The Slatest

The Story Behind 50 Cops in Riot Gear Arresting 14 Peaceful Protesters in Alabama

A young woman raises her fist in front of a torn-up patch of paved ground.
Amber Carter celebrates in front of the space where, just a couple days earlier, a Confederate monument stood in Birmingham, Alabama. Amber Carter

Images from the nationwide protests over police violence have tended to focus on the massive crowds in cities such as Washington, New York, and Los Angeles. But protests are also happening in medium-size and small cities across the country, and the scale of some crackdowns can verge on absurdity.

In Alabama, for example, police in riot gear fired tear gas and rubber bullets at protesters in Huntsville, an overwhelmingly white and wealthy city, because the officers didn’t want to “roll the dice” on whether the protest would turn violent. But it was photos of a protest in Hoover, a suburb of Birmingham, that made the rounds Tuesday night as an extreme example of police engaging with peaceful protesters.

Hoover, a city of fewer than 90,000 people that is nearly 90 percent white, was the site of the 2018 fatal shooting of E.J. Bradford. On Thanksgiving, police shot 21-year-old Bradford three times from behind as he ran away—they had mistaken him for another black man who’d reportedly drawn a weapon in an earlier conflict. Local and state law enforcement agencies initially refused to release footage of the shooting, and in February 2019, the attorney general concluded that the officers had committed no crime.

Photos and videos of the protest in Hoover on Tuesday, taken by reporter Ian Hoppe, showed just 14 young people, sitting quietly on a grassy patch, as hordes of police officers—Hoppe counted more than 50—in riot gear surrounded them. Later photos showed them being taken away, again peacefully. All were arrested, though ultimately not charged. “There’s more media than there are protesters,” Hoppe noted. (The Hoover Police Department has not released a statement on the arrests.)

Slate spoke to one of those arrested, Amber Carter, about the experience. Carter is a 21-year-old student of Jefferson State Community College and an out-of-work delivery driver who lives in Helena, another suburb of Birmingham. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Slate: What made you want to get involved with the protests?

Amber Carter: After Ahmaud Arbery, I felt really sick. It was all I saw on Facebook. I’m just like, “Wow, my people, we can’t even go out and jog in quarantine without just something happening to us.” And George Floyd—I was outraged. After that, I’m like, “No, this is enough.” Something about that alongside all other previous killings of black people just kind of woke me up. I’m fed up. Beyond fed up. As an African American woman, I just cannot stand on the sidelines.

What was the week leading up to this arrest like for you?

My first protest was in Birmingham on Friday. I went there by myself. I was so nervous. But it was nice. It was peaceful. And I’ve pretty much been going out to protests almost every day since. My thought process has been similar to “eat, sleep, protest,” except I’ve barely been eating and my sleep hasn’t been the greatest. Honestly, after I went to that first protest, a switch just flipped inside me. It’s so inspiring to be out here. The overwhelming support from around the world just kind of keeps me going.

How did you end up at the Hoover protest on Tuesday?

I went to two different protests that day. I went to [one in the Birmingham suburb of] Homewood earlier, and that one was fine. Then everyone was like, “Let’s migrate to Hoover,” so we did. If you happen to run a stoplight [in Hoover] and you get pulled over, next thing, there are six cop cars on the scene for no reason. Hoover has always had that problem. They’re just excessive. So at these protests, all these police officers have these dudes in riot gear.

What was the protest like when you arrived?

It was on the side of the highway, in this patch of grass, and the Hoover Library was right behind us. It was like a pretty medium-size crowd. It was just a normal protest, not anything violent. We were all holding up our signs and our fists and had our chants. People were passing out drinks and snacks. At 6:40, police tackled this guy and arrested him for taking a selfie with a cop.

How did the protest end up with just 14 people?

We had our curfew, which was 7 p.m. As it started getting closer to 7, the cops brought out a megaphone to say, “You have 15 minutes until we will arrest you.” So people started making their way out. People were saying: “If you plan on getting arrested for protesting after 7, just make sure you leave your name and number and birthday with us and we promise we will bail you out. You’re going to be represented for free. We will not leave you there.”

Why did you decide to stay?

I didn’t know what I was in for. But I wanted to show the world that these young, fearless protesters—you can’t stop us. That alone gave me enough courage to just go through with that.

What did it feel like to see all those officers?

It was ridiculous. There were so many of them. There are dudes in riot gear, and they just kept on coming onto the scene. I’m like, “Guys, there are literally just 14 protesters.” I know it was all scare tactics, but that’s what makes them look even more ridiculous. We were all sitting down. We weren’t even disrupting the peace. It’s not like we were yelling or causing a mess or anything. It was unbelievably unnecessary.

What happened after curfew?

It gets to 6:59, and then the cop who brings out the megaphone once again says, “This is your last chance to exit the property.” That was when we all held up our signs and our fists and we just stayed seated. We were just patiently waiting. It was pretty quiet. Whenever a car passed by and honked, we would cheer, but you could feel the anxiety in the air. We didn’t know what was going to happen. There were dudes in riot gear for us, 14 protesters. And they were like, “OK,” and sent their officers toward us.

What was the arrest itself like?

A police officer came up to me, and I still had my fists in the air. I was deep breathing: “I’m going to be OK.” I was very nervous. We were prepared, but it was my first time ever being arrested. [Protest organizers had] all said to just stay sitting down, do not resist arrest, because otherwise they’re going to charge you. Then they got our information and put handcuffs and masks on us. I didn’t have one—I gave my sister the mask I had on because I didn’t know if they would have taken it or not. But they put masks on us, touching them by the straps, over our ears, because our hands were already behind our backs at that point. It was one of the dudes in riot gear who put a mask on me.

What was going through your mind?

My sister parked across the street, watching me to make sure that the police didn’t do any funny business with us. And I saw an undercover cop pull up behind her, and then I saw six different officers surrounding her. I just saw the cops swarming her car. And I’m like, “Oh, my goodness, please don’t kill my sister.” You know, she’s trying to make sure I’m not getting killed, I’m trying to make sure she’s not getting killed. She’s just a single 25-year-old black woman. It’s completely unnecessary. But at that point I was already loaded up into the van. I was really trying to lean out and see if I could see anything, but I could not see her, so I was worried. When we got to the holding cell, she was already there.

What was the rest of the evening like?

Before we left, the cop who I guess was in charge thanked us for our cooperation: “You guys are a lot better than the last group we arrested.” Then we make our way to the county jail. The ride there was not that bad—we’re all like-minded people, just cutting up, singing songs. We were all talking to each other, telling stories, letting ourselves get to know each other. Singing “The Wheels on the Bus,” just trying to get some comic relief.

When we got to the jail, they processed us one by one. A lady told me to take off my shoes, and I got sent to the holding cell without my shoes. Maybe 45 minutes later, I realized, I’m walking barefoot in a jail cell. That’s nasty. We asked for water multiple times, and we got, “It’ll be a minute.” And the minute never came. Next thing you know, we were all getting released.

A whole bunch of people came there to support us. Whenever an officer would open the door to release someone into the room, they all cheered for us. It was so nice. And they had a lot of food and a lot of drinks for us. I had some vegetable lo mein, and it was completely delicious.

How did you feel at the end of the night?

I was feeling kind of proud. I know everyone isn’t as lucky, I’ve heard stories about jail, and my experience was just not bad. So I do not regret it one bit. People need to see exactly what’s going on. They need to see how insane it was. [But] I will definitely continue going into more protests, even if I were to get in harm’s way.