As demonstrations swelled across the country in reaction to the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery, one key piece of advice for protesters spread around social media: Write the number of an attorney on your arm in case of arrest.
Many attorneys boosted this info, sharing cellphone numbers and promising pro bono services for those who needed it. One offer in New York City came from an unexpected place, though — a Twitter account dubbed @NYCTaper, billed as “New York’s live music archivist,” and also, “Attorney by day.”
For the past three decades, Dan Lynch has worked as a criminal-defense and civil rights attorney in New York City, all while moonlighting as the local music scene’s top concert taper. In 2007, he launched NYCTaper to showcase his recordings for free. Its archive is massive, boasting sets from artists like Pavement, Phish, Angel Olsen, Bob Weir, Sharon Van Etten, Pup, Hurray for the Riff Raff, and Drive-By Truckers. On top of all that, Lynch also helps run two independent music venues in New York City: Market Hotel and Trans-Pecos.
As for his day job, Lynch began his career as a public defender in New York City in 1988 then opened his own practice five years later. He’s worked cases involving false arrest and police brutality and provided services to tenants on the Lower East Side pushed out by gentrification. He’s also regularly offered pro bono help to protesters, whether they were marching after the 2000 election, during Occupy Wall Street in 2011, or against police brutality and systemic racism.
“That’s why I became a lawyer,” Lynch tells Rolling Stone. “I do make a living defending criminal cases, but when my talents, expertise, and experience can be used to benefit people who are protesting injustice, police abuse, and abuse by the government, that’s what I do. I have no problem doing as many cases as I can physically for no fee.”
Since posting his notice on Twitter, Lynch received a steady stream of direct messages from people asking for his contact info. Most, he noted, were just looking for peace of mind before joining the demonstrations. But since then he’s heard from well over 30 people who’d been arrested, and already plans to take on a few cases.
The majority, so far, have been misdemeanors, and according to Lynch, a recent bail-reform law enacted in New York state in January means most of those cases only warrant so-called desk-appearance tickets, where a person is fingerprinted, charged, and released with a court date scheduled for later. (Parts of that bail-reform package were rolled back in the New York state budget, approved amid the coronavirus outbreak. Complicating matters going forward, last Thursday, a New York judge ruled that police could detain people for more than 24 hours, despite the state’s 24-hour arrest-to-arraignment rule.)
Noting that arraignments and other court proceedings have gone digital and slowed down significantly during the COVID-19 pandemic, Lynch says, “If the bail reform hadn’t been enacted in January, I’m not sure where we’d be [right now]. It’d be a madhouse, to be honest. If they were sending all of these people through the system, it would be insane.”
But a few more serious cases have already come across Lynch’s lap, and he detailed two that capture the particular tenor of these protests.
One, Lynch says, involves a “young man who was physically injured and then miraculously [got] charged with assaulting a police officer whom he didn’t assault.” The man was released after being arraigned, Lynch says, adding he’s now trying to track down as much video footage of the incident as possible to help exonerate him. The goal is to beat the criminal case first (a court date has been set for September), and then, Lynch adds, see “if he wants to sue the police for false arrest or false imprisonment and brutality.”
In the other case Lynch highlighted, the client only received a summons, the kind of ticket typically handed out to turnstile hoppers or people caught drinking beer on the street. His was for disorderly conduct, an allegation Lynch calls “a little petty,” especially when it involves putting someone through the system for five or six hours. But what’s really concerning about it, he adds, is that the man was a professional photographer, arrested while documenting the protest. It’s strikingly in line with the pattern of aggressive tactics police have used on both protesters and the press. “It calls up all kinds of constitutional violations,” Lynch says.
Lynch acknowledges that, as a criminal-defense attorney, he has a unique — to say the least — relationship with the police. He knows the 40,000-or-so members of the NYPD aren’t a monolith, but he’s frank about what he’s encountered during his career: “I’ve seen police officers do absolutely horrendous things. Cases that weren’t in the newspaper. Guys whacked over the head, clients with broken arms, broken noses … guys with faces so swollen that they could hardly see out of their eyes. I’ve been in court when they’ve lied, lied to my face, about things that I knew they were lying about.”
