Sam Bankman-Fried’s criminal fraud trial was not the only high-stakes struggle that unfolded this past month at the federal courthouse in Manhattan.
There was also the line to get in.
Over five weeks, the trial — with its mix of cryptocurrency intrigue and tabloid-worthy romance — attracted an unusually varied crew of reporters, crypto YouTubers, documentary filmmakers and aspiring influencers. Everyone wanted to sit in the gallery to see Mr. Bankman-Fried in the flesh.
But there were only 21 seats available to the public in the 26th-floor courtroom, and the competition for access created a kind of arms race. If someone lined up outside at 5 a.m., someone else would try to make it by 4 a.m. the next day.
A few spectators went to absurd lengths to secure a seat. When it became clear that Mr. Bankman-Fried was planning to testify, a committed trial watcher got on a plane in London, flew overnight to New York and went straight from his hotel to the courthouse, arriving around 1 a.m. The following evening, a freelance journalist showed up just after 10:30 p.m. and huddled in the chill until the courthouse doors opened nine hours later.
I stood in this line every day of the trial. Believe it or not, it was kind of fun. The gossip flowed freely. When it wasn’t too cold, the vibes were great.
To maintain order, a group of us created a document known as “the list,” a sign-in sheet that recorded the order in which people arrived to wait. Everyone outside the first 21 was sent to a set of overflow rooms, where a video feed played on individual TV monitors.
In my view, the advantages of the list system were clear: You could leave the courthouse to take a walk or buy coffee without worrying that someone would steal your spot. At least initially, the reaction to the list was overwhelmingly positive. When I signed people in one morning, a colleague greeted me as the “head camp counselor of the trial” — a dubious honor, I’m aware — and thanked the early-morning crew for keeping everything organized.
But heavy is the head that wears the crown. One morning, a coup nearly broke out around 7 a.m. A man who had arrived too late to get a seat accosted the reporter who was managing the list for the day, saying he didn’t understand our “customs.” He suggested that signatures on the sign-in sheet might have been forged to allow a clique of establishment media types to make it inside.
We were a little rattled. But a friendly YouTuber who goes by the name Taco volunteered to offer enforcement if any disappointed spectators grew unruly, and the tensions eased after a few days.
On Mr. Bankman-Fried’s final day of cross-examination, I arrived at the courthouse before 1 a.m. About a dozen of us huddled in the cold, waiting for the crowds to arrive. No one materialized.
“We played ourselves,” someone said around 6 a.m., when it was clear we all could have slept in.
But a couple of hours later, when I took my seat in the courtroom, with a perfect view of the witness stand, I came to a different conclusion: It was worth it.