Anarchist, Reveal Thyself

John Doe’s day in court.

NEW YORK—After Tuesday’s fierce “A31” protests, anarchists launched a cheekier wave of attacks Wednesday morning. In New York City courtrooms, many of the 1,100 arrestees refused to give their real names. “Case No. 59783—John Doe,” shouted a clerk at the Centre Street courthouse. “Assault in the third degree, resisting arrest, disorderly conduct.” The defendant, Mr. Doe, looked to be in his early 20s. He was wearing a ripped Mumia Abu-Jamal T-shirt and had pulled his dark blue socks up to his knees. With his shoulders slouching toward the floor, Doe looked indistinguishable from any other young miscreant, which, of course, was precisely the point.

His pro bono attorney, Scott Cerbin, began the hearing with a Hail Mary. Would your honor sentence Doe to community service? “I don’t know his name,” the judge snarled. “I’m not giving community service to someone I don’t know.”

Before the protests began, many anarchists pledged jailhouse solidarity—no names given to cops and “collective action” taken against the guards. “They’re trying to make a statement,” Cerbin said. “But sitting in jail for a month is not much of a statement.” Irwin Shaw, of New York’s Legal Aid Society, looked despondent at the news. He sat on a wooden bench in the courthouse hallway and flipped through the mountain of computer printouts on his lap. “There’s really nothing to tell you,” he said with a sigh. “I’m just a lawyer coming into court trying to find out who to represent.”

New York’s wizened district attorney, Robert Morgenthau, stopped by to take in the arraignments. As he doddered up the aisle, he paused to speak to a protester seated in the second row: “What, did you just get arraigned?” The protester couldn’t quite hear the question—Morgenthau is 85 and was speaking in a whisper—so the district attorney just offered him a handshake, smiled, and continued up the aisle. The protester turned to a spectator and whispered, “Who the hell was that?”

Whether the anarchists accomplished anything tangible Tuesday night, “A31” has taken its place alongside New York’s legendary calamities. When I asked Morgenthau to name a few days during his tenure with similar arrest tallies, he replied, “The blackout way back in ‘77, the blackout last year, the situation after 9/11.” Morgenthau said his assistants were exhausted but still standing. “There’s a lotta work, a lotta cases,” he said. “We’re open 24 hours, and we move them just as quickly as they come in.”

Back in the courtroom, the judge had decided to release a different John Doe. This new Doe claimed he showed up in Union Square Tuesday with a 16-piece band called Rude Mechanic Orchestra. After playing its “George Bush Has Gotta Go” rap, the band and a second ensemble, the Infernal Noise Brigade, found itself surrounded by cops on a side street. “Things were starting to get tense,” said Doe. “They grabbed our tuba player, they grabbed our drummer, and then I guess they grabbed the rest of the band.”

By noon, our first Doe had begun to feel freedom’s pull. In a long talk with Cerbin in private chambers, he dropped his anonymity and began to reveal details about his life. He graduated from Berkeley, he said, and his mother was a librarian in California. He had recently moved to New York from the West Coast. Doe even gave Cerbin his name, but since he didn’t have any ID to verify it, the judge refused to release him.

The next question was: Where was Doe’s ID? A girl in brown glasses said she had collected ID cards from about a dozen anarchists, and perhaps our Doe was among them. Alas, after a quick search, no Doe. “He said he has a friend in the system, and the friend has the ID at his house,” Cerbin said. “So maybe I can spring the friend, and maybe he can get me the ID.” What was the friend’s name? “John Doe.”