They Came to Support People Getting Out of Jail. Then They Were Attacked By Police.

Jail support outfits have not been spared police backlash.

Elizabeth King July 6, 2020

In the early hours of June 1, 2020, supporters gather at Chicago's 51st & Wentworth precinct where Black activists were being held after being brutally attacked by police at a protest in Hyde Park. (Photo: Sarah-Ji/Love + Struggle Photos)

Only a few days had passed since the police killed him, but peo­ple around the coun­try were already fill­ing the streets to protest for George Floyd, a 46-year-old Black from Minnesota.

Jail support outfits have not been spared the police backlash, with police officers arresting and verbally harassing some crews as they went about their work.

From Cal­i­for­nia to Chica­go to New York, demon­stra­tors rebelled against the fatal tri­fec­ta of polic­ing, racism and cap­i­tal­ism, march­ing and chant­i­ng, emp­ty­ing the shelves of cor­po­rate stores, fight­ing with police, and in Min­neapo­lis, set­ting flame to the Third Precinct.

As quick­ly as law enforce­ment agen­cies moved to quash the demon­stra­tions, jail sup­port crews were prepar­ing to stand up for the peo­ple being dragged off to police wag­ons. Jail sup­port crews — peo­ple who care for arrestee’s pri­ma­ry needs imme­di­ate­ly after they are released — work against the tide of mass arrests. Jail sup­port­ers car­ry out a wide array of activ­i­ties and pro­ce­dures, includ­ing often hold­ing vig­ils out­side jailhouses.

These crews have had their work cut out for them late­ly: Police squads, many of them suit­ed up in riot gear, stormed demon­stra­tors in sev­er­al cities, while the Nation­al Guard deployed in the streets. As police offi­cers around the coun­try attacked, injured and round­ed up pro­test­ers, jour­nal­ists and bystanders, more than 11,000 peo­ple found them­selves fac­ing charges by June 2, only a few days into the upris­ing, accord­ing toBuz­zFeed inves­ti­ga­tion. As of June 27, the crack­down had led to 116 fed­er­al felony cas­es and at least 188 low­er-court felony cas­es, Michael Load­en­thal of the Pros­e­cu­tion Project con­firmed on Twit­ter.

Jail sup­port out­fits have not been spared the police back­lash, with police offi­cers arrest­ing and ver­bal­ly harass­ing some crews as they went about their work.

These crews typ­i­cal­ly col­lect and sup­ply food, drinks, blan­kets, first aid sup­plies, cig­a­rettes and rides home for arrestees once they’re released from jail. It’s also com­mon for jail sup­port crews to include a street medic who is trained in basic first aid to offer care to peo­ple get­ting out of jail. While doing jail sup­port, sup­port­ers also call jails to try to obtain infor­ma­tion about peo­ple being held, and pres­sure jails to release arrestees. Jail sup­port crew mem­bers also typ­i­cal­ly offer arrestees infor­ma­tion regard­ing pro bono legal ser­vices, and col­lect infor­ma­tion so that move­ment lawyers can track their cas­es. The aim is to show sol­i­dar­i­ty with peo­ple who were arrest­ed imme­di­ate­ly upon their release in order to lessen the per­son­al costs of mil­i­tant resis­tance, ensure that nobody arrest­ed for move­ment work slips through the cracks dur­ing the legal process, and to show love for peo­ple on the frontlines.

Jail sup­port encom­pass­es an array of activ­i­ties and pro­ce­dures that com­mu­ni­ty orga­niz­ers and activists uti­lize in the event of mass arrests. In many cas­es, jail sup­port for mass arrestees includes a crew of on-the-ground orga­niz­ers who hold vig­il out­side of jails where arrestees are held.

Though jail sup­port and police harass­ment of jail sup­port­ers is not new, nash Sheard, co-founder of the Black Move­ment-Law Project, tells In These Times, Are we see­ing more and more aggres­sive and more vis­i­ble repres­sion of these groups? Yeah.”

Sheard cites the recent harass­ment and mass arrests of jail sup­port­ers in Char­lotte, North Car­oli­na as a recent example.

