I was just 13 when Chinese health officials held me and other travelers from Santa Fe under the auspices of medical quarantine, informing in my mind a deep sense of pride that came with living in a democracy.
This summer, 11 years later, that pride was severely damaged due to a similar encounter in the United States.
Though I still believe in our democracy, the parallels between the two situations suggest a dangerous possibility of becoming that which we criticize and disdain.
Santa Fe—June 2009: As the H1N1 pandemic looms, I'm preparing for a class trip to China with others from Santa Fe Prep. We are to spend 10 days traveling through Beijing, Shanghai, Xi'an and Hong Kong, coinciding with the 20th -anniversary of the Tiananmen Square demonstrations and massacre. We're aware of three other school trips that have been quarantined upon arrival, but as the pandemic has not reached New Mexico yet, we are mostly indifferent to the risks of traveling abroad. Hong Kong has been a territory of the People's Republic of China for 12 years. Our teachers brief us about the PRC's denial of civil liberties, yet the trip is geared toward a celebration of China's incredible history, culture and march towards futurism on the heels of the '08 Olympics and their growing influence in the world, particularly as the West slowly recovers from the Great Recession.
Houston—June 2020: In the days following the killing of George Floyd, a native son of the city I now call home, protests erupt around the country. Few parts of Houston have opened up from the quarantine, which has lasted 12 weeks. The protests remain peaceful, as the city's Black Mayor Sylvester Turner and Hispanic Police Chief Art Acevedo win praise from the media for solidarity with the protest movement. However, tensions remain high as demonstrators and city government cautiously measure each other's sincerity.
Beijing—June 13, 2009: We had heard the usual sniffles and coughs throughout the flight, but no one paid any mind. But when the plane landed, members of China's Health Ministry—wearing full white hazmat suits and carrying doomsday-looking medical devices—came aboard to screen passengers. As we exit the plane, thermal imaging checkpoints measure our temperatures. The airport looks like a triage site with masked passengers ferried between stations by people in ornate military uniforms staring suspiciously at every arrival.
At the eighth or ninth checkpoint, a health screener pulls aside one of my classmates. A chaperone runs after him but is stopped by guards. None of us speak Chinese, and none of them speak English, but after a series of pointing and pantomiming, the chaperone is allowed to -accompany the student as they disappear behind a curtain. Though a strange sight, the group believes it to be a simple misunderstanding. During the hotel check-in, there's a delay when someone notices my name is hyphenated in my passport but not on my inbound boarding pass. I explain that my mother is a feminist, which earns nothing but a blank stare.
4 pm June 2, 2020: It is the eighth day of national protests as Floyd's family marches with a crowd of 60,000 in downtown Houston, flanked by the mayor, -police chief, members of Congress, hip-hop stars and activists. I watch a live stream of the proceedings from my -office. Hip-hop artist Bun B says: "We appreciate the Houston Police Department for standing with us today, but make no mistakes about it, we will hold our police department accountable, if they commit acts against the people of this city." The crowd enthusiastically responds. There are minor reports of clashes with police, but the event ends peacefully. I wonder if we have the blueprint for community policing. I talk with friends and coworkers about how proud we are of Houston. All of the proud people are white.
June 15, 2009: Our missing classmate returns at breakfast after 12 hours of tests and we start our day of sightseeing with a visit to the Forbidden City, passing through Tiananmen Square. I had seen videos of the '89 riots and assumed the plaza would still look chaotic and crowded like Times Square, but we arrive to a virtually empty space. There are, however, plenty of uniformed police, who descend on us, grab our cameras, and delete any photos we take. While awaiting a tai chi class to start, our tour bus driver hands the trip leader a phone, and she immediately looks very worried. We are escorted back to the bus, most of us relieved to be back in the air conditioning. The trip leader begins to cry and the mood changes quickly to discomfort and anxiety. She informs us a man from our flight has been interned on suspicion of having H1N1. The government will quarantine the nearest three rows of seats as a precaution. Three of our four chaperones and eight of the students are on the list. Mine is the last name to be read.
