Women of Color and the Hidden Trauma of Police Brutality

Women of Color and the Hidden Trauma of Police Brutality

Women of Color and the Hidden Trauma of Police Brutality

Calling out discrimination can be a slippery thing, but the shame, humiliation and powerlessness we feel because of overly aggressive policing is real.


September opened with the news that Chaumtoli Huq, a former top lawyer for the New York City public advocate’s office, had filed a federal lawsuit against the NYPD. In July, Huq was waiting outside a Ruby Tuesday near Times Square for her husband to return from taking their two small children to the restroom. According to the suit, Huq was accosted by several officers and told that she needed to move on, as she was blocking the sidewalk. Huq explained that she was waiting for her husband and children, but to accommodate the officers, she moved as close to the wall of the restaurant as she could.

Huq claims that she was suddenly flipped around, pushed against the wall and handcuffed roughly. Two male officers dragged her down the street so forcibly she lost a shoe and had to walk on the asphalt without it. One of the officers, Ryan Lathrop, appeared in photos to have her handcuffed arms cranked up in a painful position (called an “underhook” in MMA fighting). When Huq expressed that she was in pain, he told her, “Shut your mouth” and “You’re my prisoner.” (Lathrop is currently under investigation for another excessive-force incident).

The family had just attended a pro-Palestinian rally in Times Square, and Huq, who has a nose-ring, was dressed in a “traditional South Asian tunic.” Huq believes the “arrest was based on perceptions of her race, gender, religion, and political affiliation, and not on any violation of law.”

Via e-mail, Huq told me that after the parade, she planned to take her children on a picnic, but instead, her children and husband emerged from the restaurant to find her missing, informed by police where she was and then were forced to go to the precinct to find her. She was detained for nine hours.

According to the criminal complaint (charges: obstruction of governmental administration, disorderly conduct and resisting arrest), Huq told Officer Lathrop, “I’m not in anybody’s way. Why do I have to move? What’s the problem?”

Huq’s ordeal reminds me, uncomfortably, of another case of resisting arrest, that of Arizona State University assistant professor Ersula Ore, who was stopped for jaywalking in the middle of the street since the sidewalk was obstructed by construction. Ore was asked for ID, and she took the time to point out that she alone, an African-American, had been stopped, while other white jaywalkers proceeded. Her quotidian walk home from class ended with her slammed on the ground and arrested.

While I cannot comment on the legal nuances of either case, both women’s interactions with the officers to me sounded like explaining, not resisting arrest. Huq was standing outside a restaurant, like any of a million New Yorkers waiting for brunch on Sunday morning. In Ore’s case, when the officer demanded to see identification, she said, “Why did you have to speak to me in such a disrespectful manner?” This sounds to me like assertive self-advocacy, maybe even a teachable moment. In the video or Ore’s arrest, you can see that this is the moment the incident starts to go downhill.

Chaumtoli Huq is apprehended outside a Ruby Tuesday near Times Square in July. (Courtesy of Charles Meacham)

Michael Brown’s shooting death in Ferguson and the death of Eric Garner in New York via an illegal police chokehold were both indications that policing has become overly aggressive, particularly toward people of color. But these incidents have largely come to light because of their egregiousness. There is also a subtler trend, a creeping from “protect and serve” to “bully and intimidate,” and its effects have fallen on women, particularly on women of color, in peculiar ways. During Huq’s arrest, the officer, after ransacking her purse while she was handcuffed, also apparently said upon learning she has a different surname than her husband, “In America, wives take the names of their husbands.” (Huq is an American citizen).

* * *

A few years ago, I was in my campus office in a New England college after teaching a class that ended at 4:50. Our informal building-wide policy asks the last person to leave to shut off the lights and set the alarm on exit. I did that, as well as made a round to make sure the building was empty, and returned to my office on an upper floor. There was a commotion downstairs, and two campus police officers rushed upstairs. When they saw me, they went straight to my office, grim looks on their faces. I soon realized that the new student worker had left at 5 and mistakenly set the alarm, which I’d tripped while shutting off the lights.

I greeted the officers and chuckled with a “Ha, ha, no, that alarm was just me, sorry.” I showed them my faculty ID. I might have even proudly pointed out our eco-friendly policy that required students, faculty and staff to pitch in. The pair didn’t leave my office, however. They stood there, tense and unhappy and told me I had to leave. I’m pretty sure I said something like, “Excuse me?” My office door had a nameplate, Marie Myung-Ok Lee. I’m a middle-aged Asian-American woman, kitted out in Eileen Fisheresque teaching clothes. On the chair, I pointed out, was a bag full of books with my name on the bright pink interlibrary loan slips. There’s a picture of me and my kid on the wall.

