Learn how to do jail support, keep track of your friends if they are arrested, and support them at court. Hear from some organizers in the MACC's Jail and Court Support Working Group and Legal Working Group about providing support and avoiding pitfalls.
Mentioned in this episode
- The Metropolitan Anarchist Coordinating Council sometimes has a new project break out at general assemblies.
- The Brooklyn Community Bail Fund pays bail for New Yorkers who can’t afford even modest amounts, and who would be jailed or forced to plead guilty just to go home.
- The National Lawyers Guild aims to use law for the people, uniting lawyers, law students, legal workers, and jailhouse lawyers to function as an effective force in the service of the people by valuing human rights over property interests.
History in this episode
- Learn more about the inauguration protests of 2017 from Defend J20, Dead City Legal Posse, and It’s Going Down.
- Read “Many Charges Are Dismissed In G.O.P. Convention Protests” and “Bail Reduced for Man Accused of Leading Philadelphia Protests” by Frances X. Clines for more about Republican National Convention protests of 2000 in Philadelphia or check out the old legal support site.
- Popular Resistance shares best practices for jail support.
- Learn about the fight to close Rikers without building new prisons at NoNewJails.nyc.
- If you think you’ll be in a high risk situation, download Signal and set up disappearing messages. Also be sure to disable Touch ID fingerprints since the police can use this function to force you to unlock your phone without a warrant.
Music for this episode
- “Guitar Waves” and “Houses and Boulevards” by Morgane Fouse
Rebel Steps 006 Jail & Court Support
Welcome to Rebel Steps. I’m your host, Liz.
Joining your organization’s jail support team means you’ll be keeping track of your friends if they are arrested.
A lot of civil disobedience and direct actions end in arrests. For example, a group blocks a street or occupies a building until the police come and arrest a handful of people. It’s one way of stopping business as usual and can draw more attention to your action.
Then there are other scenarios where the cops just decide they want to arrest a few folks and your friends are just in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Naomi: My name is Naomi and I’m involved with the Jail and Court Support Working Group.
Liz: I spoke to Naomi about the importance of this work.
Naomi: A lot of times when people go to demos they’re not going there with the intention of being arrested. But it’s something that kind of happens by accident because you were just in the wrong place at the wrong time. What will happen to some people who go to these demos is they’ll get charged with ridiculous things that the cops know are going to get dropped once the arrestee has their court date. And the reason why they do this is to scare people away from organizing and to waste activists’ time and effort and financial resources in fighting these charges instead of applying them to doing more organizing. So it’s good to have structures like a designated group of people who do jail and court support set up ahead of time so that when you have to deal with these things they don’t stop you from continuing to do work. And you’re not just constantly trying to pick up the pieces after people have been arrested.
The police have a history of using this kind of tactic. Using the legal system to make activists’ lives difficult is one way the state represses movements.
Elena: Well my name is Elena. I definitely identify with MACC. I’ve been involved with anarchism in New York since I would say really 1997. Especially in the early anti-globalization days. I don’t think there was really a very strong sense of repression beyond repressing a demonstration or a direct action. That came a little later. And it was actually with the RNC in Philadelphia when people really understood what was at stake.
Liz: In August 2000 there were huge protests around the Republican National Convention in Philadelphia. These protests resulted in 420 arrests leading to 260 misdemeanor charges and 37 felony charges.
Elena: We saw concerted repression and persecution of people who were seen as organizers. A few of the larger kind of major organizers of the RNC protests were arrested walking on the street in Philadelphia. Not even in a demo like it was very targeted. And held on initially something like a million dollar bail. So this was the moment when everybody was like “oh, holy shit” and then Philadelphia also had mass arrests in the street with actually torture of people in police custody which was kind of meant to create a true climate of terror and fear that I don’t think anyone had quite expected because both Seattle and D.C. had gone pretty much without a hitch. It wasn’t like a big deal so people were just kind of like “What, no, what the fuck?”.
Liz: One recent example of repression is the J20 case.
Maura: Hi I’m Maura and I am part of MACC legal and also help with the jail and court Support Working Group.
Liz: Maura was involved with the J20 legal defense team.
Maura: J20 refers to the Inauguration Day protest on January 20th 2017.
Liz: These protests ended in over 200 protesters facing felony charges after being kettled.
