Across the country, countless citizens have witnessed and been subject to various types of police brutality, even as they protest the officer-involved death of George Floyd and the deaths of so many other Black people at the hands of police.
Officers have been using tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse peaceful protesters. One photographer told ESSENCE that he was beaten by an officer with a baton.
These are just some of the treatments that your every-day citizen has been facing amid the fight for racial justice, but not even those with some measure of power are safe.
Black legislators peacefully protesting have been met with violence.
Last Friday, while joining with protesters at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, NY, two Black New York state legislators – State. Sen. Zellnor Myrie and Assemblymember Diana Richardson – were both accosted and pepper-sprayed, with one being temporarily arrested.
Sen. Myrie (D-Brooklyn) shared the graphic image of him screaming in pain to his Twitter.
“It was an incredibly surreal experience that I’m still processing, still having a pretty difficult time with,” the senator admitted to ESSENCE.
The senator and the assemblymember came to the protest at Barclays to stand with their constituents. They had walked around the protest, spoken to law enforcement officials, spoke to constituents, generally doing their jobs as elected officials. The senator revealed that he had dressed very carefully that day – in a bright green t-shirt with “Senator Myrie” emblazoned on the back – in an attempt to be identifiable and to perhaps keep some peace.
As we all know, that didn’t happen.
After about an hour at the protests, as the sun was starting to go down, officers started moving people into different sections to push them away from the Barclays Center.
Sen. Myrie told ESSENCE that as soon as officers ordered people to move back, those same officers started posturing aggressively, using their bicycles as weapons.
“They began pushing. I felt the wheels in my back, in my legs, as I’m moving back. I stretched my hands out to try to protect the Assembly Member and some of the other protestors that were behind me, and began in addition to having the wheels was getting pushed and shoved by officers that I couldn’t even see their faces because I had my back turned. One, for protection purposes but, also, again, I had my name and title on the back and was hoping that they would see that and perhaps try to deescalate,” Sen. Myrie said.
As Myrie and others were trying to comply and move back, the pepper spray came raining down.
“I get pepper sprayed and then I hear an officer say, ‘Cuff him. Cuff him. Cuff him.’ I’m grabbed by … I don’t know how many. I think it was at least three officers. As they’re grabbing me, that’s when I start feeling the pain in my eyes and I’m yelling out because it hurts so much,” Sen. Myrie said. “They put hands behind my back, they handcuffed me [with zipties]. I’m yelling out, I’m trying to look back to see if the Assembly Member is okay but I can’t find her and I’m being pushed forward to where folks are being processed.”
As the senator was being detained, the assemblymember was having a very different, but equally frightening experience.
She heard the senator screaming her name until she couldn’t hear him anymore but had no sense of what was happening as she was blinded by the pepper spray.
She remarks that “angels” saved her. Seeing her distress, some unknown individuals in the crowd pulled her away from the cops and helped her, pouring milk and water into her eyes to relieve the effects of the chemical.
“I cannot see. I’m blinded. I have to get on my knees in the middle of the street so that I can put my head back so they can put milk and water in my eyes,” the assemblywoman recalled, her pain and horror palpable. “You know how scared I was? I didn’t know if I was going to be able to see again. I’ve never been pepper-sprayed before.”
“The only reason that I didn’t get arrested, they came to my aid. It’s like they stuck up for me in the middle of it all,” she added.
Sen. Myrie was eventually released and given medical attention after some police officials realized who he was.
Assemblywoman Richardson stressed that it hurt even more because, in her mind, she showed up as an everyday citizen, and the weight of her title should not have determined what kind of treatment she received.
“I’m a woman. I’m Black. I’m human. I’m a citizen. I’m all these things. I was doing what was my amended rights to do. That should not have happened to me. It should not have happened to State Senator Zellnor Myrie. It should not have happened to the countless people who were in our area who got pepper-sprayed and arrested too, but who do not have a title and so we don’t know who they are,” the assemblymember said. “But they will have the same story that I have. They will tell you, ‘I didn’t do anything. I was just standing there.’”
Video of Richardson loudly protesting the police’s treatment of the crowd quickly went viral.
Hundreds of miles away from New York City, in the city of Columbus, Ohio, Rep. Joyce Beatty the first Vice-Chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, was met with similar violence. Beatty had gone to a protest downtown with Columbus City Council President Shannon Hardin and Franklin County Commissioner Kevin Boyce, also to peacefully protest with constituents.
The congresswoman told ESSENCE that an exchange of words between law enforcement and protesters escalated. An officer in riot gear body-slammed a young man, spurring chaos.
“People began to push and shove, so I jumped into action attempting to serve as a mediator between the police and protesters. In that melee, a young woman was pushed to ground and I tried to protect her. Without warning, pepper spray or a chemical similar was used on her and the crowd, and I was caught in the middle of it,” the congresswoman said.
Beatty acknowledged to The Atlantic that in her situation it wasn’t “a point-and-direct spray” in her direction, but she did think it was “unnecessary force.”
“Pepper spray is not really directional. If you look at one of the photos, clearly there is an officer within six or seven inches of a young girl sitting on the ground, at the curb, being pepper-sprayed, and me and a couple of other elected officials are right next to her. So it hit all of us,” she said.
Despite their horrific experience and the legislators are fortified by their experiences, determined to make meaningful change; Beatty at the federal level, and the New York legislators within their own state.
“I am introducing a resolution to identify racism as a ‘national crisis’ and to call on Congress to undertake a truth and reconciliation process following the unlawful killings of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and countless more Black men and women who die simply because of the color of their skin,” Beatty told ESSENCE. “As Vice-Chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, the ‘Conscience of Congress,’ I can tell you that we are focused on enacting laws targeting injustices that disproportionally affect Black Americans, ranging from loss of jobs, economic inequality and the ever-widened racial wealth gap, to mass incarceration and excessive police force, as well as the War on Drugs and COVID-19.”
In New York, Sen. Myrie and Assemblymember Richardson are looking to direct police reform.
“We have a couple of steps to take in the state of New York. We have a responsibility to repeal 50-A. This is a law that shields disciplinary records of law enforcement officers. I have no idea whether the person that pepper sprayed me or pepper sprayed Assembly Member Richardson has a history of excessive abuse of force,” Myrie told ESSENCE. “I think it’s important for the public to know that because that person should not have a badge and a gun.”
There are other things that Myrie is concerned about, including transparency within the disciplinary process and moving the process outside of the confines of the police department, and a permanent office of a special prosecutor to oversee cases where a law enforcement officer takes a life.
“These are just a few of the things that the legislator can act on very quickly. I am hopeful because we will be convening very soon and we will see some action on these items,” Myrie added.
The Assembly is also moving into action on police reform, with the members of the New York State Black, Puerto Rican, Hispanic & Asian Legislative Caucus seeking to push for comprehensive police reform.
“Our answer, or as people would say, ‘clap back’, is police reform. We coming now. Now, we coming. Relentlessly,” Assemblywoman Richardson said. “We can’t keep having this happen. We have to take care of this situation.”Share :