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Solidarity: A Rough Guide
How solidarity works:
We have more power when we act together than when we act alone.
Solidarity is the way we protect each other in our struggles, share the
consequences and mitigate the suffering we encounter when confronting
oppressive power. The purpose of solidarity is to build our movement, and
to embody our mutual care and concern for justice.
Solidarity works best when we respect each other's differing needs and
life circumstances, understand that there are many ways of being in
solidarity, and co-ordinate our responses. It does not work when we attempt
to coerce, shame or inflict guilt upon each other, even subtly.
Through solidarity, we can pressure the system to treat us fairly and
justly, to protect the physical safety and health of jailed protestors, to
treat arrested protestors equally, to prevent individuals from being singled
out, to improve jail conditions , to resist harsh or unequal punishment or
sentences that would constrict our future freedom.
Solidarity puts pressure on the system by raising the social and
political costs of its oppressive acts, raising the economic costs of
holding us in jail or bringing us to trial, and by interfering with the
smooth running of the system.
Solidarity can be extremely effective, but it is always exercised at a cost.
Before deciding on a solidarity strategy, we need to know what our
intentions and goals are for any given action.
For any form of solidarity to work, supporters are vital. Their job is
to bring to bear political pressure on the authorities: calling, writing
letters, sending emails, holding vigils at the jail, contacting the media,
and organizing others to do all of the same. Released prisoners can be in
solidarity with those still in jail by participating in outside support.
Support should be organized ahead of time for all actions.
Solidarity negotiations are most often carried out by the legal team,
who need to understand the protestors' strategy, be willing to furnish
information and help with communications, and to understand that a
solidarity strategy may be very different from a usual legal strategy.
Solidarity choices need to be made by the activists, not by the lawyers.
The legal team does not make decisions for the protestors, but serves as
their messenger and mouthpiece.
Protestors need to understand that legal teams for actions are made up
of volunteers who do not have unlimited resources. If solidarity continues
for a long time, if it moves into court or cases go to trial, additional
legal support will be necessary and so will fundraising to pay for it.
There are many ways to exercise solidarity, and many choices to make
along the way. The key choice that needs to be discussed before the action
- Stay in jail or not:
- In-jail solidarity uses our strength of numbers to raise the political and
economic costs of the system. It cost the authorities both economically
and politically to keep large numbers of people locked up after an action,
especially if we can mobilize outside pressure. Large numbers of people in
jail can give us lots of leverage with the system.
- But stay-in-jail strategies are very costly to us, as well. In situations
where jail conditions are extremely hazardous to the very life and safety of
protestors, we want to get people out of jail as quickly as possible and
mobilize pressure in other ways. In an extended action, or when the
authorities use preemptive arrests to undercut our numbers, we may want to
get people back on the street quickly. When legal consequences of an action
are likely to be minor, an in-jail strategy may not be worth the cost. And
people may also have individual reasons for getting out of jail as fast as
they can: family responsibilities, medical conditions that put them at
risk in a jail situation, work responsibilities, etc.
- Stay-in-jail strategies work best with larger numbers, but they do not
require unanimity to work. We want to encourage people to do actions
whether or not they can stay in jail afterwards. Solidarity is no longer
effective movement building if the costs of an action become so high that
only the extremely heroic or the chronically unemployed can do actions.
When people feel judged or coerced into solidarity stands, they often react
against the whole idea and may be reluctant to do future actions. When
people feel supported in their choices, they will often make great personal
sacrifices to support the group.
- If we're trying to keep people out on the street for an extended action, we
might want to take opportunities to get quickly released from custody. If
we have people to protect: individuals who might be singled out,
internationals who face immigration issues, etc., we might employ a strategy
that involves staying in jail. Or if we are asked to make unacceptable
compromises in order to be released, for example, posting high bail or
accepting conditions that might prevent us from doing future actions, we may
need to use in-jail solidarity.
- A stay-in-jail solidarity strategy needs some coordination before the
action, so that people are prepared and know what choices to make under the
stressful conditions of arrest.
- How to Stay in Jail:
- Refuse to sign out:
- In mass actions, authorities are often willing to release most people if
they sign a promise to appear for a court date, or if they post a reasonable
- The authorities may also ask people to sign statements saying they will not
return to a certain action or area.
- To stay in jail, refuse to sign or to post bail.
Bail is one of the ways the poor are kept incarcerated and people with money
get released. Some activists refuse to post bail as part of their moral or
political stand. For others, the choice may depend upon the situation.
- Refuse to give names:
- Authorities are generally reluctant to free prisoners without knowing who we
are. For this tactic to be effective, protestors should not carry
identification to the action. For this reason, it needs to be coordinated
ahead of time. This tactic also greatly interferes with the smooth running
of the jail system, and is a tactic generally hated by the authorities.
It can be a powerful bargaining point in solidarity negotiations.
