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COVID-19 Has Been Racialized”: Black Scholar Jill Nelson Arrested for Chalking “Trump = Plague”

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Black and Brown communities are being disproportionately targeted and policed in New York City’s response to the spread of COVID-19. We speak with author and activist Jill Nelson, who was herself arrested by NYPD in April for writing “Trump = Plague” in chalk on an abandoned building in her Washington Heights neighborhood. The 67-year-old scholar was handcuffed, taken to the police station and held for five hours. Now she is speaking out. The president is “telling us that as people of color, and older people, we should just die,” says Nelson. “It’s ridiculous.”

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We turn now to look at how Black and Brown communities are being disproportionately targeted and policed in New York City’s response to the spread of COVID-19 — and it’s not just limited to New York. Data released Friday reveals more than 80% of summonses issued by the NYPD for social distancing violations have been to Black and Latinx people, and 92% of people arrested for not social distancing are nonwhite. Images circulated widely on social media shone a spotlight on uneven policing. Some show police officers distributing masks to white residents in crowded New York City parks, apparently arresting no one. Meanwhile, videos have emerged of violent crackdowns on social distancing measures in Black and Latinx neighborhoods.

Earlier this month, cellphone video went viral showing police officers aggressively pinning a Black man to the ground as they arrested him, then violently attacking a Black passerby, dragging him on the street, punching him and kneeling on his neck, during what was supposed to be a social distancing enforcement action. The man who was attacked, the second man, 33-year-old Donnie Wright, was hospitalized with severe injuries to his back, ribs and chest. The officer involved, Francisco Garcia, has since been put on modified assignment.

Last week, the Brooklyn District Attorney’s Office said 35 of 40 people arrested for social distancing violations were Black. Mayor Bill de Blasio has rejected comparisons to New York City’s unconstitutional stop-and-frisk policies under former Mayor Bloomberg, but said in a tweet “the disparity in the numbers does NOT reflect our values.”

Well, for more on racist policing, we are joined by an author and activist who was herself arrested by the New York Police Department on April 16. She was writing “Trump = Plague” in chalk on a boarded-up building in her Washington Heights neighborhood in northern Manhattan. Jill Nelson was handcuffed and spent more than five hours in jail before being released. The 67-year-old scholar, writer and activist, now being called the “graffiti grandma,” is speaking out against the NYPD. She’s a longtime reporter, has written several books, including the autobiographical Volunteer Slavery: My Authentic Negro Experience, which won an American Book Award. She’s a former professor of journalism at the City College of New York.

Jill Nelson, welcome back to Democracy Now! It’s great to have you with us, but unfortunately under these circumstances.

JILL NELSON: Thank you.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about what happened to you —

JILL NELSON: Thank you, Amy.

AMY GOODMAN: — just under a month ago?

JILL NELSON: I went out to go to the drugstore and the supermarket, essential trips. I was walking from the drugstore down to Broadway to go to the supermarket, when I saw a green boarded-up, empty, for-rent building. It was covered with plywood. And I wrote — had a piece of chalk in my pocket, and I wrote “Trump = Plague.”

Before I could even step back, cops swooped in, cut me off on — made an L, two cop cars — cut me off, jumped out. “What are you doing? What are you doing? You’re under arrest.” They searched me, asked me if I had weapons, told me to take my hands out of my pockets — it was a cold day, so I said no — frisked me, shoved me into a police car and took me to the 33rd Precinct, where they put me in a cell and left me there for five-and-a-half hours. I took my shoes off. I had had a mask, a fabric mask I had made, on, but I demanded that they give me one of their more professional masks. They didn’t allow me to make any phone calls. I was never read my rights.

It was absurd, absolutely absurd, a total waste of time, energy. And this is in a community that has one of the highest rates of COVID, has many people who are poor and working poor. And there’s something the police could have been doing besides attacking me for writing the truth. I have yet to have anyone disagree with what I said.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s go back to the beginning. Talk about the building that you were writing on. You were using chalk?

JILL NELSON: I was using chalk, washable chalk. And it was a boarded-up front of a building, when you build it out and cover it with plywood as if you’re going to renovate, but it had a “for rent” sign. So it was not occupied by anyone.

AMY GOODMAN: And why did you choose that phrase?

JILL NELSON: Because he is a plague and a pox on all our houses. And I think we need —

AMY GOODMAN: You were writing, “Trump = Plague”?

JILL NELSON: “Trump = Plague,” yes. I mean, it sums it up, to me, what’s going on, how it is, what’s happening in this country and in the world. And we have a president who is aiding and abetting and telling us that as people of color, and older people, we should just die, get out there and die for capitalism. It’s ridiculous. There are so many disparities in healthcare, in treatment, in coverage.

