I’ve had it. Enough with the phone calls, emails and Facebook entreaties for money to pay bail to get someone out of jail for their part in a civil resistance action. Let me explain why I think this is such a big problem.
I want to start by talking openly about taking responsibility for our actions. For the moment, let’s put aside the discussion about our (in)justice system generally — though there is plenty to say about the criminalization of dissent, the inequalities of society reflected in who makes up the prison population, the non-correctional nature of these institutions, the need to bear witness inside the criminal injustice complex and more. All that being the case, however, let’s focus on the potential risks and consequences of engaging in civil disobedience. Where does jail time fit as a legitimate and even critical piece of resistance campaign strategy?
For the first 10 years or so that I participated in nonviolent direct action — mostly against nuclear weapons — the affinity groups I was part of never even considered paying into the system with fines and bail; we recognized that the system was the problem, so we refused to pay into it. We often operated with solidarity agreements in our affinity groups that empowered those who absolutely needed to be bailed out if arrested to do so, but we encouraged all who could stay in to do just that with the hope of overcrowding the cells or wreaking havoc on business as usual until we were released for time served. It was also true that most of us had lots of time and no money, so the practice of remaining in jail suited us. It often stressed the authorities to the point where they would release us before we had expected just to get rid of us.
Over the past two decades, it has become an ever more common strategy to reduce jail time whenever possible. It has become the default expectation for activists to get bailed out. My theory is that large professional direct action groups — Greenpeace and Rainforest Action Network come to mind — decided that it was in their best interest to get their employees out of jail quickly so they could get back to work. These groups could afford to pay for this on a large scale, and so many people, particularly in the environmental movement, got used to it. As a former Greenpeace employee myself, I know firsthand how ecstatic I felt walking out of a holding cell after a minimal stay because my bail was posted. Although this likely makes strategic and financial sense for big groups on most occasions, many other activists taking arrests have started thinking that this is the way it should be.
What are the consequences of this state of affairs? It forces organizations of all sizes and capacities doing arrestable direct action to ask supporters for money to get people out of jail. This practice undermines the message that the stand we are taking is so important that we are willing to risk our freedom. It implies that we’re more concerned about reducing our jail time than about doing what is right. It contributes to the ritualizing of civil disobedience, which goes hand in hand with diminishing effectiveness.
So much of the power of nonviolent action rests in the risk that activists take on, or at least the perception of risk by those who would be influenced by the action. Henry David Thoreau did not end up in jail because he was trying to send a message to the government — he did that when he refused to pay a poll tax — but rather, as he said, to have his action speak to those who are afraid. He wanted to show them by example that fear does not have to stop one from doing the right thing. By modeling disobedience, he was speaking to those who were being obedient. Of course, Thoreau was bailed out after only one night in jail, and the story goes that when bail was posted — by either his aunt or Ralph Waldo Emerson — Thoreau demanded to stay in jail. But the jailer wanted none of that!
Many others have spent extended periods behind bars and used this time to build power and awareness of their campaigns. Aung San Suu Kyi in Burma received a Nobel Peace Prize while under house arrest. Gandhi and his followers not only considered jail time a badge of honor in India’s campaign for independence but used it intentionally as a way to tie up the Raj’s resources. Ploughshares activists who follow the biblical injunction to “beat swords into ploughshares” by hammering on nuclear weapons have used their time under lock and key to build movements to improve conditions for fellow inmates; on the outside, they built communities like the one Frida Berrigan grew up in to help support their families during extended prison terms. Climate activist Tim DeChristopher is continuing to work on climate issues with Peaceful Uprising while serving a two-year sentence for his direct action that disrupted an illegal Bureau of Land Management lease sale.
While thinking about this issue, I contacted my fellow Waging Nonviolence columnist Mary King, a former Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) organizer. She told me this story:
In October 1960, as I have written in Freedom Song, several hundred student delegates met at Atlanta University. There, the Reverend James M. Lawson spoke, condemning the fact that many students had let themselves be bonded out of jail by their elders who instead should have, Jim insisted, themselves been working to end segregation. Jim’s challenge launched SNCC’s distinctive “Jail—No Bail” policy, which was reinforced again and again, and was for years afterward a key difference between SNCC and SCLC. To SNCC workers, being bailed out of jail was what we called “insufficiently Gandhian.”
