Jail Support for OWS Arrestees

Reprinted from National Lawyers Guild New York City News, Fall 2012. Available at: http://nlgnyc.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/11/NYC-NYC-News-November2012-final4.pdf

“Jail support” is an umbrella term referring to various services activists provide for each other when arrested. Most of the time is means having people waiting with food, cigarettes, a friendly face, and basic medical assistance. It is a way that we take care of each other so we can come back again to make our voices heard.

I started attending protests in New York City a decade ago like many others, to oppose globalization from above,to stop unprovoked acts of war by the United States, and angry that the Republican party chose to hold their convention in NYC to further capitalize on the city and nation’s trauma. While the motivations for all of the rallies and marches were ongoing, the events themselves were finite in length, conceived and planned for that day. We went to pre-protest skill-shares, formed affinity groups, had phone check-ins with people off-site in case we all got arrested or separated, and always brought markers for writing the NLG’s phone number on our arms. Just as older activists shared this knowledge with us, we passed it along to new activists. At this time, the majority of jail support was organized by activist street medics, not legal activists.

Occupy Wall Street was different than any of that. It was spontaneous and rapid compared to anything I had experienced, with the planning and build-up taking months instead of years. People who had never been politically active heard about it and showed up without basic orientation to street activism and without people they already knew and trusted. These experiential differences combined with the nature of occupation as a tactic lead to radically different jail support needs than anything I had ever heard about, let alone experienced.

Initially, jail support shared the general spontaneity of OWS. There was a table for the legal working group in Zuccotti and jail support happened largely through word of mouth. People had effectively self-organized to meet most basic needs, like kitchen, sanitation, medical, and comfort, but jail support was always a scramble and we will never know just how many people were released without support early on. While waiting for arrestees to be released from the 7th Precinct in early October, Erick Setterlund and I sat down and started putting together a plan for a different way of responding to arrests. The three basic ideas that we started with were: remote coordination and dispatch using a Google Voice number that could be easily transferred between coordinators, premade bins of supplies with instructions so that anyone could step up to do jail support, and no meetings other than for specific, immediate planning. The goal was to make it as easy as possible to do jail support for the first time and to lower the threshold for participation. The remote coordination phone line also served as way that we could walk new people through the jail support processes and respond easily wherever and whenever the calls started coming in.

Our model diverged radically from how street medics tend to run jail support. When we found out about arrests, we sent out texts and tweets looking for volunteers, lined up coverage, stayed in contact until everyone was released, and passed legal information back to the NLG-NYC chapter office. As our relationship with the guild grew and we realized that that there was a serious lack of legal literacy, we started started seeing ourselves as activists working in resistance to the dehumanizing systems of the police state. Many people helped, but a core group of about a dozen amazing people spent an astronomical number of hours through bad weather and late into the night waiting for the release of arrestees.

Neither Erick nor I thought that we would still be coordinating jail support for OWS seven months later. Actions did not slow down significantly until the mid-winter, at which point the issue of planning for May Day already loomed large. OWS kept moving and shifting, setting up durable presences in Union Square, at Federal Hall, and outside Trinity Wall Street. Again, jail support found itself in a situation where the system needed to shift. The core jail support team went on strike, telling activists that they needed to learn and use the skills and legal knowledge we had been teaching. As we prepare for the one-year anniversary of the start of OWS, the jail support line is back up and running and we are again rethinking how to build a system that meets the needs of the movement.

As with any major projects, there were ups, downs, and notable events somewhere in the middle. Sometimes, we did really well and knew exactly where every arrestee was. Other times, there was confusion and people were released without support. Fundamentally, jail support is trying to work with a system that does not want to work with us. The NYPD learned about what we do and tried to frustrate the support and solidarity the community was offering by transferring arrestees multiple times, giving out false information on arrestee location, stonewalling lawyers and family members looking to confirm the presence of arrestees at precincts, and directly threatening, sometimes arresting, people on jail support. We also began seeing increasing usage of questioning for investigations, malicious use of psych holds, and a continued refusal to provide access to medical care for many hours or sometimes at all. These are not new behaviors for the NYPD. Many of us came from relative privilege regarding police interactions. Through jail support we saw the real impact of the NYPD’s practices.

We will need jail support as long as we have a judicial system based on a punitive model, and policing is a major means of social control of communities of color, Muslim communities, and political activists. I look forward to seeing the new ways that activists, the guild, and target communities are working together to take on a system that was not built in the public interest.