Maura: A kettle is a pen that cops make. It can be a number of blocks or it can be in a park or it can be on a street. At J20, It was two streets that cops created a line around and then they just arrested everyone that was inside of that.
Liz: J20 was actually Maura’s first experience doing jail support.
Maura: When I first was getting involved, I had nowhere in my mind an interest to do anything that had to do with legal. After the kettle, I was like well obviously I’m going to do jail support. For the first time ever I’m seeing a docket and I’m like “What the hell is that docket?” Seeing like our friends names on the wall and it just became, well obviously we’re going to help with this until it’s done.
As you heard Maura was close to some of the arrestees. Repression can splinter communities, but solidarity and affinity can defend against it. Elena was also brought to legal work through a personal connection.
Elena: For Mayday there was of course a rally and it was one of those like regular New York anarchist events like every year. We showed up, some people are masked up including my partner. Everybody who was masked up just got swept up and arrested right in Union Square before the demo or the march had even started. So it was one of those like “OH HOLY SHIT, All these people got arrested including my partner. And who do I talk to? And what do I do?” It was kind of like on the fly what a couple of other people that I had just met. That they were like “OK, help me do this. Who do I call?” And obviously you people are a little more motivated when the person arrested is someone they’re close to.
Elena: So that was kind of when I got involved in it sort of inadvertently and that whole crew that got arrested was maybe about 16 people. They were offered you know whatever some violation but they actually took it to trial. So it took a few years for the proceedings to go on in court. And through working on this case, which wasn’t a lot of work it was not a J20, no one was looking at jail time. It was just more like “Fuck you. We’re not going to let that happen.” We started working on legal support mostly for ourselves and our friends.
Liz: In all these scenarios, organizations need a dedicated team to track and take care of those arrested. Here’s Naomi again.
Naomi: So jail and court support is being there for your friends who get arrested and making sure you know what precinct they’re at, finding out if they end up in Central Booking, waiting like right outside the precinct or central booking, so there’s somebody there right when they get out and with like snacks, a MetroCard they don’t have one, and shoelaces because those will probably get confiscated. Just being supportive and present. So they don’t feel like they’re alone in this kind of traumatizing situation.
Liz: If you’re planning to help with jail support for an action, it’s best practice to be extra prepared so you can support everyone.
Liz: Before the action, make sure everyone is aware of the risk of arrest. Anyone with health concerns, citizenship issues, or outstanding warrants should take care to not be around if arrests are key to the action.
Liz: Get the full name and birthday of anyone at risk of arrest. If you see someone getting arrested who wasn’t on your list, ask for their name and birthday as they are arrested. You’ll need that information to find and support them.
Liz: Get a contact person for these people as well, maybe someone who can raise bail if your organization won’t be able to provide it.
Liz: During the action, keep your crew insight but also keep yourself safe from arrest by keeping some distance from the action. You won’t be able to fulfill your responsibilities as a supporter if you yourself are behind bars.
Liz: If you see a representative from the National Lawyers Guild, be sure to connect with them. They may be able to offer you help throughout the action.
Liz: After the arrest, try to determine which police precinct your friend has been taken to.
Naomi: So you can start calling around and figuring out where your friend is. And sometimes it’s easy to figure out where they are like if it’s a weekday during the day they’re probably taken to whatever precinct was on the car that took them away. But sometimes it’s not that straightforward. Like if there’s been a lot of arrests, if it’s the weekend or night so you might have to call a lot of precincts and you might talk to a lot of cops on desk duty who like don’t really want to help you but just be like direct and confident say “My friend was arrested. I’m looking for them. Their name is whatever and the birthday is the month day of the year.” Hopefully eventually they will tell you where your friend is and you’re probably not really going to get any other useful information out of them. They’re definitely not going to tell you when they’re likely to be released.
Liz: Once you figure out where they are, you’ll need to go the precinct and wait for their release.
Naomi: Your friend might be released on a desk appearance ticket which means that they’re not going to end up going to a central booking. They’re just going to have to go to court probably only once. And it’s not going to be a big deal relative to what could happen. If your friend doesn’t get a desk appearance ticket and they end up having to go to central booking. You should first have central booking and be prepared to wait outside for a little while.