It’s humbling to be reminded that most of us today would not pass muster with Gandhi on many fronts — which is usually okay, especially if it means that more people will participate in direct actions without exhaustive preparation or adherence to strict codes of conduct. Obviously, some people may need to be bailed out quickly because of health conditions or other issues. These are details that can be figured out in planning an event, but they shouldn’t be allowed to drain our energy the way large bail funds often do. Instead, we should keep our focus on strengthening our campaigns through court and jail solidarity.
Instead of raising money to get out of jail, let’s raise money that will cover the lost wages of someone in jail so their family doesn’t suffer. Let’s raise money to do the outreach and organizing around those in jail and the reasons that brought them there. Let’s raise money to put more people on the front lines, risking arrest in defense of their communities.
To summarize, here are five reasons why considering jail time should be part of the strategic toolbox:
5. Getting out of the clink quickly can often seem bourgeois and imply that the arrestees are just professional activists unwilling to do the time;
4. Focusing energy on raising bail funds can undermine messaging about the urgency of the issue;
3. Fundraising for bail takes time that would be better spent on publicizing the issues themselves, building organizational capacity and working through the legal system;
2. The expectation of bail can be devastating for cash-strapped groups, draining limited resources to cover bail for a few individuals;
1. It reduces the perception of risk associated with a given action, and this perception of risk is often essential to the effectiveness of civil disobedience.
Let’s open up our strategic toolbox and find room for a deeper discussion of the pros and cons of jail time within a given campaign plan. In many cases, it’s better to dump the default expectation that we should pay out or that bail will be available and start focusing on showing with our time and our openness to risk how much our struggles really matter.
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Thank you for the discussion, Nadine. I remember sometimes in jail overhearing cell mates on the phone begging their loved ones to bail them out no matter how and then they would overhear my phone calls where I was turning down repeated offers of bail. My attempts at solidarity with fellow prisoners just made me an odder person in their eyes! still, it is a good idea to refuse bond. There are also examples of “bail solidarity,” causing pressure on the establishment by filling the jails. This is an old IWW technique. The trend to take bail for granted as a matter of course is disturbing, still, I would rather see people act and post bail than not act at all. the article pasted below is, I understand, going to be in the December issue of the CW.
PRO SE DEFENSE
IN THE CATHOLIC WORKER TRADITION
I glanced into the chamber where the judges were talking
Darkness was everywhere, it smelled like a tomb
I was ready to leave, I was already walkin’
But the next time I looked there was light in the room.
Bob Dylan, Day of the Locusts
It was the work of hospitality to the homeless that impelled me to drop out of college to join the Catholic Worker community in New York 35 years ago. It was not long though, before it came clear that “doing good” is only part of the Catholic Worker vocation. We are also required to “resist evil” and in opposing the evils of the arms race, military intervention and economic violence by acts of nonviolent civil resistance I have been arrested well over 100 times, usually in the good company of good friends including other Catholic Workers. Most of these have occasioned at least brief court appearances for which it is my habit to represent myself, appearing pro se, to use the language of the court, without the mediation of a lawyer.
For the first years of my career as a resister, I took a strictly minimalist approach to the courts. I was “not interested in justifying myself before a system whose definition of justice I am unable to relate to and which is more dependent upon the bargaining of attorneys than upon and real moral values,” I wrote in an article published in the June 1978 issue of The Catholic Worker, while in jail for blocking rail shipments of plutonium into the nuclear weapons factory at Rocky Flats, Colorado. I sometimes refused even to enter a plea on my behalf, always sat in jail rather than post bail. I was jailed several times, too, for refusing to cooperate with the courts’ terms of probation or for contempt of court after refusing to pay fines.
I still hold the beliefs of my youth that inspired my earlier disinterest in what happens in court. Experience over the years has only confirmed my conviction that the judicial system in this country is a blunt and brutal instrument of violence in the hands of a rapacious oligarchy to grind the poor and suppress dissent rather the impartial arbiter of justice that it pretends to be. Over time, though, my hard line on this and perhaps every other point upon which as a young man I brooked no concession, has softened. After much practice with elder resisters and with the advice of some good movement lawyers, I have greatly expanded my role as a pro se defendant, arguing my position before judges and juries, cross examining witnesses, filing motions, writing briefs, the whole bit. I have even on a few occasions been found not guilty!