7 pm, June 2, 2020: My girlfriend Sabrina and I check Twitter to see if the police have acted as peacefully as the national media has indicated. We see reports that sow doubt. We talk about our obligation to defuse police violence, but the words sound foreign to us. Our white privilege is obvious. Memories of police brutality and violence aren't our own. We head to the protest and park a few blocks away, walking north towards Discovery Green, site of the day's afternoon events. I hold my Black Lives Matter sign in front of cars and get friendly honks. Police give me a thumbs up. Most of the remaining protesters are sitting atop a hill looking toward the convention center. An ice cream truck passes through. Suddenly an organizer approaches us to explain the police are clearing out the park. There is no curfew in Houston, they have simply had enough. We comply with their order, moving past a long barrier of police, chanting names of Black people killed by officers in other cities.
We wind through downtown Houston, the march jubilantly punctuated by car horns, shouts of "Black Lives Matter!" and a man towing a rolling speaker blaring hip-hop and gospel music. Occasionally a protester (usually white) will try to graffiti something on a building. The Black protesters stop them. This march will be unimpeachable.
June 15-16, 2009: The non-quarantined students and single chaperone get off the bus, and the rest of us ride silently back to the hotel. Men resembling secret service agents escort us to our rooms. The air conditioning has been turned off in our part of the hotel. Seven hours later, an employee of the Health Ministry appears to explain I do not have an "ideal temperature" and I am being taken to the hospital. We ride in an ambulance to a building that looks like a bomb shelter with massive steel vault doors, affixed with a U-bolt lock, which someone saws through with an angle grinder. Another health employee explains in tenuous English that they want to take a sample of our blood. Our trip leader somehow convinces them not to. They take cheek swabs instead.
We are each locked in a separate room with a single bottle of water. This is not a hospital. I survey the contents of my backpack and find my summer reading assignment, Lord of the Flies. Even when it is the last thing to do on Earth, I don't do my homework. My only break from the monotony is an hourly check of my temperature, and I begin to think about rationing my water. Hours later, sometime after midnight, a health official escorts me out of the building, and I'm greeted by the familiar Beijing smog. It feels soothing compared to the stale air of the hospital room. I'm overjoyed to see my four fellow "patients" waiting in the back of another ambulance. No one tells us where we're going.
9 pm, June 2, 2020: The front of the column makes a sharp left turn, and we move down a street underneath the highway. Homeless people sleep next to booted cars, despite the cacophony passing by. Most of them are Black, and I'm reminded that economic injustice lingers over this city. The clatter of footsteps washes out to the sounds of a helicopter whirring overhead. A line of police swings out from behind a brick complex as we approach an intersection. They look like a battalion of soldiers. The march stops, and many protesters take to their knees, "hands up, don't shoot!" The white cops hold their weapons, the Black protesters hold their signs. Twenty-five feet of pavement separates the groups. Neither side moves.
Without warning, the police advance through the neutral place and begin screaming "Get back! Get the fuck back!" Our voices answer their volume, "No justice, no peace!" Tonight there will be neither. The cops are marching towards us more quickly now, and the protesters step back, some turning to run. A nightstick swats the sign from my hand. A girl backpedaling away stumbles and falls behind the front line of police. I reach my hand out to grab her but feel a howling, dull pain in my arm, then my back. Police are beating people and dragging them away. Later, I will watch a video captured 100 feet from the police line and realize several minutes are completely blacked out from my memory.
We return to an intersection we had crossed earlier. It is clear the police have us surrounded from every direction. The protesters put their hands up and shout, "Where do you want us to go?" but the answer is only more beating. We see a fence nearby fall to the ground with an open field behind it. We follow the crowd over the fence. As my adrenaline subsides, I realize the field is completely fenced in; we've been kettled by the cops.
We wait for two hours. The group is frustrated but calm. One woman vomits and looks dazed. A man in the center of a prayer circle invokes Isaiah 54:17, "I ask that no weapon formed against us shall prosper."
