Police protocol compromises safety of student protesters

Largely peaceful protests were often met with violent police arrests, with several USC students across the country among those detained. (Photo courtesy of Kayla Soren)

When 2020 graduate Laura Montilla and her friends joined protesters in downtown Los Angeles, she didn’t expect the long night ahead of her — an experience she would later describe as “inhumane.”

On June 1, Montilla participated in a protest that began at Los Angeles City Hall. According to Montilla, while the protest was initially peaceful, she and her friends found the Los Angeles Police Department cornering the blocks once the updated 5 p.m. curfew had passed.

From May 30 to June 4, L.A. County issued citywide and countywide curfews to “preserve public safety during these hours,” abiding by Government Code Section 8634. Under curfew, residents are ordered to stay off public streets and remain in their homes, while “peace officers, fire fighters and National Guard or other military personnel deployed to the areas” — among others — are exempt from the order. 

According to the Los Angeles Times, the city and county initially imposed a 6 p.m. curfew June 1. At 3:44 p.m., an alert went out on mobile phones noting a change in the citywide curfew to 5 p.m., and the city’s website was updated as well. However, even though L.A. County confirmed on Twitter at 4:24 p.m. that the mobile alert was sent in error, Montilla saw cops jumping on and tasing protesters who were trying to flee shortly after 5 p.m. 

While her friends were able to leave, Montilla found herself zip-tied and caged in with other protesters on a bus. Police searched her belongings, grabbing her crotch and breasts in the process. To Montilla, it was clear the cops had a “lack of protocol” in their arrests at the protests; for the next several hours, she was left with no knowledge of her rights, where she was going and when she could go back home.  

“At that moment, I was like … I’m going to do everything I can to show that I’m compliant and not a threat,” Montilla said. “I was like, surely it won’t be too hard, and I realized that that was not a reality pretty soon.”

Montilla is one of the hundreds of USC students who have participated in demonstrations across the country against police brutality in the wake of the killing of George Floyd, as well as one of several who have gotten arrested or detained by police in the process. Due to her interactions with LAPD, Montilla aims to spread awareness about the realities of police brutality. 

“What I experienced is like such a small scale of what the Black community has faced and faces,” Montilla said. “Really what my experience with LAPD showed me was the police I encountered did what they did because they are protected by a system that has no accountability, provides no incentive for law enforcement … and is inherently racist.”

Detained for hours

Cuffed and caged in the dark for hours, Montilla said everyone on the bus was shaken. 

According to Montilla, the bus was parked at a cemetery parking lot for nearly five hours, and throughout that time, people began to experience panic attacks and urinate themselves.

When they were finally let off of the bus at midnight, Montilla, dead phone in hand, found herself abandoned with other young protesters in an unknown neighborhood. She was able to get a ride from a stranger and returned home safely at around 12:40 a.m. 

“I pray no one was kidnapped that night,” Montilla shared on Instagram June 4. The post went viral with more than 400,000 likes, grabbing the attention of thousands of students as well as celebrities like “Riverdale” actress Lili Reinhart, who has been interviewing activists in the Black Lives Matter movement the past week. Montilla went on Reinhart’s Instagram Live on June 6 to talk about the incident.

Fellow 2020 graduate Kayla Soren shared a similar experience in her arrest on the night of the June 2 protest that began in front of L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti’s residence. According to Soren, when the media was present, the police staged a publicity stunt: Cops marched in unison with the Black protesters, concluding the march with a hug between a Black man and a cop.

While the city imposed a 6 p.m. curfew that night, Soren said the police announced that since the demonstration was peaceful, she and the other protesters could stay past 6 p.m. Police and media left the scene, and Soren and her friends continued to demonstrate.

Half an hour later, police returned, outnumbering the protesters nearly 2-to-1, corralling them to gunpoint at Crenshaw Boulevard and West 8th Street. No media was present.

“It was just complete fear-mongering,” Soren said. “The cops just immediately pointed all of their guns to our heads, surrounded us on all sides, didn’t have their body cameras on and were laughing at us.”

That night, Soren was loaded into cages on a bus with her hands zip-tied. According to Soren, some protesters had to burn their own zip-ties with a lighter because they had lost blood circulation. At 1:30 a.m., Soren and her friend were finally let off the bus in San Pedro with a $1,000 citation for violating curfew.

“I still feel lucky because there are other stories that are so much worse, and Black women are definitely treated far worse than I am as a white woman,” Soren said. “Just because the amount of fear and straight up terrorism that I felt from the police, I can’t imagine what it’s like being a Black person in America.”

In Chicago, rising junior Enrique Delgado and his twin brother Eder walked through predominantly Black neighborhoods in an act of solidarity. During the walk, Enrique held a bus sign he found two years ago on which he taped “Black lives matter” on one side and “Fuck 12” on the other. When two patrol cars trailed the two and flashed their lights during their march, Enrique immediately panicked. The precinct was known for violence as well as racial profiling, he said.

While walking home, Enrique and Eder were arrested and held in a jail cell at the nearest police station for 12 hours, including two hours in the interrogation room.

“They seriously kept trying to intimidate us, but we were not having it,” Enrique said. “I don’t know why they kept doing it, like we weren’t going to change our views … They just kept telling us their opinion, which obviously we didn’t care about, and that’s when they put us in holding cells.”

Next steps

When Enrique and Eder were released the following morning, they were notified that they were charged for theft and defacing public property with the bus sign, with bail set at $1,500 each. Although their court date is set for July 28, the two quickly paid it off via crowdfunding.

Even though Enrique grew up frequently witnessing acts of police brutality in his neighborhood, being directly targeted by police was nothing like he had expected. However, Enrique said he and Eder are even more motivated to stand in solidarity with Black lives and continue to join demonstrations.

“There’s probably a little bit of trauma … but at the end of the day, it’s not going to silence us,” Enrique said. “I was thinking of this Mexican revolutionary’s quote: ‘Prefiero morir de pie que vivir de rodillas,’ which means ‘I’d rather [die] on my feet than [live] on my knees.’”

Similarly, Soren and Montilla are doing their part in promoting awareness. Along with joining more demonstrations, Soren has been sharing her experience with family and friends and plans to pitch an editorial to the L.A. Times on police’s presence at protests. 

For Montilla, once she posted on Instagram, several protesters reached out to her with similar experiences with their arrests. Additionally, the University and President Carol Folt reached out to Montilla. On Tuesday, Montilla said she met with Folt again to connect her with her friends at the Black Student Assembly, who have a list of demands for Folt to meet. 

In an interview with the Daily Trojan, Folt said she received thousands of letters about Montilla’s “horrifying” story and reached out to Department of Public Safety Chief John Thomas and LAPD Chief Michel Moore to launch an independent investigation into Montilla’s arrest conducted by an inspector general. While details have yet to be finalized, Folt said she is looking to see if she can have the investigations be done “more broadly” and applied to all USC student arrests.

Additionally, Folt contacted the Gould School of Law, which is developing online resources for arrested students.

“All these things take longer than probably they seem like they should, but we want to be able to be resources for people that are arrested,” Folt said. 

Additionally, Montilla is creating a Google form to consolidate protesters’ testimonies as well as a list of legal and mental health resources for support. With this newly established platform on Instagram, Montilla wants to help advocate for defunding the LAPD and supporting Black lives.

“Just to think about my experience as just a small taste of what’s going on is chilling, and I think that it’s really important to stay focused on the Black lives at stake,” Montilla said.