There is much to be found in the canon of the Catholic Worker, not to mention the example of Jesus’ refusal to justify himself before Pilate, to support my earlier practice of declining to participate in the machinations of the courts. Karl Meyer remembers Dorothy Day’s terse instruction before his first arrest, protesting New York’s annual civil defense drills in 1957: “We plead guilty, and we don’t take bail.” Attempts at finding the incontrovertible set of pure Catholic Worker beliefs and practices (whether in religious orthodoxy or courtroom decorum) from which we must not deviate are however, futile exercises bound for frustration. In her monthly column after the first civil defense protest two years earlier, for example, Dorothy reported paying $1500 bail, and again in 1956, “Bail was there …and we all thankfully accepted it.”
Even the anarchist “one man revolution” Ammon Hennacy, famous for his stunning courtroom repartees such as “Oh, judge, your damn laws: the good people don’t need them and the bad people don’t follow them, so what good are they?” and “I am NOT disturbing the peace, I’m disturbing the war!” and who preferred to “wear out” the police and courts by persistently risking arrest rather than seek an acquittal could be surprisingly flexible. He once allowed the American Civil Liberties Union to “use” him as an “example to provide freedom for those who always moved on when told to do so” in a case that prevailed in the New York State Supreme Court involving Ammon’s arrest for selling the CW newspaper in the streets of New York City.
My increased engagement with the judicial system is perhaps mostly due to the fact that I find myself more comfortable in the courtroom In some cases, as an individual or as part of a discerning community, I will choose keep the time and effort given to the legalities to a minimum, other times the decision is made to go all out with a most elaborate defense- this decision is sometimes tactical, sometimes intuitive. I have no illusions that much good really can be accomplished there. I am very aware that a protestor being found not guilty does not bring an end to war a whit closer. More important than achieving any desired decision from the court, I hope that our courtroom strategies and arguments have been consistent with and have added to the message of our actions on the street, bringing the issues raised to a wider venue.
It is an uphill battle, speaking truth to power in the venue of the courtroom. The scene is stacked against any reality being witnessed to. Half truths, lies, excuses and evasions are promoted, truth ruthlessly suppressed. It is a system that depends upon its victims cutting their losses, pleading out for a lesser sentence regardless of guilt or innocence. The ordinary work of the court is as mundane, humdrum and boring as it is destructive of the human beings that trip into its machinery, judges, lawyers, prosecutors as well as defendants. Years of human beings’ lives and potentials are disposed of with strokes of a pen by functionaries who often as not do not even look up from their files between cases.
This monotonous drone of fractured Latinisms and legal gibberish is shattered by when defendants speak simply and clearly, by women and men taking responsibility for their actions of conscience without apology or alibi, who risk putting the system itself on trial. Good things can be told in court but only when its dominant paradigm is broken. For many judges, being asked to think and to actually make informed decisions is an intolerable effrontery. A few others, on the other hand, might be relieved by such a break in the tedium of their day; some rejoice to hear for the first time in years on the bench the constitutional questions that they studied in law school! In any case, it wakes them up.
If few judges “get it,” then it must be said that even fewer lawyers do. We do have a few precious friends in the bar who can adequately defend or advise a defendant whose aim is not to get off the hook but to “speak truth to power,” but not one in a thousand of those practicing law can be helpful to the nonviolent resister. I advise new resisters that there is far more to lose by having bad counsel than none at all. Well meaning but politically and spiritually unaware lawyers can be generous in their offers of help, but they can easily obscure or even destroy their defendants’ message. Heartbreak, distress, damaged relationships, even weightier legal consequences are more likely to come in the wake of “expert” legal representation than by even the most inexperienced novice stumbling alone through a maze of legal obscurities. Post trial regret among nonviolent resisters is more likely to be expressed as “Why did I ever listen to that lawyer?” than “Why did I go it alone?”
