We speak with Dr. Armen Henderson, an African-American doctor who was handcuffed and detained outside his home Friday as he was wearing a mask and preparing for a volunteer shift to test homeless people for COVID-19. “I want the officer held accountable. There’s no way that you racially profile me and then you arrest me, detain me, during a pandemic, when you have no mask on, where hundreds of police officers throughout Miami-Dade County have tested positive,” says Dr. Henderson, who is an internal medicine physician, assistant professor of medicine at the University of Miami and an organizer with Dream Defenders.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The Quarantine Report. I’m Amy Goodman. We’re broadcasting from the epicenter of the pandemic, New York City, but we’re going to end today’s show in Florida, where the Miami Police Department is under fire after a video surfaced of an officer handcuffing and detaining an African-American doctor outside his home on Friday. The man, Armen Henderson, was wearing a mask and preparing for a volunteer shift helping protect homeless people from the spread of COVID-19, when a patrol car pulled up to his home. Surveillance video from Dr. Henderson’s house shows him loading a van with supplies before the encounter. Dr. Henderson says the police officer handcuffed him after accusing him of littering, and then asking for identification, which Henderson did not have on him. The officer was not wearing a mask; Dr. Henderson was. He had to yell to his wife inside their home to present identification, before the officer finally released him. On Saturday, Miami police chief has ordered an internal investigation into the incident. The officer involved has not been identified.
The encounter sparked widespread outrage and comes as African-American men report fears of increased racial profiling when they’re following CDC’s suggestion that people wear masks in public.
For more, we go to Miami to speak with Dr. Armen Henderson, an internal medicine physician, assistant professor of medicine at the University of Miami, also an organizer with Dream Defenders. He was recently profiled by the Miami Herald.
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Welcome to Democracy Now!, Dr. Henderson. Tell us, in your own words, what you were doing on Friday, and then what happened.
DR. ARMEN HENDERSON: Yeah. So, I was pretty much just putting tents in my car, and I was loading other supplies into my van. And, you know, when I was doing that, I noticed that the police officer rode down the street at a cross-section of my block, one way, really slow, and then he came back around the street the other way and basically turned down my block. And he pulled up next to me, questioning me if I live there, if I worked here. I told him that I live there. I told him what I was doing. I told him that where I was putting the boxes was where the city of Miami comes to pick up our trash every week. For example, they’re here this week, and people on my block are putting trash in the same place that I put the boxes on Friday. And he just — at some point, he just didn’t believe what I was saying, or he thought that I was being disrespectful, and decided to get out of the car and escalate the situation.
AMY GOODMAN: Um —
DR. ARMEN HENDERSON: Once he got out of the car — go ahead.
AMY GOODMAN: Keep going.
DR. ARMEN HENDERSON: Once he got out of the car, he asked me for ID, which I said I didn’t have. And, you know, I was trying my best to keep cool during the situation and remain steadfast in what I was doing, which was to be at downtown Miami delivering food and tents to homeless individuals that live downtown. And so, I pretty much went ahead and continued to do what I was going to do, because I didn’t know where this encounter was going. And then he just decided to put cuffs on me, basically.
Once he put cuffs on me, I called for my wife. She came out and pretty much deescalated the situation. But even before she came, he was like inches from my face, basically, yelling that I should call him sergeant, I should call him sir, and with no mask on. He had no gloves on. I could feel his saliva on my lips. It was just a crazy encounter.
AMY GOODMAN: I mean, this is such a horrific situation. It reminded me so much of professor Henry Louis Gates of Harvard, who was on his front porch when the police came and challenged him and arrested him, came into his house. So, you’re wearing a mask. The police officer is not wearing a mask or gloves. And he then handcuffs you.
DR. ARMEN HENDERSON: Right.
AMY GOODMAN: What ultimately led him to release you?
DR. ARMEN HENDERSON: So, I mean, I pretty much — while he was in my face, I pretty much kept quiet, and I was just waiting for my wife to come, basically. Once she came outside, she basically asked why I was in handcuffs, and she said that we live here. And he said, “Well, I’m going to need to see some ID. Go get it for me.” And so she went in the house, got her ID, showed him that we actually lived here. And at that point, he pretty much just let me go.
AMY GOODMAN: I mean, this is astounding. Are you satisfied with the police department’s response? And then, Dr. Henderson, if you can talk about — I mean, this is why the Miami Herald had profiled you before. I mean, a number of people have done pieces on you. You have been working with the homeless, giving all kinds of mutual aid, and also have been testing them for COVID-19. If you can talk about your work, and then what you want of the Miami Police Department?
DR. ARMEN HENDERSON: Well, I mean, firstly, I want the officer held accountable. You know, it’s no way that you racially profile me, and then you arrest me, you detain me, and then during a pandemic where you have no mask on, where hundreds of police officers throughout Miami-Dade County have tested positive, and you’re up in my face, you know, spitting on my lips, when we’re supposed to be practicing social distancing. You know, he just broke a number of protocols and violated my rights. So, firstly, I want him held accountable, and I want an apology, as well.
But outside of that, I think the bigger picture is that I was going to serve homeless individuals throughout Miami-Dade County, that basically, you know, the city has said — and cities across the United States have said the same thing — where we have to shelter in place, we have to socially distance. And for someone who doesn’t have a house, for someone who lives unsheltered, it’s very impossible to do those things. And in a pandemic, these are the most vulnerable individuals. These are the individuals who we’re supposed to be paying the most attention to, because these are the individuals that sleep on buses, on bus stops, on benches. And, you know, because of that, when you’re talking about a public health response to a pandemic, you have to focus on those individuals who are using the public spaces the most.
AMY GOODMAN: And can you talk about you testing them, and the response —
DR. ARMEN HENDERSON: Yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: — of unhoused people to you testing them?
DR. ARMEN HENDERSON: Right. So, you know, it’s been hard to get testing if you’re not a basketball player, if you’re not a rich person. And so, literally, we’ve just been going out, and, first of all, we did a survey of individuals to see what their symptoms are, and we identify people who needed to be tested. But then, you know, because we are the epicenter of the epidemic and this is the most vulnerable population, I just figure that we should be testing people at random, as well, to sample population sizes, to see how far this virus has spread already.
And honestly, though, this is supposed to be the city and the county’s job in doing this, in providing necessities and testing individuals that are in this vulnerable population. And I think it just speaks to the fact that I even have to do this. You know, it shouldn’t be my job to volunteer out there to make sure that homeless individuals are cared for, especially in a pandemic. So, at the surface, it feels like a feel-good story, but it’s really not.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, Dr. Armen Henderson, I want to ask if you can stay with us for a few more minutes. We’re going to continue our conversation about your work with the unhoused and your detention. Dr. Armen Henderson, internal medicine physician, assistant professor of medicine at the University of Miami, handcuffed by the New York police [sic] — by the Miami police. I’m Amy Goodman. We’ll put Part 2 at democracynow.org.