Editor's note: Michael McKinney was among the 101 arrested at Moral Monday on July 15, when 2,000 people rallied for women's rights.
I guess I didn't realize until very late that night—or the next morning—why the deputies, guards and jailers were so nice to us.
When you arrive at the Wake County Detention Center from the protest, the first thing that happens is you get searched. Then someone puts a wristband on you. You hope it's good for a few beers, but it's not. Instead, it easily identifies you as a nonviolent protester. No matter where you move through the system, either in a group or by yourself, every employee knows by just a glance at your wrist who you are, and that you're not one of the regular rabblerousers or roustabouts whom they deal with every day. And so they are nice to you. They treat you with respect as long as you do the same for them. And that makes a world of difference for so many of the protesters who have never been in trouble in their lives.
Remember, these are your mothers and grandmothers and aunts and cousins and sisters getting arrested for the first time. Sure, it was easy for me, but I saw genuine fear on a lot of faces, because no matter how much the NAACP prepares you in the church before the protest, it can be downright scary to get arrested. So thank you, WCDC guards, for being nice.
I did have a brief scare. I was the last in my group of 10 to go before the magistrate. (And no, it was not Group W, though I like Mr. Guthrie too.) And everyone before me has signed a promise to show up in court and is preparing to be released. The magistrate looks at the officer and says, "Mr. McKinney has a prior failure to appear and needs to be processed. Bring him back after his prints and mugshot."
At this point at least 60 people have been through and none of them has been printed or photographed. Just me. WTF? as the kids say.
I figured out pretty quickly that it was just something from my distant past and nothing to worry about. Within 30 minutes I was back before the magistrate—but not quite ready for the next bomb: We are holding you on a $1,000 bond.
Me: "Well, what am I supposed to do about that?"
Magistrate: "You don't need to worry about it, Mr. McKinney. The NAACP and their lawyers and their bondsman are aware of the situation and are already taking care of the paperwork. You'll just be here a little longer than most."
So that's when I met Tony.
Tony is from Lillington, married, kids, disabled, uninsured, broke, unemployable. Your average really nice country boy. Tony also had a failure to appear several years ago and had just been through the same rigamarole that I had. Tony decided to protest through nonviolent civil disobedience at Moral Monday this week because he is so fed up with our state government and the way his family is being treated. His wife did it last week, and five of his other family members have been arrested on Moral Mondays.
So Tony and I chatted off and on for the next hour and a half. We joked with the deputies. We could do that because of our wristbands. We each ate a baloney sandwich and some awful Baked Lay's potato chips. We talked with the final guard, the one who would release us, about the rally and why we were willing to be arrested. We smiled when that guard thanked us from the bottom of his heart for what we were willing to do. Just before walking through the door, Tony and I slapped each other on the back—the final two protesters to be released that night. We walked out into fresh air and freedom, and I watched Tony's two boys run up to hug him, in their matching T-shirts that said: TOUGH GUYS WEAR PINK.
Michael McKinney is a musician who, under the name Jack Whitebread, leads the Neil Diamond All-Stars. He lives in Carrboro.
This article appeared in print with the headline "The kindness of strangers."