How a night in jail brought together a group of women

  • Joseph Darius Jaafari
Happy June 23, Contexters. I’ve spent the better part of a week in Arizona, where the state has seen more than 2,000 cases each day for the past six days after the state reopened to allow for businesses to resume operations just over three weeks ago, but without mask requirements. A lot of people gathering indoors with recirculated air means that the hospitals in this part of the country are beginning to get overwhelmed. As of Sunday, hospitals were at 84% of their ICU capacity, and there is widespread skepticism that Gov. Doug Ducey will shut down the state. All of this to say that as Pennsylvania continues to ease its lockdown, look to how other people in other states are doing this and maybe (just maybe) try doing the opposite. — Joseph Darius Jaafari, Reporter

AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar

A cyclist ride past a portrait of George Floyd, left, and Breonna Taylor, on Tuesday, June 9. 2020, that were painted last weekend by a group of two dozen Pittsburgh artists along the Three Rivers Heritage trail along the Allegheny River in downtown Pittsburgh. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

When 19-year-old Harmony McDonald went to join the protests in downtown Pittsburgh on May 30, she expected a very basic protest: a march, some chants and seeing some friends. Her mother dropped her off at the T-station in downtown at around 5 p.m.

Four hours later, she would be in jail.

To get an idea of what it was like for protesters who were arrested at the May 30 protests in Pittsburgh – which were marred by rioting and police assaulting and tear gassing peaceful protesters – I reached out to the 30 people who were arrested by police that night. Most of them declined to be interviewed, and others referred me to their lawyers. But a few women stepped forward and told me about their shared experiences, both in the streets and later in the Allegheny County Jail.

I spoke with three women. All of them said the same things: they were tear gassed, they were manhandled and stuffed in a paddywagon with no social distancing. Almost none of the people in the back of the truck had masks on after their arrest. Many, they said, must have ripped off their masks, gasping for air after being tear gassed.

The arrest was maddening, in itself. I asked Harmony what it was like to be tear gassed by police.

“You can’t breathe, at all,” she said. “Every time you try, you just can’t.”

Another woman described it as “trying to breathe in boiling water.”

Harmony said she was kicked by the officer who arrested her after she tried to grab his leg asking for help because she couldn’t breathe from the fumes. Heather Kilvington, 32, of Ambridge, Pa., said that she saw a late-stage pregnant woman tear gassed and then placed on her stomach during her arrest.

But being at the jail was worse.

The experience was traumatizing, they said. The women all recounted that the patdown inside the jail felt excessive and inappropriate, and the guards’ treatment toward the women was degrading, and they were kept in cells without hot water or a working toilet. Heather says she was denied her antidepressant medications, and other women describe the food served as rotten.

Some of them came up with the idea of using the two pieces of bread they were given as pillows.

In a response, the jail said that they provide nutritious meals, a pillow and two blankets to all inmates. They also say they maintain proper social distancing for those held in the jail.

The women, though, scoffed at the response.

“They put all 20 of us into a holding cell that was 8-by-15 feet,” Heather said. “We’re in a pandemic!”

But through it all, the women who spent the night together became close friends, forming a hashtag so they could keep up with each other after they were all released. They all were united, they said, by a similar passion for justice.

Only a few of the people arrested that day were released on their own recognizance. All of them were charged with failing to disperse and criminal mischief, a combination of a summary charge and misdemeanor. Two people, including Harmony, had to pay $10,000 for bail — 10 times more than what others with the same charges had to pay. (Harmony didn’t know why she had to pay more, and the County Clerk’s office couldn’t comment on the case.)

Eventually, all charges against the protesters were dropped and their cases dismissed.

Do you have a story about your arrest in the George Floyd protests? Reach out through our Listening Post here, or contact me directly by just replying back to this email, and let us hear your story. – Joseph Darius Jaafari

Related protest news:

Best of the rest

AP Photo/Richard Drew

A makeshift memorial to Eric Garner is affixed to a building wall in Staten Island, N.Y., where he died in a police chokehold.

A history of violence: After the NY state legislature moved to allow police records to be open to the public, reporters with the Associated Press got their hands on Daniel Pantaleo’s history of complaints. Pantaleo is the officer who put Eric Garner in the chokehold that contributed to Garner’s death in Staten Island, giving Black Lives Matter protesters their well-known rally cry, “I Can’t Breathe.” His record, linked here, shows a history of multiple accusations of violence and use of force, none of which he was disciplined for until he was fired after public pressure resulting from Garner’s death.

What is white privilege: I’ve had many conversations with white people who believe that because they’ve experienced hardship in their life, they don’t benefit from white privilege. It’s a constant discussion that deserves self reflection as it’s often so easily written off because people view hardships only through their own lives rather than others. For YES! Magazine, this writer breaks down what white privilege is, in even the most passing of moments.

A snapshot of Tulsa: On Saturday, President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence went to Tulsa, Okla., the site of the 1921 Race Massacre and the home of Black Wall Street, but only briefly mentioned the civil unrest in the country and the George Floyd protesters. The crowd inside was starkly different from the one lining the streets in a block party. The New Yorker has a story on a brief slice of life in Tulsa during the Trump rally.

Living in the U.S.A.From this Politico story: “In the misinformation pandemic, conspiracy theories occupy an increasingly commonplace part of mainstream political discourse, political leaders weaponize them for their partisan benefit, and neutral, trusted sources of information lose sway. Like a virus, once a conspiracy theory starts spreading, it is difficult to contain…Where once political leaders provided fact-based messaging grounded in a sense of responsibility and aimed at informing the public, the incentive to act responsibly has withered. And with no end to the coronavirus pandemic in sight—and a world-changing election coming in November—you can expect the misinformation pandemic to continue.”

Definition & Style: A commentary piece for The Atlantic argues that the term “racism” needs to be updated in the dictionary. Words, even the most precise ones, change over time. Racism, argues John McWhorter, has also changed. “Sexist replaced chauvinist around the same time racist did prejudiced, and for the same reason—potent terms need refreshment, especially when heavily used.” Related: You’re going to see us use the term Black (big “B”) when referring to ethnic origins. This is per Associated Press guidelines, but is something that we had been debating internally before the AP updated its style guide last week to include Black in the same category as Asian, Middle Eastern or Latino. Questions on why we do that? E-mail us back or write to us here.

Coronavirus reads:

Subscribe to The Contextour weekday newsletter

Up Next
The Context

Demonstrations for lives lost