I was first tear-gassed on the patio of my favorite coffee shop in the fall of 2014. It was the night that police officer Darren Wilson was not indicted by a grand jury in the shooting death of 18-year-old Michael Brown. Nearly a thousand of us took to the streets that night. Hours later, not able to reach our vehicles due to a police blockade, we took refuge in our neighborhood mocha stop. There, I stationed myself with a small group of legal observers and livestreamers on the deck, staring at the police as they stared at us and wondering when we would be able to leave. Suddenly, a tear-gas canister flew our way and landed at our feet. We ran into the building to escape the gas. Our eyes burning. Our lungs on fire. Mucus pouring from our noses.
In the coming years, at Black Lives Matter protests, I would witness police officers arrest, body slam, tear gas, and mace hundreds of protesters, as well as detain people for arbitrary amounts of time without access to vital medication. In the most egregious case, a protester sat in jail overnight with a Taser still left in their arm. It was through these experiences that I came to find that those standing up for Black lives are treated differently than other types of protesters.
Last month, I was arrested alongside 15 other people for occupying a state office building in protest of Missouri Gov. Mike Parson’s efforts to close our state’s last remaining abortion clinic. This vital and necessary act of civil disobedience would be the first time that many Planned Parenthood supporters in our group participated in this type of political protest.
I’ve participated in nearly 100 protests and have witnessed hundreds of arrests, mostly in opposition to police brutality. It wasn’t the first time I had been arrested for protesting. It wasn’t the first time I observed other people getting arrested. But this arrest, this protest, was different than others I have experienced.
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There was no mace. There was no tear gas. There was no detention for an arbitrary amount of time—as we were quickly ushered through the criminal justice system in five hours. All of us who were arrested were treated humanely and at times even thanked by our detaining officers for our actions. When officers found heart medication and insulin in the pocket of one of the protesters, they were promptly released with a citation for trespassing without ever being booked or transported to jail.
So why the difference in experience? All of us who were arrested protesting the Republican governor are white—mostly white women—and we were not protesting police brutality.
While those of us arrested that day appreciate the compassion demonstrated by those officers, because it shows us that this type of empathy is possible, it also evokes frustration and outrage that this type of treatment is not applied across the spectrum of protest.
As Black Lives Matter protesters have been saying for years, people of color, and people protesting in support of Black Lives Matter and against police brutality, are treated differently than other types of protesters. And it’s not right.
The United States has a long history of activists using civil disobedience to disrupt systems, challenge powerful interests, and change unjust laws. Whether it be Selma or Stonewall, police have generally responded violently to protests involving people or color. But those exercising their First Amendment rights ought to be treated with the same dignity we were treated with when protesting at Gov. Parson’s office on May 31.
This is a systemic issue that requires systemic change. As we work to dismantle racial bias in policing, white people, and white women in particular, must use the privileges we have to fight against all systems of oppression, even when we’re not directly affected. We must do that by standing up for Black lives in addition to standing up for reproductive rights. Police are less likely to be brutal when white folks are involved. But most critically, white protesters must understand that our struggles are intertwined: Anything that hurts us hurts people of color more.
When activists say Black Lives Matter, we are not just talking about the disproportionate number of Black and brown people who are killed by police and incarcerated. We are also talking about racial disparities in the maternal mortality rates in Missouri that rival developing nations, and which will only increase if Missouri’s last remaining abortion provider is forced to close.
In the 2016 presidential election, a plurality of white women voted for President Trump and his Republican Party, which is on a mission to overturn Roe v. Wade, criminalize abortion, and erode privacy rights. While the erosion of these rights has brought many white women into the streets in protest for the first time, we must recognize that any law that negatively impacts us as white women has an even greater negative effect on women of color, transgender and gender-nonconforming people, and low-income people.
Reproductive justice activist Renee Bracey Sherman recently wrote in Vox that, “The US criminal justice system has always unjustly penalized communities of color for crimes that wealthier white communities receive slight or no punishment for; studies have shown despite black and white communities using drugs at the same rate, black Americans are stopped, frisked, and prosecuted at higher rates.” This is true when it comes to the criminalization of pregnancy. This is true when it comes to traffic stops: Recently, the Missouri attorney general reported that Black Missouri drivers are 91 percent more likely to be subjected to traffic stops by police than white drivers.
Beyond understanding this basic fact, white women also need to see how we perpetuate unjust laws and policing practices. Undoubtedly, many white women who were supportive of the protest at Gov. Parson’s office have been very critical of Black Lives Matter protesters using similar tactics or any protest for police accountability in general. This mindset allows for injustices to continue.
When the dehumanization of any group of people starts, it will eventually permeate everything. Whether people are protesting a governor, a corporation, or a system of policing, whether they are Black or white, whether they are U.S. citizens or undocumented residents, or whether they are cis or transgender, anyone exercising their First Amendment rights deserves the same treatment we received while protesting the Missouri governor. This means that, yes, we must stand up for reproductive rights. It also means we must stand up for Black lives, and all people who are affected by our criminal justice system, to have the experience we had too.