Leroy Barber reflects on his experience getting arrested while peacefully protesting the death penalty.
Originally posted at www.voices-project.org
Dr King answered this question on the Death Penalty in his paper “Advice for Living” in November of 1957: “Do you think God approves the death penalty for crimes like rape and murder?”
I do not think God approves the death penalty for any crime-rape and murder included. God’s concern is to improve individuals and bring them to the point of conversion. Even criminology has repudiated the motive of punishment in favor of the reformation of the criminal. Shall a good God harbor resentment? Since the purpose of jailing a criminal is that of reformation rather than retribution-improving them rather than paying them back for some crime that has been done-it is highly inconsistent to take the life of a criminal. How can they improve if life is taken? Capital punishment is against the best judgment of modern criminology and, above all, against the highest expression of love in the nature of God.
My friend Shane Claiborne asked if I would be willing to be a part of an action opposing the death penalty. In his invitation he jokingly said, “I would love to go to jail with you, if need be, are you willing?”. My initial thoughts were; I am too busy to go to jail. I will go to the protest and lend my voice because this is a major injustice that affects the lives of poor people, and people of color, disproportionately. As the date got closer, my decision to go, but not get arrested, remained logical in my mind. So it was final, I would go, but I would not get arrested. I even told Donna this as she dropped me off at the airport. I was to go meet my friend Mark Charles, stay with him at his home, and head back the next day.
It was on the plane going where God convicted me with this thought and question; “Are you are too busy speaking and working for justice to actually put your body on the line for justice? Are you willing?” I got off the plane, jumped in an Uber and headed to the prep site. There I met my friend Mark Charles and others in a room with their signs and banners ready to go. In that moment, God spoke to my heart about getting arrested. I left my belongings with Mark and asked him to call Donna (not an easy call). I went into the next room and joined the 17 others who would be arrested. I grabbed a couple of roses as we marched out behind a large group singing and protesting. Then the 18 of us walked up on the Supreme court steps, dropped the flowers and held a banner reading “Stop Executions”. We were told this activity was illegal and to leave the steps or we would be arrested. Then, one by one, we were arrested and handcuffed. The next 32 hours would bring pain, tears, joy, and challenge.
According to Amnesty International the death penalty, both in the U.S. and around the world, is discriminatory and is used disproportionately against the poor, minorities and members of racial, ethnic and religious communities. Since humans are fallible, the risk of executing the innocent can never be eliminated. The majority of death row defendants (77%) have been executed for killing white victims since 1977. The death penalty has been proven to be racially biased and is not a deterrent to crime.
Disclaimer: I will attempt to give a timeline but please know I didn’t have a watch or any way to determine time besides the occasional updates from officers or guards that weren’t always accurate. We would spend most of the next 32 hours in hand and/or foot cuffs beginning with initial processing which took about the first 5 hours. We were fully searched, our belongings seized, our pictures taken, and our rights read to us. We were out of cuffs for a couple minutes to sign that we understood our rights. There was extreme detail given to every moment. It was clear, pretty quickly, that we were now in custody and freedom would not be on the agenda. Permission was to be granted by the officers to stand up and stretch if needed. Even going to the bathroom required the accompaniment of two officers. It was the beginning of things to come.
I don’t think I have ever thought about handcuffs as much as I did over those 32 hours. They would be permanent companions for me and a source of pain as the hours moved along. My arms behind my back, over the course of several hours, began to take a toll on my already injured shoulder. Ironically,this injury occurred while riding an elephant the week before in Thailand. I was no longer sitting in a place of privilege and yet, how fitting, that the privilege from the week before would be the source of my pain this week as I sought to stand for justice. I guess privilege and injustice can both hurt us in ways we don’t realize until the two collide. This day the collision was in my body, specifically in my shoulder and my swelling wrists, causing tremendous pain.
It was time to be transported to Central booking where we would eventually serve our time behind bars. The transportation involved small, cramped, little spaces that wouldn’t work well for any human being, let alone a large one, like myself, or a tall one, like Doug Padgett. I sat between Doug and Shawn Casselberry on this ride in handcuffs, and the pain of my shoulder began to take over as we bounced around the vehicle. I could no longer sit or move myself because of the pain. Shawn, in his own discomfort, let me lean on him the entire trip. Shawn and I have been through some things together, but this day he would literally be a shoulder to lean on because I could not hold myself up as the spasms shot through my body. I know he was hurting himself, but he held me steady and redefined in that moment a picture of what bearing the burden of another looks like. Doug, on the other side, who was too tall for the van, reacted when my body completely gave out. He held me up and screamed at the guards to get me out of there immediately. I don’t think it was by accident that I was sitting between two white men and I literally had to lean on them with trust. I must admit I don’t always trust white men. It was humiliating and honoring all at the same time as we tried to survive that ride together.