The best trial scenes happen when defendants go to trial with a community of support. Lawyers can be a great help as advisors or representing some defendants, effectively making them “co-counsel” with those who go pro se. The best movement lawyers do not presume to make decisions for their “clients” but act as collaborators, acting in a sense as tour guides and interpreters to travelers to a strange, exotic and confusing landscape. One advantage to this approach is that judges often will order the parameters of testimony so narrow (barring mention of the words “God,” “nuclear weapons,” international law,” “war,” for examples) as to make the proceedings meaningless. While an attorney risks losing her livelihood by speaking the truth in such circumstances, a pro se defendant can speak up risking only a reprimand or at worse a day or two in lock up for contempt.
In my times in court I am continually amazed to find how little knowledge or expertise is to be found among most judges and prosecutors, how little acquaintance with the law is needed for them to exercise their power. Usually I have been more prepared than these professionals, sometimes the only person in the room who has actually read the statute in question. Going to court with the expectation of going to jail is liberating, too, giving one the freedom to speak one’s conscience without regard to consequences. Courtrooms are deliberately designed and decorated to awe and intimidate, but it is all, in the end, smoke and mirrors. “Brace yourself,” G-d commanded the prophet Jeremiah, good advice to all resisters, “stand up and speak to them. Tell them everything that I bid you, do not let your spirit break at the sight of them.”
Thanks Brian for this great addition to the blog. I agree wholeheartedly with you that I would rather see action than inaction ( and assuming a pay out rather than doing nothing) AND i think the conversation about the options of not paying out are worthwhile as part of the planning and strategic thinking. Onward !
Spot on Nadine. I have two small caveats. First I am sure you don’t mean to downgrade the importance of exhaustive preparation and adherance to strict codes of conduct. Second there is the issue of demanding bail prior to sentence for those activists arrested by the authorities while going about their daily business. I am thinking here of the case of Somyot Pruksakasemsuk in Thailand. (Somyot has written a book whilst in jail. His sentence is due end of December.)
May I recommend the chapter on training in “The Power of Nonviolence” by Richard B Gregg?
Your article is timely and a fruitful basis for discussion. Let’s spread it!
Agree wholeheartedly about the problems that come with the ritualization of civil disobedience. I would add that the it is symptomatic of a larger issue, which is the unwillingness of most of us who care about causes to incur personal suffering (of almost any kind) to advance those causes. Of course this is how we are trained in a consumer society, unconsciously and from the earliest age, since our regular if not continual personal satisfaction is the goal of consumerism, and suffering is the opposite of that. I don’t say this from a spiritual perspective of redemptive suffering – although that might well be true – but generally speaking, peoples who are not willing to suffer in a struggle cannot break the bonds of their oppression. The reason nonviolence movements generally do not start or grow among the middle classes or otherwise enfranchised…
Good piece, good comments.
In 2002-2003, I was heavily involved and a “ringleader” in protesting the USA PATRIOT Act. It resulted in my testifying before the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee, personally pissing off Senator (for life) Orrin Hatch, and being audited two years in a row (2003, 2004) by the IRS. This bankrupted me, my family, and closed my business. I took the lumps and even my closest friends knew little of what it had cost to conduct all of that protest. I had a good idea what I was up against and unlike the others involved, I had something to lose (business, finances). Didn’t matter and I did it anyway.
I totally agree with this article. If you’re going to do it, do it 100% and don’t look back. Revolutionaries who’ve gotten things done have always done so without a safety net to fall into when the going gets tough. Otherwise, you’re not a revolutionary, you’re just a dabbler. Nothing wrong with dabblers, but don’t think you’re going to change anything by acting from safety. Fortune goes to the bold.
I agree in my heart with Nadine and Brian and other like minded activists, friends and colleagues. I only wish I had the courage and psychological stability to tolerate the stress, fear and loliness that is a part of incarceration. That is precisely why I can only do short jail times, like overnight arrests or 1-3 days locked up. I hope some day I have just half the courage that others have to commit myself to take greater risks in the name of peace and justice. When I did the Republican National Convention lock-up a number of years ago, and the Witness Against Torture protest in the House Representatives several years ago, the several days we did in jail and the court procedures following were quite traumatic for me, and until I can better “get my act together” that is all I can do for now. Best of luck to you all; I admire you so much!
