Floyd Trial's Truth: Notes From a Baltimore Jail

By Jamie Stiehm

April 21, 2021 5 min read

The jury is in. They spoke swiftly and clearly: guilty on all counts. At the Capitol, Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y., said, "Justice was served in a modern-day lynching." He said he had high hopes for a police reform act named for George Floyd.

Officer Derek Chauvin calmly put his knee on Floyd's neck for the world to see. He looked at his watch like he had all the time in the world as he took Floyd's breath away.

The trial brings me back to a June night in Baltimore years ago, when I was home reading in my solarium. As midnight stretched into early morning, I found myself in the women's jail, a Dickensian pile of stones.

Bruised and battered from witnessing a scene of police brutality, I had the mug shot to tell the tale to my editor, family and friends.

Floyd had no chance to do that.

I felt empathy for his claustrophobia, the fear written on his face. And for what? A counterfeit $20 bill. Isn't a Black man's life worth more than that? Why did a minor incident draw four officers using deadly force?

Something is rotten in the state of America.

At least I lived to tell the tale about abuse by the "po-lice" as they say in Baltimore. For a white woman, it gave a rare glimpse into how harsh law enforcement can be.

Floyd's death was a glaring reminder that Black men suffer the brunt of police brutality, even in cities far north of the Deep South.

We don't really grasp that, we privileged people.

But still, it was a shocking experience. I heard a crash and a crowd gather out on the street.

It's like asking if a doctor is in the house. If a newspaper reporter sees a scene when she's off-duty, she (I) should check it out and call it in. So I did.

I saw an old white man lying on the grass, his ribs broken. The excited neighbors said, "A cop beat him up." A young Black man crashed his SUV while the old man, a Guilford resident, was walking his dog.

Piecing things together, I heard the man was filming the police mistreat the Black youth, whose parents showed up and panicked. They got arrested.

Having covered cops, detectives and homicides, I thought I knew what to do. As more and more officers arrived with flashing sirens and lights, they treated the peaceful concern of neighbors as a protest or even a riot.

There, city police treated civilians as the enemy. Us and them. And I was seen as on the other side, without my workaday dress as a journalist observer.

I could barely read their badges in the dark. I asked an officer's name. That's how I got arrested, handcuffed and hurt by a female officer. Just like that, without a word.

To lose my liberty, stolen in a split second, with arms twisted and wrists bruised, made me weep. It was the lowest moment of my life.

Then, other indignities — the ride, the fingerprinting and the no-frills cell. No blankets, no clocks, no phones. Just me in summer clothes. Most of the other women I met in jail were Black.

With time stopped, it's better to have a roommate to share your sorrow than to be confined alone.

It also helps to talk to the social worker. She told me to call the Baltimore Sun newsroom, which was waking up.

The police reporter treated it as a crisis and told a city attorney I was in lockup. She knew me from the tennis courts. The warden came around and walked me to the gate of freedom. My editor was there.

Yes, I got off easy.

Ever since the Sept. 11 attacks, police became militarized in their training, street stance and weapons — even tanks given by the Pentagon. All for "homeland security."

Police respond in larger numbers to smaller incidents, as we see from the Floyd tragedy. Patterns of racial police shootings, from Kentucky to Missouri and back to a second death in Minnesota, show armed aggression seems close to war. Verbal abuse goes with it.

I can only imagine Floyd's suffering in his last moments. Such stark brutality stains all of us. But I do know, personally, that police violence is real, embedding wounds hard to heal.

Jamie Stiehm may be reached at JamieStiehm.com. To read her weekly column and find out more about Creators Syndicate columnists and cartoonists, please visit creators.com.

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