Well, I certainly didn’t plan to be going to the hospital! A guard grabbed me, a large, handcuffed man, and pulled me out of a tiny space. At the same time, my sister comrade, Lisa Sharon Harper is yelling at them to get me out of the cuffs while Mike McBride is yelling to me “Lee, hang in the bro! Lee hang in there bro!” In the midst of the pain as I was screaming because he was pulling the spazzing shoulder, there was comfort in my sister and brother were advocating and encouraging even as they were in uncomfortable spaces as well. I ended up out of the van, back in handcuffs, only this time alone and headed to the hospital. The hospital is overcrowded and we have to stop about a half block outside on the street. They pull me out and as I am walking in the middle of a Washington DC street in handcuffs, no belt, because they took it, so my pants are hanging low and people are looking. I noticed after about 50 feet that my head was hanging down and I wasn’t looking up. This was not conscious. My body was responding to the last 5 hours with a hung head. I quickly responded by lifting my head and walking the rest of the way looking people in the eye with head held high. I greeted the nurse, doctors and staff with my name and looked them in the eye in an effort for them to see me and hopefully change how they look at others who are made to come into their doors the same way.
POLICE AND GUARDS:
I sat in the hospital handcuffed to a bench in a special room set aside for people who come in by police escort. I was not in the general waiting room or exam room. I sat in an empty room with two officers at all times, less distressed to be cuffed to the bench and not have both of hands behind my back. This brought some relief to my shoulders. I closed my eyes and began to pray for the others with me, and more importantly, I prayed for any person who had sat there or would sit in that place. As I sat there with my eyes closed, the officers began to talk with each other. They began to talk about what time they started their shifts, how tired they were, one officer was just back from vacation so I heard about that and many other things. It hit me that these were working people who punched clocks, had children, looked forward to vacations, had mortgages, and car payments. Maybe they thought I was asleep so they talked and talked and talked. We were there for at least 4 hours. At one point, I jumped in the conversation by saying, “This is a crazy week for you I imagine.” They began to share about the inauguration, the Women’s march on Saturday and the Anniversary of Roe V Wade protest that would happen the next week. For some moments, I wasn’t an arrestee and they weren’t officers. We were people doing our jobs. It dawned on me that part of my work in that moment was for them as well. Two black officers with families. If their lives happen to take a turn, where they or someone they love might be looking at life in prison or the death penalty…I was there for them also. I was there so that justice would be available for all, even these folks in blue who are in a system that needs to be held accountable.
The handcuffs, transportation, the escort to the bathroom, and lack of human decency that I was feeling in my body and spirit has captured us all. Dr. King has been quoted incessantly trying to win the prison guards and police over to stand for justice, because the empire was also against them by pushing them to be inhumane. The officers I encountered were slowly taking my dignity away because they were following the rules and laws they were given. I didn’t come into contact with people who were mean and obnoxious (although there were a few who didn’t need to be officers). Most were carrying out orders. Yes, orders. They are not suggestions or things to consider. They had to follow orders. This is why the system must be changed.We have to be involved in changing laws and systems so that people, even when they find themselves on the criminal side of the law, will be treated as human beings and have every opportunity to be restored. Lives should never be taken.
Eventually I would be seen by a doctor, given some medication, put back in handcuffs and driven back to central booking. There, I would be searched again, mug shot taken, given a cold bologna sandwich as the first thing to eat (that was some 10 hours later) and taken to a cell. The doors slid back and I was put in a cell with Mike Mcbride. Although these were terrible conditions, seeing the face of a friend and brother was good. We would spend the next 12-13 hours in this tiny roach infested cell with metal slabs to sleep on. As we talked about what was happening around us, we were constantly killing roaches on the walls, beds of metal, floors, and ceilings. The other 15 men were close by in cells, while Lisa was in another part where women were jailed, dealing with the same conditions. I was not looking for a comfortable bed like in my home type conditions. I expected them to be a challenge, but I in no way expected them to be as bad as they were. Sleeping on metal combined with the roach infestation was not a condition I would desire for any human being. Harder conditions? Yes. Yet, inhumane is not acceptable and this needs to be addressed. Wherever you are, check into the conditions of the local jails. If they are anything like what I am describing, please petition your local prison boards.
