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Black Lives Matter arrested protesters
Courtesy D’Angelo

What it’s like to be arrested at the Black Lives Matter protests

Over 10,000 demonstrators have been arrested in the US, and stories of excessive police violence, harassment, and mistreatment in custody are emerging

“I was no longer seen as a ‘straight A student’, peer mediator, or educator,” says 23-year-old D’Angelo, discussing his arrest at the recent Black Lives Matter protests, “I was a dirt criminal who was about to be wiped off the street.”

D’Angelo is one of over 10,000 people in the US who were arrested at the demonstrations, which began on May 26 and are still ongoing today. Activists have been protesting police brutality and systemic racism ever since white police officer Derek Chauvin murdered George Floyd on May 25, with marches spreading across all 50 states and around the world.

Aside from small pockets of looting, protests were primarily peaceful, with demonstrators taking a knee – mirroring footballer Colin Kaepernick’s protest in 2016 – repeating Floyd’s cries of “I can’t breathe”, and calling for the police to be defunded. Despite this, law enforcement reacted with violence, spurred on by the president himself, who tweeted: “When the looting starts, the shooting starts.”

Police fired rubber bullets, teargas, and pepper spray, and resorted to heavy-handed arrests – and beatings with batons – when protesters defied newly-enforced curfews. One particularly shocking moment of police brutality came when Donald Trump ordered officers to forcefully clear protesters from his path in Washington DC so he could get a photo op outside the so-called Church of the Presidents.

“This year has been riddled with an insurmountable measure of death to people of colour,” D’Angelo tells Dazed. “As a young Black man, speaking up and speaking loud has always been a must for me, (which is why I joined the BLM protests).” 

D’Angelo was arrested in Indianapolis on June 2, after attending a demonstration at Downtown Indy. As they were joining the march close to the city’s 9pm curfew, D’Angelo and a friend decided to take a residential route to the protest, before they were accosted by nine officers. “I’ve seen the disregard for Black lives and how a routine stop can become a death sentence for Black folk,” he tells Dazed. D’Angelo was arrested for ‘resisting law enforcement’ and ‘curfew violation’.

“They accused me of trying to attack officers with a weapon upon my apprehension,” he says. “This was untrue, but what proof do I have? I was treated like a violent criminal, even though I verbally stated that I didn’t have a weapon. One of the nine officers reached for his gun while I was on the ground.”

“I was treated like a violent criminal, even though I verbally stated that I didn’t have a weapon. One of the nine officers reached for his gun while I was on the ground” – D’Angelo, protester

28-year-old Fil, who was peacefully protesting on May 31, was also met with unjust police violence. After coming face-to-face with officers and joining other activists in refusing to move, Fil was the target of firesticks, teargas, and rubber bullets. “When the chaos started, despite all the different emotions stirring inside me, I took a knee,” he says. Fil was quickly engulfed in a cloud of teargas, but was surprised to feel someone grab his hand and take a knee next to him through the smoke. Then another person joined. And another.

“We were the peace among the chaos,” he adds. “The cops were shooting teargas and rubber bullets, while some citizens retaliated by throwing water bottles and screaming, ‘fuck you’.” Fil says he and the other protesters who took a knee were the first ones to be arrested.

Over in LA, 21-year-old Julia Dupuis joined BLM protests with the goal of stepping up “to disrupt the systems of white supremacy that we built and maintained”. Dupuis had been protesting for five days before her arrest on June 2, marching for over eight hours each day. On the day of her detainment, she was marching in the city after the 6pm curfew hit. “The LAPD has always been a symbol of violence in the community. This curfew was just another justification for violence and abuse in an attempt to silence these protests. I knew that it was my responsibility to challenge the system, even if it meant arrest and detainment.”

Although Dupuis says most of the crowd dispersed after the curfew, around 100 people remained, and were quickly surrounded by law enforcement. “As soon as we left the wealthy neighbourhood we were in, an Army truck pulled up and riot police jumped off, lining up to cut us off. Behind us, they did the same thing. Everybody got on their knees, and white and non-Black allies moved to the front. We were on our knees for over 30 minutes, holding our breaths, just waiting for them to unleash their violence.” Dupuis tells Dazed that, in the end, the arrest “was slow”, with officers pointing a rubber bullet gun at protesters before arresting them one-by-one.