On June 18, Meck­len­burg Coun­ty sher­if­f’s deputies in Char­lotte arrest­ed more than 40 jail sup­port­ers orga­nized by the orga­ni­za­tion Char­lotte Upris­ing out­side of the Meck­len­burg Coun­ty Deten­tion Cen­ter in the city’s uptown.

Accord­ing to the Char­lotte Observ­er, police want­ed to vacate the jail sup­port set-up (con­sist­ing of a few tables, snacks and water) over the pres­ence of home­less peo­ple, some of whom Ash Williams, a core orga­niz­er with Char­lotte Upris­ing, says were also par­tic­i­pat­ing in jail sup­port. Williams tells In These Times that they arrived at the deten­tion cen­ter soon after deputies arrest­ed dozens of jail sup­port­ers. We believe [the mass arrest] was the sher­if­f’s dis­play of author­i­ty,” Williams says.

Police in Chica­go also seem to have tar­get­ed jail sup­port. Fol­low­ing mass arrests in Chica­go at the end of May dur­ing riots and demon­stra­tions, jail sup­port crews at sev­er­al jail sites were met with police intim­i­da­tion and harass­ment. Jae Rice, the com­mu­ni­ca­tions and social media coor­di­na­tor for Brave Space Alliance, a trans and Black-led social cen­ter in Chica­go, says that they wit­nessed mul­ti­ple con­fronta­tions with police out­side of dif­fer­ent jails.

In the ear­ly days of the protests, Rice says that cops con­front­ed jail sup­port­ers out­side of the 14th Dis­trict over face masks. Accord­ing to Rice, police offi­cers got aggres­sive” when they approached the jail sup­port group and claimed that some of the jail sup­port­ers’ masks appeared to the offi­cers as gas masks; the offi­cers claimed to the group that masks indi­cat­ed the crew was pos­si­bly plan­ning some­thing dan­ger­ous. Rice says that some peo­ple were wear­ing heav­ier-duty masks to pre­vent the spread of Covid-19, but that any­one with any train­ing” would know that the masks were not gas masks. On a sep­a­rate day at the 3rd Dis­trict, Rice says that riot cops lined up across from jail sup­port­ers as the crew set up their sup­ply station.

Jail sup­port­er Alex Chwa­lik tells In These Times that police harmed a num­ber of jail sup­port­ers (her­self includ­ed) out­side of the 18th Dis­trict on June 2. Chwa­lik was anx­ious­ly await­ing the release of a pro­test­er who she had been told sus­tained injuries and had already been in jail for over two days when a crowd of thou­sands of pro­test­ers amassed out­side the jail to demand the release of pro­test­ers. Accord­ing to Chwa­lik, Police who were lined up out­side the jail even­tu­al­ly became aggres­sive with some in the crowd, and got rough with jail sup­port­ers as well. Chwa­lik says she was phys­i­cal­ly grabbed and pushed and moved by the cops” while wait­ing for the pro­test­er she knew to be injured. I had them yelling in my face telling me I could­n’t take my per­son­al belong­ings with me” as police forced some pro­test­ers and jail sup­port­ers to move loca­tions, she says, adding that some of those belong­ings dis­ap­peared.”

Jail sup­port­ers were also arrest­ed in Atlanta dur­ing the ear­ly days of this protest wave. Mar­lon (who asked to use only his first name to pro­tect his iden­ti­ty), an orga­niz­er with the Atlanta Sol­i­dar­i­ty Fund, says that police arrest­ed him and four oth­ers who were hold­ing a jail sup­port vig­il out­side of the Atlanta City Jail on May 3. As in Char­lotte and Chica­go, Mar­lon tells In These Times that police offi­cers told jail sup­port­ers to move their set-up to a dif­fer­ent loca­tion some­what far­ther from the jail itself. The Atlanta crew moved, and set up a small tent to pro­vide shade from the sum­mer sun. Soon after, offi­cers asked the group to take down their tent, and when the group refused, offi­cers seemed to grab who­ev­er they thought was impor­tant,” says Marlon.

