I am a single mother from North Carolina, where I work in the local non-profit community and am raising my son in an active, vibrant local community. I am active in community organizing and in standing up for what I believe is just. I deeply value political and community participation and it is important to me, as a mother, to teach this ethic to my son. In recent years, I have watched him grow into his own voice, learning to articulate his values and to productively express his views.
On January 20, 2017, my son – whom I am calling A.S. to protect his privacy – had only just turned ten years old. He had become deeply interested in the presidential election of 2016, asking for permission to stay up past his bedtime to watch each of the debates and then, later, the election returns. A.S. was deeply disappointed and concerned when Donald Trump was elected; while he may not understand the deep nuances of American politics, he recognized an aggression and hatefulness in Mr. Trump that bothered him deeply and did not reflect his own values.
Together, we decided that we wanted to speak out on Inauguration Day and at the Women’s March to express our disapproval what Donald Trump stands for. Because he had been so deeply engaged in the election, I wanted to make sure that my son had the space to express himself and I wanted to show him how people respond in a democracy to election results they disagree with – by letting our leaders know why we’re unhappy and how they ought to change. So we traveled together to Washington, D.C. to protest the inauguration.
We had been demonstrating on the streets of D.C. for about three hours when I was learned that a friend of ours had been arrested and was being held in a large group at the corner of 12th and L Streets. We went to see if he was alright.
A crowd had gathered outside the police cordon and we joined them, standing nearby on a sidewalk. The police were out in force. Some of the demonstrators outside the line police lines chanted and shouted to let the detained people go, but no one was violent or threatening or disobeying police orders. In fact, my son and I set down our bag and took the opportunity to eat some of the snacks that I had packed for the day.
Suddenly and without warning, a group of officers started blasting the crowd on my right with large canisters of pepper spray. Immediately, I told my son that it was time to go. He hurried down the sidewalk to our left, away from where we had seen the pepper spray.
However, we hadn’t made it more than a few steps when another group of officers, unprovoked and without warning, rushed forward into the crowd on the sidewalk. Two officers slammed into my son and knocked him to the ground. Instinctually, I dived on top of my child to protect him with my body. We were soon engulfed in a tangle of bodies. My son was crying underneath me on the sidewalk. I was terrified that he would be crushed or that I would be injured myself and unable to get him out safely.
When we were able to stand, I picked up my son up and tried again to leave down the sidewalk, but officers blocked our way -- one yelled at me for having brought my son to a demonstration. Another officer came up beside me and kindly tried to lead us a different way out to safety but he lost us in the crowd and, carrying my son in my arms, I had to flee down the street where the group of officers were pepper spraying.
The street was filled with thick clouds of pepper spray. I coughed and choked and was having trouble running with my son in my arms. Another demonstrator who I did not know picked up my son and ran with him, still sobbing, further away from the officers as I tried to keep up. By this point, A.S. was also coughing and gasping from the spray or the crying or both. We both coughed for the rest of the day. That night after he was asleep, I had to wash pepper spray out of his favorite Star Wars hat that he had been wearing.
Our encounter with the D.C. police that day affected us both profoundly. That night my son., though ten years old, asked to sleep with me. The following day we left our friends at the Women’s March early after he saw a police officer and became frightened. It was weeks before he could think about Inauguration Day without becoming emotional. It was confusing and scary for him-- and for me.
We both are resolved to continue to attend demonstrations together, but I am much more wary of the police and no longer bring A.S. to certain demonstrations where I fear there will be large police presence. When we do go, we always stay close to friends. I am deeply proud of my son’s burgeoning activism and sense of justice; however, I am also afraid for his safety when he expresses his dissent.
Raising my son alone, I have taught my son to call the police in the case of an emergency and that the police are supposed to keep us safe, but on Inauguration Day in D.C., they were the ones who put us in danger.
A.S. and I are joining the ACLU-DC’s lawsuit against the police in order to stand up for our rights and send a message that police should respect peaceful demonstrators, not attack them.