It wasn’t yet curfew when the cops trapped Devaughnta Williams. After clocking out at his job as a janitor at a city social services building on Thursday evening, the 27-year-old Bronx native planned to take the subway to his grandmother’s to get a few hours of sleep, before starting the graveyard shift at Family Dollar. The exact time shouldn’t have mattered — as an essential worker, he was permitted to be out past 8 p.m. — but he was still hyper-aware of the hour.
“I’m walking up the block and I bump into a crowd of protesters at 7:24 p.m.,” Williams told Gothamist. “I said, ‘You know what, I have time.’”
Williams said he had been marching with the South Bronx group for only a few minutes when the NYPD cornered them. Moments before curfew, officers in riot gear charged from both sides, refusing to let the crowd disperse as they beat protesters and legal observers with nightsticks and choked the air with pepper spray. More than 250 people were arrested in the attack, Williams among them.
"I am an essential worker," Williams (who also goes by China) pleaded, as he was loaded onto a Department of Correction bus with dozens of other cuffed protesters. The arresting officers, he said, refused to acknowledge the piece of paper indicating his post-curfew privileges.
A week later, Williams is still incarcerated. He was initially taken to an NYPD holding cell in Queens, where he said he did not receive water, food or phone access for eighteen hours. On Friday afternoon, he was transferred to the Manhattan Detention Complex in Lower Manhattan.
For his brief participation in the protest, Williams was charged with multiple parole violations. According to the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS), he allegedly “failed to obey the 8:00 p.m. Mayoral Executive ordered curfew.” He was also accused of ignoring law enforcement directions and gathering with a group that was allegedly “throwing plastic bottles with unknown liquid while screaming and yelling.”
Speaking to Gothamist by phone from the Manhattan jail on Wednesday night, Williams said he witnessed no destruction or bottle-throwing during the protest — confirming multiple firsthand reports that stand in stark contrast to the NYPD’s claims of imminent violence. He added that he would never have joined a protest that wasn’t peaceful, especially while out on parole. This past March, Williams completed a nine year prison sentence stemming from his conviction for a robbery as a teenager.
“I’m just thinking about staying out of jail,” he told Gothamist. “I got three jobs. I got two kids. I’m trying to be an upstanding member of society.”
The swelling movement against racist policing is deeply personal for Williams. Growing up in the Bronx, he said, his best friend was Ramarley Graham, the 18-year-old Bronx teenager who was fatally shot in his own bathroom by an NYPD officer in 2012.
“Ramarley used to sleep at my house. This was like my brother,” Williams said. “I was in prison when he died. My daughter was born 15 days later. I still remember the name of the officer who shot him: Richard Haste”
Officer Haste ultimately resigned from the police force after he was found guilty during a department trial. Federal prosecutors declined to bring charges against him, and he faced no criminal penalty for the killing.
For Williams, his own re-incarceration has served as a bitter reminder of the racist double-standards inherent in New York's criminal justice system. “It’s stressful to be back here, especially when I know I was doing everything correctly,” he said. “I’m a black man with dreads so automatically I’m pointed out as a criminal.”
A recent report from Columbia University’s Justice Lab found that black city residents are jailed for parole violations at a rate 12 times higher than white people. Overall, New York State re-incarcerates more parolees for technical violations — such as breaking curfew or smoking weed — than any other state except Illinois.
"His situation is a classic example of what people face every day in the Bronx — people get violated on bullshit here all the time," said Chino May, an activist with the group Take Back the Bronx, which is planning a rally calling for Williams's freedom on Friday.
“This parole violation, like many others, underscores just how counterproductive New York’s parole violation system is to the purported goals of parole supervision: to support successful re-entry,” echoed Laura Eraso, a staff attorney with the Legal Aid Society. “A violation like the one Mr. Williams is facing undermines the critical bonds that serve to empower his successful reentry back into his community.”
With her husband locked up, each day has brought more challenges for Tashana Perkins, a welfare case worker with the city’s Human Resources Administration. On top of her job, she’s raising two children, ages 3 and 8, who are currently enrolled in remote learning because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Even though he works all night, he’d go into their room in the morning in straight dad mode,” Perkins told Gothamist of her husband. “It’s really heartbreaking because the kids keep asking for him. That’s the hardest part, telling the kids he’s going to come home, but I don’t know when he’s going to come home.”
In an unattributed statement shared with Gothamist on Thursday, a spokesperson for DOCCS defended the week-long detainment of Williams, claiming that he was cited by an arresting officer for being out past curfew. A subsequent investigation by DOCCS, however, confirmed that Williams was not involved in throwing objects or other destruction.
“Therefore, given the investigating officers’ findings, as well as the totality of the circumstances regarding the event, a decision was made to vacate the warrant,” the statement read. “He is expected to be released today.”
DOCCS did not respond to inquiries from Gothamist about why an essential worker like Williams was jailed at all. The spokesperson also did not say how many other parolees were re-incarcerated for alleged violations of de Blasio’s curfew.
The Mayor’s Office, the NYPD, and the Governor’s Office all did not respond to requests for comment. As of Thursday afternoon, Williams still had not been released.
UPDATE: Williams was released from custody at 11:30 p.m. on Thursday, more than twelve hours after DOCCS completed their investigation. He is now at home with his family.