The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Is this ‘Thunderdome’ or the line to get into the Depp-Heard trial?

The people who camp out at the Fairfax County Courthouse to get a seat during testimony tried to keep order, but chaos prevailed. So did a sense of community.

People wait in line to get a wristband to enter the court during the final week of the celebrity trial. (Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images)
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In the darkest of night, Johnny Depp is nowhere near the Fairfax County Courthouse. But his fans are here, in legion, on the grassy lawns or hiding in the parking garage, waiting for the clock to strike 1 a.m., so they can get a spot on a very important stretch of sidewalk. It gets tense. There is a “Lord of the Flies” vibe, or maybe “The Hunger Games.” (“Thunderdome,” one participant calls it, referencing the Mad Max movie: Two men enter, one man leaves.)

All they want is a seat in the courtroom to watch the waning days of the defamation trial between Depp and his ex-wife Amber Heard. Fans travel to Northern Virginia from around the world, eager to try to land a seat in the courtroom. Only 100 spectators are allowed in each day, first-come, first-served, but many more show up to try to get a place in line, leading to confusion, shouting matches, online shaming and at least one physical altercation captured on video. Among them, they have tried honor systems, numbering processes, decent manners. Yet chaos has a way of taking over.

“People are running from here, they’re running from the garage, they’re running from under the stairwell,” a sheriff’s deputy said Wednesday morning to one unhappy fan, who explained repeatedly that she was told she could line up no earlier than 1 a.m., but around 12:45 a.m., people started lining up anyway and then all the spots were quickly taken. “We can’t control where they run from.”

Everything to know as the defamation trial wraps up this week

“I follow the rules,” the woman pleaded. “I don’t break the rules, I follow the rules.” The deputy, though appearing mildly sympathetic, was unmoved.

Sean Worth, who drove in from Doylestown, Pa., had a similar experience. He arrived at 8 p.m. and was told he could not line up on the sidewalk next to the building before 1 a.m. or risk getting kicked out and banned from the courtroom. So he left and returned around 12:30 a.m., only to see a huge crowd of people on the grass across the street. Some were clutching pillows, blankets and sleeping bags, and they suddenly started running toward the building.

By the time he parked and walked over, another group was sprinting over. “It was just chaos,” Worth said. “People were running to get in the front but there were already people there, yelling, ‘Go to the back! Go to the back! Get out!’ So we just ended up in the back.”

Although the 1 a.m. rule was recently established in print — “The line for the Johnny Depp and Amber Heard case spectators are not permitted to loiter or camp out on the judicial complex before 1 a.m.” reads a sign on the courthouse wall — it seems open to interpretation. Spectators say they have been told different things by different deputies about what time they can actually line up. A 10-minute difference determines who gets in and who doesn’t.

“They still don’t just have anything figured out,” said Marcia Billingy of Baltimore County, who said she got there at 7 p.m., was ordered to leave, and returned at 1 a.m. to find the line full. “They can’t even communicate what time we’re allowed to be here officially, and I feel that just says a lot.”

Andrea Ceisler, public information officer for the Fairfax County Sheriff’s Office, could not verify specific issues from line-standers because she did not know the sources. “We are doing the very best we can in an unusual case and have received very positive and complimentary feedback from people around the world,” Ceisler said.

The sheriff’s office, she added, is experiencing a “serious staffing shortage” with a vacancy rate of nearly 15 percent, and is committed to operating the adjacent Adult Detention Center and providing security for the courthouse and judicial process. Fairfax City police responded to an altercation in the line Sunday night, she confirmed.

It was not always like this. When the trial started on April 12, the line was uneventful. Deputies set up a table in front of the courthouse at 7 a.m. and give out 100 spectator wristbands until 9:30 a.m., or until they were all distributed. Fifty wristbands are available for an overflow room with a live feed of the courtroom, but those are much less coveted.

The same rules apply to reporters, causing some chagrin. Judge Penney Azcarate ruled that journalists are treated no differently than any other spectator. To be in the courtroom, everyone has to wait in line.

In the early days, a few people showed up at dawn, but you could arrive close to 9 a.m. and get a wristband without a problem. As Depp’s turn on the witness stand approached in April, the lines got longer, and people arrived earlier and earlier. The first day Heard testified this month, the 100th person allowed in arrived just after 5 a.m. Then, people started camping overnight. Soon, if you were not lined up by around 10 p.m. the day before, you were out of luck.

Johnny Depp has already won his case among his biggest fans

Though some people say they are neutral and just curious about a celebrity trial, Depp’s most loyal fans make up much of the line, undeterred by an overnight stay on the sidewalk. They want to see him in person and show their support. Rumors fly about how early some showed up, in some cases more than 24 hours ahead of the court session.

“We had a great numbering system for a while. Did you know about that?” Scott Cardinal of New York asked, somewhat wistfully, Wednesday morning. Indeed, the number system has a legendary reputation in the line: According to lawyer and YouTuber Ian Runkle, a woman named Dusty recently created it because she saw “chaos manifesting” and wanted to prevent line-cutters.

Screaming matches occurred when latecomers tried to sneak in, while others posted their pictures on social media to shame them. Thanks to Dusty, each person received a colorful sticker made of duct tape with a number written on it in Sharpie when they arrived. For a time, that seemed to work peacefully.

Unfortunately, neither Dusty nor the numbering system could claim any official power, which ticked off fans who were not getting stickers. It fell apart earlier this week when a woman showed up and said she had no intention of following the system and, according to eyewitnesses and video clips, caused such a ruckus that deputies eventually made everyone get out of line and wait across the street. This reordered everything, to the dismay of those who were shuffled out of the first 100.

Though people speak lovingly and quietly of the number system, it had its flaws. (The deputies don’t even want to hear about it anymore.) Last week, numbered people were waiting in a parking garage, but another crowd was waiting on the lawn.

“They didn’t know about the garage people, and the garage people didn’t know about these people,” said Cardinal, comparing the scene to “Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome” and other dystopian works. “So everybody’s mad at each other. But you almost can’t be mad. Because we were organized, and they were organized, so how do you say our system was the right one?”

Ceisler, from the sheriff’s office, said: “Regarding the numbering system created by people in the line, that was not the sheriff’s office numbering system. In fact, it was not the numbering system for all the people in line. The system was reportedly unfair and chaotic, and only some in line chose to participate.”

Despite the frustration of many in these final crowded days of the trial, those who stay overnight say they have no regrets, and it can be a nicer experience than expected. Yes, they are camped out on concrete in the cold for hours, but they talk and play games and hang out with YouTubers, some of whom live-stream the activity in the line.

Others order pizzas and doughnuts and coffee for everyone, or pass around snacks. They go in pairs to the bathroom in the detention center. In this way, are they all that different from people who have camped out for Springsteen tickets, Star Wars movies or iPhones? Has obsession offered them a new sense of belonging?

“It was like an adult slumber party,” said K.B. Plesnik of Baltimore on Monday, waiting in her car and hoping the deputies wouldn’t kick her out of the garage. “We’re taking care of each other.”

correction

A previous version of this article incorrectly said that Fairfax County sheriff's deputies responded to an altercation on Sunday night in the line of people waiting to get into the Johnny Depp-Amber Heard trial. Fairfax City police responded to that incident. The article has been corrected.

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