Thanks for your open and honest note! The most important thing is not that everyone must do jail time– but that those of us who can, should consider it as a part of our strategic planning. In fact, the hard work is usually being done by those out of jail– the media work, the organizing, fundraising, outreach work about the actions, you name it– and in jail we have limited capacity to support on- going work, or even the legal effort needed in moving the case forward.
I have to say I also abhor jail time, but, it is something that I have done quite a few times,only in short doses (many overnites, several bouts for a few days, and only once for more than a week.) If becoming more comfortable with jail is a goal of yours, then I do encourage working through the issues that you face so that it can be easier on you– if not, there is plenty of good work to do outside of jail! Thanks again for writing in, I admire your honesty and self-knowledge.
There were some long posts that I did not choose to read in full, but I wonder about some of the statements and conclusions, which did not seem tied specifically to bail. I recently donated money for someone’s legal defense – not bail. Is there a clear distinction between donating for bail and for their legal defense? My hope is that his having decent legal representation – which might be hard to get for free – will reduce his jail time, not to mention that it was a chance (for those with the financial ability) to demonstrate solidarity – the names of those who donated were posted. Are you advocating that those arrested participating in civil disobedience be left to defend themselves without support, in order to maximize their jail time or avoid legitimizing an unjust system? Some of the generalizations asserted (“revolutionaries…don’t have safety nets,” raising money will “undermine the message” or “drain our energy”) seem oversimplified, and I would encourage more thought and discussion to clarify if conclusions can apply to the legal/justice system beyond bail.
I guess i have to start by saying, there are many variations and no hard and fast rules for me on this issue ( or many others!) Resistance is an art, not a science… however– to respond to some specific comments in your post– this blog was written to stimulate a re-thinking of the idea of accepting that jail time could be a legitimate and potentially (more) effective option in many cases of nonviolent direct action or civil disobedience than immediately paying out, using Post and Forfeit, or Infraction fines as preferred resolution. No where in the blog did I say not to pay for legal defense ( I wish we could always pay our movement lawyers– they could use the support usually!) which is an entirely different discussion. just have to end where these comments started–Let’s open up our strategic toolbox and find room for a deeper discussion of the pros and cons of jail time within a given campaign plan. In many cases, it’s better to dump the default expectation that we should pay out or that bail will be available and start focusing on showing with our time and our openness to risk how much our struggles really matter.
I completely and wholeheartedly agree with Nadine’s assessment! Bail refusal and other jail solidarity techniques have vast power potentials that frequently are untapped. Missing from the discussion are stories and examples from past actions in which some of the varying forms of jail solidarity and refusal to bail out have been explored. I’ve had very positive experiences practicing bail refusal and jail solidarity. Often enough these concepts are completely absent from the typical NVDA trainings given to activists prior to an action. (And absurdly enough, I’ve been to one training where the flown-in 501(c)3 trainer had never been arrested themselves, yet was ostensibly “training” others!)
As for bail refusal stories, here are two:
At one action, some 40+ arrested had agreed prior to not cooperate with the arrest process beyond the minimum required by law(name and address; no SS#, work info, job info, fam info, etc). Most refused to eat. The result was a very troubled county jail. The response by the police was trumped up felony charges, sky high bail amounts, segregation, sleep deprivation, waking at all hours to be re-interviewed and have prints and photos taken again and again, and widespread lying to individual activists who were separated from each other (barring the few who’d learned to spell via sign language and had line-of-sight to another). The police told individuals that everybody else had bailed out already, that everyone else cooperated, that so-and-so is saying you did such-and-such; all sorts of efforts to compel people to talk were made. After more than a day, people were processed into general population, with undercover officers joining and prying for information. We watched the television with wonder as the news reported on a press conference taking place outside the jail by a prominent civil rights figure, expressing solidarity with our cause. We had ample time to interact with the legitimate inmates, which provided a wonderful education beyond anything one can learn any other way. Within 5 days, all arrested were released without bond, and with greatly reduced identical charges, as demanded. As activists were leaving the jail, some were re-arrested for graffiti in the waiting room bathrooms. The recently released, together with supporters, sat down on the floor of the facility and began to chant in unison. Quickly the graffiti perpetrators arrested were released. As the mass exited the facility, loudly continuing their chant, every police vehicle in the lot was given a flyer under the windshield wiper blade. It was organized people power winning every step of the way. (The sheriff running that facility was later convicted of murdering his rival in an election.)
