By Michael McDowell
In the early afternoon on April 16th, Jill Nelson, a 67-year-old writer, left her apartment on Riverside Drive to run a few essential errands. Bundled up in a green down jacket, turtleneck sweater, jeans, and sneakers, she planned a quick trip to the drug store and supermarket, stuffing a hat, credit card, and some cash into her purse.
On Broadway and 162nd Street, she passed a boarded-up storefront, and wrote “Trump = Plague” in pink chalk.
Seconds later, she was in handcuffs, she told us.
“Before I could step back and see my handiwork, two police SUVs roared up on either side of me, and blocked me in,” Nelson told the Rag. “Four officers jumped out: ‘What are you doing? Why are you doing that? Do you own this building? Do you have a weapon?’
“They roughly cuffed me, took my purse, and shoved me into the back of an SUV. I was taken to the 33rd Precinct and put in a cell at about 1 p.m. I was never read my rights. They took mug shots, they fingerprinted me, I was searched by a female officer, and they itemized my belongings,” she recounted.
“I thought, are you kidding me? You’re arresting me for writing graffiti in chalk? Are you serious? Now I have a desk appearance ticket for August 14,” she said. “It’s unbelievable. Something so petty! It’s just so stupid and so enraging and a total waste of resources.”
Nelson has been charged with graffiti, a misdemeanor, and was held at the 33rd Precinct for more than five hours.
“They didn’t let me call my husband until 3 p.m., after I’d already been there for a couple hours,” she said. “This is in the midst of coronavirus. I did demand a mask and they gave me one, but they weren’t going to let me out because I didn’t have a picture ID,” Nelson continued. For a short trip to run a few errands, Nelson had left it behind at her apartment.
During a phone call that Nelson claims was cut short by an NYPD officer, she was unable to communicate her whereabouts to her husband, Flores A. Forbes, an associate vice president at Columbia University. Although Nelson says she was told that a squad car would be sent to her building to meet her husband, who had located her ID, Forbes waited for a car that never arrived.
“They began saying that they were going to take me downtown, take me to the Tombs,” Nelson said, referring to the Manhattan Detention Complex. “It was almost gleeful, I felt. This is going to be your punishment for being an uppity human being. An uppity female. And the guy is like yeah, you probably won’t get out of there until tomorrow morning.”
“I’ve known people who went to the Tombs, and they disappear for days.”
Eventually, Forbes arrived, having given up on the squad car and determined his wife was almost certainly at the 33rd Precinct.
“They had a plastic evidence bag and I saw my license, from my cell,” Nelson said.
When she asked if her husband was there, Nelson says she was told that he had left, and that she couldn’t have seen him anyway.
It wasn’t until 6:37 p.m. that Nelson was able to leave the precinct, and not without a stern reminder as to her impending day in court, she said.
“When I left, the desk sergeant, who was of African-American descent, said, you better show up, because if you don’t we’re going to come to your house and arrest you.”
On her way home, Nelson noticed that “Trump = Plague” had already been smudged away.
Reached by phone, the NYPD told the Rag that the complaint was “sealed.”
In a subsequent email, an NYPD spokeswoman wrote that “there is nothing on file with the information you provided,” despite being presented with the information listed on the desk appearance ticket—the department’s own record—a copy of which Nelson provided.
Although New York City has recorded a precipitous drop in crime during the coronavirus pandemic, the NYPD has come under increasing scrutiny following videos depicting aggressive enforcement of social distancing guidelines. Photos shared on social media of the NYPD handing out masks to West Village sunbathers present a marked contrast to aggressive arrests of New Yorkers like Donni Wright, who was hospitalized following an encounter with an NYPD officer who had previously been named in seven lawsuits.
“It’s all part of a continuum, I feel. With those guys who got beat up, at least they’re alive. But the level of disrespect, of harassment, of abuse, it builds. My experience was one level, and theirs was another, but it’s part of the same piece of cloth,” Nelson said. “There’s moments in life where you realize, this is how most people are treated most of the time. It really was an experience of feeling like, this is how they treat everyday people. Who don’t have backup. Who don’t have husbands.”
Nelson, who spent much of her life on the Upper West Side, had never previously been arrested, and the experience has kept her up at night.
“I find that I wake up earlier, and I wake up during the night. I feel vulnerable, and I’ve had to push myself to not feel that way—to go on about my business with a sense of rigor and the right to do so,” she said.
She’s ready for an explanation, and an apology.
“After the first few days, I woke up one day and I was really angry. I thought, this shit is ridiculous. I want an explanation, I want an apology, and I want this desk appearance dismissed. I want any record I might have expunged, and I want to know what the police precinct is going to do to have better training for its officers.”
That her experience occurred during the coronavirus pandemic is all the more frustrating.
“When I was walking to the drug store that day, I saw families picking up food at a school. Don’t the police have anything better to do in this community? Like handing out masks?”
“One of the cops said, ‘do you do this often?’
And I said, ‘yeah, graffiti grandma.’”
“In the cosmic essence of horrors, this is minor, but these little things are part of a structure of taking people’s rights away, and making us acquiesce to whatever the powers that be tell us. I think it’s all a piece, a small part, it has a chilling effect, and I think that’s just what it’s supposed to do.”