The hundreds of thousands of marchers started to bleed from downtown D.C. late Saturday afternoon. By 3 PM most streets around the capital were so glutted with chanting visitors making their exit that they were indistinguishable from the demonstration itself. Around 4 PM chartered buses lined up near New York Ave and swallowed many of them.
But a couple of blocks away, in front of the modernist block of concrete called the H. Carl Moultrie courthouse, a sizable group of protesters remained, drinking coffee from paper cups and waiting for the hundreds of people who’d been arrested on Friday to be arraigned.
On Friday, roiling protests interrupted the inauguration’s celebratory spirit, if not its entire progression. In the afternoon, police and a collection of anarchists, anti-fascists, and other demonstrators (which the Washington Post helpfully called a “well-organized group”) clashed in the streets. Police deployed flash-bangs and tear gas; protestors vandalized property including a limo and a Starbucks. According to USA Today 217 were arrested. A number of them were veteran activists, while others were curious bystanders, disappointed progressives, and novices. According to several reports, members of the media and a legal observer were rounded up and taken downtown, as well.
The actions taken by the protesters on Friday provided salacious photo-ops for the press and an opportunity for the left to rehash a longstanding argument about property destruction. In a statement, the Metropolitan Police referred to the protesters as rioters. Overshadowed by the images of kids in black bandannas squaring off with the cops are the less camera-ready, but still crucial, logistical realities of mass actions like these. Jail support—the practice in some circles of holding a noisy vigil with friends, fellow protesters, and provisions on the steps of the courthouse—is one of them.
As of 8 PM Saturday, volunteers from the National Lawyers Guild, a progressive bar association which tracks arrests during protests, said only about 90 of those taken in on Friday had been released. (As of press time, all had been released.) They were all being charged with felonies for rioting. And so on Saturday around 11 AM people started arriving in shifts at the courthouses, bringing with them the sorts of things a person might desire if they’d spent 40 hours or more in jail in a city that wasn’t their own: hot food, medical attention, warm clothing, rides wherever they want to go, and legal help.
In practice jail support is a lot of waiting, a quiet coffee social that turns into a five-minute eruption of cheers periodically every time someone is released. By the time I arrived early on Saturday evening the crowd had swelled to more than 100.
“Politically, this builds on a general policy of supporting your prisoners,” Ryan Harvey, a 33-year-old who lives in Maryland, told me. Here, Friday's actions aren’t over until everyone’s out of jail: “It’s still going on today,” he said. Harvey has been arrested before at demonstrations, and it’s crucial to know you haven’t been forgotten. Imagine, he told me, getting arrested with a bunch of people and finding yourself in a strange city at 3 AM with no phone, no jacket, no friends, no bail.
The practice is particularly important if you want to create something cohesive and sustainable, Harvey said. “Especially in the long term, when you think about people’s larger endurance…Because sometimes we need to get arrested, we need to not be afraid, we need to not run away.” Our interview was interrupted by the hollering crowd behind us, as two girls departed the station and were handed bottles of water. A brass band arrived from somewhere near the Mall, playing a Salt-N-Pepa cover. Most people danced.
“But especially in the Trump era, we have to prepare for very serious situations,” Harvey yelled over the music. A handful of the protesters I spoke to had been doing this sort of thing since at least the 2008 Republican National Convention in St. Paul, if not before.
The infrastructure here mirrors the infrastructure of the protest. Legal support and the National Lawyers Guild track arrestees through the system; there’s a hotline set up so you can call when you or a friend are jailed. Groups like Food Not Bombs set up tables with cornbread and beans, and the same volunteer medics who deal with, say, pepper spray during demonstrations were there to treat any injuries. In one corner of the assembled crowd a guy held up a sign that read “Rides” in scrawling Sharpie. He said he’d been on duty for two hours and given about 20 people rides. Brigid Banbury, a 17-year-old girl who came to the protests from Memphis, was standing near the tea station while she waited to check her friend out. I asked if she’s done jail support before. She has.
Lisa Flood, a 58-year-old in town from Vermont for the Women’s March with her family, stood on the edge of the crowd and watched the band. Her 28-year-old son was arrested on Friday, and she and her husband were waiting for him to return from the precinct, where he’d been taken to collect his things. Flood wasn’t sure what to make of the broken Starbucks window or the burning trashcans on Friday, but she was glad there were “structures in place so people who feel strongly—who put themselves on the line—can get what they need.”
A line of city cops in uniform were lined up between the courthouse and the group of protesters. At 6 PM sharp on Saturday they started to shift and move forward. The band began a rendition of the Darth Vader theme, the crowd sung along and bristled. But it was just the changing of the guard: “We’re cold,” I heard one cop say as he pushed through the dancers, “We have to go put our warm coats on.” But they were immediately replaced by police in full riot gear instead.