We observe a shift change, the police who trapped us are relieved, their night over. White school buses bearing the HPD logo drive up, and reality sets in. They intend to make an example out of us. We share phones, call loved ones, write down numbers for lawyers on our forearms. I call my parents to inform them of our arrests. One by one, we walk out to be zip tied. Officers confiscate our property, our link to the outside world now severed. I ask my arresting officer what we're being charged with. He says he doesn't know. It becomes clear none of them have any idea what is happening.
A sergeant walks up and down the line of detainees with instructions for arresting officers. Everyone is given different charges, all of them arbitrarily. Mine is criminal trespass. Sabrina's: obstructing a roadway. No one read our Miranda rights. As we are loaded onto the bus, a white officer updates the charges against me to include obstructing a roadway and evading arrest. In all, about 200 others faced the same allegations.
June 16, 2009: The ambulance weaves through Beijing rush hour traffic. Here the siren is only a suggestion, so the driver reinforces his urgency by holding down the horn for the entire duration of the journey. We ragdoll around in the back. I want to throw up but there's nothing in my stomach.
Finally, we arrive at a hotel now repurposed as a quarantine center. We are delighted to see the other members of our group who had not been taken to the hospital. Inside the lobby, a list of quarantine rules on an information board tells us "Sorry, your embassy cannot help you. China's land. China's rule." We call the US Embassy anyway with no luck.
Everyone housed in the hotel is from the West. I no longer feel like a medical prisoner, but a political prisoner. We're here to participate in political theater, retaliation for criticisms of China during the SARS outbreak six years earlier. The hotel employees instruct us to take our temperatures throughout the day, but they don't supervise us while we do. They dispense glass thermometers and return to collect them. This is a pretend quarantine.
3 am, June 3, 2020: We have been on the bus in our restraints for four hours. Some people are losing sensation in their fingers. We're moved into a recreation building for the Houston Police Department, where we wait for another four hours, some sleeping but most of us talking. I meet a guy who's been picked up several times before for protesting and a bar fight in college. He didn't have enough money to post bail so he stayed incarcerated until his trial. Another man is still wearing his uniform from his job as an exterminator (a job that in Houston should come with honorifics like judges or clergy). He wasn't at the protest, he explains, he was just walking to his girlfriend's apartment nearby. He's not a US citizen, and he's worried he could lose his green card if his company fires him for missing work the next day.
Periodically, groups of 10 are taken away. I am one of the last to be picked, around 8 am. I have now been detained for almost 12 hours and have not been fed or provided water. My zip ties are removed after eight and a half hours. Guards take our temperatures and give us each a mask and a squirt of hand sanitizer. At the facility responsible for 10% of Houston's -coronavirus cases, this will be the last we hear about it from the jail staff. We're moved to a holding cell with roughly 400 square feet of floor space. There are 25 of us and two toilets, though one is already clogged, and from the smell of it, for some time.
Sometimes the conversations turn serious, to past encounters with police and strongly worded refutations of the city's gleaming public persona for racial harmony, which one man calls "lullaby bullshit." Everyone has a personal story of a racist cop they've experienced, except me. I am the only white man in the holding cell. A man in his early 50s says he was at the Rodney King riots in '92, and the mood grows more somber. One man uses the intercom to ring the jailer to ask for water. The jailer says we can drink water from a spigot attached to the toilet. Later, he decides he's had enough, and says if we ring the intercom again, "I will come down there and choke you, bitch." Lunch is delivered. It's stale bread, slimy ham and government cheese.
Around noon, we're moved in groups of five to the intake room, which feels like a less competent version of the DMV. The officers outnumber the inmates 2 to 1, but no one seems to have a job to do. Long stretches of time go by when no one is doing anything. By this point, some people brought in on garden variety criminal charges are mixed with those arrested during the march. An officer splits the processing agents to handle the two groups. She asks us to self-sort, "Are you a protester or a real criminal?"
Finally, someone calls me to the desk. I am charged with one Class A misdemeanor for evading arrest, and Class B misdemeanors for criminal trespass and obstructing a roadway. I am a B+ criminal, just as I was a B+ student.
After mugshots and fingerprints, I return to a seat and wait some more. Guards move me to another floor. When the elevator opens, I see 300-400 people waiting for arraignment.