We were awakened (I say awaked but there was very intermittent sleep happening) at 7am to be transported in order to be arraigned. This meant being back in handcuffs. The only time we were not in them was while we were in the cell. This time strapped together at the wrist with 4 other people. I was separated from others and chained to 4 other men. One observation was that moving to Central booking from the Supreme court police, meant the officers went from mostly white to mostly black. I don’t know enough about hiring practices to make conclusions, but it was very noticeable. The transportation was short. Within 10 minutes we were at the courthouse and taken inside to be searched again. This time complete with pulling down my pants.This had to have been the 5th or 6th search. When the search was over, we were put in ankle cuffs and taken to another holding area where we sat for the next 3-4 hours. There was a drug test during this time as well.
Then there was the wait to go into the courtroom during which we found ourselves in a room with 60 men. There were no benches or chairs. This was where you were given the chance to ask for a lawyer in one step and then talk to a court appointed one if needed. Most of the men in that room needed a court appointed attorney. The entire room was made up of Black men and two Latino men. The only white men there, out of the sixty, were there with us for protesting. The thought running through my mind was, On any given day in this courthouse Black men are being processed by mostly black officers in a system not designed for us. Standing in this room that was approximately 15 by 120, with nowhere to sit, black men all over the place in ankle cuffs were laying on the floor, leaning against walls, and walking back and forth. This is also where lawyers and interviews were being conducted so numbers and names were being yelled out for the entire 4 hours we are in this room. Yes, this was where you spoke to your lawyer, a place of complete chaos. No one had eaten anything or had been given any water. There was a toilet in the corner with what looked like a small place to get water above it.
ONE LAST STEP:
The last step before being arraigned was to be “prepared” for court. This was when we were moved from the large room and put in chains. Long chains were put around our bodies and clipped at the front to handcuffs at the navel level. Meaning, we couldn’t move our hands around and our feet were still in shackles. We were then put in holding cells until we were called before the court. This was the last 2 hours.
I need to put this in the middle here because it was during this time I got to listen to and talk to other men who were locked up as well. The reasons people were there were mostly small crimes and I mean very small.There was a young man there who jumped the turnstile at a train station. Story after story of young and old black men and their entanglements with the criminal justice systems. The stories are many and varied. Some you can see why they were there and others seemingly a blatant injustice.
Mike McBride, who was already a person I admired before this time, took the opportunity to have a teach- In. It was a great conversation between him and the brothers. It was incredible to listen in from the next cell over. It was literally for me, like listening to what Paul describes he did during his time in prison. It was not some message of “get saved.” It was a dialogue between him and others about justice, the presidency and what solutions we needed to look into as we all sat there in chains. When we were released, I learned that Lisa Sharon Harper was doing the same thing on the women’s side; praying, listening to stories, and having great teaching times.
Once we were called into the court, it went fairly quickly. My perspective: The judges’ time was incredibly valuable so it needed to run smooth in order not to waste his time. The last step was in a clean, quiet, orderly courtroom with men in suites and women in dresses processing you out. I didn’t feel freed.
I was only in that place for 32 hours, so I in no way experienced what so many poor people of color go through everyday. In fact, I was told the jail was much worse than where I was placed.
I can only imagine what this looks like in places where there is very little support.
If you’re on a reservation…
If you’re in a small town…
If you’re in a womans prison with male guards…
If you have some mental health issues…
If you’re a teenager…
The list goes on and on. It all points to the need for reform and for people of faith to see it as core to our beliefs. The Gospel, if you will, is one thing with two parts. The second part, standing for justice, has been long neglected. Proclamation and justice are in a healthy relationship. Some have tried to divorce them because it is easier for us to do one or the other, but they won’t have it. They are unified and so must we be.
You can read about this event from Mike McBride in his article, Ending the Death Penalty Before it Kills Us
You can read Shane Claiborne’s reflection in his article, Going to Jail for Jesus and Justice.
Find out more about what Leroy is up to by checking out his work at The Voices Project.