... on Getting Arrested
This past October 19th, I was one of the 27 people arrested and charged with trespassing and disorderly conduct in the lobby of the New York City headquarters of the asset-management firm BlackRock. It was this lawyer’s first arrest but it probably won’t be my last.
Now, I have it on good authority that some readers of this newsletter have been arrested many times – but I thought my first-timer’s viewpoint might be helpful to those who haven’t yet taken that step but might be thinking about it.
I want to acknowledge right off the bat that my experience was steeped in privilege. I’m a white male “of a certain age”; I’m not at all physically imposing; and the event was an entirely peaceful, mostly white, all-ages gathering, led by numerous male and female clergy in identifiable dress. In short, the NYPD didn’t see me or any of us as anything to worry about.
I know that some people (with ample good reason) are triggered by cops, or uniforms, or authority, or the sight of weapons. I know that lots of folks simply can’t afford to take a day off for an action like this, and then another day off to make a court appearance. And I know that for many of my activist friends who don’t happen to look like me, the prospect of arrest would be much more fraught, especially for those whose local police force might not be as experienced as the NYPD is with non-violent civil disobedience. I didn’t have any of those worries, but they might be things you would want to consider.
You’ll also want to determine the consequences of civil disobedience in your particular jurisdiction. Will you have to stay overnight in jail? Will you have to pay a fine? Will there be a permanent record of your arrest? In NYC we knew the answer was “no” to each of those questions, but the answers may be different where you are. You should consult with the National Lawyers’ Guild, the ACLU, your local Legal Aid Society or another trusted local attorney, or with Third Act Lawyers.
Most of my climate activism has been within the faith community, and whether because of that focus or just by happenstance, I’ve only had a few occasions where the possibility of arrest was even on the table. And truth be told, that fact has always made me feel like I wasn’t quite doing enough. So when I found out that GreenFaith was organizing arrestable actions at BlackRock, I knew I had to take part. This felt like the next step in living my faith. And as an attorney myself (civil, not criminal), I was also just plain curious to see what it felt like to be “on the other side of the law.”
The plan for the action was fairly straightforward. After gathering for speakers and singing in the large atrium/lobby – what’s categorized in New York as a “privately owned public space” – some of us were going to attempt to deliver a letter to Larry Fink, CEO of BlackRock, asking him to do more to curb his company’s funding of fossil-fuel infrastructure projects, while others (including me) were going to block access to the escalators so that BlackRock workers couldn’t get to their offices.
Our group included some “grizzled veterans” and a few “newbies” like me. We met for training with a couple of GreenFaith volunteers, who helped us understand what to expect and what our various roles would be. We did some role-playing and got to know one another. We were a fairly diverse group – young and old; all genders; clergy and laypeople; Christians, Jews, and a few Buddhists – although there were no people of color among us.
On the day of the action we met early at my church – Saint Peter’s Lutheran, in Midtown Manhattan, a few blocks away from BlackRock. We had a song leader, and some beautiful banners representing earth, air, fire and water. We walked the short distance to our “target” and began to execute the plan. The preliminaries went fine, and we drew the welcome attention of some of the folks who were there in the lobby on other business. But of course building security didn’t allow us to deliver the letter, and after about 15 or 20 minutes of us blocking the escalators, NYPD – to whom we had given a heads-up – moved in to remove us.
At that point the whole thing took on the feel of a dance. The cops had their moves and we had ours, and as long as everyone remembered the choreography it all went smoothly. An officer with a bullhorn announced three times that we’d be arrested if we didn’t leave. Then, one by one, we were each approached by two cops who asked us one last time to leave. When we didn’t, they asked us to put our hands behind our backs and turn around. We were then zip-tied and led out, and eventually put into small vans for the trip to Central Booking (we all went willingly, having been trained that “going limp” could draw the more serious charge of resisting arrest).
At Central Booking women and men were separated; I think the women were put 2 or 3 in a cell, but all of the men (about 15 of us) were put into one big holding cell. We were there for 3-4 hours, which gave us time to really get to know one another and to have some meaningful, enlightening, and spiritual conversations. Those hours together were the highlight of my day.
We were released one by one and given court-appearance tickets; we then walked a couple of blocks to our rendezvous point (a local pizzeria) where we retrieved our phones and watches from our “jail support” team. The last step occurred a few weeks later, when we all appeared in court (represented by an attorney from the National Lawyers’ Guild, who GreenFaith had lined up) and were given “adjournments in contemplation of dismissal,” or ACDs – the result of which is that if we don’t get arrested again within the following six months, this arrest comes off our records (with no professional consequences for me as a lawyer, or for any others in our group). This is by far the most common disposition in NYC and what we expected, but you should certainly check with local lawyers to know what to expect in your jurisdiction.
This is as good a place as any to note that civil disobedience is not lawlessness. My 26 colleagues and I respect the law, and this particular action was not a protest against unjust laws (though sometimes of course that’s called for). We did what we did with respect, both for the laws that made our actions illegal and for the men and women who enforced those laws. We did it because it was illegal, and we happily accepted the consequences, hoping our actions would have an impact.
So, what impact did we have – other than annoying some (presumably innocent) office workers and upsetting my wife (and my mother-in-law)? To be perfectly honest, I don’t know. We didn’t deliver our letter to CEO Fink, and we certainly didn’t “shut BlackRock down,” even briefly. We didn’t get any media coverage (although we have some wonderful photos from our friend Erik McGregor). But it’s not implausible to think that we might have had some effect on some of those office workers and bystanders, and maybe – just maybe – on some of the cops and even some of the private security guards. Maybe there’ll be an even larger crowd next time, with even more arrestees. Maybe that next time will be on 3.21.23 – and maybe that will get some media attention.
I do know that the experience of being arrested in this fight was personally rewarding and an important step in my journey. There’s an offertory prayer that we Lutherans frequently use, in which we acknowledge publicly to God that we “dedicate our lives to the care and redemption of all that You have made,” and I see this arrest as one further way to live out that promise. For now, I’m waiting for my six-month ACD period to run, but I know that once it does I’ll be looking for other occasions to live my beliefs in this way. Maybe this reflection will empower you to do something similar where you are. And maybe (just maybe) if we keep throwing our bodies at this problem – along with our other energies – we’ll shift the public consciousness and further erode the social approval that firms like BlackRock and the Big Four banks presently enjoy. And wouldn’t that be a great day!
Coming Next Week: General Meeting News!
Watch your inbox for a new issue of News & Views. It will include details about the upcoming Third Act Faith General Meeting, which will be held on Thursday, Jan. 26, beginning at 7 p.m.(ET). You won’t want to miss it, Our guest speaker will be the Rev. Fletcher Harper, Director of GreenFaith!