I was arrested in January 2018 at an anti-fascist protest of an alt-right gala in New York City’s Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood. Nearly a thousand people, many of whom were Proud Boys, were celebrating the one-year anniversary of Trump’s inauguration inside a venue there. Outside, roughly a hundred protesters milled around with signs and slogans. Most, including myself, were in black bloc attire, but the protest was very tame, which was fine with me.
Unfortunately, around 10:30 p.m., a cluster of attendees from the gala, clearly drunk, ran into a cluster of protesters. I don’t know how it started, but it soon became a melee with a half-dozen people from each side fighting. I had been in the streets since the Women’s March that morning, over 12 hours by that point. I was tired, cold and hungry, and I’d been about to leave. Before I did, drunk alt-right guys in suits started trying to punch me and I defended myself.
Shortly after the fight broke out, a cop appeared and grabbed the first person in black he saw: me. Much larger than me, he attacked me from behind without a word and threw me to the pavement, shattering my shinbone. I spent four days in the hospital in handcuffs.
The cops never arrested the alt-right guys who likely started the fight. During the brawl, one of them had been knocked unconscious. He was 56. He had bruising and tiny fractures on one side of his face, but he’d been well enough to walk out of the ER shortly after arriving. I was slapped with a shocking litany of fabricated charges: stalking, strangulation, obstruction of oxygen, even loitering. The alt-right Twittersphere exploded with outrageous stories about how I’d tried to kill an old man. The surveillance footage from the scene, to my mind, disproves all of this. When the prosecution got ahold of it a few months later, they dropped these charges in favor of new ones. Among the new charges was gang assault, which is all but impossible to beat. It carries a three-and-a-half-year mandatory minimum sentence, and it doesn’t require the prosecution to prove those involved are part of an actual gang or even know each other. All they had to prove was that I and at least two other people had struck someone.
I fought my case for nearly two years. For most of the first year, the Manhattan district attorney refused to offer me less than a four-year sentence, despite the fact that I had no criminal record and the police had arrested no one else on either side, though very few had fled the scene. My lawyers told me if I lost at trial ― and I almost certainly would on at least one of the charges ― I’d likely get sentenced to anything between two and seven years. Negotiations finally bottomed out at 18 months. I had no choice but to take it to cut my losses. I pleaded guilty to kicking a man twice, and was convicted of attempted gang assault and assault with an instrument, both violent felonies (the “instrument” was my shoe, a lightweight mesh-top running sneaker).
Before I went to jail, I was fortunate enough to be put in touch with a number of former political prisoners, including one who’d served time in Rikers Island, the same facility where I would be incarcerated.
“Look, it’s gonna suck in there,” he told me, “but it’s not ‘Oz.’ And another thing — people are gonna come up to you and shake your hand for this.”
Only four days into my sentence, I spent a few days in a dorm with a Proud Boy who had been arrested during an incident on New York City’s Upper East Side in October 2018. I was in the initial adjustment phase then, undoubtedly the hardest part of my time in jail. I was overwhelmed by my new world of cold, hard surfaces, terrible food, a total lack of privacy and autonomy, clanging, shouting, default attitudes somewhere between indifference and animosity, and alien social rules, I desperately needed to put my thoughts on paper but had nothing to write with. The Proud Boy didn’t exactly want to shake my hand, but he gave me a golf pencil, and in return I agreed not to out him to the rest of the prisoners as a Trumpster. (He was telling people that he’d been in a “bar fight.”) To my embarrassment, he also trounced me in a round of Scrabble.
In my research and preparation for jail, I was often encouraged to stay quiet and mind my own business, especially at the beginning. Minding my business was easy, but I couldn’t keep nearly as quiet as I’d planned. Nerdy white guys kind of stand out in there. There are very few white people at Rikers and many of them are addicted to hard drugs or alcohol. A sober, college-educated white person, the jailhouse thinking goes, must have done something pretty terrible to be sentenced to jail time instead of, say, probation or community service, so people often asked what I was in for. Explaining my case served as an icebreaker of sorts and it dispelled suspicions I’d been convicted of something more noxious, like sexual assault. It also seemed like the sheer novelty of it added some welcome variety to the steady stream of standard-issue petty crimes for which people usually serve time on Rikers.
