Symone Sanders On What Her Night In Jail Taught Her About Racism

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Symone D. Sanders is a senior strategist for Vice President Joe Biden's presidential campaign. During the 2016 election, she was the press secretary for Senator Bernie Sanders. In an excerpt from her new book, No, You Shut Up: Speaking Truth to Power and Reclaiming America, the 30-year-old reflects on first meeting Sen. Sanders and a night from college that shaped her activism.

One day in 2015 I got a random call from someone named Jeff Weaver. He introduced himself as Bernie Sanders’s campaign manager. Would I consider coming to work for Bernie Sanders? At this point I got up and shut the door to my office. “Tell me more,” I said.

A few weeks later, my phone rang. “The senator wants to meet with you today… Can you come right now?”

I decided to go to the meeting because: one, you just don’t tell a sitting United States senator no when he wants to talk to you; two, I thought it would be an opportunity to express my thoughts to him; and three, I hadn’t gotten any other job callbacks (HA).

I ran out of a congressional building to my car, grabbed a blazer and shoes out of my trunk, and booked it to Senator Sanders’s office. When I arrived, Bernie came out and said, “Come on in!” We had only said a few words to each other when we led right into the start of a joke that we would go on to make hundreds of times: yep, we have the same last name. “Maybe we’re related,” he said, and I was like, “Well, my dad’s from Mississippi, so I dunno…”

From that oh-so-awkward start, the dialogue went something like this.

Senator: I didn’t know there were so many…

Me: Black people in Nebraska?

Senator: I was gonna say Democrats.

Ha ha, ha ha. More small talk; more getting-to-know-you chatty conversation. We discussed Netroots, his reaction to the protestors, and overall strategy. Then we got into an argument. As the senator promptly let me know, we had “a fundamental disagreement” about economic policy. I suggested there was valid criticism out there about his policy, and he obviously did not agree. He then gave me his spiel about inequality and concentration of wealth and how politics is controlled by Wall Street.

Here’s the thing: I don’t necessarily disagree with the spiel—but he was missing a bigger issue. I started off trying to say something about how racial inequality in this country is not a subset of some other set of issues. But instead of fighting, I decided to backtrack and tell the senator a story that I’ll share with you now.

I was on my way to the library one night in my car while I was in college. My parents lived in Omaha, near the university, and I was driving back from their house—it was around ten p.m. on a weekday. My taillight was out; I got pulled over. The officer ran my license.

“Ma’am, did you know you have a warrant out for your arrest?”

A warrant? That’s just not possible. I’ve never been in trouble with the police before, ever. For what?! It turns out, he told me, I had a, uh, small number of parking tickets, let’s say. At this point it had escalated to a bench warrant—which means I had to come in and deal with it. I asked, “Can I pay the tickets right now?”

Officer was like, “No, ma’am, that’s not how it works—I’m gonna have to take you to jail.” Oh my God. I cannot believe this is happening.

I got out of my car; he handcuffed me. I started crying as I got into the back of the police vehicle. Then I realized I couldn’t wipe my nose because my hands were cuffed, so the tears stopped. There was another officer in the car too. I told them I was a student at Creighton. The other officer was like, “Oh, my wife went to Creighton”—I was thinking they’d let me go. No dice.

At this point in my story, I told the senator: I dunno if you’ve ever been to jail, but when you go, only one car is allowed in the parking stall at a time, because they don’t want folks mingling when you get out. So we were waiting for a few minutes, and then one of the officers came around to open my door, but he told me not to move. I saw him bend down like he was picking something up off the ground. Then he told me I could get out (easier said than done with your hands cuffed) and he took me up to stand at the door to wait to be buzzed in.

Then, as this was happening, one of the officers said, “Oh, we found your weed.”

I wasn’t paying attention, because I didn’t smoke, and so I didn’t think they were speaking to me. So I didn’t respond. “You hear us? We found your weed.” My thoughts were racing, wondering what the hell they could be talking about. I didn’t smoke. I hadn’t been driving around with anyone who did. They couldn’t possibly have found weed in my car, so why would they say such a thing? My mind switched to overdrive, trying to flip through all the possibilities of how I could prove this was impossible. While freaking out on the inside, I kept completely silent.

They took me to holding, where they removed my jewelry. I said I was an intern in the mayor’s office and I worked closely with my city council member. I tried my best to keep my cool, but my voice was trembling. Because I knew I had not done anything, but this is how folks’ lives and futures get derailed—this is how “they” get you. This kind of thing could not only completely throw my life off track at the moment, but also sabotage my future.

What followed was a twenty-minute ordeal where they tried to convince me that I needed to take ownership of the marijuana that wasn’t mine. I increasingly realized they were trying to pin it on me. I said it wasn’t my marijuana; I didn’t smoke. After an extensive back-and-forth, the officers gave up on getting me to capitulate to owning the pot, but not before letting me know that actually the weed they found wasn’t very good.

I promptly retorted they should tell that to the person that sold it to them because it was not my marijuana. At this point, I’d had enough of their mind games, and I felt my confidence start to flood back into my bloodstream. I was innocent, and there was no way I was going to let them say anything to the contrary.

They took my fingerprints, a mug shot, put a bracelet on me with my picture on it. Then I was moved to a holding cell with other women, a cell that was the size of a small closet, and there were twenty or so women in there. It wasn’t a socializing kind of place; people are reeeeal quiet when they’re waiting in jail. Finally, I was told I could make a phone call. I called my dad, told him I was in jail, and I instructed him to please call Ben Gray, my city councilman, and alert Stacy Westbrook (the special assistant to the mayor who had helped me get a job), because the officers tried to get me to take ownership of marijuana that wasn’t mine.

My dad and mom came down to the station immediately. Because I was there on a bench warrant, I was told I could post bail, or I could sit in jail until the next day, i.e., midnight. By the time my parents got there, it was eleven fifteen, so I just waited forty-five minutes. As I was telling Bernie this story, he was flipping out. “What?! How? Where did this happen?!”

I was like, “Omaha, NEBRASKA!!!”

Bernie kept real quiet while I recounted this story, but his facial expressions said it all. So after I finished, I was pretty sure that Bernie and I had reconciled, but I waited for him to speak. Then rest of our conversation went something like this:

Senator: I think I like you.

Me: I think I like you too.

Senator: I think I want you to work here.

Me: I think I want to work here too.

This was my own experience, but it happens all over the country. It’s happening right now. The only difference between Sandra Bland and me is that I had access and opportunity that helped me to get out of that awful situation.

I concluded to the senator, that was why I thought he should talk about race and justice issues being parallel to and intersectional with the issues in the economy. Because while the economic situation needs to change, nothing happens in a vacuum. No one cared what school I went to, that I worked in the mayor’s office, what my parents did when I got arrested. The day the officers pulled me over and attempted to pin marijuana on me, all they saw was a Black girl driving through the north side of town, and that’s all that mattered.

Adapted from No, You Shut Up: Speaking Truth to Power and Reclaiming America © 2020 by Symone D. Sanders. Provided courtesy of Harper.