Since at least the early 1900s, activists have used tactics of collective action — within and despite the criminal legal system — to build movements and organize for social and political change.
Midnight Special Law Collective defined legal solidarity as a “strategy that uses group decision-making and action to protect people when they are being held in the legal system.” Legal solidarity tactics can take place in the jail (“jail solidarity”) when activist arrestees are in the custody of police or jail guards, or in the courts (“court solidarity”) where solidarity tactics are directed at prosecutors or judges.
The following is an excerpt from “Collective Action Behind Bars: A history of jail solidarity and its importance for today’s social change movements, by Kris Hermes.”
“By using certain tactics collectively, activists have mitigated harm in jail and achieved objectives that would have been impossible through individual action. According to the Just Cause Law Collective, the term “solidarity tactics” encompasses “many different forms of non-cooperation, all of which are designed to produce leverage for collective bargaining.”
Jail solidarity, as it has become known, has a rich history in the US through its periodic use over the past hundred years by many different social movements. When activist arrestees have utilized their collective strength, often through militant and confrontational tactics, they have won demands and built power against a legal system designed to coerce and oppress.
Integral to the success of jail solidarity is the ability to exploit vulnerabilities in the legal system through collective action and non-cooperation. This is achieved because the authorities need the cooperation of arrestees to process them, it’s expensive to detain large numbers of people, and many jails are near or beyond capacity and unable to deal with heavy influxes.
Jail solidarity is typically used with the aim of achieving certain goals, such as gaining equal treatment for all arrestees; protecting targeted groups and individuals, such as people of color, immigrants, and queer people; helping to negotiate the widespread dismissal or reduction of charges; and politicizing the incarceration process by forcing a public discourse and controlling the media narrative.
The Just Cause Law Collective (JCLC) argues that the use of solidarity tactics by criminal defendants is less well-known amongst activists, but can be effective “particularly when the defendants are well-organized, similarly-situated, and working together in large numbers.”
Non-cooperation tactics (some of which are explored in detail in the examples) can vary dramatically and are often as creative as the arrestees employing them. At times, the exact same tactic can lead to completely different results, showing that there is no “right” tactic; every decision made has consequences that are situation-specific.“