Hav­ing just been pro­vid­ing jail sup­port, Mar­lon him­self was now in jail along­side pro­test­ers who had been locked up. He says that from his cell on the fifth floor of the jail where he was held for about 24 hours, he could see the jail vig­il wait­ing for us the whole time, and it was encour­ag­ing to know that they weren’t going to leave and they would be there for us when we got out.” Mar­lon adds that once he was released, he went right back to help­ing out with the jail sup­port team.

Though police were not phys­i­cal­ly aggres­sive with every active jail sup­port team, law enforce­ment still oth­er­wise imped­ed the work of jail sup­port­ers using oth­er tac­tics. Janaya, the fundrais­ing chair of Philly Social­ists, has been coor­di­nat­ing jail sup­port for the city from home, and says that she received many reports from jail sup­port­ers on the ground that police con­stant­ly” told the crews to change loca­tions (an expe­ri­ence sim­i­lar to Chwalik’s in Chica­go). At one point when the Nation­al Guard was deployed in Philadel­phia to repress protests, Janaya says one of her crews report­ed to her that mul­ti­ple peo­ple wear­ing what appeared to be full Guard uni­forms told the crew they had to move locations.

Kris Her­mes, mem­ber of the Nation­al Lawyers Guild Mass Defense Com­mit­tee and author of Crash­ing the Par­ty: Lega­cies and Lessons from the RNC 2000, tells In These Times that police are bru­tal to jail sup­port­ers as they often are to pro­test­ers. The police repres­sion and vio­lence that has his­tor­i­cal­ly occurred dur­ing jail vig­ils in sup­port of those arrest­ed at polit­i­cal demon­stra­tions has reflect­ed the same kind of repres­sion and vio­lence expe­ri­enced by activists on the streets,” he says.

Her­mes adds that the rea­sons for police vio­lence at jail sup­port vig­ils appear to be sim­i­lar to why police attack peo­ple protest­ing in the streets: an intol­er­ance of, and a desire to sti­fle, mil­i­tant forms of protest gen­er­al­ly, but par­tic­u­lar­ly against left polit­i­cal activists, whether anti-racist, anti-cap­i­tal­ist or anti-fas­cist activists.”

Indeed, a doc­u­ment recent­ly made avail­able to the pub­lic through the orga­ni­za­tion DDOSe­crets from the New Jer­sey Office of Home­land Secu­ri­ty and Pre­pared­ness dat­ed June 4, 2020 reveals that the state’s law enforce­ment con­sid­ers jail sup­port crews (and NLG lawyers) to be an extrem­ist” threat. The memo warns of Antifa-affil­i­at­ed anar­chists extrem­ists” who were sup­pos­ed­ly try­ing to infil­trate” recent protests, and lists jail sup­port” and lawyers” as sub­groups of antifa-affil­i­at­ed extrem­ists.” The doc­u­ment includes a pho­to of the easy-to-rec­og­nize neon green hats worn by vol­un­teer legal observers with the NLG.

The Black Move­ment Law Project’s Sheard says that more vis­i­ble police antag­o­nism toward jail sup­port­ers is also an indi­ca­tion that jail sup­port is effec­tive, nec­es­sary work. This repres­sion, Sheard says, only shows us how impor­tant and how threat­en­ing these efforts are, that they try to chill our orga­niz­ing and calls for greater change” by attack­ing jail sup­port as well as protesters.

Still, Sheard is heart­ened that activists are ris­ing to the occa­sion and tak­ing on the work of jail sup­port despite inter­fer­ence from law enforce­ment. We’ve seen increased acts of repres­sion but we’ve also seen more folks rec­og­niz­ing the impor­tance of this work and we need to con­tin­ue to lift it up and be sup­port­ing and act­ing togeth­er in com­mu­ni­ty to care for each oth­er,” Sheard says. We are the only ones who will keep each oth­er safe.”

Eliz­a­beth King is an inde­pen­dent jour­nal­ist in Chicago.
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