Handcuffed: Black Miami Doctor Who Works with Homeless Says He Was Racially Profiled by Police

We continue our conversation with Dr. Armen Henderson, an African-American doctor in Miami who was handcuffed outside his home while preparing for a volunteer shift to help protect homeless people from the spread of COVID-19. The encounter has sparked widespread outrage, and Miami’s police chief has now tested positive for COVID-19 and is in self-isolation. Dr Henderson has taken a test himself and is waiting for results — and accountability.


This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

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.

And we’re continuing our conversation with Dr. Armen Henderson, an African-American doctor in Miami, Florida, who we first spoke with last week, shortly after he was handcuffed outside his home while preparing for a volunteer shift to help protect homeless people from the spread of COVID-19. Surveillance video from Dr. Henderson’s house shows him wearing a mask and loading a van with supplies, when a Miami police patrol car pulls up outside his home. Moments later, the police officer has the doctor in handcuffs.

Dr. Henderson says the officer detained him after accusing him of littering, and demanding his identification, which Henderson did not have on him. The officer was not wearing a mask or gloves, and Dr. Henderson told us, quote, “I could feel his saliva on my lips.” Dr. Henderson had to yell to his wife inside their home to bring out identification, before he was released by the officer, who has not been publicly identified.

Dr. Henderson told Democracy Now! the officer has a history of use of force and civilian complaints. The Miami police chief has since ordered an internal investigation into the incident.

Since we spoke with Dr. Henderson last Wednesday, Miami’s Police Chief Jorge Colina has tested positive for COVID-19 and is in self-isolation. Dr. Henderson has taken a test himself and is waiting for results — and accountability.

The encounter has sparked widespread outrage and comes as African-American men report fears of increased racial profiling when they’re following the CDC’s suggestion that people wear masks in public. What if you wear a mask while black?

Dr. Armen Henderson is an internal medicine physician, an assistant professor of medicine at University of Miami, organizer with Dream Defenders. In Part 2 of our conversation, that we continue right now, I asked him to describe his encounter with the police as the officer arrested him in front of his house.

DR. ARMEN HENDERSON: Yes, yeah. He said I should call him sir or sergeant when I’m talking to him. And when my wife came out and actually said, “Why do you have my husband in handcuffs?” the officer basically said, “Well, because he has an attitude with me.” And I was just like, “Oh, OK.” In my head, I said that. And, you know, my wife basically was able to say, “OK. Well, I can get my ID.” She got it. And he basically let me go.

AMY GOODMAN: Have you heard of other African Americans being harassed by police officers, with the African Americans wearing masks? Do you think the mask was part of his reason why he attacked you, part of the reason why he detained you and handcuffed you?

DR. ARMEN HENDERSON: Potentially. I don’t know. You know, I don’t really know what his motives are, as I stated earlier. And it’s apparent on the video, is that he rode down the street very, very slow and then turned back back around to turn down my street to approach me. So, it could have been the mask. It could have been the fact that I was black. It could have been both. And so, I know for a fact that it likely was not due to the fact that I was — that he said I was, you know, littering.

AMY GOODMAN: Tell us again. Tell us again. We’re looking at the video as you’re speaking.


AMY GOODMAN: And he slowly comes up. He gets out of his car.


AMY GOODMAN: And what did he say to you?

DR. ARMEN HENDERSON: He basically — well, first of all, in the car, you know, he basically was trying to figure out or asking me where — what I was doing there, why was I here. And I live in a predominantly Cuban neighborhood. My family is probably — well, it is the only black family that lives on the block. So, you know, I think that that — you know, so, I mean, I don’t know, you know? He just — he was saying a lot, and his body language was just very aggressive. And when he got out of the car, I was more focused on trying to deescalate the situation, trying to walk away and gather myself so that, you know, I wouldn’t respond in a different way than I actually did.

AMY GOODMAN: When he took you and handcuffed you, he’s not wearing gloves, he’s not wearing a mask. You had a mask on. Did you say anything to him about him speaking in your face and keeping some distance?

DR. ARMEN HENDERSON: No, I didn’t. I mean, at that point, you know, he already escalated it to a point — I mean, I was already in handcuffs, you know? So, what more can I say at that point? I was just focusing on keeping my mouth shut and hoping that my wife would come out, like as soon as possible.

AMY GOODMAN: So, what do you understand has happened to him at this point. It’s now a few days later, like five days later. What is the Miami police chief doing? Have you been formally apologized to? And what are you demanding?

DR. ARMEN HENDERSON: So, the Miami Police Department has not called me to apologize. I do think that he should be held accountable for his actions. He violated a bunch of protocols, not only as a sergeant, but also as a police officer. I think that they’re supposed to be wearing, you know, bracelets that say that they’ve been tested. He was supposed to have a mask on. You know, he probably should not have stopped me in the first place. So, I just want him held accountable for his actions. And I want an apology, as well.