They proceeded to tell me, in no uncertain terms, they are going to escort me out. I had a hey-wait-a-minute moment—“This is my office,” I wanted to tell them. But I was on my way out anyway, so I shrugged and gathered my things, pointedly lock the door with my key. The pair marched me out—me between the two of them like I’m going to a Soviet gulag—a posture that bewildered me. Are they that angry about a false alarm? At the time, I was annoyed and vain enough that I was mostly hoping no undergrads will see me being ejected from the building. But something told me not to say anything, or even look at them.

Once home, I stewed about it all night. I found their behavior troubling enough—what if I’d needed to be in the office?—that the next day I made a call to campus security. They were solicitous, but offered no explanations, only said, “Next time, call security when you know you’ve tripped the alarm.” Because no one explained why the officers acted the way they did, I was left to wonder: my funny name? That I’m not a gray-haired white male? I don’t even tell the student worker about my adventure, because I don’t want him to feel bad.

I now work at a campus that has several public gates. The other day, I saw an open gate, and I entered it because, well, why not try something new? I was immediately accosted by an officer who demanded to see my ID while he took an aggressive, threatening posture. I was tempted to say, with outrage, “I teach here, why the hostility?” Or even just walk on, as the large, unequivocally public gate was less than a hundred feet away. But I dug my ID out of my wallet. Only later, I had an adrenaline surge: Why did he do that? Why didn’t I say, Why are you talking to me like that when I’m just walking to work and there’s no sign saying do not enter?

Huq’s case is getting some attention in no small part because of her recent employment in the New York City public advocate’s office, one that itself has had things to say about policing. But what happened to Huq and Ore—along with the case of Django Unchained star Danièle Watts, who was stopped and arrested or kissing her (white) boyfriend, ergo the police immediately assumed she was a prostitute—has gotten other people talking, friends who have had experiences oddly similar to mine. We all feel that we may have been profiled, but we comply, sometimes complain to the authorities later. But we never get simple explanations. Pinning down racial discrimination and profiling can be like trying to pin down smoke, leaving one with enough ambiguous or not-quite-egregious-enough-to-mention experiences that nonetheless add up.

The fact is that women of color can try to maintain the proper “optics” of being harmless, law-abiding, even admirable citizens and parents and still end up arrested. Even Huq felt it relevant to mention to me she was carrying her children’s snacks in a New York Public Library bag—as if that should mean something. I know friends and colleagues who also use Ivy League tote bags and hats like talismans to project “I’m not a person to be feared. I’m not a criminal.” Professor Ore pointed out to the officer, “Do you see what I’m wearing?” i.e., the brown face is so presumptively criminalized in American culture, one has to adorn one’s self with white regalia to try to counteract it. And it still doesn’t work.

The larger question is, how can we as citizens have an open dialogue with the police, in a controlled forum and not by waiting to aggregate a thousand individual situations, heated encounters where any dissenting viewpoint, any attempt to explain or get an explanation, any query of “Officer, on what grounds are you stopping/arresting me/going through my purse/making me leave my office?” provides basis for a potential resisting arrest charge?

Again, defining and calling out discrimination can be a slippery thing, but the shame, humiliation and powerlessness we feel as women and minorities in front of authority figures overstepping their boundaries is real. I think of the uncomplicated way I viewed the police when I was a child; they were protecting me from the “bad” people. Now, I see I could be easily lumped in there, especially since so much of policing involves split-second decisions that are based on unconscious judgments and past experience. What, exactly, is the message for our children? To avoid the police? To go to them for safety? To submit no matter what?

To me, it means respecting that officers put themselves in danger—but then also expecting a reciprocal respect as a human being, a woman, a person of color. After years of laughing off “small” and “silly” incidents, it’s time for me to take myself and my rights more seriously. The only way I know how, right now, is to talk and write about it, because I’m already that I’m not alone. Overpolicing doesn’t just mean being shot or choked in the street, it can mean less media-worthy bits of broken up racialized grit that gets into our day: being stopped, being questioned, not being believed.

“Shut your mouth” and “You’re my prisoner” was what the arresting officer said to Huq when she shouted to bystanders to let her family know what was happening to her. Huq is a mother, her profession is the law, and yet, as she puts it, “the ease to which my family was separated and disrupted seemed to me something that women of color routinely experience, and most acutely black women have experienced historically from slavery to present, and which immigrant women also face in deportations. Though I was a professional, that didn’t matter, I was read in the same way.”

It was interesting to me that when my family was injured in a car accident—hit by a drunk driver, a young white man—the same campus police (but not the same officers) who found me suspicious for sitting in my office pursued the man, who had totaled his car and several others. The driver, who had sent our car airborne and crashing onto a lawn, was still trying to get away on foot when he was caught. He struggled and sneeringly told the police, “I don’t have to listen to you, you’re just campus police.” I can’t remember if he was handcuffed or not, but he was definitely not slammed to the ground. I’m not saying I want him to be brutalized. I’m saying that every person should be afforded this kind of respect, and not be treated roughly, for pointing out a lack of it.


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