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Meet The Volunteers Helping Arrested Protesters With Clean T-Shirts, Legal Advice, And A Free Ride Home

“I don’t like armchair activism.”

Posted on June 7, 2020, at 5:26 p.m. ET

Amber Jamieson

Emergency doctor Charlotte Roy sits outside Manhattan Central Booking in the jail support tent, surrounded by medical products, toiletries, and sandwiches for protesters released from jail.

“I’ve got a comrade for you,” announced a volunteer, as she brought a protester who'd just been released from police detention over to the jail support tent in downtown Brooklyn on Friday night.

The young black man immediately was offered hand sanitizer, and then a cigarette, and a fresh T-shirt. Another volunteer gave him $40 in cash.

“Oh, wow,” he responded.

As thousands of people have been arrested during the Black Lives Matter demonstrations — often violently, despite peaceful protesting against police brutality — volunteer groups offering jail support outside of courts and police precincts have popped up around the country.

The help offered is a combination of legal and medical assistance, food, a ride home, and a friendly face after finally being released from prison.

Around 11 p.m. Friday, two just-released young black men arrived at the jail support tent outside NYPD Kings County Bookings. One wore Nike sneakers with the shoelaces removed, and a legal volunteer took photos of the arrest documents and summons he’d received, explaining that she would connect him with the National Lawyers Guild.

Another was handed a blue bottle of Gatorade and a bag of chips, and began speaking with a volunteer who was a social worker.

“There are people who come out shaken,” said a 28-year-old law student, who declined to give her name as organizers want to avoid media attention.

She's volunteered multiple nights at the Brooklyn location, offering moral support and helping connect people with legal assistance after they come out of NYPD detention holdings a summons for their charge.

Legal observer volunteers inside the arraignments courtrooms are watching and reporting to the team outside which people are being released were arrested during protests, and if bail needs to be paid or other legal help required.

Protesters are “either upset because they were wrongfully booked or mistreated by the cops," said the law student, or frustrated at "how the cops aren’t taking COVID seriously and putting these people in jeopardy."

In New York, demonstrators are often detained for hours or days in a cramped jail cell, with no mask, during a global pandemic, even though local district attorneys are saying they do not plan to prosecute most protest arrests.

Jail support is mainly decentralized, organized in New York on Instagram and in private Signal groups, helped in part by groups such as the National Lawyers Guild. People can sign up for shifts or just turn up and see if help is needed, although there have been a lot more volunteers turning up than required, and often lots of donations of things that are not needed.

On Sunday morning, the NYC Jail Support group sent out an alert via Signal, an encrypted messaging service, noting that it had adequate staffing at all its sites.

“DO NOT NEED: Water, granola bars, fruit,” reads the message. “Things that we DO NEED:... Coffee/Tea, Hot breakfast, Toothpaste/brushes, socks and underwear of all sizes, plain colored t-shirt packs, deodorant, pants — medium and above.”

Volunteers on Friday night were a mixed young crowd of Occupy hippies, inner Brooklyn kids in glitter Doc Martens, preppy law students, and healthcare workers in scrubs.

For months Charlotte Roy, 32, has treated COVID-19 patients as an emergency room doctor at a major New York hospital.

On Friday night, she volunteered as jail support in her medical scrubs with ice packs, gauze, and bandages outside NYPD Manhattan Bookings ready for any protesters in need of treatment.

“This is a way for me to be helpful and support people who are protesting,” she said. “I don’t like armchair activism.”

Amber Jamieson

Packets of cigarettes ready for released protesters outside the Manhattan Criminal Court.

She sat under a tent in the rain, surrounded by boxes and containers of donated goods that included stacks of cigarettes, one of the most popular items. A pile of homemade vegan sandwiches — with the message “Fight On” scrawled on the foil with black marker just under the list of ingredients — sat to her right.

Vern, a kinesiology student, volunteers as a street medic and spent two nights doing jail support in downtown Manhattan, helping injured protesters when they're finally released.

“I’m seeing baton injuries,” said Vern, 22, explaining it was mainly bruises and swelling. One person he'd seen had a fractured arm. Another had abrasions from being hit in the face. Friday night was quiet, but he reminded legal support that if there were injuries, they needed to be documented.

Both locations had multiple law students volunteering.

“Connecting people with legal resources is something I figured I could help with," said a 31-year-old law student in a Brooklyn Law School hat at the Manhattan location who asked to remain anonymous. “I definitely believe in building out the movement to have infrastructure.”

At around 9:15 p.m. Friday, a police car with its sirens on pulled up in front of the jail support group outside of One Center Street in downtown Manhattan, playing a recorded message about New York City being under an 8 p.m. curfew and that everyone must disperse.

Amber Jamieson

A police car turned on its siren and told jail support volunteers outside One Center Street in downtown Manhattan to leave.

One of the volunteers showed police a document — signed by the National Lawyers Guild and local politicians — explaining that the group provides legal aid and should be exempt from the curfew.

“The first night they threatened everyone with arrest,” said one volunteer, who declined to give their name.

Media is banned from jail support, and BuzzFeed News was asked to leave both One Center Street and the downtown Brooklyn location.

Particularly because of the curfew, which was lifted Sunday, police had been threatening to arrest and detain jail support volunteers.

Jail support is also trying to help people who’ve often been violently arrested and detained for hours in a stressful situation, and they don’t want reporters shoving a camera or microphone in their face, asking for their story (and possibly putting their legal situation at risk, if they say anything about their charges).

“We understand it’s a tense space with people coming out of a really terrible experience,” said the 28-year-old law student in Brooklyn.

And recently, arrested protesters said they were grateful for the help.

“It was good because I see that somebody cares and people know that a lot of bullshit is going on,” Husan Blue, 30, told BuzzFeed News at the 71st Precinct, where his father had driven him to pick up his belongings.

Blue was arrested Thursday night along with friend Daniel Gifford, 30, after police violently shutdown a birthday party held in their courtyard on Eastern Parkway, where many of the protesters have marched. After spending nearly 24 hours in custody, he was released.

“As soon as we came out, they were offering everything," Blue said.

The men said they appreciated the offer of food, but that despite feeling starving while detained, they'd lost their appetites the second they were released and were just desperate to get home and shower.

"You just want to be with your family," Gifford said.

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