Legal Community Steps Up to Support Movement Against Police Violence

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December 18, 2014
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The legal community has publicly stepped up to provide direct support to protesters against police violence, and has recently begun to take direct action in the streets as an expression of solidarity. In Ferguson and greater St. Louis, where diverse tactics have played out over the last four months since Michael Brown was murdered by police officer Darren Wilson, police have been especially brutal, assaulting scores of largely peaceful protesters and arresting more than 500 people, at least 70 of whom have been charged with felonies.

The National Lawyers Guild (NLG) has trained more than 200 Legal Observers to monitor the behavior of law enforcement at street protests and blockades in the St. Louis area. Hundreds of lawyers, law students, and legal workers have also volunteered their support in the “Gateway City.” To coordinate this effort, elements of the legal community came together and formed the Ferguson Legal Defense Committee (FLDC), made up of lawyers, legal groups and others from around the country, including the ACLU, ArchCity Defenders, Center for Constitutional Rights, Don’t Shoot Coalition, Missourians Organizing for Reform and Empowerment, National Lawyers Guild, National Police Accountability Project, and Organization for Black Struggle.

The FLDC has become a clearinghouse for volunteer lawyers and legal workers who want to support the protests in St. Louis, and the group has been integral to visiting arrestees in jail to ensure their well-being, and providing them legal representation, as well as conducting research for legal actions. FLDC members were responsible for obtaining the temporary restraining order a federal judge issued earlier this month that restricted police use of tear gas, pepper spray, and other “chemical agents” without warning. The order was the result of a lawsuit filed by political activists and an NLG legal observer against police departments in the city of St. Louis, St. Louis County, and the Missouri Highway Patrol.

Law students normally buried in schoolwork dropped classes in the weeks before the grand jury announcement to travel from around the country to St. Louis and provide direct support in anticipation of increased protests and police repression. Law students who couldn’t make the trek to the Midwest staged die-ins and other forms of resistance on their own campuses. In the weeks since grand juries in St. Louis and New York decided not to indict the killers of Brown and Eric Garner, mass demonstrations have occurred in at least 170 U.S. cities, with marches, die-ins, and arrests linked to the closure of freeways and bridges.

The NLG has dispatched scores of legal observers and actively monitored the police during demonstrations in cities including Atlanta, Austin, Boston, Chicago, Cleveland, Denver, Detroit, Los Angeles, Miami, Minneapolis, New York, Oakland, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Seattle, and Washington. Lawyers have also joined protesters in the street and engaged in direct action themselves. Most recently, attorneys and other legal professionals staged their own demonstrations outside of courthouses and detention centers in California, New York, and Pennsylvania.

On Dec. 16, more than 250 lawyers, law students, law professors, and others held a die-in, blocking traffic outside of the Stanley Mosk Courthouse in Los Angeles. “What we want to do is show the diversity of voices that are calling for change,” co-organizer Priscilla Ocen, a professor at Loyola Law School, told the Huffington Post. “All facets of American society are impacted by this.” On Dec. 17, at least 200 New York City public defenders from the Legal Aid Society, members of United Auto Workers Local 2325, joined a march and die-in outside of the Brooklyn Detention Complex, chanting “I can’t breathe,” and holding signs that read, “We are the #publicdefenders of NYC” and “We are saying #ThisStopsToday.”

“We marched as public defenders to stand in solidarity with our clients facing the daily brutality and dehumanization of the criminal-justice system and racist, violent policing,” said Bina Ahmad, a Legal Aid public defender in Staten Island and a national co-vice president of the NLG. Commenting on how the legal system operates exactly the way it was meant to, by protecting the elite, the wealthy and those in power, she called for such injustices to stop today. Lawyers also walked out in Philadelphia that day, and held a die-in at the Criminal Justice Center.

Following in their footsteps, public defenders held protests on Dec. 18 in several Bay Area cities, including Oakland and San Francisco. “We are here to say that our criminal-justice system has no credibility when it fails to hold police officers accountable for the killing of black and brown people,” said San Francisco public defender Jeff Adachi, addressing dozens of attorneys on the steps of the Hall of Justice while wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with the words, “Hands up, don’t shoot.”