The Yes Men do not generally use arrests as a way to grab media attention, but we very much respect it as a tactic. If your goal in getting arrested is to increase press or visibility for your issue, there are various ways to optimize the arrest. Some people have used arrests to significantly change how the mainstream media covers their cause—and some big organizations like Greenpeace have made it part of their daily operations. With good planning, getting arrested is not to be feared, but it is also not to be taken lightly: occasionally there are serious consequences for the activist (See Tim DeChristopher’s story, below.)
This guide will give you a few ideas for engaging the media if you are getting arrested. It is not a practical guide to the whole process. There are many things to think about that have nothing to do with media—like figuring out the stakes, having people on the outside to advocate once you are in the system, etc. Before you decide to participate in direct action, civil disobedience, and/or face arrest, it’s important to prepare yourself and your team. There are many great guides to minimizing the risks while being arrested. You would be advised to find one that can help you understand the local context where you plan to get arrested. Sometimes it is also good to review best practices for being arrested along issue-specific lines. If you are planning to get arrested while locking down to a bulldozer that is clearing forest for a pipeline, there are amazing folks who know all about that. Reach out to them! Here are just a few of many available resources as you plan your action.
- ACT UP, Civil Disobedience Manual
- Beautiful Trouble, “Take Risks, but Take Care”
- War Resisters League, “Nonviolence Training: Nonviolent Action Preparation”
- Destructables, “Copwatch: Know Your Rights!”
- Undocubus, Nopapersnofear.org
If you are undocumented, we’ve been told it’s a good idea to seek legal advice before placing yourself at risk of arrest.
SMALL TIME ARRESTS
We did once manage to use an arrest to get attention for a cause. In 2009, Andy Bichlbaum spent 26 hours in New York City's central lockup before having all charges against him dismissed.
Bichlbaum was arrested and charged with trespassing after he and 21 "Survivaballs" gathered on New York City's East River and announced they were to going to "take the UN by storm" from the water. The event was a photogenic action planned to draw media attention to the run-up to Copenhagen. It was also the official inauguration of the Yes Men's "Balls Across America" series of civil disobedience actions, inspired by the Climate Pledge of Resistance.
Minutes after the balls began wading into the water, law enforcement swooped in on the protesters by land, sea, and air. In order not to harm their attackers, the balls admitted defeat and waddled out of the water and off the beach. Seven participants were given tickets for trespassing, and one Bichlbaum was whisked away to "the Tombs," New York's central processing facility at 100 Centre Street, due to an unpaid ticket for bicycle riding.
Bichlbaum's arrest led to hilarious prime-time coverage on CNN. But only because there were cameras there to photograph and videotape the arrest, and a team ready to call CNN producers, tell them about the action and the arrest, and to take the media directly to the CNN offices. But getting arrested can be like the proverbial tree falling in the woods: if there is nobody there to hear it, record it, and broadcast it, then it may as well have not happened. The takeaway: if you’re getting arrested, you need competent people to film everything, take pictures, and then quickly get the documentation to the mainstream media. Our story about Andy’s arrest was from 2009, but nowadays you should also be doing social media. Yes, deliver your files to the big guys if they’ll take it, but don’t count on them. Get the word out instantly by uploading the arrest to YouTube, announcing it via email, Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, Reddit, or whatever other over-rated NSA backdoor websites are the big social thing of the moment. It also works to find Rupert Murdoch, stand one foot away from him, and using an eleven-inch bullhorn, sing the story of the arrest directly into his gob. Try it!
BIG TIME ARRESTS
Sometimes getting arrested can have huge consequences, both in your movement work and in your own life. In 2008, student Tim DeChristopher attended an illegal land auction in Utah. Planning to disrupt the auction, in which public land was being sold to the gas and oil industry, DeChristopher decided to participate as a bidder, driving up prices and ultimately winning several of the plots of land.
In an interview with Democracy Now, DeChristopher said:
Once I was in there, I realized that any kind of speech or disruption wasn’t going to be very effective. But I saw pretty quickly how I could have a pretty major impact on the way this worked. It took me a little bit of time to build up my courage, knowing what the consequences would be—and then I started bidding and started driving up the prices. But I knew I could be doing more. So then I started winning bids, and disrupting it as clearly as I could.
DeChristopher’s actions shut down the auction, but he also was charged with two felonies and spent almost two years in prison. You can read the full story here.