Liz: This could mean a couple hours of waiting, or it could be over 24 hours. It’s important to have a team of jail supporters so you can tap in and out during what could be a very long wait
Naomi: You need to constantly be communicating with other people who aren’t with you at the time so they know like “OK I can wait outside from 2:00 pm. to 6:00 pm. Can anyone come and cover like 6 pm until 10.” Don’t stay outside of central booking all night but make sure that if it seems like the person isn’t going to be released that day that there’s someone who able to go back super early in the morning. Arraignments start at 9:30am, someone can be there pretty early in case they get out like first thing.
Liz: While you wait, you’ll want to look for the docket, here’s Maura again.
Maura: So a docket is a piece of paper that is on a wall or bulletin board. You’re looking for literally this piece of paper. You can see what courtroom they’re in. And you can see the docket number which will lead you also to their arrest number. Sometimes the dockets take a longer time so if someone’s arrested at night you’re not going to see their name right away.
Liz: Throughout this process you’ll have to interact with the police in a different way than usual.
Naomi: Doing good jail support requires some restraint and self awareness because at the time you’re probably really annoyed with the police but you can’t let them be aware of your disdain for them. So when you’re calling a precinct you have to like use your adult phone voice and be like very to the point and respectful when you’re asking where your friend is if you are interacting in person with the police maybe don’t dress like an anarchist. In fact you probably shouldn’t do that and just be nice. Don’t be scared because cops can definitely tell when people are afraid of them. They enjoy playing on that fear. Think about what you’re going to say ahead of time and try to pretend to respect them as best as you possibly can.
Liz: Before they’re released, they’ll have to see a judge.
Maura: They’ll be appearing in court which is called an arraignment.
Liz: An arraignment is where your friend officially hears the charges against them. It’s also when they will speak to a lawyer, either someone from your organization, their personal lawyer, or a public defender.
Maura: In my legal we have a pool of lawyers that we can contact depending on the charges, we might want them there right away if they’re a bit higher. Usually too though a public defender is fine. They always do arraignments.
Liz: This can also be when bail is set or when the state will offer a plea to lesser charges. Often bail isn’t set at all, but it’s a good idea to be prepared. If bail is set and isn’t paid your friend won’t be released.
Maura: If bail needs to happen you would communicate with the attorney and you say we have seven thousand dollars in cash today. The attorney will now know what the acceptable number is and sometimes the attorney can talk down the number to the actual amount. Once you’ve seen the judge an amount for bail is posted. So then you go into this like cashier’s room basically and you have someone who’s ok putting their address and personal information you have to put your full name on there and you give them the cash. They take your cash. They tell you “they need to come back on this date if they don’t come back then you don’t get your money back if they finish the trial with no problems you’ll get your money back.”
Liz: It’s important to continue supporting your friend. Often the arraignment is the beginning of a much longer process.
Maura: The most common law at least I’ve seen is that you have another court date and you have to show up to that. You can share that with your community. And then people can show up to that court date.
New York Criminal Court (Voicemail): This is Melissa calling from New York City Criminal Courts to remind you of your court date set for this Monday the 20th and 9:30 am. You are to report to court part A as an apple of the Manhattan criminal court located at 100 Center Street. Please be aware that a failure to appear will result in a warrant being issued for your arrest. So it’s very important that you make every effort. If for whatever reason you cannot show it is your responsibility to call our failure to appear hotline on the very next business day so that we can help you through the process of getting another court day. That number for Manhattan is 646-213-2112 extension 2105. Any other questions call our helpline 646-213-2548.
Liz: Just like jail support, you need to be careful when doing court support.
Maura: You go inside the courtroom because you’re going to do jail supporter for your comrades or friends. You don’t want to think of it as your political action time. You’re really there playing a part of the cordial cooperative citizen. And you don’t want to take the attention off of getting your comrade out.
Jason: Hi my name is Jason.
Liz: Jason was arrested earlier this year and experienced MACC Jail and Court Support.
Jason: When I was arrested I was held for about three days before I was finally arraigned and released. I only got to make one phone call and that was to my brother who is awesome and made the phone call to MACC legal. Thankfully I had memorized that number earlier in the day. So I did that and he put out the trumpet blast to make legal which really got the ball rolling. It was kind of distressing, if that’s not too much of an understatement, to only have one phone call and then not be able to contact the outside world at all and just kind of have to trust that the ball was rolling and that people were on it. My first time being arrested like I had no idea what to expect. Felt kind of alienating and weird and depressing.
