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