ACT UP Member Essays on Getting Arrested

The following essays come from ACT UP and discuss the merits and mentality for getting arrested as part of a civil disobedience demonstration. It can be an effective tool if harnessed appropriately, but it should not be the objective nor a rule of measurement one follows to determine if a certain civil demonstration has been ‘successful’ or not. They do not argue for or against it, but offer words of wisdom and caution about the practice of getting arrested, and this allows us to learn from their experience.

Jump to: Aldyn Mckean | Maxine Walfe | Bruce K | Scott Wilson

Aldyn Mckean (d. 1994)

I have an arrest record for civil disobedience that spans 23 years and covers seven states, the District of Columbia, and one foreign country. However, I never go to a demonstration to get arrested; I go to demonstrations to bring about change, and am willing to risk arrest to produce that desired change.

Any group that wishes to use civil disobedience or direct action to achieve change must:

  1. Make absolutely clear what change is desired, usually by listing specific demands;
  2. Target a group or individual with the power to bring about the desired change;
  3. Design actions so that the cost of resisting change is perceived by the person/group in power to be greater than the cost of giving in.

The classic type of civil disobedience advocated by Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr., is one in which an unjust law is deliberately and openly violated. Most of the demands of AIDS activists do not lend themselves to the classic Gandhi/King style of civil disobedience. Nevertheless, the same basic principles apply: Make it more costly for those in power to resist than to give in.

This is done in one of two ways:

  1. Create problems for those in power that will not go away until they give in (for example, occupy their offices or zap their phone lines), and/or
  2. Educate the public in ways that both cause embarrassment to those in power and cause them to be fearful that the popular movement for change may grow strong enough to threaten their power (for example, interrupt news broadcasts or hang banners).

We should be thinking and talking about what we do much more carefully. For example, when we sat down and blockaded the entrance to the New York State Senate last year in Albany, we were very clear about what we were doing. We did not say we were there to get arrested. We said we had a set of demands and that if Ralph Marino (the Senate Majority Leader) and Governor Cuomo would agree to our demands, we would go home because we were there to pursue a specific set of demands, those demands were picked up and publicized by the media covering the arrests. That helped to educate people, embarrassed Cuomo and Marino, and contributed to the building of our movement and the achievement of change. Other ACT UP members who were in Albany that same day apparently told a local newspaper reporter that they were “going to get arrested. “That reporter then wrote a column that described people who were intent on getting arrested, as if getting arrested were an end in itself. There was no mention in this column of the specific issues that drove people to commit civil disobedience.

If these individuals had ‘instead told the reporter that they were willing to risk arrest in order to bring about X, Y and Z, the action might have been more powerful. My point is simply this: When we engage in civil disobedience, we do so to achieve change, not to get arrested. Getting arrested is of little significance in and of itself. We’re not out to accumulate arrests like merit badges. Arrests result from our commitment to achieve change; they are the means to an end, not the end in themselves.

Maxine Wolfe

During my first C.D. (civil disobedience) training with ACT UP, one of the questions each person was asked to answer was “Why do you want to get arrested?” My reply was ‘I don’t want to get arrested. I want to make my point and I’m willing to get arrested if that is necessary in order to accomplish my goals. Frankly, I’d rather make my point and not get arrested. “I still have the same positions for a lot of reasons.

First, there are people in jail who never wanted to be there and I feel, myself, that voluntarily going to jail often seems cavalier.

Second, I think different actions can accomplish their goals without arrest being the final end point. In Albany, we managed to get onto the floor of the Senate chamber, deliver our message, and walk out without arrest. I didn’t participate in the Day of Desperation but I was someone who watched coverage on T.V. as it happened. The point was gotten without the arrests and, in fact, since I didn’t watch the 11 o’clock news, I didn’t even know people got arrested on the street. A much smaller number of people did the actions the evening before and during the day and, although some did get arrested, their numbers were small and were not, in my view. the most important part of those actions.

