and more tired and it still wasn’t clear when we would be released. Stella’s unwillingness to eat brought a certain urgency to our situation. Our fates weren’t up to us anymore. While I felt that I could stick it out for a long time if I had to, Stella was literally starving.
Throughout the late afternoon and into the evening, different guards would come to check on us and, each time they did, we peppered them with questions, trying to find out whatever information we could. As we soon learned, no guard was alike, both in terms of how they treated us and what information they would give out.
Some of the guards seemed to find us rather amusing, this group of mainly white, highly-educated women who clearly would not have ended up in jail under any other circumstance. Other guards were mean, intent on beating us down and making sure that we didn’t get any special privileges. Each guard seemed to have a different opinion on when we might get out and whether we’d actually get charged with third-degree misdemeanors. One Latina guard told us that she was proud of us and that she would have liked to out there with us. She seemed certain that they would drop the charges and, for a few hours, her words sparked a little bubble inside my heart. I had to learn the hard way that the guards didn’t actually know much more than we did.
Then there was Stephanie, the blonde guard with––and I’m not kidding––pink handcuffs. I remembered her as grumpily eating pretzels during our booking, and then she was the guard who stripped searched me, so she initially didn’t spark positive associations. But my opinion changed when she hung around long enough to have a real conversation with us, sharing how she used to work as a canvasser before she decided to become a sheriff, and explaining the perspective on the situation from the law enforcement side of things.
By now, we were beginning to understand that the riot charge was political in motivation. Our time on the highway had mainly involved linking arms and chanting. When we grew tired, we had sat cross-legged on the pavement and sang. A few people mentioned they were hungry, and miraculously someone had brought out a delicious array of snacks. We shared hummus and pita chips, cashews, grapes and green beans––laughing a bit at ourselves for the absurdity of it all. To call eating hummus on a highway a riot would be laughable in itself, except that two days previously a man named Micah Johnson had fatally shot five officers in Dallas, Texas and injured four others. To bring tensions to an even fiercer breaking point, at around 11:30pm, an hour after we were arrested, someone from the overpass dropped a piece of cement on an officer, bruising his vertebrae. He was not seriously injured, and ended up back on the force a few days later, but the city had wanted to send a message.
My assumption that we might not even get real mug shots had probably actually been correct at the time. But, by midnight, things had changed. Over 50 other people in addition to our group of 46 were arrested that night on the highway and in the surrounding neighborhood. They were immediately released with lesser charges. But our westbound group, despite being utterly nonviolent, found ourselves facing charges that, in the unlikely worst-case scenario, amounted up to a year in jail. The magnitude of the sentence was not something I would comprehend at the time. Even later, after I was safely beyond bars, my mind could only glimpse that possibility. It was unfathomable.
Stephanie had sympathy for us––she probably saw some of herself in our white skin and progressive ideals. Later, the two women of color in the cell, shared their certainty that they never would have had that type of conversation with a guard had it just been them in the cell. Our white skin afforded them a degree of protection. Their experience in jail was likely different because of it.
It did really feel like we probably were getting special favors when we successfully convinced Stephanie to call Madeline’s parents. At first she resisted: “If I call her parents, you’ll will want me to call your parents.”
“No,” we countered, almost too forcefully.
“If I don’t show up at their house and they don’t know where I am, my mother will most certainly call the police. She’s done it before.” Madeline added convincingly.
Like many others, Madeline’s first night phone call didn’t go through and, from that moment forward, she had been pretty consistently panicking about what would happen when she missed her family’s weekly Sunday dinner. Unlike my parents who would not be altogether surprised by my current predicament after my many months of activist involvement, Madeline said that she had gotten involved with the movement approximately two days before getting arrested. Her parents didn’t even know that she thought black lives mattered. I couldn’t help but feel somewhat bad for them, and when Stephanie came back, it sounded like their conversation had involved a lot of yelling. We were all relieved though. At least Madeline’s mother didn’t think that her daughter had gone missing.
It hurt somewhat to imagine what was going on outside these walls. My parents, though not totally shocked, would undoubtedly be very worried. I kept hearing their voices inside my head, judging me. And I wondered about the world––it had been so crazy lately. Were their more people protesting? Were more people dying? At one point, we heard that there were people outside the jail singing.
At 11pm, our second night, I was once again wakened by yelling. “Get up. Pack your stuff. You’re being moved into your own cells.”
“We’re happy here,” we told them. They pretty quickly made it clear that we didn’t have an option. For the first time since I was given the brown underwear, I felt real fear.
As it turned out, they put me in a cell with Madeline and I was calmed by the knowledge that I would be with someone that I knew and liked. The cell, which was approximately eight times smaller than the average dorm room, had metal bunk beds with no ladder. Madeline soon found out that she was too scared to sleep on the top bunk and so I would hoist myself up to sleep.
The walls of the cell had messages written in pencil from one inmate to another. They gave you the sickly feeling that some of these people had been there for a long time. The floor of the cell was stained with what looked too much like urine and blood. If you looked too closely at the toilet, it became clear that these cells were never really cleaned. And somehow all of this––so many things which I would never tolerate in any part of my life, which normally would freak me out––was ok. I was ok. It was uncomfortable, but I could tolerate it.
When I got out of jail that next night, I found myself fractured. I felt acutely all the despair in the world, like I couldn’t do normal tasks, like I had lost some thread holding me together. It took several days, several cries, swimming in open water, and some major catching up on sleep for me to feel like myself. But in jail I had felt solid, contained. I don’t know if I held it together for my rec-room jailmates, for Madeline––recognizing perhaps that me being visibly anxious would do nothing to help their anxiety. It was probably that and some way of keeping myself safe, holding it together until it was ok to fall apart.
When I look back at it, it was just before I was released that I started to come undone. The guard had called my name and, instead of feeling relieved, I felt numb. There were still women who had not been bailed out yet. Stella hadn’t been bailed out yet.
“There are people in here who need to get out more than me.”
“That’s not the way it works,” the guard told me. He led me through many doors and down several long hallways, before grabbing a bin, having me sign something, and putting me in yet another cell.
“Put on your clothes.” SLAM.
The bin had the clothes I had worn the night of the protest––brown Birkenstocks, khaki shorts, orange tank top, and grey long-sleeve shirt that I had turned into a facemask. It felt wonderful to put them on again. They fit. I felt like me.
Dressed, I eagerly reach for the cell door, but it was locked. I knocked. No answer. I waited for the guard to return, but after several minutes he still hadn’t come. This cell, unlike all the others I had been in, had no window to look out. Even after Madeline was bailed out and I was alone in our cell, I could look out the small window and see the guards at their guard station. Now such a site would have been comforting.
I felt a wild urge to tear down this door, to be free, yet it was just my body, a metal toilet bowl, and grey cement. I thought of Sandra Bland alone in her cell. My fate depending on this guard coming back and releasing me. I felt a new understanding of how one becomes crazy. I wondered how someone here could not.
The day after I got out of jail, I biked to Bde Maka Ska, marveled at the sun sparkling off the water, and rejoiced in my ability to move my body. I was so very lucky. I was free.
Three months later, I write this, and I’m still trying to figure out what to do with all the windows.