Across the United States, authorities have been cracking down on protesters demonstrating against police violence and structural racism in ways that perpetuate the pattern of harm that is spurring outrage. The week-long detention of a New York City essential worker, Devaughnta “China” Williams, whom police arrested at a protest and charged with parole violations, is a case in point.
There are 4.5 million people under probation or parole in the US. Any slip-up, from missing a meeting, to violating a local ordinance, can land them back in jail or prison – with few fair trial protections. Reflecting the racial inequities that are spurring protests, Black and brown people are disproportionately subjected to supervision and incarcerated for violations. In New York City, Black people are jailed for alleged parole violations at a rate 12 times higher than for white people.
According to media reports, after finishing his janitorial shift on June 4, Williams, a 27-year-old Black man on parole, briefly marched with protesters in the Bronx. Police trapped, bludgeoned, and pepper-sprayed the group shortly before the 8 p.m. curfew and arrested more than 250, including Williams. Williams was exempt from curfew as an essential worker, but police listed “breach of curfew” in charging him with parole violations.
Generally, people arrested in New York have the right to challenge their detention at a hearing within 24 hours – though, in a hotly contested decision, a New York judge recently lifted that requirement in the context of Covid-19 and the protests. Regardless, because Williams is on parole, authorities could lodge a “detainer” mandating confinement pending parole violation proceedings, which could take weeks or months.
Williams spent a week in jail, where people are at heightened risk of contracting Covid-19. Multiple protesters have reported being held in extremely overcrowded and unsanitary facilities in New York. On June 11, authorities conceded they had no evidence against Williams, and the Legal Aid Society secured his release.
We do not know how many people are jailed on detainers following arrests of protesters. But it is known that people have died from Covid-19 while incarcerated in New York City for nothing more than violating parole rules, and those detentions continue.
Human Rights Watch has urged governments worldwide to reduce jail and prison populations, and only engage in custodial arrests when strictly necessary during the Covid-19 pandemic, given heightened risks of contagion as a result of arrest and incarceration. Authorities should also limit the use of detainers, and New York lawmakers should pass the Less is More Act, which would significantly limit detention for parole violation charges.
Failure to act perpetuates the same fundamental problems that have spurred this mass movement, and further jeopardizes the health and lives of Black and brown people.