Jenna Pope

American devotion to order over justice must end

We need to disrupt the legal and political system that expects people of color to shut up and women to behave

August 25, 2015 2:00AM ET

Last summer, during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, I stood on the sidewalk in Times Square while my husband took my kids to use a restroom in a nearby restaurant. We had just left a rally for Palestinian children killed in Gaza. As I waited alone, a police officer monitoring the rally ordered me to move. I did, stepping back toward the restaurant wall. This was not good enough for him. In seconds, he flipped me, pushed me against the wall, pressed his body on mine and while I was handcuffed, said I was resisting arrest. Photos later revealed his arms bulging with the ferocity of the arrest.

As a lawyer, I have done know-your-rights trainings on this very police tactic: bootstrapping charges to justify arrest. As I was being arrested, I began to repeat in a monotone voice, “I am not resisting arrest,” to which the officer responded, “Shut your mouth.” When I objected to him going through my purse and pulling out my photo I.D., he said, “I can do whatever I want, because you are my prisoner.” At that moment it was true. It didn’t matter that I had been appointed in January 2014 as top counsel to New York City’s public advocate, the first Bangladeshi-American to reach that level of city government and one of few Muslim Americans in the newly elected administration.

The command “Shut your mouth” stuck out for me, because it is symbolic of how our legal and political system views and expects people of color to behave: quietly. Sandra Bland asked why she was being arrested. Asserting her rights as a woman of color to a white male officer was seen as disruptive and met with an aggressive response. Wearing my traditional South Asian tunic, visibly an immigrant, my mere presence was disruptive as well.

I was separated from my family and funneled through the criminal legal system, which black and Latino communities sadly know too well. After 9/11, the Muslim American community experienced aggressive surveillance and policing, by both state and federal authorities. Black Muslims have borne the brunt of both racial and religious profiling.

From precinct cell to central booking to arraignment, I was in custody for nine hours. I observed women who could not afford counsel, barely getting a minute to meet with their under-resourced public defenders, women who could not go home to their children because they could not afford bail or women accepting any plea just to get out.  They were forced to negotiate away their rights. One of these women advised me, “Don’t ask for medical attention. You will be in here longer.” So I didn’t, trading away my rights for freedom.

Three months later, I filed a federal lawsuit against the New York Police Department. I entered the courthouse last month not as a lawyer but as the client. The federal magistrate judge reminded me of a federal rule called “offer of judgment,” in which the defendant offers a settlement amount. If I rejected it and a trial produced an outcome that was either equivalent or less favorable, I would bear the costs of the city’s attorney fees. This is a known legal tactic to pressure plaintiffs to settle their cases. 

If both the legal and electoral systems are unable to realize the rights of communities of color and the working poor, then disruption tactics by activists become a necessary strategy.

The city adamantly refused to include any police reform in the settlement, not even the basic suggestions I had made: a town hall meeting with the mayor for those affected by policing or a meeting with the police captain of the precinct in which I was held in custody. I was only offered money. I knew my rights, but they were not of use to me. Weighing the options, I settled, giving up what should be a basic civic right — to be heard by those elected to serve and those hired to protect us. I am reminded again of what the officer said to me: Shut your mouth.

Even as an experienced litigator knowledgeable about law and with supposed access to elected officials, I was unable to exercise my legal or political rights. In the U.S., we have a culture of rights rhetoric that distracts us from the reality that we don’t have a rights-based legal system. Structural racism and sexism, interacting with seemingly neutral rules, exclude people of color and women from participation in our legal-political system. If both the legal and electoral systems are unable to realize the rights and remedy the concerns of communities of color and the working poor, then disruption tactics by activists, and in particular Black Lives Matter activists, become a necessary strategy.

Disruption is key during the electoral cycle, because it is the only time that elected officials need votes of communities of color.

Disruption is an integral part of our history of social movements: Labor movements, immigrants and other political outsiders have used such organizing strategies to shock the system to usher in new rights. The Black Lives Matter movement is attuned to this history because of the numerous instances in which the black community has experienced violent and virulent denial of their rights.

As an immigrant, I share their views. In my birth country of Bangladesh, it is agitation and disruption that globally exploited and invisible female garment workers have as her recourse. Workers surround government officials in a tactic called gherao, much in the same ways in which Black Lives Matter activists have challenged 2016 presidential candidates. It is intended to simulate for the government officials the feeling of political alienation and daily disruptions that workers and communities of color experience.

Sitting in jail last summer, tired from the day’s fasting, I thought about Martin Luther King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” in which he expresses frustration with white moderates because they are devoted to order, rather than justice. This remains true today. We have constructed a democracy that is invested in order at the expense of people; we see it in the ordering of elections, in the way politicians come for your vote, in the legal cases that follow “procedure.” Despite all this process, the outcomes are heartbreaking. The families of police brutality victims aren’t heard because of non-indictments. The federal Justice Department repeatedly finds little wrongdoing by police. Elected officials refuse to meet with communities affected by corrupt policing. Jolting the system awakens us from the hollow rituals of rights and democracy. 

When you find yourself repeatedly ignored, disruption becomes the way to get heard. Shutting your mouth is not an option, because it is akin to remaining the officer’s prisoner and allowing the political establishment to comfortably do whatever it wants. Disruption is the only sound we can make that perhaps inches us closer to any semblance of a democracy.

Chaumtoli Huq is a human rights attorney and the editor of LawAtTheMargins.com.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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