I have had a positive experience as a lone bail resister amongst other activists, who all chose to immediately bail out or sign no contest bonds. The action organizers had not presented participants with the possibility of bail refusal or other jail solidarity techniques, and during the legal briefing portion of the training, the freshly appearing lawyers did not permit discussion of bail refusal or jail solidarity. I speak of the D.C. actions of the “No War, No Warming” coalition’s Congressional blockade of October ’07. Lots of folks were arrested and charged identically. The police trucked us to a warehouse setting where folding chairs were set up in rows waiting for us. The expected behavior was for the arrested activist to sign a paper, in effect pleading to a minor charge and agreeing to pay a fine. It meant the person would leave custody the same day with no future court appearance. I refused to sign the paper saying that I maintained my innocence and wanted a trial. I was told to sit back down. A higher ranking officer was dispatched to try to pressure me to sign; I refused. Another officer joined the pressuring, and I maintained my stance. Eventually I was handcuffed and taken to another facility and cuffed to a wall in a cold cell by myself. After some hours a new officer appeared, transferred my cuffs to a pole on the wall of his office, and began pressuring me to sign a paper. I continued to refuse. Unbelievably more than an hour of effort was spent with just this one ranking officer trying to persuade me to sign the paper and “safe myself the grief”, which would also save the police, courts, and jail plenty of grief, it must be noted. During this time I was able to take the opportunity to express my points of view to him on the issues in a depth and manner that would not exist had I signed back in the warehouse. Eventually I was transferred to the jail, where I had the great experience of observing how ex-military police members verbally abused a fellow inmate who was a vocal IVAW member and supporter(he’d violated parole or something in the process of being arrested, and so hadn’t had the immediate release option). It was educational to see how the staff treated other prisoners, as well. I was held until the next day, and given a preliminary hearing before a judge. This was another opportunity to demonstrate and testify to the power structure of the state. The judge did not like what I had to say, and I was returned to the holding area, where I was held until all other inmates had gone before the judge. I then was returned before the judge who insulted me after asking my age, and told me to “get a job”. I was given a court date and released without bond; I think it important to note that the state did not enrich itself one penny via my arrest!
I found video of the action and my arrest online, posted by activists. I had planned to argue in court “pro se” and use the necessity defense, but it happened that the video provided proof that the charge levied against me wasn’t applicable, so I brought the video with me back to DC for my court date. It ended up that the judge in the case didn’t watch the video closely enough, and a prosecutor’s objection to my speaking and narrating the video’s actions meant she didn’t catch the moment when I clearly left the area during the timeframe in which a dispersal order was given. A technicality by which I would have had to have been found innocent as charged. An appeal would have been cost-prohibitive for me. My guilty verdict meant I was sentenced to time served, and given a fine relating to a “victim’s compensation fund” that is standard in DC courts. I informed the court that I would not pay the fine, and instead divert the same amount to address the victims of global war and global warming. And that’s just what I did; I sent a letter stating as much, along with a receipt for donations to appropriate charities, to the DC court clerk, in lieu of a check of money order in the amount required. I have never heard a response. After court, my pro bono movement lawyer hooked me up with the Code Pink DC house, and I got to join them in a day of creative resistance, and, as a resident of Illinois, was able to speak to a Senator Obama surrogate about all manner of things. In the end, still not one penny went to the DC power structure, and they had to pay to house me for a night, give me my day in court, process my court materials, etc. Had this course of action of refusing to sign the initial plea deal and spend a night in jail, to which I was legally entitled, been taken by more persons who were arrested, the drain on the system would quickly become burdensome.
At each and every step of the way in both examples, there were opportunities to resist and exercise personal power. It’s not always appropriate to do so, of course. But collective and individual flexing of rights can be a great force multiplier to any given action! I think stories and examples of successful flexing of people power in these ways should become a highlighted feature of every action training!
