Youth standing up. Minneapolis, May Day 2015.
I was the only professor arrested when students sat in at Morrill Hall at the University of Minnesota in 2006 to protest the closing of General College – a program that made the U of M accessible to working class kids, rural youth and urban students of color. Admittedly I didn’t have much to lose. I had just been laid off and had only a few weeks left of my ten-year stint teaching as a contingent faculty at the U. Still it was ironic to be charged with trespassing at the place where I got my BA, MA and Ph.D. and worked for 25 years, scooping cones, selling sandwiches, grading papers, teaching classes.
But that is not why I am telling you this story.
I had no intention of getting arrested. Philosophically, I support mass legal action over planned arrest as the preferred tactic for building social movements with the numeric heft to create social change. Besides, as a rape and sexual assault survivor I had no desire to give a man with a gun on his holster the excuse to touch me in any way. Finally, I believed getting arrested for a cause is a privilege, when a criminal justice system discriminates based on race and class. However, it was precisely this knowledge of criminal injustice that led me to decide at the spur of the moment to join the students — mostly youth of color — some my current students — getting cuffed. I had this idea that my suit-coat, age and race might protect them when we got down to Hennepin County, outside of the sight of the public.
But that is not why I’m telling you this story.
We spent six hours downtown. I’ve been arrested one other time since, but this was the only time in my life so far that I had someone remove my jacket, give me an orange top, take my mug shot. The thing that disturbed me the most however, was when they took the wedding ring off my finger. I got put in a cell with one other protester and a woman who was coming down from a meth high. The first thing the drug offender did when she walked in was take the stub of toilet paper near the open toilet and lie down on the cement, propping the roll under her head as a pillow.”Tell them it’s gone — they’ll bring another,” she said.
There. A tip I hope you don’t need. But it’s not why I’m telling this story.
At our hearing, as I remember it, we were given three choices: plead not guilty and wait for a second hearing, pay a fine, or work off that fine. The others took choice one or two. I decided , since I was unemployed, broke and seeking employment for the fall, that I would work off the fine over the summer.
My work detail dates coincided with the two hottest and most polluted days of that 2006 Minneapolis summer – so hot and polluted that the official recommendation was to stay indoors and do nothing. I showed up at the Southdale Hennepin County library parking lot. The first day we cut brush along the highway. The second day we mowed the lawn of a private suburban cemetery.
But I didn’t write this to expose the Hennepin County work program for using its free labor to service private businesses.
I made friends. There were about 30 different people who worked half or full days with me. Among them, I was one of two women, one of two people over forty-five, one of three white people, and the only person who was white, female and nearing fifty. My comrades had me pegged right away. I had to be DWI. In addition to my demographics there was the clincher: I rode my bicycle to the van site. As for them, the most common offense that caused these young African-American, Latino, and Native youth to spend summer days providing free labor?
That is why I am telling you this story.
Failure to pay for public transit.
My story is anecdotal and ten years old. The ACLU-requested study released on December 17 2015, is new and data-driven. We both came to the same conclusion: Metro Transit police target youth of color, pulling them into the criminal justice system for the most minor offenses.