AMY GOODMAN: Dr. Armen Henderson, now let’s talk about what you were doing at that van, what you were loading in and out of the van. I want to talk about your work with unhoused people.


AMY GOODMAN: You’re a physician. You’re an assistant professor of medicine at University of Miami. Talk about the homeless population in Miami.

DR. ARMEN HENDERSON: Right. So, the homeless population in Miami is — it’s a large population. And basically, because we live in Miami and we are at the helm of climate change, we have a crisis situation every year during hurricane season, which is June through November. And so, you know, what we’ve seen in the past is that not only just with homeless people, but also with vulnerable populations, those who are working-class, low-income, live in poverty, and particularly in the black neighborhoods throughout Miami-Dade County, we’ve seen that there’s a disparate response when it comes to crisis situations, like during hurricane season.

And so, during Hurricane Irma, we found that, you know, FEMA and the government were saying one thing on TV, but, in reality, people on the ground weren’t being fed, they weren’t getting water. Their electricity was taking weeks to come back on, and people who depended on these things to actually live — oxygen and, you know, dialysis — were not getting the things that they needed. And so, it really took a coalition of organizations to step in and actually be — and actually, you know, to take the place of or to step in where the government was not.

And so, usually we activate during hurricane season, but during the pandemic, we actually decided to activate, as well. And during this time, we actually decided to focus on unhoused people, because we know that when you’re asking people to shelter in place, houseless people have — they can’t put tents outside, because police are harassing them. So, not only are police harassing me outside of my house, but they’re also harassing homeless people. They don’t let them put up tents. And, you know, we’re not allowed to feed homeless people on the street, etc. So we’ve been going out as an act of civil disobedience to feed the homeless, to provide them with socks and toiletries and sanitizer and masks, because during a public health crisis like this, the homeless population should be the population that you pay the most attention to. And the county organizations that are supposed to protect and provide for these organizations just are not doing enough and much of anything at all.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about people who don’t have houses, their access to water. The first thing we know, the best prevention is washing your hands repeatedly.

DR. ARMEN HENDERSON: Right, yeah. So, you know, you would think that in America everybody has access to clean water. But what we’re going to show, basically, when we go down there on Friday — and I’m going to have other media there, at a press conference — we’re going to talk to individuals who live on the street about the types of things that they’re facing during this pandemic, particularly having to use the restroom outside, not being able to wash their hands. Now, the county and the city has provided a wash station for 200 individuals, but when you go to that wash station, the water smells like sewage. You know, the porta-potties — the two porta-potty they provided for 300 individuals living in downtown Miami had poop all the way up to the toilet seat, you know? And it’s just like, what conditions are you subjecting people to live in, in America, who are citizens and who are humans, honestly?

And so, we really have been trying to figure out the best way to put pressure on the city and the county and elected officials, that get paid to actually take care of this population, and also to test them, to show that the virus is present in this population, as well. And this is also the population that’s going to cycle throughout the jails, you know, because the police are still harassing people. They’re still locking people up and putting them in jails. And so, these are also people who are going to cycle in and out of shelters. I don’t know if you saw, in San Francisco, the entire shelter had to evacuate because some of the people who were sheltered there basically had coronavirus. They had an outbreak like that.

And so, you know, it’s going to be really interesting to see how this whole thing unfolds, knowing the city and the county’s relationship with jails, knowing the police’s tenuous relationship with houseless people, and the fact that they are allowed — it’s like a federal mandate that they are allowed to break down people’s tents and to arrest them on the street, based on a federal ruling that basically was overturned in 2018.

AMY GOODMAN: Dr. Henderson, can you talk about the response of people who don’t have houses when you go up to them to say you’d like to test them? And what are the kinds of tests that you’re using?

DR. ARMEN HENDERSON: So, in the beginning, we were using the nasal swab, which is the PCR tests. And individuals want to be tested, you know? A lot of people who live on the streets, in unsheltered facilities in Miami-Dade County, they have symptoms, you know? And, of course, it could be attributed to other things, because they are in a very harsh — they do live in a harsh environment. But on the same token, they know that a pandemic is going on, and they want to be attended to just like everyone else. And so, you know, we’ve just been trying to figure out the best way to go about testing them. But they’ve been very amenable to the testing, you know? They basically, you know, want — they want to be tested, and they’re open to it. And people have walked up to me and said, “You know what? I want to be tested.”

The problem is that the tests take too long to come back. And that’s why, starting this week, we’re actually going ahead with another test that’s going to be rapid. It’s going to give them the results in 15 minutes. And we’re rolling out that test actually starting today.

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