In mid-October of 2021, the Boston Municipal Court announced a plan to address the growing numbers of unhoused people in Boston: the court would place a U.S. flag inside a vacant room in the local county jail and declare the room to be a courtroom. In the new courtroom, officials would process the cases of people arrested after sweeps of an encampment of unhoused people at the center of the city—an effort, they claimed, to connect people without homes to mandatory drug treatment or other resources, many of which were located inside the jail itself.
Members of CourtWatch MA, a group that had been observing and documenting outcomes in courtrooms in the Boston area for more than three years, called this room simply “jail court.” There were no judges inside jail court; instead, a television screen covering the sole window in the room showed a live feed of a judge inside one of Boston’s actual criminal courthouses. The judge’s screen showed the jail court, where each unhoused person sat, in handcuffs, at a small table next to a lawyer, while a district attorney sat on the other side and two armed guards stood watch.
This article is part of a roundtable about the author’s new book, Radical Acts of Justice: How Ordinary People Are Dismantling Mass Incarceration. Next week, two longtime organizers will offer their own reflections, and an author’s response will follow.
CourtWatch MA had for years been pushing back against the use of the city’s criminal courts and jails to “solve” the problem of houselessness, and they had conducted courtwatching efforts after a series of similar sweeps of encampments in 2019. During the COVID-19 pandemic, CourtWatch MA had been working alongside scores of other local groups to provide support and advocacy for people jailed or otherwise marginalized during the health crisis. Those groups included the Massachusetts Bail Fund, one of more than a hundred local community bail funds active around the country at the time—posting bail for strangers out of a larger belief in the injustice of pretrial detention. CourtWatch MA also organized alongside the participatory defense group Families for Justice as Healing, a support and advocacy hub led by and for incarcerated women, formerly incarcerated women, and women with incarcerated loved ones. Scores of other local groups, such as the Material Aid and Advocacy Program and Black and Pink Massachusetts, were also part of the coalition to fight the jail court. After years of collective action in which they helped individuals caught up in the criminal system, these groups had developed an arsenal of tactics and relationships well before the announcement of the new jail court.
And so when the jail court opened on November 1, 2021, CourtWatch MA was ready. Courtwatchers live-tweeted what they could see and hear, either through a Zoom feed or within the jail court itself. The first case, for example, was a man charged with misdemeanor drug possession who had open warrants from nearby counties related to other drug cases. The judge could have legally released the man to take care of his warrants, but the judge ordered him detained instead. CourtWatch MA wrote on Twitter, “This means he will most likely be held overnight to undergo painful, life-threatening withdrawal and be transported to [criminal court] tomorrow.” The group emphasized that the purpose of jail court was “to detain houseless people with substance use disorders,” and urged people to not “let anyone tell you otherwise.” (Indeed, by the end of the day, the man had lost his place in a treatment facility and was sent to jail while in withdrawal.) This was a strategy that courtwatchers had been engaged in for years: live-tweeting courtroom realities that would otherwise go unremarked in the public sphere, and connecting those observations to larger ideas about justice and safety.
While courtwatchers observed and tweeted, outside of the jail building dozens of activists and organizers gathered with signs that said, “Stop the Sweeps” and “Close the Jail Court!” They chanted and protested as people entered and exited the building. They voiced support for solutions to drug use and poverty that do not involve the police or criminal courts, such as the provision of clean water, affordable and accessible housing, safe consumption sites, and voluntary treatment or harm reduction programs. And they worked to support those who came through the court however they could, whether it was the Massachusetts Bail Fund paying bail for those detained, or the bail fund and others providing transportation, cell phones, and referrals to partners for people released.
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In the local news, the jail court was a story of two contrasting ideas of how to approach housing insecurity and drug use during the pandemic: either criminalize it and force treatment using available space, even if that space is in a jail; or, in the alternative, allow people to stay in tents on public land while the state builds out more voluntary treatment, safe housing, and other forms of social support. These conflicting understandings of health and safety were summed up by a sign held by one protester—and then included in news stories—which read, “A Tent Is Safer Than Jail.” Through a combination of collective tactics, the coalition waged an ideological battle over the meaning of safety in the context of just one small, inaccessible room in the jailhouse.
And it worked: On November 19, 2021, the chief justice of Boston Municipal Court signed an order officially ending the jail court, just eighteen days after it had opened. During that time, twenty-one people appeared before the court, and city officials pointed to that as the reason for its ending so soon after it started. But coalition members experienced this as a victory. They saw officials struggle to respond to reporters’ questions, they watched the local district attorney try to backtrack on her support for the effort, and they felt that they had brought public attention to the relationship between houselessness and criminalization. More pointedly, these groups had exposed the hypocrisy of a liberal city attempting a “humanitarian” approach to clearing a tent encampment while using the same old tools, and spaces, of the criminal system.
In doing this work, CourtWatch MA and its sister groups were resisting the criminal system while they engaged with it, helping people materially while simultaneously holding out an alternative conception of what justice and safety can look like. This battle of ideas cannot come just from protests. A sign saying “A Tent Is Safer Than Jail” articulates the ideological fight, but a public conversation about the meanings of justice and safety happens only when there has been collective action around the ideas over time. Had the broad coalition that included the Material Aid and Advocacy Program, CourtWatch MA, the Massachusetts Bail Fund, and Families for Justice as Healing not already been in community together, they would not have been ready to branch out into their complementary tactics to counter what would otherwise have been an uncontroversial story of a new, “humanitarian” approach to clearing tents and people from public land. The organizers used the laws and tools of the system—the constitutional right to open courtrooms, the statutory right to post bail—to express how, to them, sticking a flag inside of a jail does not make it a legitimate space of justice. The organizers worked within the rules of the system to put forth a collective idea of justice that cannot be reconciled with the dominant story the system tells itself.