Thanks for this detailed post! I am really appreciating all the comments generally, and the fact that they have rounded out the blog so well. Thanks for sharing the specific stories, as well. And I always like to include these stories of jail solidarity, etc in my trainings– and, when I do training of trainers, emphasize that it is not appropriate for people to train others in risk arrest situations who have not experienced that themselves– however, if they partner with someone who has been arrested for a CD action, they could be part of that team.
Josh, I was one of the NWNW organizers in DC so this was an interesting story for me to read — I didn’t know about your situation. Yes, it was a classic example where we could have potentially expanded our work to include not paying out for those who were open to it; but, the organizing groups were not interested in that if i remember correctly.
( Also, I have been arrested and shackled to the wall in DC myself…argh!)
One of my favorite mass arrest memories was in the late 1980s at the Nevada Test Site with the American Peace Test week of actions. At some point in the week ( and many of us were arrested every day for a week or more, and refused to give our names or anything else to the arresting Wakenhut security officers or the Sherrifs/cops, so we were loaded onto buses and driven miles away and dumped out on the side of the road! This was more like abduction or transporting people against their will across county lines! On one day, I think maybe the final day of actions, when we had about 1,200 people “arrested”, they put us on buses and took us to the Police station in Beatty to process us. After unloading 5 or 10 buses, the Police station was overrun and the Police were freaked out. Some of us were still being held on buses outside in the streets. At this point, thePolice just wanted us to go away. The activists inside held a spokescouncil and insisted that the Police designate a Spokesperson in order to participate in the decisionmaking process– because, at this point, the Police were begging us to get up and walk out, and they were telling folks on the buses that everyone would get out, but noone would budge until we had some confirmation from either a lawyer that we knew/trusted, or an activist, that everyone would be released with no charges. In the end, i remember the Police had to give in to the Spokescouncil, and 1 activist and an activist lawyer was designated to walk around with the Police to each bus and confirm that everyone would be released. It was an amazing moment as folks left the station, and the buses… of course, our punishment turned out to be that we all had to find a way back to the test site where we camped across the street from the Mercury test site, about 60 miles away.
Thanks Nadine for your needed essay and thanks Brian and all the other respondents.
Three points we like to make on this topic in our work with the Nuclear Resister (nukeresister.org):
1) While jail and prison are survivable, don’t even think about risking arrest, even for the most minor political infraction, without giving serous consideration (along with any co-actionists) to the possibility that all hell could break loose while you are in the custody of cops, and you could be injured or worse and jailed without bond for who knows how long. Yes, it is rare, and less likely in some scenarios than others, but for sure, it has happened in our nonviolent movements to people who had never ever considered the worst that could happen as part of their preparation.
2) In a nation that imprisons a greater percentage of its population than any other in the world, time spent by activists in jail can be just as valuable in the struggle for social justice as time spent outside. Whether one simply listens to the stories of other prisoners, shares one’s literacy and access to outside support, or even instigates or joins resistance to prison injustice, “rotting in jail” is hardly an option.
3) It has been said that there are two competing institutions of higher education in our society – universities and prisons. At the university, one learns to see the world from the top, looking down. In prison, one learns what the world looks like from the bottom. We have much to learn.
I made the opportunity to visit Brian Terrell in jail in 1978, while I was active with the Rocky Flats Truth Force. The example of Brian and others who refused to post bail and stayed in jail helped lead me to the work of the Nuclear Resister, which is to report on anti-nuclear and anti-war arrests and encourage support for the people jailed for these actions.
Brian Terrell will be headed to federal prison on November 30, 2012, to serve six months for a trespassing arrest while protesting drone warfare. Readers can support Brian and other anti-war and anti-nuclear prisoners by writing to them at their prison address, updated regularly at nukeresister.org/inside-out.
(In the interests of full disclosure, although I have regularly visited prisoners since 1977, I have never spent a night in jail despite a dozen or more arrests when I was willing to sign out on my own recognizance but not post bail. While we raised our children, I chose not to take significant risks of imprisonment. Inspired by many who made nonviolent resistance their retirement vocation, I imagined I could do the same. A diagnosis of celiac disease in 2001 has caused me to seriously reconsider the risks of placing my prescribed gluten-free diet in the hands of jailers, while I can avoid it.)