“We were on our knees for over 30 minutes, holding our breaths, just waiting for them to unleash their violence” – Julia Dupuis, protester

Another ally, 28-year-old Jason Rosenberg, was injured during his arrest in New York, when he was detained with eight other protesters for “simply linking arms”. Rosenberg began his protest at Stonewall, centring Black trans and gender non-conforming people affected by police violence. “While we did not resist arrest, the NYPD started violently beating us with batons and fists,” he tells Dazed. “I opened my eyes to see my glasses on the floor and a pool of blood around me. My face was covered in blood and I could feel bruises across my body.” Rosenberg says he was denied medical attention until later that evening at the police precinct.

Each protester had different experiences after their arrest. Although Fil was held for over 24 hours, his charges were dropped on his release (he says he “went back to protesting the same morning they released me”). However, D’Angelo and Dupuis’ experiences are similarly marred by abusive treatment and dire conditions.

In a viral Twitter thread, Dupuis detailed an incident in which two male officers “joked behind me about my gender presentation”. She expanded: “They then proceeded to start patting me down – touching my breasts and my front/back pockets, still laughing. Finally, one of them admitted, ‘We shouldn’t be doing this’.” Dupuis says she wasn’t the only gender non-conforming protester to be subject to abuse, with many deliberately misgendered and sexually harassed. After being held on a bus for over four hours, Dupuis and the other demonstrators were released, but the group’s complaints about their treatment were met with a police response of, “You have no rights here”. Dupuis concluded: “This is just a taste of the brutality that Black and Brown people experience with police. It is a privilege to be shocked by this.”

D’Angelo tells Dazed he witnessed this white privilege play out after his arrest. “Officers just watched white civilians casually walk past me,” he explains. “I remember being confused and utterly perplexed as to why others were allowed to walk, run, and shout, but I was not. I settled on the simple fact: my height, skin colour, and braided hairstyle made me a target.” After his detention, D’Angelo was stuck in “glacial cold isolation” in the police station for 28 hours after his arrest. He says officers were rude, and that he was denied access to his personal belongings on his release. “I was coerced into signing a release stating that I had no items during booking to be released,” D’Angelo tells Dazed, explaining that he was actually arrested with his phone, wallet, and keys – all items he needed to get home safely.

However, D’Angelo does reveal that two police officers were kind to him. A young white officer “worked vigorously to provide me with updates”, while a Black officer “praised me for fighting and told me that he would make me feel as comfortable as he could”. He maintains this doesn’t serve to “make up for the immoral officers that savagely attack the futures of those they swore to protect”.

Dupuis, D’Angelo, and Rosenberg all admit that their mental health has suffered since their arrest. D’Angelo says since the incident he’s “felt petrified by the presence of police”, adding that “their imposition is deafening to me now”. 

“I’ve had trouble sleeping since the incident,” Dupuis tells Dazed. “I always feel on edge.” Dupuis says she was “violated and humiliated” by her experience, explaining that she’s “dealt with harassment based on my identity plenty of times before, but these officers held so much power over me”. However, she’s keen to stress that she “can’t imagine the psychological impact of this fear and violence day after day”, which is something Black people have had to endure their whole lives.

“The arrests were definitely for show and to stifle free speech. Police officers are to serve and protect, not intimidate and abuse” – Derrick Morgan, attorney

With so many protesters facing unjust charges – and in the knowledge that many of them won’t be able to afford legal help – a number of law firms announced on Twitter that they would be taking on BLM clients pro bono (for free). One of these was Derrick Morgan, an attorney at Indianapolis-based firm, Saeed & Little, who is now representing D’Angelo. “Justice should not be the sport of the rich,” Morgan tells Dazed. “Many of the people who are working with me are working class individuals who are fed up. One of my firm’s mantras is, ‘We fight monsters’, and that monster this time is systemic racism, oppression, and police brutality.”

D’Angelo has been charged with a Class A and Class B misdemeanour, and faces a possible conviction and a $12,000 fine for curfew violation. “The vast majority of people we’ve heard from are peaceful protesters,” says Morgan, “but about one quarter of them will likely have to go to trial. The arrests were definitely for show and to stifle free speech. It takes a special type of person to enforce all laws, including ones that are unjust, and to unilaterally escalate violence on peaceful protesters. Police officers are to serve and protect, not intimidate and abuse.”

Although each protester has suffered since their arrest, all of them maintain that they will continue speaking up and taking action against racism and police brutality. “I will use this conviction to continue my fight for equality,” D’Angelo concludes. “Though I might be shattered, my reflection in the mirror is clearer now than ever. My life matters.”