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Mar 30, 17

Bloc Party: Learning as We Go, an Interview with a J20 Defendant

As we are sure our readers are aware, the inauguration of Donald Trump was marred by protests, blockades, and plenty of other rowdiness. Shortly after a black bloc of around 700 people chased off right-wingers from the Black Lives Matter DC security blockade, 230 protesters were rounded up in a kettle at the intersection of 12th and L streets. This group included street medics, legal observers, bystanders, and journalists. These folks were held for 9 hours without access to food, water, or bathrooms and were even attacked with chemical agents while they were kettled. After being arrested folks were subjected to further denial of medical help and some people were held on buses or in solitary for no apparent reason. Vegans and folks with other religious or medical dietary needs were not accommodated. Once people were released, they found themselves facing felony riot charges, and a few have since seen additional charges added. Only about 16 have since had their charges dropped.

While we hope that books and articles will be written about the full length of the D.C. J20 case, we also believe there are things to learn and stories to be told in the midst of state repression. For some useful info on previous mass arrests, check out this rad interview with Kris Hermes, author of the book “Crashing the Party”. This updated reflection from folks over at Crimethinc is another good resource for better understanding of recent histories of resistance to inaugurations, as well as this immediate reflection on lessons learned from the L12 kettle. After all, every specific instance is different, and we really are just learning as we go. Keep your eyes open for solidarity events in your region, as the week of solidarity against state repression draws near, April 1st-7th.

Now, one arrestee’s perspective from the kettle at L12…

What drew you to participate in the call to action against Trump’s inauguration?

When Trump was elected, I was immediately overwhelmed with anger and fear. While all presidencies in the U.S. are inherently oppressive, Trump’s campaign was built on expanding imperialist violence and fostering a white supremacist culture. I knew that under his rule the world was only going to become a more hostile place for marginalized folks and the environment. After the election, I decided very quickly that I would be showing up in D.C. on inauguration day to say “fuck this noise.”

I ended up in the bloc because I didn’t feel prepared to help with the parade blockades. I didn’t want to be that physically close to the inauguration and being surrounded by Trump supporters. Looking back at this makes me laugh because I ended up being chased and attacked by cops, who are Trump’s foot soldiers. I see the bloc and the blockades as two different components of a larger expression of resistance and refusal of the Trump regime.

Have you participated in any mass mobilizations before J20? If not, how did it differ from your expectations going in? If so, how did it differ from previous experiences?

J20 was the biggest mobilization that I have ever participated in, so I really didn’t know what to expect. It felt emboldening to be a part of such a large mobilization. Folks have written a lot about how Trump is an abuser and manipulator both in his personal relationships and as a politician. Trump and his administration use gaslighting and intimidation as a way to manipulate the public and subdue resistance. So for me – with the identities and experiences I have – it felt really affirming to be among so many other people expressing the same outrage that I was feeling. It validated that it’s not just me and my friends who are feeling such heightened grief and terror. By coming out in the street, it was as if they were saying: “its not just you.” It is a powerful experience to be with others who are willing to take risks alongside you.

Have you personally experienced state repression of this level or been close to people who have?

I haven’t personally. My prior knowledge comes mostly through friends who have suffered state repression and learning from their stories. I think it’s important to share these stories among ourselves so we don’t keep reinventing the support wheel. Because of this knowledge from friends, I’ve felt more prepared to navigate this situation than if I hadn’t had much interaction with radical communities beforehand. I would be feeling much more scared.

Tell us about being pulled from the kettle and taken to jail. What was your experience like in custody?

By the time I was put in handcuffs, part of the festival of resistance (a peaceful J20 protest) gathered across the street from us and was attacked by the cops. I saw elderly people and at least one child get pepper sprayed as the cops suddenly turned on them. This sticks out in my mind as a defining moment of those next 36 hours, because there was a crowd of protestors there to support us who suddenly disappeared into a cloud of smoke and flashbangs. All we could hear were screams and explosions. Seeing this, many of us feared that the cops were just going to turn around and do the same thing to us. We had no idea that there were medics and folks from the black bloc on the other side of the cloud, treating people and getting them to safety. We just thought we were all fucked. It was a heartbreaking thing to see that happen and just have all these people with guns in between us and a bunch of people that could use our help.