Third, I think the goal of getting arrested puts the cops in control in many situations. The F.D.A. action was a case in point where the cops set the terms of arrest (sitting down in front of the building) and people spent the entire day trying to do something to “get arrested. “Many didn’t and sometimes people were pushed into doing things they might not have done otherwise (i.e. breaking windows). I’m not against property? damage but I want to be in control of what l decide to do and not to do it out of frustration.

Fourth, often if arrests don’t happen, people think the action didn’t “succeed.”

Finally, some people can’t get arrested because of previous records, health, residence status, and so on and when getting arrested becomes the goal we can end up creating two “classes” of people, one that has more status than another. So, I’m neither for nor against “getting arrested” in those terms but think of it as the possible outcome of something I do that 1 should be prepared for and I think we could be more creative and sparing about its use as a goal and as a tactic.

Bruce K

The Grand Central action was the greatest demonstration I’ve ever participated in the past 11 years. Getting arrested was not only an extremely important part of the action, but without the risk of getting arrested we never could have done what we did. To shut down Grand Central required a very strong chance of getting arrested because every action we did was illegal-covering the schedule board, blanketing the information & ticketing booths; releasing the balloons, taping the gateways closed and lying down on the main floor. We could not have done anything if this was a simple orderly mass march.

Secondly, did we make our point at Grand Central before we got arrested? Yes, we certainly did. And did we need to stop the tremendous energy and momentum we all felt because the NYC Police Department decided that the best thing to do to us was to leave us alone and let us shrink and go away? No, we certainly did not. We needed to continue the amazing energy and action we had all created, and after a vote on the floor of Grand Central we did the right thing by continuing to disrupt business as usual. We stopped traffic for hours in all directions, screwed up the entire police apparatus for a whole evening, and let the entire nation know that 263 people committed civil disobedience & broke a law in the name of truth and justice. Breaking a law ups the ante, clogs the courts & tells the world that ACT UP is serious, committed & will not be silenced. I was proud to be arrested during the week of Martin Luther Kings birthday & will continue to break the laws of this fuckin’ system until it radically changes.

One final point is that for at least the past 2 years NYC cops have tried to avoid arresting people at actions around all political issues. They are doing this because civil disobedience has gotten more publicity, has screwed up the already screwed up court & arrest system & is making a difference. If the establishment doesn’t want to arrest us, we should be arrested. There have been over 2,000 people arrested in San Francisco since the US. started bombing civilians in Iraq and this is fantastic and effective. If getting arrested wasn’t effective, the establishment would not be looking to avoid arrests. So let’s just do it!

Scott Wilson

“Civil disobedience in its classic mode… is about breaking a law in such a way that any onlooker would be faced to question the morality of the law.” So writes Don Shewey in a recent TITA. I must say, first, that I agree- arrest qua arrest is just a bother. 1 must also state that Day of Desperation was my first arrest’. Bear in mind that my following points are informed and directed by this fact.

  1. We took Grand Central Station rather easily. I think part of the backlash to the 42nd St. arrests on DoD is a reaction to this. Can we really just occupy NYC’s commuter center without incident? Are we really that powerful (visa vis the public, the media, the authorities)? More important, does our occupation of GCS represent anything other than our reaction to most people’s inaction in the face of AIDS? If so, haven’t we a right- or a moral obligation — to be angry? That is, to take our anger to Pitt Street, or One Police Plaza, or wherever we chose.
  2. Jamie Meyer stressed the personal statement CD makes and represents. I must say I agree with Jamie as well. I know why I was arrested. For my friends and acquaintances who are at risk for HIV and do nothing because something has not yet “clicked” inside. For the group of us known as ACT UP, willing to put our bodies on the line, on any line, to make ourselves heard, to stay together (to stay alive together). For the group known as ACT UP, willing to put our bodies on the line, on any line, to make ourselves heard, to stay together (to stay alive together). For the scary truth that it is easier for me to go into a holding cell with my friends for a few hours than to go get another HIV antibody test. For publicity.
  3. Let’s not fret too much over this particular CD but, rather, now that we know more than ever our abilities, use our CD and experience to more effective ends, Anyway, what would an ,ACT UP action and multiple arrest CD-our largest ever-be without contradictions in intent and outcome? We go as many; we go as one.