Jane Fonda doesn’t know if she should get arrested again. Last Friday was her third arrest in three weeks. When she launched Fire Drill Fridays, her weekly protests aimed at drawing attention to and pushing for action on the climate crisis, her plan was to be arrested every Friday through the end of the year. But she says she recently learned that, should she find herself carted away from the Capitol steps with her wrists in those plastic handcuffs one more time, she risks being locked up for 99 days or more.
“So I’ve spent the last 24 hours thinking about, what is better for the movement?” she told Vulture on Wednesday. The next demonstration was two days away. “And I decided that Jane Fonda’s martyrdom is not exactly going to be helpful for the movement. It’s not the getting arrested as much as it is just calling attention to the crisis and raising attention for the urgency.”
She has an upcoming, unscheduled court date, which is what you get after your third arrest, and “it can be fairly serious if I get arrested before my court date — which I’m going to do. And then I’ll probably get arrested again after my court date.”
It’s not totally clear if that 99-days threat is a real one, as there don’t appear to be hard and fast rules about how these decisions get made. Samantha Miller, an organizer with DC Action Lab, supporting the logistics for Fire Drill Fridays, explained that “in theory, Capitol police will offer a post and forfeit” — which is when you get arrested, pay a $50 fine, and are released back into society — “no more than twice within a six-month period. Sometimes they say a year. But it’s arbitrary … Theoretically, at more than two arrests, you have to come back for a court date, likely more than one court date, and then lawyers are involved.” For someone in Fonda’s position, having an open court date “changes the dynamics.” But it’s largely up to the discretion of the police.
Asked about how many post-and-forfeits add up to a more serious arrest, the D.C. Attorney General’s office told Vulture: “In some instances, law enforcement agencies may not offer someone the option to Post and Forfeit if they have been arrested several times for the same offense. It is an option reserved for people without criminal histories and not for people engaging in the same conduct repeatedly.”
Should the Attorney General decide to file charges against an individual in such a case, “then they would be arraigned for the charge at their court date and exposed to the penalty of the offense. The penalty of Incommoding is a maximum of 90 days jail and/or a $500 fine. This penalty does not change based on the number of arrests that someone has.” The Attorney General could decide not to file formal charges at all, or could opt to offer a person post and forfeit even after charges have been filed against them. It’s a real choose-your-own-adventure situation.
Still, Fonda figures she’ll be cutting back. “I may not get arrested every Friday,” she allows. “But maybe a few more times.”
A half-century or so of activism has culminated in this: Fonda has relocated to D.C. for four months to be, as her announcement put it, “closer to the epicenter of the fight for our climate.” This keeps Fonda in town through the end of 2019, the most she could manage given her Grace and Frankie shooting schedule. (She’d wanted to do a full year, but Netflix head Ted Sarandos isn’t that progressive: As the world burns, her show must go on.)
Each Friday demonstration on Capitol Hill is preceded by a Thursday night digital teach-in, which can be livestreamed from anywhere on Earth with Wi-Fi, and is focused on a different aspect of the movement to save our planet from total and imminent devastation: oceans, the Green New Deal, environmental justice, women. Inspired by the students striking for climate change around the world and one of their most visible leaders, Greta Thunberg, who has said of the climate crisis that “our house is on fire,” Fonda’s demonstrations are called Fire Drill Fridays.
Our nation’s capital has seen wall-to-wall protests since a certain wall-obsessed president took office, and it’s easy for these actions to feel commonplace. In early 2017, The Week wondered “are protests the new brunch?” while the New York Times, always ready with an on-point take on life in Washington, reported that “many residents of this heavily Democratic area who once attended the occasional protest have adopted resistance to the Trump administration as a lifestyle.”
But Fonda is an expert on courting and keeping attention. She’s been joined in her effort by a rotating cast of celebrity guests: Sam Waterston and Ted Danson have already gotten arrested alongside her; Rosanna Arquette and Catherine Keener are expected at the rally today.
