“That’s a nice dress,” the officer said as I stood frozen while she snapped my picture. I thanked her without smiling as she led me to the bright cell with cornflower-colored bars where I would stay until I was summoned once more to be fingerprinted. I wondered how the woman in the cell across from mine could sleep, curled up in a fetuslike ball. She seemed oblivious to the goings-on around her.
I was still in my cocktail dress and stiletto heels, my makeup fresh. My left arm felt tender, a result of having an officer squeeze it tightly as he led me, handcuffed, to the squad car.
“What are you in here for?” a young Asian woman in the same cell as the snoring woman asked.
“Violation of the noise ordinance. I was having a birthday party for a friend,” I replied. She, along with the four other women waiting to be processed, was in disbelief. “It’s true,” I insisted.
“Where do you live?” a young black woman with sweatpants and a T-shirt inquired.
“In Chevy Chase,” I answered. She began to shake her head, and I knew why.
The Barnaby Woods neighborhood of Chevy Chase in Washington, D.C., is a heavily Democratic, progressive enclave known for its walkability and lush greenery. It is also the neighborhood chosen by Vice President Mike Pence to live before he moved into the vice president’s mansion. In an act of resistance, residents hung rainbow flags and placed signs in their yards proclaiming their commitment to inclusivity and diversity. In that moment, I felt proud to belong to a community that seemed to be on the right side of history.
The neighborhood, while progressive, is not racially diverse, with about 10 percent of the population African American or other people of color. It is also the wealthiest zip code in the city. Most African Americans in the city reside in wards 7 or 8, across the Anacostia River, where poverty rates hover above 30 percent. I am one of only a handful of black people in the neighborhood.
I chose Barnaby Woods because of its top-ranked public elementary school. I have 7-year-old twins and was not interested in competing for the too few slots available for decent schools in the citywide lottery. Finding a home here felt like such a boon.
On Sunday night, I hosted a milestone birthday party for a dear friend whom I have known for more than a decade. She also recently landed a big job as a senior vice president at a prestigious firm. Long-ago friends had flown in from across the country to celebrate with us. The party began in earnest at 9:30 p.m., and by 10:45 p.m., a little more than an hour later, I was arrested and in a squad car headed down to the 2nd District precinct.
The police officers, one white and the other black, responded to a noise complaint from my neighbors. When I came to the door, I noticed the demeanor of the white officer right away. He was not friendly. I believed that he was surprised that it was I, an African-American woman, who had come to the door.
The officer proceeded to let me know that I was in violation of the noise ordinance that had begun about 15 minutes prior to his arrival at 10:15 p.m. He asked me to turn off the music. The second sentence out of his mouth was, “You can be arrested for this.” He then returned to his squad car. I worked frantically with another guest to turn the music down and to research the noise ordinance.
After about 20 minutes of waiting at the foot of my driveway, the white officer returned to my porch and arrested me for violating the noise ordinance. I was silent. I knew what could happen to me if I asked a question or refused to go. Immediately I thought of Sandra Bland, the black woman pulled over for a routine traffic shot in Texas who, days later, was found dead in her jail cell; the young girl, also in Texas, who was assaulted by a police officer while attending a pool party; and the high schooler in South Carolina who was manhandled by a school safety officer while sitting at her desk.
I could be beaten or, even worse, killed. And it would be my fault. My fear was justified. I also thought about my children, who were away at a slumber party, and how panicked they would feel if I failed to pick them up the following morning.
When my friends—doctors, lawyers and other professionals in their best clothes—gathered in the driveway to inquire about why he was arresting me, the white officer refused to respond and replied only that he “didn’t have to listen to this.” He scrambled into his squad car, but not before hitting one of the guests with the door as he slammed it shut. Before I was placed in the car, the music had been turned completely off.
In that moment, we all felt hopeless and helpless. We were the “good” blacks. We had all done the right thing: gone to college, purchased homes and had outstanding careers. We followed the rules. I am the first in my family to graduate from high school, attend college and earn a Ph.D. If there was, in the words of W.E.B. Du Bois, a Talented Tenth, we were among them. However, none of that mattered.
When I arrived at the police station, I was left handcuffed in the squad car. Both of the arresting officers got out of the car and huddled by the precinct door. Before I knew it, a visibly frustrated sergeant appeared and asked pointedly why I had been arrested and not just given a citation or ticket. The officers had no answer.
In the most recent history of the noise ordinance, there have been no arrests in the Barnaby Woods neighborhood under similar circumstances. While I was being fingerprinted, the black female officer told me that in all of her 29 years on the force, she had never seen anyone arrested for violation of the noise ordinance.
Back at my home, although there was no music, the police continued to harass the remaining guests. The officers refused to leave the scene until they were told to do so by a higher commanding officer.
After I was released a couple of hours later, I was welcomed with smiling faces by a group of friends who had been dispatched from the party to make sure I was OK. On the drive home, I hoped that the party was still carrying on. It was. When I entered the house, there was a collective sigh of relief. I was seemingly unharmed and in good spirits. However, I was rattled to my core.
What I know to be true is that although I have managed to achieve a certain measure of personal and professional success, I have never been fooled into believing I was above the dehumanizing treatment and suspicion often visited upon black people regardless of class or education. Through marked and sometimes painful experiences of racism, I understand plainly what it means to be black in America and to be robbed of human dignity, not only for what you have failed to achieve because of institutional and structural racism, but also for what you’ve been able to achieve despite these prejudices.
That night, I chose to celebrate despite feeling dehumanized and powerless. I would not let them steal my joy.
C. Nicole Mason is the author of Born Bright: A Young Girl’s Journey From Nothing to Something in America (St. Martin’s Press). Her writing has been featured in the Los Angeles Times, the Chronicle of Higher Education, Politico, The Nation, Marie Claire magazine, USA Today, Essence magazine and the New York Times, among other outlets. Most recently she delivered a well-received TED talk at TEDWomen on “The Courage to Disrupt” and “The Gift of Being Difficult.”