We are two students -- one black, one white -- at Union Theological Seminary, an institution historically and presently committed to fighting against injustice through faith and action. We were outraged by the non-indictment in the case of Eric Garner, which is only the most recent example of our law enforcement's lack of accountability for violent action, particularly when said violence is committed against communities of color.
On Friday night, we participated in a peaceful protest march calling for change. Together we lay in Macy's, in Grand Central, and on the wet, cold ground of Bryant Park. Together we marched through the streets of our city, demanding that justice be served against those sworn to protect and serve when they so egregiously violate this promise. The march ended on the FDR when we stood together, arm-in-arm, as riot police charged.
We linked arms to show that neither of us stood alone. We linked our arms to show our solidarity in the fight against injustice, police brutality and the slaying of black bodies. We loudly proclaimed that black lives matter.
Up to this point in our story we acted identically, we acted in unison and we committed the same acts of civil disobedience. It is at point in the story, however, that our narratives sharply diverged. Ironically so, as this treatment only underscored the unfortunate truth we had taken to the streets to protest: black and white bodies are not treated equally.
As a line of riot cops approached, two officers broke off and headed directly toward us. Both of them went after the black one of us, Shawn, forcefully ripping us apart. A few seconds later an officer grabbed Ben, the white one of us, and threw him to the ground.
Then the officer leaned over and whispered in Ben's ear, "Just get out of here."
No such offer was made to Shawn. Ben stood up, suddenly and bewilderingly free, and saw Shawn being dragged off towards the police vans. Unwilling to abandon his friend, Ben waited until he, too, was arrested -- at which point the person who had cuffed him sought out someone else to officially take him in.
In the mean time, as Shawn spoke with his arresting officer another officer accused him of "making smart remarks" and charged into the back of the police holding van. Afraid and feeling physically threatened, Shawn yelled "I am not saying anything smart!" The officer backed off, and eventually Ben joined him in the van.
At the station Shawn had his 2.5-inch round Union Seminary button removed because it could be used as a weapon. Ben kept his. With a broken phone in the holding cell, we each asked our arresting officers to make a phone call on our behalf. Ben's officer made the call, Shawn's officer declined. Another officer entered the cell to speak with us, and referred to Latinos as the "real thugs," intensifying an already unsafe atmosphere for Shawn, who is half Puerto Rican.
Looking at the story of our arrests we find both commonality and difference. We both peacefully surrendered to the police and we both found our peaceful surrender met with violent response. This did not surprise either of us, but our lack surprise is indicative of how normative it has become for police to use violence as a first response instead of as a last resort.
More pressing than this commonality, though, is the difference in our experiences. At a protest of how the law treats white and black bodies differently, police treated our white and black bodies differently.
At the end of the day, this difference did not end tragically for either of us. We were not seriously hurt and were released from jail later that evening. However, in the case of Eric Garner and far too many black bodies in this country, this difference in perception is fatal.
Justice may be blind, but the officers who enforce it are most certainly not.
We emerge from this encounter united. As Christian ministers the book that gives rise to both of our faith centers around the story of a man killed at the hands of the state and the promise that this death is not, and cannot be, the final word. We will continue to speak out as long as we see bodies killed at the hands of a state that refuses to indict those responsible. We will continue to speak out as long as black and white bodies experience unequal treatment at the hands of the law. We will speak for those bodies whose voices were violently stolen from them.
Death will not be the final word.
Rev. Shawn Torres First-year Master of Divinity student at Union Theological Seminary
Benjamin Perry Third-year Master of Divinity student at Union Theological Seminary