Up until this happened, we had all suspected we would be caught and quickly released with a summons. When the first few folks were put in paddy wagons, we joked that we would see them in a few hours, not realizing how long it would really be until we were out of police custody. I was in at least three different paddy wagons and three different facilities throughout the next two days. We were never told where we were going. I didn’t even get any property confiscated for four hours after being handcuffed. The cops didn’t seem to be very organized and had to scramble to find space for most of us.

Many of us were kept in cars or on buses for hours, most of us were zip tied for over eight hours. Most people had no access to bathrooms or water, and people were forced to piss themselves in the wagons. Some were given access to bathrooms but without having use of their hands, there was a cop there to “help” or “supervise” the arrestee with trying to use the bathroom. I heard one particularly awful story about one arrestee treating another for pepper spray while in zip ties. The sheriffs and cops seemed to look confused every time anyone reminded them that people were covered in pepper spray. Our eyes and skin were left burning for almost two days.

While we were in paddy wagons, they often blasted the heat so high that we would sweat, opening our pores and causing the spray to reactivate and drip into our eyes, as well as dehydrate us even further. It seemed very intentional. The cops met our requests for food and water often by saying “we don’t have the ability to do that” or “that’s not our job,” while they sat outside the wagons or buses eating pizza and smirking at us. I personally wasn’t given anything to drink for 9 hours, and even then it was only a dentist-office-sized paper cup of sugary fruit punch.

When another person requested a band aid, the officer told them they could “call an ambulance” for one while standing directly in front of a first aid kit. Yet another arrestee couldn’t eat the food we were finally given once we were processed, so the only thing they were able to eat for 36 hours was a mustard packet. One detainee was put in solitary confinement for 3 hours after pressing an officer for food. As our ankle bindings kept tightening, some people began losing circulation to their feet. The whole ordeal was pretty traumatizing.

How did you feel once you were released, and found that many people had been waiting outside the jail?

I didn’t cry the whole time I was in custody, so when I walked outside, everything just came out. It was really beautiful to walk out to a crowd of people there to support me, but I felt a lot of pain as well. It was really hard when I realized not all of my friends were out yet, because they released us slowly, in groups of ten. When I asked for a cigarette ten people dispersed screaming to the crowd in search of my preferred brand. It was pretty cute. I pretty much lost it when people knelt down at my feet to relace my shoes for me.

Did you feel supported through the initial arrest and release process? What did that look like in terms of support?

Absolutely. One of the U.S. marshals had made a comment about how many people were waiting outside for us in the most disappointed tone, but I wasn’t expecting such a large group of supporters. I was immediately enveloped into a group of people jumping up and down and chanting an antifascist song. I felt like an anarchist quarterback.

People had a bag of supplies and food waiting for me. We waited for everyone else from our town to get out, and then stuck around for friends some of us had met in lockup who didn’t have as much support as we did. None of us began the journey home until we had all gotten of our property back and had a bite to eat. My region had set up a fundraiser long before I was even released, which gave us a head start on fundraising. I was also really happy to hear that folks thought to shake down the Women’s March participants for legal funds as they walked past the jail to go listen to Madonna speak. 

How has support looked since you got back to the region where you live? 

There is a committee of defendants as well as a support crew of non-defendants. People have already been fundraising for legal costs and there are plans for more. There has also been a lot of emotional processing and checkingin. From what I’ve learned throughout my time in radical organizing, we need to be taking care of each other emotionally if we want to build and sustain movements. Its critical that we provide emotional support for defendants and make sure its not just their immediate friend circles that have to do that work. Defendants have been trying to get together socially so we can see each other outside of meetings about legal strategy. We are currently trying to coordinate with other cities’ to share info and be in solidarity with one other. We help each other with transportation to court and find housing for defendants who have to travel back to DC from across the country. We have also been trying to connect with people who don’t have a strong support network. This is mostly people we met while in lockup, or people we heard were arrested from our town but didn’t know them prior to J20.

Did you feel adequately prepared to deal with the repression you’ve been experiencing? If so, how? If no, why not?

No, I didn’t. Part of this is because the DC court system operates differently from most other places in the US. It has also been a pretty tumultuous process since the D.C. public defender’s office decided it was a “conflict of interest” to represent all of us. Now each defendant is required to have their own lawyer, making a mass defense much more complex to arrange.

I don’t know if there is ever a way to be fully prepared for the violence of the police, but I didn’t feel surprised by most of what they did. The violence they commit on a daily basis towards oppressed communities, the violence we have seen at Standing Rock, the violence they have brought on uprisings in Ferguson, Baltimore, Milwaukee, Oakland, and Charlotte among countless others should show their behavior on January 20th to be completely unexceptional. The police unions and the rank and file officers by and large supported Trump. 

