Five reasons to go to jail like you mean it


by Nadine Bloch


I’ve had it. Enough with the phone calls, emails and Facebook entreaties for money to pay bail to get someone out of jail for their part in a civil resistance action. Let me explain why I think this is such a big problem.

I want to start by talking openly about taking responsibility for our actions. For the moment, let’s put aside the discussion about our (in)justice system generally — though there is plenty to say about the criminalization of dissent, the inequalities of society reflected in who makes up the prison population, the non-correctional nature of these institutions, the need to bear witness inside the criminal injustice complex and more. All that being the case, however, let’s focus on the potential risks and consequences of engaging in civil disobedience. Where does jail time fit as a legitimate and even critical piece of resistance campaign strategy?

For the first 10 years or so that I participated in nonviolent direct action — mostly against nuclear weapons — the affinity groups I was part of never even considered paying into the system with fines and bail; we recognized that the system was the problem, so we refused to pay into it. We often operated with solidarity agreements in our affinity groups that empowered those who absolutely needed to be bailed out if arrested to do so, but we encouraged all who could stay in to do just that with the hope of overcrowding the cells or wreaking havoc on business as usual until we were released for time served. It was also true that most of us had lots of time and no money, so the practice of remaining in jail suited us. It often stressed the authorities to the point where they would release us before we had expected just to get rid of us.

Over the past two decades, it has become an ever more common strategy to reduce jail time whenever possible. It has become the default expectation for activists to get bailed out. My theory is that large professional direct action groups — Greenpeace and Rainforest Action Network come to mind — decided that it was in their best interest to get their employees out of jail quickly so they could get back to work. These groups could afford to pay for this on a large scale, and so many people, particularly in the environmental movement, got used to it. As a former Greenpeace employee myself, I know firsthand how ecstatic I felt walking out of a holding cell after a minimal stay because my bail was posted. Although this likely makes strategic and financial sense for big groups on most occasions, many other activists taking arrests have started thinking that this is the way it should be.

What are the consequences of this state of affairs? It forces organizations of all sizes and capacities doing arrestable direct action to ask supporters for money to get people out of jail. This practice undermines the message that the stand we are taking is so important that we are willing to risk our freedom. It implies that we’re more concerned about reducing our jail time than about doing what is right. It contributes to the ritualizing of civil disobedience, which goes hand in hand with diminishing effectiveness.

So much of the power of nonviolent action rests in the risk that activists take on, or at least the perception of risk by those who would be influenced by the action. Henry David Thoreau did not end up in jail because he was trying to send a message to the government — he did that when he refused to pay a poll tax — but rather, as he said, to have his action speak to those who are afraid. He wanted to show them by example  that fear does not have to stop one from doing the right thing. By modeling disobedience, he was speaking to those who were being obedient. Of course, Thoreau was bailed out after only one night in jail, and the story goes that when bail was posted — by either his aunt or Ralph Waldo Emerson — Thoreau demanded to stay in jail. But the jailer wanted none of that!

Many others have spent extended periods behind bars and used this time to build power and  awareness of their campaigns. Aung San Suu Kyi in Burma received a Nobel Peace Prize while under house arrest. Gandhi and his followers not only considered jail time a badge of honor in India’s campaign for independence but used it intentionally as a way to tie up the Raj’s resources. Ploughshares activists who follow the biblical injunction to “beat swords into ploughshares” by hammering on nuclear weapons have used their time under lock and key to build movements to improve conditions for fellow inmates; on the outside, they built communities like the one Frida Berrigan grew up in to help support their families during extended prison terms. Climate activist Tim DeChristopher is continuing to work on climate issues with Peaceful Uprising while serving a two-year sentence for his direct action that disrupted an illegal Bureau of Land Management lease sale.

While thinking about this issue, I contacted my fellow Waging Nonviolence columnist Mary King, a former Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) organizer. She told me this story:

In October 1960, as I have written in Freedom Song, several hundred student delegates met at Atlanta University. There, the Reverend James M. Lawson spoke, condemning the fact that many students had let themselves be bonded out of jail by their elders who instead should have, Jim insisted, themselves been working to end segregation. Jim’s challenge launched SNCC’s distinctive “Jail—No Bail” policy, which was reinforced again and again, and was for years afterward a key difference between SNCC and SCLC. To SNCC workers, being bailed out of jail was what we called “insufficiently Gandhian.”

It’s humbling to be reminded that most of us today would not pass muster with Gandhi on many fronts — which is usually okay, especially if it means that more people will participate in direct actions without exhaustive preparation or adherence to strict codes of conduct. Obviously, some people may need to be bailed out quickly because of health conditions or other issues. These are details that can be figured out in planning an event, but they shouldn’t be allowed to drain our energy the way large bail funds often do. Instead, we should keep our focus on strengthening our campaigns through court and jail solidarity.

Instead of raising money to get out of jail, let’s raise money that will cover the lost wages of someone in jail so their family doesn’t suffer. Let’s raise money to do the outreach and organizing around those in jail and the reasons that brought them there. Let’s raise money to put more people on the front lines, risking arrest in defense of their communities.

To summarize, here are five reasons why considering jail time should be part of the strategic toolbox:

5. Getting out of the clink quickly can often seem bourgeois and imply that the arrestees are just professional activists unwilling to do the time;

4. Focusing energy on raising bail funds can undermine messaging about the urgency of the issue;

3. Fundraising for bail takes time that would be better spent on publicizing the issues themselves, building organizational capacity and working through the legal system;

2. The expectation of bail can be devastating for cash-strapped groups, draining limited resources to cover bail for a few individuals;

1. It reduces the perception of risk associated with a given action, and this perception of risk is often essential to the effectiveness of civil disobedience.

Let’s open up our strategic toolbox and find room for a deeper discussion of the pros and cons of jail time within a given campaign plan. In many cases, it’s better to dump the default expectation that we should pay out or that bail will be available and start focusing on showing with our time and our openness to risk how much our struggles really matter.