Sam Bankman-Fried’s criminal fraud trial wasn’t the only high-stakes conflict that unfolded in Manhattan federal court last month.
There was also a line to go inside.
Over five weeks, the trial – with a mix of cryptocurrency intrigue and tabloid-worthy romance – attracted an unusually diverse crew of journalists, crypto YouTubers, documentary filmmakers and aspiring influencers. Everyone wanted to sit in the gallery to see Mr. Bankman-Fried in person.
But there were only 21 seats available to the public in the 26th-floor courtroom, and competition for access created a kind of arms race. If someone lines up outside at 5 a.m., someone will try to line up by 4 a.m. the next day.
Some spectators went to absurd lengths to secure seats. When it became clear that Mr. Bankman-Fried was planning to testify, a committed trial observer boarded a plane in London, flew overnight to New York and drove straight from his hotel to the courthouse, about 1 a.m. Reached the next evening. The freelance journalists arrived after 10:30 pm and remained huddled in the cold until the court opened its doors nine hours later.
I stood in this line every day of the trial. Believe it or not, it was kind of fun. Gossip flowed freely. When it wasn’t too cold, the waves were great.
To maintain order, a group of us created a document called “the list”, a sign-in sheet that recorded the order in which people arrived to wait. Everyone outside the first 21 was sent in one set overflow roomsWhere a video feed plays on separate TV monitors.
In my view, the advantages of the list system were obvious: you could leave the court for a walk or buy a coffee without worrying that someone would steal your spot. At least initially, reaction to the list was overwhelmingly positive. When I signed in with the guys one morning, a co-worker greeted me as “Chief Camp Counselor of the trial”—a dubious honor, I know—and thanked the early-morning crew for keeping everything organized. .
But heavier is the head that wears the crown. One morning, around 7 o’clock, a coup was about to take place. A man who had arrived too late to get a seat spoke to the reporter managing the list for the day and said he didn’t understand our “customs.” He suggested that the signatures on the sign-in sheet may have been forged to allow a group of establishment media to gain access.
We were a little worried. But a friendly YouTuber going by the name Taco volunteered to offer enforcement should any frustrated viewers get unruly, and tensions subsided after a few days.
On the final day of Mr. Bankman-Fried’s cross-examination, I arrived at the courthouse just before 1 a.m., about a dozen of us waiting in the cold for the crowd to arrive. None materialized.
“We played ourselves,” someone said around 6 a.m., when it was clear we could all sleep.
But a few hours later, when I took my seat in the courtroom, having a perfect view of the witness stand, I came to a different conclusion: It was worth it.