There is a call for a week of solidarity with all those facing state repression, from Standing Rock to antifascists in California to those arrested in D.C. How do you see the repression you’re personally confronting being connected to others? In what ways do you think we could build further solidarity against state repression?

The police enforce the social order, so that is one major connector in all of these struggles. Trump and his administration are clearly influencing and directing how repression is being executed across the country in terms of police response and legal repercussions. His election and the discourse used by his supporters is also further emboldening far right nationalists and white supremacists. Additionally, Trump has made it clear that his presidency will further consolidate power and wealth in this country. This has been reflected by Republican legislation which guts social services while increasing the military budget and giving corporations free reign to do what they want. Capitalism, corporate interests, and white supremacy are all parts of the same structure of society, so whether its antifa being attacked and stabbed in Sacramento or indigenous people being forced off their land to build a pipeline, it all strengthens the same social order.

The first thing that comes to mind in terms of building further solidarity is that folks from different struggles should be reading and informing themselves about other struggles, especially in the words and stories of the actual people resisting. I think the more folks open themselves to seemingly separate struggles, it becomes clear very quickly how power works and how these struggles are just different frontlines against a common foe.

History also shows us the first steps towards fascism are always to repress and increase the policing of marginalized groups, as well as political radicals. This is why its critical that we show up for each other, and make a point to extend our reach beyond our immediate organizing circles.

What was one thing you were surprised by so far in this experience?

I’ve been surprised by how few people knew about the kettle at L & 12th outside of radical spaces. The Women’s March, when they weren’t hugging cops, completely overshadowed the fact that there were 230 anti-Trump resisters being held in the jail as they walked right by it. Supposedly we are fighting for the same thing, at least in terms of denouncing Trump. We have seen nothing of the countless resources that went into making the Women’s March happen come our way, and not a word of support afterwards.

I was also surprised by just how much support we have gotten from other radicals, leftists, and even many people’s families. There are regional support crews popping up in areas where arrestees live, and many defendants are reaching out to each other for emotional support.

What are some things you hope to accomplish through this whole ordeal?

The increase of state surveillance and the proto-fascism of the Trump regime will require some new strategies moving forward. I hope to learn more on how to combat state repression through the work of groups like the Tilted Scales Collective, as well as to construct new models of support from this current experience. This ordeal will hopefully build some deeper solidarity between different cities and crews of radicals across the country.

How can people support you and other defendants?

People can share sympathetic articles and other media regarding our case. We need to keep people’s attention on this battle. Please participate in the week of solidarity! Have actions and fundraisers. If you’re in a city with J20 defendants, seek out their support crew and ask them what they need. If you already know any defendants, be there for them. Offer emotional support, any skills that may be useful, or just cook them dinner sometimes. Show up to court dates if you can, there will be a lot of them.

Anarchists in Sidney, Australia show some soli

Are there any last insights, experiences, or other things you want to share with people before we wrap this up?

Parts of this experience have been really emboldening, but other parts have brought to light holes in our structures as anarchists. Before a big action happens in another city, we should know more extensively about their court system. We should also stop relying too heavily on our own predictions about what police will do just because they usually behave a certain way.

I was also caught off guard by how traumatizing it could be for those of my friends who didn’t get arrested. The brutality of the police and the jail wasn’t just experienced by those of us in the kettle. During and after being pepper sprayed, beaten, and having stinger grenades lobbed at them for hours, they still had to try and track their friends through the courts. There was no clarity around what precinct anyone was taken to, and because of the intensity of the police response, it was often unclear if people were in custody or in the hospital. There were people standing outside of the kettle who witnessed some folks in the kettle being taken away on stretchers. It sent quite a panic through groups of friends, hoping their comrade wasn’t alone with an injury like Sofia Wilansky’s or Vanessa Dundon’s at Standing Rock.

Take strong hearts, friends, and make sure keep checking here, as well as Crimethinc and for consistent updates during the week of solidarity. From D.C. to Standing Rock, Sacramento to New Orleans, Berkeley to Minneapolis, Pittsburgh, and Arivaca, AZ. Fuck Prisons, Fuck Police, Fuck Pipelines, Fuck Borders, and the world they maintain!

– some bad kids from the bloc

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Bloc Party is an ongoing column that looks at State repression, counter-insurgency, prisons, political prisoners, as well as what people are doing to resist them.

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