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A group of protesters were placed under arrest in Houston, Texas on June 2. No rioting or looting was reported but a group of protesters tried running from police after unconfirmed reports that they were trying to get on the freeway.

We Were Gassed, Arrested, and Maybe Exposed to COVID-19

The things that make mass arrests especially awful are now health risks.

Barely 10 minutes after Malik and Erikha Mason got out of their car in downtown Houston on Saturday night, the twins say, police hemmed them in along with dozens of other protesters and started firing pepper spray. Though their cellphone videos show the twins were on the sidewalk just before their arrest, the 22-year-old siblings were charged with obstructing the roadway.

From there, the night got worse: Instead of sending them to the regular booking center where lawyers could find them, the Houston Police Department crammed protestors into a gym at a substation. Several told The Marshall Project they spent the rest of the night there, with their arms zip-tied behind their backs in crowded corrals. There was no social distancing, no food, and nothing to drink—they couldn’t reach the water fountains with their hands bound behind them.

Some, like Erikha, had their masks confiscated. “I couldn’t even comprehend what was going on,” she said.

This is what it’s like to get picked up at a protest in the age of COVID-19. Though Houston is an example of a troubling arrest process paired with allegedly dangerous detention conditions, protesters from Los Angeles to Dallas to New York say they grappled with similar problems during a week of protests. The Associated Press says the demonstrations led to more than 9,000 arrests as Americans erupted over the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police.

Police spokesmen say they are doing their best. Kese Smith, a public information officer for the Houston Police Department, says officers there give “multiple multiple warnings” before arresting people, adding, "We have from the beginning been doing everything we can to make sure that they’re treated humanely and given water."

In general, getting arrested sucks—and even more so during a mass arrest, where the sheer volume of people churning through the system drags out the handcuffed waiting game. But during coronavirus, some of the things that make mass demonstration arrests especially awful have actually become health risks.

“When you go to a protest you can come register your voice and maintain social distance when you can control your own body,” said Alec Karakatsanis, a lawyer and founder of the nonprofit law firm Civil Right Corps. “But when the police start chaining you in a van or when you’re in a bullpen with many people in close proximity, in cells that are filled with mucus and blood and feces and urine—and that’s what our jails look like—the mass arrest process is all the more dangerous.”

He said police officers sometimes deliberately make the process uncomfortable in an effort to discourage repeat protests.

Arrests can involve an hours-long booking process, an initial appearance before a judge or magistrate, a chance to pay bail, and a long release process. In between is a lot of waiting, usually in cramped communal spaces where social distancing is impossible.

During a mass arrest at a protest, the whole process often begins dramatically, with shouting and smoke. That’s what happened in Dallas on Monday, where police cornered peaceful protesters on a bridge and deployed smoke bombs before arresting them.

Similar scenes played out in cities from San Jose, California, to Washington, D.C. Such mass detention techniques can also make the whole arrest process more arbitrary than usual by ensnaring uninvolved passersby. In Los Angeles, a couple said they were on an evening walk when they were swept up by police arresting protesters, according to Kath Rogers, executive director of the National Lawyers Guild of Los Angeles.

After the transport comes the waiting—often in bullpens, crammed with dozens of people sharing a single toilet.

“Police have no interest in creating an efficient system,” said Renate Lunn, a lawyer at New York County Defender Services. “People are being treated worse when they’re arrested because everything takes longer.”

In all five boroughs, she said, arresting officers are sending everyone to One Police Plaza in lower Manhattan instead of driving them to the nearest precinct, a step that lengthens the booking process and makes it harder for lawyers to find their clients. Several detainees told their attorneys that police drank water in front them, then told them there wasn’t any available, and that officers cursed at them, telling them to “Shut the fuck up” when they asked questions. Many did not wear masks or appear to take social distancing guidelines seriously.

Late Tuesday, the Legal Aid Society filed a lawsuit in Manhattan demanding the release of the more than 200 people who’d been detained in such conditions for over 24 hours without going to court. As of Wednesday afternoon, one arrestee had been held more than 80 hours, lawyers said.

In a statement late Wednesday, the city’s law department said “The accusation that officers are retaliating against New Yorkers who are protesting is disingenuous, exceptionally unfair, and perhaps deliberately ignoring the fact that the Police Department is dealing with a crisis within a crisis.”

In San Jose, German Matchniff said he spent more than 14 hours in custody after he and his fiancé were caught up in a demonstration. They had gone to a peaceful protest earlier in the day, then went out to buy a bottle of champagne at a nearby liquor store and stroll through a public art exhibit. They saw a crowd of people running, and then began running themselves after police released tear gas. When Matchniff, a 23-year-old robotics technician, asked a police officer if they could go home, he and his fiancé were taken into custody.

The charges against Matchniff—unlawful assembly and possession of nunchaku, metal martial arts sticks—were low-level enough that he should have qualified for release without paying bail. But he says he was held for hours in a cramped cell with other men who weren't wearing masks. Later, he was moved to another cell that had no water. He filed a complaint against the Santa Clara County Sheriff’s office.

A spokeswoman for the sheriff’s office said only that his “complaint is being handled by county counsel.”

The protesters detained in Houston said they grappled with similarly poor conditions during their time at the gym, which was in a substation. After five tense hours, around 4 a.m, the Mason twins and several other protesters were loaded onto a city bus and taken to the regular inmate-processing center. Erikha said she was made to wait in a cell with a visibly ill woman who coughed and vomited for the next few hours.

It wasn’t until 9 p.m. Sunday that she finally got the word: Someone had paid her $100 bail, and she was free to go. Her brother had been released a few hours earlier, and late that night they finally got back to their Houston suburb, now worried about whether they’d caught a criminal record—or the coronavirus.

Erikha Mason said the experience would not deter her from protesting again. She missed the 60,000-person demonstration Tuesday because she couldn’t afford to skip a day of work waitressing,and didn’t want to risk worrying her grandmother. But the next time she’s free and there’s a gathering, she would go back “100 times over,” she said.

“They want us to be scared, but we’re not scared,” she said. “We’re tired.”

Abbie VanSickle Twitter Email is a former staff writer for The Marshall Project. A two-time finalist for Harvard’s Goldsmith Prize for Investigative Reporting, she was the lead reporter on a year-long investigation into the injuries caused by police dog bites that won the 2021 Pulitzer Prize in National Reporting.

Keri Blakinger Twitter Email is a former staff writer whose work focuses on prisons and jails. Her work has appeared in the Washington Post Magazine, the Houston Chronicle and The New York Times. She is the organization's first formerly incarcerated reporter. Her memoir, "Corrections in Ink", came out in June 2022.