As predicted, some of the inmates did want to shake my hand. Within a few weeks of my arrival in October 2019, people were slapping my back or squeezing my shoulder, chuckling “Fuck Trump!” so often throughout the day that it actually started to get kind of annoying. That tapered off, but throughout the 12 months I ultimately served, guys I didn’t know would occasionally approach me and congratulate me. Of course, not everyone knew or cared who I was — far from it. There are thousands of inmates spread across numerous buildings on Rikers Island and they all have more than enough concerns. But I generally enjoyed much more respect, approval and popularity in jail than I ever expected, all due to the circumstances of my arrest, which made my time there easier and conflict less likely.
In fact, while my case might have been a liability elsewhere, it was an advantage at Rikers. Often, when I told other inmates what I was in for, their eyes would light up, they’d laugh and give me a fist bump or an incredulous “No way!” Though I met a handful of prisoners with radical sympathies, most were pretty apolitical, and very few had any idea what “antifa” was. On three separate occasions I told people I was arrested at an anti-fascist protest only to have them screw up their faces in confusion and ask “anti-fashion?” That said, Trump was almost universally unpopular; most guys had at least a vague sense that he was a racist asshole and that antifa fought against racist assholes, among other things. Most prisoners, including Trumpsters, also appreciated that I didn’t like cops, and that I’d “held it down” (taken a non-cooperating plea).
Trumpsters among my fellow inmates were rare, and most were not Proud Boys, just kind of Trumpy. They were typically attracted to Trump for a single issue ― his rhetoric, his windbag-bully persona, or some other reason. (“I voted for him because my mom likes him,” one guy told me.)
And though there were no Nazi gangs at Rikers, there was one guy who liked to wear a homemade stocking cap with a few hand-drawn decorations, including swastikas. He wasn’t a Nazi or even a Trump supporter, just an old Puerto Rican biker dude who’d used lots of heroin. I figured he was doing it for shock value, but after the sole Jewish guy in our dorm and a few Black friends of mine mentioned it to me, I decided to speak to him.
I waited for a moment to get him alone and informed him that the swastika was a racist symbol. I told him I thought he was a cool guy, but I really didn’t like racists. “Oh,” he muttered, swiping the cap from his head, “somebody ... gave this ... to me,” and then he buried it deep in the nearest trash can. Sometimes, just like on the outside, all it took to change a mind was talking to someone.
In fact, this was my principal strategy in dealing with Trumpy guys in jail: less confrontational, more based on appealing to their sense of solidarity. I only felt comfortable approaching the inmate with the swastika cap because we’d previously established a rapport. I was as frank, transparent and unapologetic about my case and my politics with the Trumpsters as with everyone else, but I also gently tried to engage them in dialogue. More importantly, I showed them, as I did everyone, as much solidarity as I could afford to.
“In fact, while my case might have been a liability elsewhere, it was an advantage at Rikers. Often, when I told other inmates what I was in for, their eyes would light up, they’d laugh and give me a fist bump or an incredulous 'No way!'””
In an environment as authoritarian as jail or prison, any act of solidarity between inmates is an anti-authoritarian ― if not anti-fascist ― act. Daily life is pure Kafka. Literally at any moment, for example, a swarm of correction officers, or COs, in riot gear might barge in and ransack everything, piling it onto your bed, sometimes crowned with paperwork. They’d snatch a hodgepodge of things, many permissible, like T-shirts, and leave “contraband” ones, like pens and fruit. A few days later, it would happen again, and this time they’d confiscate your neighbor’s T-shirts, pens and fruit without touching your bed.
All rules were enforced in this arbitrary fashion, often at the whim of individual officers. Accountability was unheard of; obfuscation and passing the buck were the norm. Paperwork was ubiquitous and rarely intelligible. Even little things followed this pattern: The fire alarm might go off for hours on end because someone smoked a cigarette. Spaghetti was often served with a plastic spoon, while cereal was served with a fork. Once COVID hit, the Department of Corrections put up posters encouraging social distancing even as they packed our dorms to capacity. We had to strike just to get masks and soap — a wonderful instance of solidarity, but completely absurd.
