Jazmine Headley was thrust into national headlines in December when, during a visit to a New York public benefits office, her 1-year-old son was snatched from her arms as she was unjustly arrested for sitting on the floor of the overcrowded office.
Headley had a chance to tell her side of the story Monday, and the New York Times reports that she was in tears as she gave her testimony in front of the New York City Council.
“It’s not just the fact that I was arrested. It was the harsh way that I was treated by people who are supposed to help me,” Headley told the council. She added, “In my case, I was just sitting. A peaceful act.”
Video of the incident went viral on social media and sparked public outrage over the way Headley and her son were treated.
Headley went to the public benefits office on Dec. 7 to find out why daycare benefits she had been receiving for her son had been cut off. She had to take the day off from work in order to go, and without child-care, she was forced to take her son with her.
The waiting room was crowded, and all available seats were taken, so Headley sat quietly with her son on the floor, waiting her turn. A security guard came by and told her that she needed to move because she was blocking a fire zone. Headley took exception to the guard’s tone and demeanor and refused to move.
It is worth noting that officials later determined Headley was not blocking a fire zone at all, but in the heat of the moment, the guard apparently did not appreciate having their command “disobeyed,” so they called the police.
As Headley attempted to walk away, a guard grabbed her by the arm. In the resulting chaos, her child was ripped out of her arms, and Headley herself was arrested. She subsequently spent four nights on Rikers Island before the charges against her were dropped and she was released.
In the aftermath of the incident, one guard resigned and the city is looking to fire another, according to the Times.
In her testimony Monday, Headley explained to the council that she and thousands of other New Yorkers go to public benefits office each day, only to face long waits, poor service and the scorn of caseworkers, security guards and police officers.
In other words, poor people are demonized and treated as though they are less deserving simply because they are seeking assistance to make their situations better.
In response to what Headley went through, the council introduced a package of more than a dozen bills that seek to improve the treatment of those who seek public assistance. Those bills include one that would require the Department of Social Services to issue quarterly use-of-force reports and another would require the creation of a special office to handle complaints and questions from the public.
There are also bills for the creation of spaces for children, the streamlining of appointments, the hiring of more social workers, and training employees on how to de-escalate situations.
Steven Banks, commissioner of social services, publicly apologized to Headley at the meeting—just as he did in December after the incident happened.
Corey Johnson, who serves as council speaker, stepped off the dais to hug Headley and apologize to her directly and personally.
“I am similarly deeply, deeply grateful for your bravery, for you wanting to tell your story, for you wanting to ensure that this doesn’t happen to anyone else,” he told her.