Capital Beat: Planning your own arrest in the name of protest

  • The State House dome as seen on March 5, 2016. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff) ELIZABETH FRANTZ

Monitor staff
Saturday, June 02, 2018

It wasn’t until Rev. Jason Wells saw the food cart that the weight of the situation sank in.

Wells and five others were holed up in the Merrimack County jail in Boscawen, the men in one cell, the women in another. Hours earlier, they had been arrested on North State Street for blocking traffic at a protest, just outside the State House.

Without phones or watches, it was hard to mark how long they’d been inside. But the styrofoam-encased meals, wheeled in by the corrections staff, suggested they might be in it for the long haul.

“I saw the food and I assumed we’d be spending the night,” he recalled, his mind jumping to his wife and daughter.

Wells and his companions had been booked for disorderly conduct during the first of six demonstrations for the Poor People’s Campaign, a movement to stand for an array of social justice causes inspired by Martin Luther King’s original campaign 50 years earlier.

The six had entered the street and told by police to move away. They refused and were led by the elbow to the sidewalk. They were handcuffed, placed into a white van with metal benches and no seatbelts, and taken to the jail where they were booked. Now, Wells was worried the wait would drag.

He was wrong; shortly after their boiled sausage and mashed potatoes, the detainees were released and given arraignment dates.

Despite the unease, the arrests were well-anticipated. Part of a left-leaning movement to improve workers’ rights and advance liberal causes, the Poor People’s Campaign has inspired hundreds of acts of civil disobedience across the country, involving handcuffs.

The six arrested that day in Concord, May 14, would be joined by eight more two weeks later. Overall more than 1,000 people have been taken into custody in statehouses across the country, organizers estimate, with three more weeks of protests still to come.

Behind it all is a careful, coordinated campaign. It’s an effort that involves advisories to state and city police, planning sessions, trainings, and at least a glancing coordination with the national movement. And it’s one that organizers, who have been preparing the demonstrations for months, say they hope will pay off.

Here’s what that looks like.

The trainings: In churches and community spaces across the state, supporters of the campaign have gathered for evening seminars on non-violent protests, with veteran demonstrators like Arnie Alpert giving tips on what to expect and how to react. The events have been happening since April 14, Wells says.

Attendance varies, from eight to 25. Audience members come loaded with questions: What are the possible charges; how does personal recognizance bail work; how long will we be detained.

For some the concerns were long term.

“How long will court proceedings last?” Wells said. “We’ve had several people saying ‘I’m planning to go out of the country, I’m traveling in September, if I have a pending court case, can I still do that?’ ”

Others questions were more immediate. How long will the detainment be? Would they be coming home to their families that night? Who’s going to walk the dog?

The events have been prolific - 10 altogether, in Concord, Manchester, Keene, Lebanon, Nashua and Dover. Last Friday evening the State Employees Association headquarters hosted a training on North Main Street.

In total about 80 activists have taken the pledge, Wells says.

The tactics: It’s not enough to simply be trained to be arrested. One must also be arrested.

That kind of thing can never be guaranteed. But the activists have tactics to use to try to force officers’ hands. On May 14, that meant standing in front of traffic, a direct choice by Wells and others to escalate what had been unobstructive activity. On May 29, it meant holding a “teach-in” rally in the main atrium of the State House through 5 p.m., refusing to leave once requested by security.

On May 18, the second week of protests, things went differently. Demonstrators were swarming the Secretary of State’s second floor office – the theme of the week was voting rights – and dozens of sign-wavers lined the hallways with chants and songs.

The goal: obstruct the door and trigger a series of arrests. And the state police troopers were ready – about a dozen them in an empty hearing room, plastic handcuffs at the ready.

But for all the clamor, the necessary provocation was missing. For action to be taken, police would need to act on a complaint that the demonstrators were obstructing business, explained Joseph Burke, State House chief of protective services; no one working in the office had made one. No complaint, no arrest.

The crowd kept up its speeches and songs for about an hour. Inside the office, a pair of tourists squeezed past the barricade, taking in the photo collages of past presidential candidates adorning the walls.

“We’re from Ohio,” one said over the din. “We just wanted to check the place out.”

The arm bands: Not everyone who participates in the training sessions craves an afternoon in a jail cell. Nor do most – or even many – of those attending the rallies. That’s where the armbands come in.

On the second week they were yellow; last week they were black. But each week, the strips of cloth signify to police something important: These people are comfortable being taken into custody, peacefully, without struggle.

“The groups have kept in close communication actually with both Concord police department and ourselves,” said New Hampshire State Police Captain Gregory Ferry, who oversaw the response. “Essentially with their overall intentions. Maybe not exact specifics, but we have a pretty good idea what they’re planning on doing.”

If that kind of coordination makes the demonstrations seem contrived, or at odds with the campaign’s subversive intent, organizers disagree. Not coordinating could lead to missed signals, unnecessary tensions, and harm, said Rev. Eric Jackson, president of the Manchester NAACP.

Those participating are getting arrested to protest a system, not the people in it, Jackson added.

“The police – they’re doing their jobs,” he said. “They’re there to do their jobs, and attacking an individual is not going to change things.”

Jackson and Wells said they firmly believe that whatever the coordination, the arrests, and the headlines they generate, will draw attention to their movement.

Meanwhile, all sides say the actions contain plenty of unknowns. Ferry noted that with uncertainty of how many will show up, his troopers still appear en masse, as any stroll through the State House on protest days reveals.

Despite the trainings, officers stay vigilant; one bad actor could upend everything. “We have to plan for contingencies, to be prepared for it,” Ferry said.

Moreover, no matter how the protests play out, for those in handcuffs, the journey through the legal system is just beginning. And the risks, activists say, are real.

So far almost all 14 people arrested are facing Class A misdemeanor charges, according to Alpert. That could mean minimal jail time or fines. It could mean a year behind bars, and a $2,000 fine.

“It is a risk,” admitted Wells. “I’m a father of a young daughter in second grade, and that would be a major shift in what our family life is.”

That may not be a given: The ultimate penalty could be diminished in court to violations, particularly given the cooperation with law enforcement, Wells noted. But at the whim of the system, Wells says the idea of extended jail time is one he has to take seriously.

“It’s something that we have to talk about as a family,” he said. “I can’t say right now that I am prepared for that, but we are preparing for that potential reality.”

The campaign has legal representation for those arrested; a meeting has been set up with an attorney in coming days to discuss options moving forward, Wells said.

The prospects are daunting. But for Gray Fitzgerald, of Concord, the end gosl is too important. At 76, Fitzgerald had never been arrested for civil disobedience, until Tuesday. Inspired by the street arrests back on May 14, Fitzgerald grabbed a black armband and took the plunge.

“I’m glad to be a part of this,” he said. “In our culture, it’s sometimes hard to make as strong a statement as we would like or have the impact we’d like. This is an attempt to do that.”

His arraignment is July 6.

(Ethan DeWitt can be reached at edewitt@cmonitor.com, or on Twitter at @edewittNH.)