Offering someone your extra pen, then, if his was grabbed during a search, or an ibuprofen if his head hurt, or a clothesline to hang his laundry on, a minute to listen, or help filling out paperwork (I became the go-to guy for this in my unit) — these things punched way above their weight in jail and constituted the bulk of my anti-fascist action at Rikers Island. With Trumpsters, these micro-solidarities served a double function: They resisted the alienation and oppression of the carceral system and simultaneously built goodwill between them and me, an unrepentant (and allegedly violent!) anti-fascist. The results were often evident: One guy evolved from scoffing “Ha! He’s against Benito Mussolini!” when he first heard me say I was an anti-fascist, to “You antifa people are all right. I’m down with what you’re doing,” about two months later. Another went from equivocating, bizarrely, “I don’t like Trump, I just like his Twitter,” to, just a few weeks later, “What the hell is wrong with that guy’s Twitter? I think he’s going crazy!”
I’m not claiming to have converted these guys to radical anti-fascism. Most still had pretty reprehensible views on women, queer folx, and sometimes immigrants. And it would’ve been impossible for me to take a combative call-out approach to every racist, sexist or homophobic thing I heard, due to both the quantity and my concern for my personal safety. But if and when I could make them reconsider their views, that was a victory, and if I could impart a more nuanced understanding of my politics, anti-fascism, or people they saw as “other,” that was a bonus.
I’m also not claiming to have been a nerdy white savior in jail. Nearly all of the Trumpy guys I tried to deradicalize with solidarity were also white. When I first arrived, I was so hyper-concerned about being a patronizing white know-it-all that I never volunteered information, but guys kept approaching me and asking about my opinion, or things they thought I’d know, because I “looked smart.” (I assume partly because I’m white and partly because very few people in jail have college degrees.)
Nor did I invent solidarity at Rikers; I took my cue from the people around me. Most shared and gifted things to each other regularly, and offered words of encouragement as their release dates approached. And I learned a lot from other inmates of all backgrounds: not only tips and tricks to get by while inside, but things I’ve carried with me since my release, like patience, an appreciation for what I have, and a much deeper skepticism of the police, courts and carceral institutions.
The COs, like the inmates, were very diverse and overwhelmingly Black and Latinx. Most didn’t care for Trump, and a few praised me outright for brawling with the far right. (One even pulled me aside to say I was a “hero.”) Some were Trumpsters, of course, and on several occasions they speculated in hushed tones about whether I was “antifa,” but they didn’t seem rabid, they didn’t have the numbers, and unlike the upstate prisons, they were always on camera. Unsurprisingly, the ones who supported Trump were mostly white, though there were many COs of color who somehow overlooked the intrinsic white nationalism of Trumpism ― the type with Blue Lives Matter patches who bought into Trump’s “businessman” shtick. The vilest strains of Trumpism, however, were thankfully absent, so I never felt at risk of getting jumped by Nazis or COs or Nazi COs. There was even one CO, almost certainly Trumpy, who cheerfully greeted me as “Anarchy” when we passed in the hall.
I knew when I took my plea that Rikers would be a safer place for me than the prisons upstate, which are mostly staffed by rural, white, Trumpy COs, and often include gangs of white supremacists among the inmates. This was a factor in my decision to serve my time in Rikers and in my negotiations with the DA. Some inmates who’d been upstate thought I might have been all right there, depending on the facility, but most said I’d made the right call in choosing Rikers.
Of course, it was jail, and frankly, it sucked, but I was pleasantly surprised by how much of a boon my case was there. After months of research, I was pretty sure I wouldn’t be singled out for harsher treatment while serving my sentence, as antifascist prisoners (like Eric King, for example) sometimes are, but I never expected such positive reactions. Inside, I was told that Rikers was an outlier in the carceral world. Maybe my experience as an anti-fascist there is an outlier, too. I can’t say. But I do know that every facility is unique, and I’d bet there are others where serving time for something related to a protest would actually be an advantage, like it was for me.
Though I hate to admit it, the experience changed me greatly. It made me aware of just how easy it is to convict someone of a felony, even a violent one. It made me understand just how harmful our carceral system is: I truly believe of all the thousands of guys I met behind bars, perhaps five really needed to be there. Since my release, I’ve been doing jail and prison support work. I don’t regret taking a stand against the far right, and I still allow myself to go to protests, but I give anything with a potential for rowdiness a wide berth. I have a record now, and I know firsthand how easy it is to get “caught up,” as they say in jail.
David Campbell is a writer, translator, funeral director/embalmer, and former antifascist political prisoner. A PEN America Writing for Justice 2021 Fellowship finalist, he is currently writing a book about his time behind bars and will begin a master’s program in translation in September 2021. You can find him on Twitter at @ab_dac, and you can find out more about his case at freedavidcampbell.com.