- However, it's a bargaining point we most often concede in the end.
Protestors should not hold the illusion that they will be able to go
through the entire system and be released without giving names.
Occasionally this happens, but generally not. Supporters should hold the
I.D. of those arrested and be prepared to bring it to jail or court, if
- For some activists, giving their name is a matter of pride and principle, an
integral part of their understanding of nonviolence, and of being willing to
stand behind their actions.
- Protestors who need medication may not be able to employ this tactic, as
generally to receive meds you need a name and a prescription.
- Additonal tactics:
- Refuse to cooperate with other aspects of processing: not furnishing
information, fingerprints, etc.
- Refuse to voluntarily go to or cooperate with court appearances or to
- Resistance in jail:
- In jail, many forms of resistance can be employed to protect other
protestors from being isolated, singled out, or physically hurt, to pressure
the authorities to provide physical necessities, medical care, interpreters,
phone calls, access to lawyers, etc. They range from refusing to move
voluntarily or cooperate with jail procedures, singing, going limp,
physically protecting individuals (‘puppy piling'), refusing to answer
questions or to speak, fasting, etc. Resistance can be stressful and
dangerous, and it's wise to choose your battles and conserve energy for
issues that are truly important.
- A liaison to the guards is often helpful in jail, as they will feel more
comfortable negotiating with one person. However, that role should rotate
often so that individuals aren't targeted as leaders. To organize in jail,
keep a neutral profile and avoid confronting the guards.
Guards fear riots, and are always on the lookout for potential instigators.
They will often single out aggressive individuals. Whatever your views are
on violence and nonviolence, fighting the guards inside jail will simply get
you isolated, hurt, and possibly result in extra charges.
- Fasting can be a powerful strategic tool, but it will rapidly cloud your
judgment and make decision-making extremely difficult. It's most effective
when there is outside support and media attention. Consider appointing a
‘designated eater' to help care for and monitor the health of fasters.
Resistance inside jail can also be creative. We can use the time to share
skills, teach each other organizing tools, hold political discussions, plan
the next action. We can also at times share songs, rituals, poems, jokes,
stories, and many forms of mutual support and healing. And of course, to
hold meetings to decide upon our strategy. But don't meet all the time:
endless meetings can be exhausting and counterproductive.
- Remember that jail cells and phones are monitored. Jail is not the place
to regale your fellow protestors with tales of your fifty-three previous
arrests. If people are witholding names, try to avoid discussing details
that could identify you. Support people should know ahead of time what jail
name you will use, so they can be prepared to receive collect calls from
There are many demands that we might make through solidarity, but
generally they involve pressure for equal and fair treatment in jail and in
sentencing, for dropped or reduced charges or for a plea bargain we can
accept that will not be a deterrent to future actions.
The legal system operates like a giant game in which deals are made every
day for people's lives. Most people caught in the system do not have the
leverage and resources we do. As we negotiate our demands, we will have
many choices to make, and we should bear in mind that we may not be able to
achieve all of our demands.
Pressure for equal treatment or sentencing is most effective when people
have all done roughly the same thing. In most legal systems, there is a
big divide between acts considered as freedom of expression and acts of
property destruction or aggression. Often the authorities falsely accuse
people of violent acts, or charge a victim of their violence with assault on
an officer. When they do not have a solid case, they can often be pressured
to drop or reduce charges. But if they actually have evidence against an
individual, they may be unwilling to reduce charges regardless of the
strength of our solidarity.
If police have been injured or seriously lost face in an action, they may
close ranks in their own form of solidarity and become adamantly intent on
Court and plea solidarity:
When we do not choose to use a stay-in-jail strategy, or when we agree
to move our solidarity out of jail and into the courts, there are still many
strategies we can use, but the details are more conditioned by the specific
legal procedures of each province, state or country. The principles remain
the same: strength in numbers, respect for individual choices, coordination
not coercion, raising the system's cost, and bringing to bear outside
When individuals are singled out in spite of all our efforts, our
solidarity can move to support for them as they face trial, in the form of
fundraising, political pressure, courtroom vigils, etc.
Solidarity with other prisoners:
The authorities often try to intimidate us by threatening to throw us in
with regular prisoners. They may paint fearful and racist pictures of just
how bad those other prisoners can be. Most often, however, other prisoners
are supportive or at least neutral toward protestors who behave with respect
The criminal justice system in both Canada and the U.S. is more criminal
than just, and serves as one of the prime ways poor people, people of color
and oppressed groups are kept disenfranchised and disempowered. When we
enter into this system as a group of protestors, we hold a privileged level
of personal and political power. When we exercise that power, we need to
keep in mind the impact of our presence on prisoners who do not have our
resources. A jail experience can teach us more in a short time about the
true workings of oppression than years of study. We have an obligation to
use that knowledge, and our rage, to work for true justice for all
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