You know, I think the police are out of control. I think the mayor is afraid of the police. Instead of saying what he ought to say, which is, “Now I see how you feel, people of color,” he’s fronting for the police, as always. Apparently, the only person he worries about is Dante.

AMY GOODMAN: Dante being his son.


AMY GOODMAN: And why do you say that?

JILL NELSON: Well, because it’s always an excuse. I’m tired of — you know, I’m 67 years old. I was politicized by the killing of Clifford Glover when I was 18. This notion that it’s only a few bad apples and that this isn’t policy and that the police are there to serve and protect, I don’t buy it. I don’t buy it. I don’t see it. I can’t see how arresting me or rushing down those young men in Brooklyn serves any purpose. It doesn’t make us safer.

And I frankly feel that COVID-19 has been racialized, really, and it’s now being used as a way to further oppress people of color. It’s just absolutely wrong. The police aren’t doing their job. What a waste. And —

AMY GOODMAN: So, Jill Nelson —

JILL NELSON: You know, I think we have to stand up and resist. Go ahead.

AMY GOODMAN: So, describe what happened when the police moved in on you. You were wearing your mask. Were they wearing masks?

JILL NELSON: They were wearing masks. They were wearing gloves. They jumped in. I mean, you would have thought I was selling crack in the early ’80s, the way they swooped down. It was seconds. They subsequently said — told someone that someone had called in a complaint. I find that hard to accept. It was between 15 and 30 seconds max between when I started writing and when the cops got there.

“What are you doing? We’re going to arrest you. Is this your property? Do you know what you’re doing? Do you have any weapons?” I said, “Words.” They didn’t think that was funny or intelligent. They shoved me into — cuffed me roughly, shoved me into a police car, took my pocketbook, took me to the station, booked me, and then put me in a filthy cell for five-and-a-half hours. I wasn’t read my rights. I wasn’t offered the right to make a phone call. I took all of my —

AMY GOODMAN: You weren’t able to make a phone call?

JILL NELSON: No, no. I’m sorry, at 3:00 — this was after being there a couple hours — they told me I could call and get my — try to get my husband, because I didn’t have a photo ID, and he needed to — they needed that to release me. But they dialed my home number. When my husband answered, the guy, after 53, 50 seconds, says — the cop says, “I’m going to cut you off after a minute.” Boom, cut me off. So my husband had no idea what precinct I was in. And they had —

AMY GOODMAN: You hadn’t gotten a chance to say where you were yet.

JILL NELSON: No. And they had told me to tell him that they would send a cop car by my apartment, which is like 10 blocks away, to pick up my ID. My husband put my license in an envelope, went downstairs and waited for 40 minutes, and they never came to get it. Then he came back upstairs, figured out where I was, came to the precinct, dropped off my ID. I didn’t even know that until I happened to see my identification in a plastic evidence bag and was like, “Has my husband been here? Where is he?” And they were like, “Oh, yeah, yeah. He came a while ago. You couldn’t have seen him anyway.”

AMY GOODMAN: Which police station were you being held in? Which community?

JILL NELSON: The 33rd Precinct in Washington Heights.

AMY GOODMAN: So, did they threaten to bring you to Central Booking, to bring you downtown?

JILL NELSON: Yes, because I didn’t have ID, and they wouldn’t either go pick up my ID, or I had offered earlier, “Take me. Drive me to my house. You can come up to my apartment. I’ll show you my — give you my ID.” They told me they were going to take me downtown, and that if they took me downtown, I’d probably be there all night. And when they finally released me, Amy, the desk sergeant said, “And be sure to show up for your desk appearance ticket, or else we’ll come to your house and arrest you.”


JILL NELSON: The whole thing was — yes, ma’am.

AMY GOODMAN: Jill Nelson, we’re going to break, and we’re going to also be joined by your lawyer, Norman Siegel, former head of the New York Civil Liberties Union, and talk about this issue.


AMY GOODMAN: These are the kinds of issues you write about, not only in New York City, but all over the country. We’re talking to the author, activist, former professor, Jill Nelson, 67 years old, lives in the Washington Heights area of New York City and was handcuffed by police after they moved in on her for graffitiing on a boarded-up building “Trump = Plague.” Stay with us.


AMY GOODMAN: “Freedom Blues” by Little Richard. The man called the “architect of rock 'n' roll” died of cancer Saturday at the age of 87.

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“Weaponized and Racialized”: Police Departments Use COVID-19 to Target Black & Brown Communities

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