We now have access to pay phones, and I call my parents in Santa Fe. They tell me there is an army of people working on my behalf. Roughly 10 people have tried to post my bail but couldn't because they couldn't find me in the system. I surmise it must be the hyphenated last name. I think about all the people who don't have a family and community of friends with the ability to offer that support. Sabrina's bail of $300 is posted first. It's a low amount by the standards of the legal system, but several people tell me that's more than they can afford.
The TVs show religious programming with the sound on, and Law and Order with subtitles. The pretend cops seem to be doing a good job on the show. I survey the correctional officers in the big hall, and while 9 out of 10 are Black, they treat the Black inmates as poorly as the white cops do, constantly screaming at them to sit up straight or to stop talking. They didn't get the memo about community policing. Officers treat me differently. I use the water fountain and bathroom without rebuke. They say things like, "You shouldn't be in here." Every Black inmate is seen as completing an equation.
The bond agent hears my case around 1 am, June 4. He informs me that the judge has thrown out my trespass and evasion charges due to a lack of probable cause. He says confidently that if I show up for the July 2 court date, I can expect the third charge to be dropped too. It's what I was expecting, but still a weight has been lifted off my shoulders. I realize it was privileged and naïve to assume the charges would be dropped. I hang my head.
June 22-26, 2009: After the seventh day of quarantine, we are set free. An official of the Health Ministry gives each of us a bouquet of flowers as we leave to celebrate our graduation into the collectivist system. We see the Great Wall, and we remember that the most famous tourist attraction in China is a border fence. The sites we see feel emptier than before. The Bird's Nest, the spectacular stadium built for the '08 Olympics, seems superfluous. A guide tells us they don't really use it for much now.
Next, we stay for one night in Hong Kong, where the locals express no surprise at our treatment; "China's land, China's rule" is the greatest threat to Hong Kong at this very moment. It feels like the precipice of great change, with a new leader in the West, a rising power in the East, and a planet mired in tense austerity and introspection following the recession of the -previous year, not to mention a pandemic that has still not crested.
2:30 am, June 4, 2020: I sit in the pre-releasing area of the jail with my signed bond order. I have been awake for almost two solid days now. No one has the energy to be excited about our impending release, possibly because we're still not exactly sure when that will be. Everyone leaves through the same door, protesters and "real criminals."
An inmate sitting in front of me calls his mother and says he's "one step further to freedom." I consider what that really means. This room is where at least five people from the demonstration were transferred to ICE custody. It is where Black inmates whose sentences started long before this round of protests will be released into a world that still kills them indiscriminately. Some have been in custody long before COVID. Most will make mandatory stays if they are ever arrested again.
I am summoned to retrieve my property at 4:45 am. I walk through the vault doors 15 minutes later, almost 36 hours after first being trapped in the fence. It is 31 years to the day since the violent suppression of the Tiananmen Square protests.
CODA: July 10, 2020
Roughly a week after being released, we received word that the Harris County district attorney has dismissed all charges related to protesting. I am currently in the expungement phase of the proceedings, which should officially leave me with no criminal record when completed. Yet to be determined is whether the court will waive fees; at $400 per charge, the price tag would be too expensive for many of the protesters who would be forced to keep them on their records.
Three weeks after our release, the Houston Chronicle reported the story of one person whose personal property was still being held illegally at Harris County jail. The county blamed a paperwork mishap, but the protester alleged it may have been due to the videos of police brutality she had recorded during the demonstration. Like so many things in America, the story of the Houston protesters still doesn't have an ending, and neither does the police killing of George Floyd and the larger movement to reform our criminal justice system.
I am the descendant of Ellis Island immigrants who fled poverty and pogroms and achieved the American dream. There are many things that make me proud to be American, foremost, the indelible spirit of this country to expect more from itself. I feel a great sense of fulfillment every time I read the First Amendment or see it applied. But I feel a much greater sense of shame when I see it suppressed. I can't shake the sense of dread when I remember the constitution of the People's Republic of China guarantees those same civil liberties as our First Amendment, liberties only a member of the Chinese Publicity Department would say are upheld. It is the challenge of this moment to avoid letting those liberties become fool's gold in our own country.