In his view, Lynch says, these kinds of civil rights cases have actually gone down over the past two decades. But he notes that the ubiquity of camera phones has amplified incidents of police brutality, adding, “I think there’s less of it, but what does take place is worse.” And, he’s quick to point out, broken noses and swollen faces are often replaced with more “day-to-day indignities,” like stop-and-frisk policies. (While stop-and-frisk officially ended in New York City in 2014, the ACLU of New York found that the NYPD still stops about 10,000 people per year, most of whom are black and Latinx.)
“They’re gonna have to change the nature of who are police officers, what’s their identity,” Lynch says. “For the most part, all the upper echelon of the NYPD is white people, mostly white men. And that’s part of the problem — the people who are making the policy are not people of color.”
But while much of Lynch’s view of the NYPD is informed by his work as an attorney, he’s also seen the results of excessive policing in his role as a taper — but not how one might think. Since he gets permission to tape shows, personal run-ins with the cops are not an issue. Rather, during the 13 years of NYCTaper, Lynch has watched how police and government crackdowns have all but stomped out Brooklyn’s once-thriving DIY community.
Lynch started taping shows in the Nineties, and ticks off some early favorites — Wilco at Irving Plaza; Jonathan Richman at Mercury Lounge; Built to Spill at Maxwell’s, the beloved but now-closed Hoboken club. He put his hobby on hold toward the end of the decade after the birth of his children but picked it up again around 2004. His timing was perfect. The Brooklyn indie scene was booming, and with Williamsburg still several years away from becoming SoHo 2.0, a network of DIY and semi-official venues populated the area: 285 Kent, Death by Audio, Monster Island, Silent Barn, Glasslands, Shea Stadium, and Market Hotel.
In 2007, Lynch launched NYCTaper with a few like-minded friends and began recording shows at all of these venues, as well as the legit ones. Boom times followed, with Lynch and the other members of NYCTaper recording hundreds of shows over the next few years.
But then in 2010, Market Hotel — a favorite, but far from legal or licensed spot above a bodega near the Bushwick/Bed-Stuy border — was raided and shut down by the NYPD. Lynch immediately offered his services, pro bono: “There were like 12 different people who were arrested, every single case was dismissed. I was so proud of that.”
Over the next few years, the NYPD cracked down on unlicensed venues, frequently through the Multi-Agency Response to Community Hotspots (MARCH) program. “It’s when they bring in everyone at once — Department of Health, NYPD, FDNY, Department of Finance sometimes,” Lynch says. “Basically, they shut down a place by throwing so many legal impediments at it that it can’t exist anymore. The MARCH program was responsible for shutting down a bunch of different venues, and they never came back.”
Lynch says he did additional pro bono work for other small independent venues and people with ties to the DIY scene in New York City (he declined to give names due to privacy issues). He was also asked to join the board of directors at Market Hotel as it embarked on an ambitious effort to reopen legitimately; it did so in 2015, hosting sporadic shows, before becoming fully licensed in 2018.
Market Hotel, however, was a special case. In 2014, 285 Kent, Glasslands, and Death by Audio all closed in part to make room for the new headquarters of Vice Media; Shea Stadium was forced to shut down in 2017 because of police pressure; and Silent Barn — after being raided by MARCH in 2011, reopening legitimately in a new location in 2012, and then recovering from a fire in 2015 — was forced to close in 2018 for the cruelest reason of all: The rent was too damn high.
Lynch hasn’t stopped taping shows, but over the past few years, he’s watched some of his NYCTaper colleagues and other friends from the Brooklyn DIY scene leave the city and scatter across the country. With exorbitant rents, high cost-of-living, and constant pressure from the authorities, New York City has grown particularly hostile to these types of DIY endeavors, or even the simple desire to live here as an artist, or to live here at all without a job on Wall Street.
“A bunch of 21-year-old kids opening up a venue, they’re not gonna be able to do it anymore,” he says. “And some of those people were the best people to do it because of their youth, their enthusiasm, and their knowledge of music — and their energy can’t be matched by a bunch of corporations coming in and setting up a fake DIY venue. At this point, I feel like one of the problems of what happened in Brooklyn is that the government decided to put their foot down and that squelched out a lot of the production of high-quality music. Things have changed a lot.”
Lynch’s description of the dismantling of the Brooklyn DIY resonates, in a way, with the protests that have swept through the borough and the rest of the city. It’s that same youthful energy and enthusiasm that’s driving the fight for racial equality and an end to police brutality — and it’s the same forces that remain bent on squashing them.