Jason: I was really impressed with the way everything worked. I mean everything from me making that phone call on to me being arraigned was out of my hands. So and that includes like comrades showing up for support. Also contacting the lawyer and the lawyer getting all the paperwork for my case. But also people pulling money to post bail. Like everything was taken care of without me non-hierarchically. And that’s actually pretty amazing. So I was actually like shocked at the arraignment because I hadn’t heard the charges against me. There were a lot of weird things going on with the circumstances of my arrest. So when the prosecuting attorney read off the summary of charges I believe it’s called, I was just like freaking out because it was like “I didn’t do that.” That was a little bit of an extra chore for my lawyer. When I went out for the arraignment, I could see my brother there in the public seating area along with a couple other friends comrades from MACC. And that was a really good feeling as well. I mean you can’t really do much except just like wave. But it was really good to see that there were people waiting there in this, you know it’s a courtroom like it’s big it’s imposing it’s boring. There were people that were just weathering that to support me. Walking out of the courtroom, I didn’t know because again this is my first time really dealing with the legal system in this way. I didn’t know if I was free to go or not. So the two cops who have been posted with me walk me out and I just start walking past me and I’m like “Hey am I like free to go?” Like I don’t know. My lawyer disappeared. They’re like “yeah you’re good.” And my brother was right there outside the door of the courtroom. So give my brother a big hug. I told him that it wasn’t what it sounded like and that I was sorry for putting him in the whole situation. And he hugged me back really strongly and said that he knew and it wasn’t a problem.
Jason: After having been on this side of things I will absolutely be doing jail support for other people. Especially because being in the court system and having the case to worry about doing jail and court support is a non-confrontational, low to no risk way, to show real solidarity and to help people and to build and strengthen those bonds that we need to have with each other where we can actually rely on each other.
Liz: If you haven’t interacted with the criminal justice system before, helping a friend through an arrest can be eye opening. Just as I discussed on the letter writing episode, this issue is not just about activists. Don’t lose sight of the greater issues of mass incarceration and police brutality.
Getting involved in a community bail fund is one way to fight the injustice of everyday arrests. If folks can’t make bail, they’ll be detained court date. Not only are they serving time while potentially completely innocent, this is time they could be using to work on their case.
Helping pay bail also can literally change the outcome of their case. As the Brooklyn Bail Fund explains on their website: “Home and free to fight the charges against them, our clients are twice as likely to have their cases dismissed or resolved favorably compared with similarly situated individuals detained pretrial on low amounts of bail.” That’s right, twice as likely. That’s a huge difference.
They go on to say “[Our clients] don’t have to plead guilty in weak cases, to unreasonable charges, and to crimes they did not commit. Better case outcomes mean that many of our clients are spared from a criminal record and its lifelong impact on housing, employment, and education.”
Dealing with an arrest is a dehumanizing and demoralizing experience. The act of just showing up can feel small when weighed against the brutality of the system. But these little bits of kindness are an important part of the struggle. Here’s Jason on leaving his arraignment.
Jason: We went around the corner and the hallway there were like 20 people just standing there in a semicircle blocking up the hallway waiting to see me. And I started crying a little bit and want to just like go to pieces but it was a really really overwhelming feeling and it was real solidarity. You know it was present it was personal. I’ll never forget it. Like for real I will never forget that people showed up there and waited in this boring brutal environment just to support me.
Liz: We can’t win without caring for each other. You’ve been listening to Rebel Steps. I’m your host Liz. believe in yourself, trust one another, and get organized.
This episode was written, edited, and produced by Amy and myself. Music for the this episode was kindly gifted to us by Morgane Fouse and also includes a few songs that I created. Special thanks to our interviewees, Elena, Maura, Naomi, and Jason and their organizations.
“We saw concerted repression and persecution of people who were seen as organizers. A few of the larger kind of major organizers of the RNC protests were arrested walking on the street in Philadelphia. ” - Elena Twitter | Facebook | Instagram (Story)
“When I first was getting involved, I had nowhere in my mind an interest to do anything that had to do with legal. After the kettle, I was like well obviously we're going to help with this until it's done. ” - Maura Twitter | Facebook | Instagram (Story)
“Doing good jail support requires some restraint because you're probably really annoyed with the police but you can't let them be aware of your disdain for them.” - Naomi Twitter | Facebook | Instagram (Story)