I Got Arrested for Fighting Gender Inequality

May 1st 2016

Tiernan Hebron

It was Wednesday, March 23. I was sitting on my bed lazily scrolling through Instagram, when my friend’s post came up for a Free the Nipple flash mob set for 5:00 p.m. that day at. The flash mob would be taking place a rally at the Wiltern theater in Los Angeles, California for presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.).

Tiernan Hebron Free the Nipple protest

It was 4:05 p.m., which gave me just enough time to put some black tape X’s over my nipples, sloppily finger paint "Feel the Bern" on my chest with some blue paint, and race over to the Wiltern. Little did I know that in about an hour and a half, I was going to be arrested in front of hundreds of people.

The Free the Nipple Campaign is an equality movement that aims to stop censorship and sexualization of the female body. Since I started my involvement with the campaign a little over a year ago, I have invested countless hours in raising awareness of the cause. This past September, I organized a rally on Hollywood Boulevard that drew an impressive crowd of supporters. With the success of September’s rally, I immediately started organizing another rally that will take place in May 2016. In between rallies I have been keeping a low profile — right up until I saw that Instagram post.

My friend Anni and I got arrested at a Bernie Sanders rally: that means lots of people, and even more cops. There was a line of people waiting to get inside that wrapped around the building; Anni and I would walk around the building, chanting, answering questions, and posing for photos, without a single problem. It wasn’t until we decided to take the tape off our nipples and walk around completely topless that a group of cops stopped us almost immediately and told us we needed to cover up. We politely nodded, but then turned to walk back towards the front of the Wiltern. The next time the cops stopped us, they gave no warning, but immediately grabbed our arms, put us in handcuffs and ushered us into one of their cop cars.

Tiernan Hebron at a Bernie Sanders Rally

It happened so fast, I did not even realize I was getting arrested until the cop who was putting me into handcuffs twisted my arm back. For a moment, I actually thought he was going to break my arm. That was my "oh shit, I’m getting arrested" moment.

Tiernan Hebron Free the Nipple arrest

They did not immediately take us to jail; we were taken to a holding cell first. I was so naïve to think I was going to be released in a few hours and wouldn’t have to tell my parents or anyone else.

If only I knew the night I was in for.

Before they transferred us to the city jail — and later to our cell — we were in a holding cell for several hours. Anni and I were discussing our options when we heard another individual being brought in for holding. The first thing I noticed about the man was that he was not wearing a shirt: male nipples fully exposed.

When we asked him why he was brought in, the cop butted in and said it was for gang-related crimes. Upon hearing this, I became furious. This was a man who was being accused of gang-related crimes, and he was brought into the station topless, which was the actual crime that Anni and I were arrested for. The inequality of the whole situation was so potent to me that it made me want to scream. How was this justice?

The state in which the man was brought into jail was the reason we were in jail. I feel as though that anecdote perfectly sums up why I refused to cover up when the cops told me to. This realization helped me get through the long hours that followed.

We were held for over 24 hours. That may not seem like a long time, but when you are stuck in a small, dirty, windowless room with no information of what was happening and little food or water, 24 hours starts to feel like forever. I won’t lie; I went a little nuts when I was in there. I went through an emotional cycle: I would be completely fine having amazing feminist discussions with Anni or laughing about the current situation, and then nothing in particular would happen and suddenly I would be hysterically crying, hyperventilating, and practically screaming to be let out. I do not regret my decision, and I firmly stand by what I did, but that does not mean I’m not human and did not have my moments of doubt and weakness.

As horrible as the experience was, getting arrested and being in jail was very eye opening. I realized that even with everything I went through, I was still very privileged. I am a white woman, and I know that that affected how the police handled me during this experience. Although I did not feel the injustice myself, I must point out that racial discrimination does very much exist in the legal system. I would also like to make it clear that Free the Nipple does not promote white privilege of any kind, but that women of all ethnicities and body types are welcomed and encouraged to join in the organization and campaign. This is for all women.

Tiernan Hebron Free the Nipple protest

After I was released, it was all but impossible to organize my thoughts and emotions. In other words, I was a hot mess. But I realized that my emotions were so conflicted because they came from different parts of myself: As a human being, getting arrested and being held in jail for over 24 hours was one of the most dehumanizing, humbling, and horrific experiences of my life.

As a woman, I have never felt more enraged that the female body is so sexualized in our culture that I was arrested for showing it — something that men do every single day. As an activist, I have never felt more empowered to cause so much conversation on a topic that desperately needs to be discussed. And finally, as a feminist, I have never been more saddened to have so many people in my life not understand what I did and actually suggest that I was merely “showing my tits off”.

Let me clear that up right now: Many people have brought to my attention that they do not understand why I, a feminist, am fighting for this cause when there are so many other important causes that need to be fixed — such as the gender wage gap, or abortion rights, or rape prevention, etc. In response to that, let me just say that the Free the Nipple Campaign and my activist demonstrations are not just fighting for the right to be topless. That is a fraction of what we're campaigning for, and an gross oversimplification of what we are trying to accomplish. I believe that this cause encompasses numerous gender equality issues, because it is trying to demonstrate that the female body is not just a sexual object.

The human body and sex can be mutually exclusive. We have been able to make that separation when we look at shirtless men, so why not women? We have made women’s breasts and bodies so sexualized that a man can get away with raping a woman by blaming it on how revealing her clothing is — saying that through mere clothing choice the woman is "asking for it." When I am protesting topless, it is because I am making a radical statement that I should not have to feel ashamed of my body or afraid of how people will respond to it.

free the nipple

Ladies, I couldn’t give a rats ass if you want to walk around topless or not, it’s your body and your choice. What I am fighting for is a future in which you feel safe to do whatever you damn well please with your body. So if you ask me, I would say that I am fighting for rape prevention, and for abortion rights, and for a workforce that sees women as equals and not objects that deserve lesser pay. Free the Nipple is not about getting male attention when you walk around shirtless — it’s just the opposite.

My methods are not conventional, and I realize that they are hard to understand sometimes. However, my arrest has led to some national attention on this issue and on the Free the Nipple Campaign. And that is what we want. We want people to familiarize themselves with the name Free the Nipple, because it is currently launching a campaign to get the Equal Rights Amendment passed. The ERA is three states away from passing, and if it does, it would make it a federal offense to discriminate against someone based on their gender.

And I will be advertising the Free the Nipple campaign on my bare chest. Because, when it comes down to it, I don’t care what people think about me. I just care that my message is getting across. And that message is equality.