The day Alaa Massri was arrested during a Black Lives Matter protest in downtown Miami, she had taken on the role of medic and tended to protesters injured during a clash with police.
The 18-year-old Miami Beach resident saw someone struck by a police car during demonstrations on June 10, and when she went to offer help, she was stopped and arrested by Miami police officers.
Massri was booked at Turner Guilford Knight Correctional Center on charges of battery on law enforcement, resisting an officer with violence, and disorderly conduct. An arrest report alleges that Massri punched an officer in the right bicep when the officer grabbed her to remove her from an intersection where 60 people were protesting.
Massri disputes the charges and, in an online petition that has garnered nearly 100,000 signatures, calls for them to be dropped. Massri also claims Miami police and Miami-Dade corrections officers showed disregard toward her faith when they arrested her. In the petition, Massri alleges that corrections officers removed her hijab after she was booked, forcing her to take a mugshot without it. (NBC News first reported the story.)
"As a Muslim, Ms. Massri is required to cover her hair with a traditional headscarf (hijab)," the protest reads. "She repeatedly made officers aware of this fact, yet they still removed her hijab in front of male police officers (completely disrespecting her way of life). They also took her mugshot with her hijab off and distributed it to news outlets (further spreading the lack of compassion they had for her)."
Reached by New Times, Massri declined to be interviewed, citing her lawyer's advice. Massri's attorney did not respond to a request for comment from New Times.
Critics say the removal of Massri's hijab may have violated her freedom of religion.
The Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 prohibits any federal or state government department or official from "substantially burdening" a person's exercise of religion unless the government proves that the burden "furthers a compelling governmental interest" and that the burden is "the least restrictive means of furthering that compelling governmental interest." The Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act states that a person's right to exercise their religion can't be substantially burdened while confined in an institution and provides the same exceptions.
Omar Saleh, an attorney for the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) Florida, says that while he can't speak to Massri's case specifically, he believes the removal of her hijab while in custody is a legal issue.
"It's our belief that the First Amendment bars federal and state governments from having policies which prohibit women from practicing hijab," Saleh tells New Times. "Removing it in the course of an arrest for security purposes and the purpose of taking a booking photo — there's certainly less restrictive means to achieve that than removing it."
Let’s help Alaa Massri, a #USF student wrongfully arrested while giving medical aid to anti-racism protesters. Her hijab was wrongfully removed by police & was left in jail hours w/ men without hijab. Let us stand w/ her supporting:https://t.co/yd8tnxF427 https://t.co/RMhj9L79M6— CAIR Florida | Council American-Islamic Relations (@CAIRFlorida) June 19, 2020
Saleh says CAIR has received calls from across the state about issues related to women and hijabs.
"It's something very unfortunate that has happened to [Massri], and she's not the only one," Saleh says. "For Muslim women who are arrested and detained, it's not just having their hijab removed, but their photo being publicized. I can't speak on behalf of women, but from what I've heard, it's just extremely demoralizing for women to have gone through this. It's traumatizing."
Juan Diasgranados, a spokesperson for the Miami-Dade Corrections & Rehabilitation Department, tells New Times that the department has policies to accommodate inmates who wear head coverings for religious reasons and that the agency will investigate what happened to Massri.
"Arrestees, who claim or appear to be of a particular faith, are allowed to keep their head-covering once it has been searched for contraband and the booking photograph has been taken," Diasgranados writes via email. "We are committed to ensuring that individuals' faith-based beliefs and practices are respected and will review this incident to ensure compliance with our policies and commitment."
Women in several cities have filed civil-rights lawsuits for being forced to remove their hijabs before having their mugshots taken, despite pleas that doing so would violate their faith. New York City in 2018 reached a $180,000 settlement with three Muslim women whose headscarves were removed by police during booking. A Minneapolis woman received a $120,000 settlement last year after filing a lawsuit over being forced to strip and remove her hijab at a county jail. And a Muslim woman sued Louisville Metro Corrections last year for being made to remove her hijab for her booking photo.
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Travis Dobler, a Fort Lauderdale resident who has attended several recent protests in Miami, says Massri is known in the community as a peacekeeper.
"She always takes care of us," Dobler says. "She always tries to keep us safe."
Dobler says on the weekend of June 5, when protesters demonstrated in Wynwood and marched onto Interstate 95, Massri approached a group of Florida Highway Patrol troopers to deliver the protesters' message before helping guide demonstrators off the interstate.
"She came back to us, and her message is always, 'We came here to deliver a message. You have been heard,'" Dobler says.