“It’s my civil disobedience,” Arquette told Vulture. “We really are at the brink of extinction if we don’t do something. And people are not really taking this seriously.”
She and Keener were with Fonda over Labor Day weekend on a trip to Big Sur when Fonda, who was in the middle of Naomi Klein’s On Fire: The (Burning) Case For a Green New Deal, came up with the idea for this action. “You could see it growing and growing until, at the end [of the trip], it was a fully realized action that was going to take place. To be able to witness that — I’ve known Jane since I was 20 years old. She is one of my mentors.”
“I was at Standing Rock and almost got arrested a couple times, but it ended up not happening,” she added.
Fonda ticks off a list of stars who’ve RSVP’d yes to her: “Taylor Schilling, Diane Lane, Mark Ruffalo, Bobby Kennedy, Jackson Browne. Sharon Stone wants to come. Pamela Anderson said she wanted to come. Piper Perabo. Oh, and Shailene Woodley! And Kyra Sedgwick.” And last week, she went viral by accepting a BAFTA Britannia Award while being arrested. “Thank you! I’m sorry I’m not there!” she called out, holding up her handcuffed fists. “I’m very honored!”
“I had booked a lot of contracted speaking engagements before I decided to do this, and it turns out I couldn’t get out of them without getting sued,” Fonda explained. “The award was obviously something I wasn’t contracted to do. And I said to my team in California I couldn’t be there, and they screamed and yelled … But I don’t care about awards, [so I said] I’m not going. And I thought, why don’t they just film me being arrested and I’ll give my thanks? And they were very happy with that.”
Here is what it’s like to get arrested with Fonda at a Fire Drill Friday demonstration:
The day starts at 9:30 a.m., at a building close to the Capitol. For about an hour and a half, everyone in attendance gets a crash course in getting arrested. They are told: Don’t wear jewelry. Have a full stomach before things get started (food is provided) because you’re not eating again until about 4 in the afternoon. You need to have a valid photo ID and $50 exactly, because the police don’t make change and you’ll need it to post-and-forfeit, which is how these arrests are typically resolved (more on that in a minute). The $50 will be provided if you don’t have it.
“During preparation, a wonderful guy who is a member of our digital team takes us through a meditation and gets us grounded in our bodies,” Fonda said. “And then we do a series of martial arts, kind of loud noises. It’s very good! It’s very helpful. And then we go out.”
DC Action Lab representatives “go through the legal risks and implications: the likely scenario, the worst-case scenarios,” Miller said. “We give people tips for how to deal with and interact with police. We make sure … they don’t have anything illegal or anything like that on them. Generally making sure people are prepared mentally, physically, emotionally for what the experience of getting arrested will be like.”
“I’m not nervous because I’ve been arrested before,” Fonda said. (She actually sells merch bearing her iconic mug shot.) “But other people tend to be quite nervous. But as it goes on they realize there’s nothing to be nervous about. We’re white, for the most part — not entirely, but enough of us are white and famous so that the police don’t mistreat anybody. I’m well aware of the fact that if I were not famous and I were black, the situation could be quite different.”
So, you’ve arrived and you’re protesting. The police give you three warnings. If you haven’t left after the third warning, congratulations! You’re getting arrested. Don’t get too excited: It’s just a misdemeanor. “They put plastic handcuffs on you and put you in police wagons,” Fonda said. “The ones I’ve been in have a division down the middle, with four or five women on each side.”
For Fonda’s first Fire Drill Friday arrest, the protesters were divided into two groups and taken into cells for three hours or so. “Then they put all your belongings — coats, hats, whatever — in plastic bags, and they put a colored wristband on you,” Fonda said. Then you get fingerprinted and you pay your $50 and you go. “And as you come out, there’s the jail support team on the other side, with food and drinks and hugs and cheers and a documentary team, and that’s that.”
For the people alongside Fonda who are new to this kind of civic engagement, “They have a profound experience during the arrest … They come to realize that this is really a crisis, and they have to up their game and step up their activism. That’s what I’m aiming for.”