This is agonistic engagement within the criminal system: democratic action at a site of state domination that pushes back against that site’s baseline ideological underpinnings. In the case of bail funds, courtwatching, and participatory and collective defense, the site of domination is the criminal courthouse: Organizers enter courthouses to bear witness to what happens inside and to support those who are being criminalized by intervening directly in their cases. In each of these cases, the work of these groups is “agonistic” because it embraces ideological conflict while engaging with the system itself, often using and taking advantages of the system’s very own rules. The year 2020 also saw many of these same organizations joining coalitions that engage in agonistic struggle over budgets in state and city legislative chambers, rather than courthouses. With “People’s Budget” coalitions, constellations of groups work together to generate alternate understandings of what the state’s priorities should be, and then present those visions in formal hearings.
In Los Angeles, for example, in 2020 a coalition of dozens of grassroots groups created the People’s Budget LA, a vision for the city’s budget born from surveying tens of thousands of people and leading participatory budget meetings with more than 3,000 participants. The People’s Budget recategorized the city’s allocation of its general funds, proposing a new budget category, “Reimagined Community Safety,” that would include funds for restorative justice and services outside of the system rather than funding law enforcement or criminal courts. The People’s Budget was specific and nuanced, but it also put forth a large-scale vision of a city focused on care outside of the criminal system. The groups presenting the budget engaged in public, collective contestation over the meaning of safety and the purpose of the city government itself—an ideological battle that lasts beyond any single budget fight.
In researching and writing Radical Acts of Justice, a book about the power and growth of each of these collective tactics—community bail funds, courtwatching, participatory and collective defense, and people’s budgets—I spoke to dozens of organizers from around the country. Many of these organizers did not jump into this work because they wanted to tear down the criminal system and its ideology, or even because they longed to end discrete injustices such as money bail or the criminalization of women. Instead, they joined the organizing work out of a sense that this was something concrete that they could do with a generalized sense of injustice. They could create a video for a sentencing hearing, help get someone out of jail, observe a courtroom for a morning, or go door-to-door surveying community members about their hopes for their local budget. And yet, for nearly everyone I spoke with, doing this work of helping individuals as part of a collective radicalized them. They began to see, for example, connections between the bloated institutions of the criminal system and the state neglect of their neighborhoods. Through this collective work, largely done over the last ten years, most of these organizers began to identify as abolitionists. In the words of organizer Mary Hooks, they were “transformed in the service of the work.”
Organizations, too, transform over time when they engage in collective contestation of the system via collective care. You can trace this, for example, in the slogan of the Massachusetts Bail Fund, which began in 2011 with a message of helping people come back to court and reforming the bail process, and by 2020 had the simple slogan of “Free Them All.” Across the country, bail fund after bail fund, and courtwatching group after courtwatching group, began with the stated goals of care and reform, and by 2020 had moved to an organizational stance that connected collective care to the abolition of jails and criminal courts altogether.
These personal transformations and collective changes in thought cannot be disentangled from the everyday work of collective care and struggle. As bail funds and other tactics of collective resistance do their work, they channel the political fight against punishment and incarceration away from the criminal legal system, even as they work within it. These groups take individual struggles and they use them to build power toward bigger fights. They organize for legislation to end money bail. They campaign to release people incarcerated during the pandemic. They engage in educational campaigns around the racist history of policing and prisons. They write reports about reducing law enforcement budgets and funding community services such as health care, housing, and job training. In doing all of this, they lay before us the connections between different forms of state violence in the criminal system, and then they prefigure different possibilities when they show us that there are other ways to act out democracy and safety.
Each form of communal contestation that I describe in Radical Acts of Justice has experienced substantial backlash from elites in control of the criminal system. State legislatures have passed legislation limiting the ability of bail funds to post bail. Courtwatching groups and participatory defense hubs have been forced out of courthouses, despite their First Amendment right to be there. People’s budgets have been dismissed by police unions and prosecutors as a disgrace to the budgeting process, and in some places, politicians have won citywide elections with campaigns against people’s budgets. Most recently, the arrest and prosecution in June 2023 of three organizers with the Atlanta Solidarity Fund, as part of the fight over the funding of Cop City, crystallized the connections between the criminalization of collective care and the power of collective struggle. These forms of backlash can be dispiriting and debilitating for organizers trying to help individuals gain freedom. But they are also an indication that the terrain of struggle is shifting.
It is not that these forms of collective resistance are perfect or can be perfectly replicated. Like all tactics, they can be coopted and used to legitimize the system. No one tactic disables the system. In Boston, the end of the jail court did not end the criminalization of poverty, it just put a stop to one discrete tool of it. And these tactics are always temporary. Pilar Weiss, director of the National Bail Fund Network, and Raj Jayadev, cofounder of Silicon Valley De-Bug and the National Participatory Defense Network, have written of their work with bail funds and defense hubs:
We often get pushed to declare tactical victories as the end instead of the means to the end. The world we are building, the one without incarceration and with true community power, will not contain the formations we had to try out to [get there].
Rather than present a solution on their own, then, these collective interventions within the system—these radical acts of justice—demonstrate how ideological change can happen through agonistic contestation and struggle, rather than dialogue and deliberation. They show us that it is possible not just to imagine new understandings of justice and safety, but also to live them out. These forms of organizing should not be anecdotes in service of larger narratives of reform or change crafted by traditional experts. Instead, we should see these forms of struggle as a necessary part of the change in themselves.
Image: Andrew Ruiz/Unsplash