We trickled into the courthouse two and three at a time. Everyone wore nice clothes and pretended not to know each other. I had borrowed a button down shirt and a checkered blazer. Shortly before things began, we filed into the courtroom and sat down amongst businessmen and prospectors. Today was the weekly foreclosure auction in Brooklyn: Wells Fargo was trying to sell four homes from which families had recently been evicted. Our goal was to stop this auction from taking place.
An hour earlier, we had met in a building down the street. About fifty activists had showed up. We discussed the action, drew maps of the courthouse on the whiteboard and planned where to be and when, and practiced the song. “Listen auctioneer, all the people here, are asking you to hold all the sales right now, we’re going to survive but we don’t know how. Listen auctioneer….” It was one of those catchy, never-ending-loop songs that was designed to grow louder and louder as we sang. We passed around a list and wrote down our names, adding a star if we planned to be arrested, so that the legal team would have our information in advance. Activists kept trickling in. Before we split up and headed over to the courthouse, one of the organizers gave us a quick pep talk. She talked about the cycle of justice as described by Martin Luther King. 1) civil disobedience, ie, unjust laws or commands are disobeyed. 2) punishment is inflicted. 3) hearts and minds are changed. 4) legislative corrections are proposed. 5) the laws are changed. 6) society is transformed. Our goal today was to change hearts and minds.
She also mentioned Dr. King’s advice for how to engage in civil disobedience: act openly, act lovingly, and accept the consequences of your actions. During and after the pep talk, there was a powerful radiant energy in the room. This is what I came here for, I said to myself. We went around taking turns sharing how we were feeling at that moment. People were excited, nervous, proud. Everyone in that room was willing to break the law in order to do the right thing, to stand up for people who nobody stands up for. The energy in a room like that is like nothing else.
When the auctioneer finally began the proceedings, a low murmur suddenly began to resonate through the courtroom. “Listen auctioneer,” sixty voices sang softly. “All the people here…are asking you to hold all the sales right now. We’re going to survive, but we don’t know how…listen auctioneer….” The auctioneer looked at the security guards irritably. We began to sing louder. The officer shouted over us. “If you don’t stop singing, you will be subject to arrest—” suddenly someone gave the signal, and we abruptly went silent. The cop looked irritated. As soon as the auctioneer continued, we began to sing again. “EVERYONE OUT!” The officer yelled. “If you do not leave, you will be arrested.” Our voices rose, and we sang louder and louder. Some people began to harmonize, and a beautiful a cappella melody reverberated through the courtroom. As the businessmen filed out of the room, some scowling angrily, some scratching their heads, thirty seven of us remained. We stood up and began to clap while we sang. Police with flex cuffs flooded in, and they pulled us out of the pews one by one and cuffed us. When they took us out into the hallway, another two dozen activists cheered as we were led down the hallway, still singing.
We walked down the hall and stepped into an elevator. There were six of us and six of the cops, and we kept singing. The officers couldn’t decide whether to smile or to scowl. On a new floor, they took us down another hall, still singing, and split us into several stuffy rooms, each with about ten handcuffed activists. Eventually, the song died down. Everything remained playful. One girl had metal cuffs on, and her arresting officer came in looking for them. “Who’s got my handcuffs?” We smiled and another chorus of the song rose up, and he had to search through the room and check all of us until he found his cuffs and replaced them with zip ties. We wrote a new verse and mic checked down the hall to the other rooms to teach it to them. Then we all sang that new song. One officer came in and tried to open a window for us, without our asking. It was stuck, but he came back a few minutes later with a tool and pried it open. Everyone was smiling and joking and laughing with the cops. They hummed the song and then caught themselves. A girl slipped out of her flex cuffs, and when an officer came into the room to check on us, he pointed at her. “Hey—put those back on!” Someone else got hers off and tightened them around her index fingers like Chinese finger cuffs. When an officer came in, he raised an eyebrow. “What did you do??” She laughed. “No, they were like this. You should really teach your guys how to put these things on properly.” “If I give you a dollar, will you get me some M&Ms from the vending machine?” Somebody asked an officer. He shook his head. “You can eat as much candy as you want when you’re free.” “Wait—” I called as he was turning to leave the room. “Did you just say, when we’re free?” “Yeah, when you’re free to go—ah.” He shook a finger at me and held back a grin. “You….”
After four hours, they pulled us out one by one to run our IDs through the computer. “Have you ever been arrested?” They asked me. “Yeah, at the park on the night of the eviction.” “Are you from New York?” “Nope. I came out here just for this.” They nodded. Outside, we could hear cheering every so often. “It sounds like your people are still out there,” one officer said to me.
When they were done running me through the system they snipped off the flex cuffs and a cop led me down to the exit. “So you’re not afraid to get arrested?” He asked. “We believe in what we’re doing.” “Well…good luck to you.” We shook hands and I pushed open the door. A deafening cheer rose up and people pulled me into hugs. Everyone who hadn’t been arrested had stayed to work as jail support. Three of the four houses hadn’t been auctioned off, they told me. One buyer had shaken his head on the way out and said to them, “I was planning to buy property today. It looks like you guys are winning.”