Protests in Ferguson, Missouri after the killing of Michael Brown. Photo by Purvi Shah (2014)
By Purvi Shah
As U.S social movements transition from defense of democracy during the 2020 election to the battles for deep-going change just ahead, several groups rooted in the legal community have written a letter to lawyers, legal workers, and law students proposing a framework for action in the next phase. This “Love Letter to Our Legal Community” offers “ten tips to start and stay grounded in connecting law with social justice organizing.” Authors of the letter are from the Movement Law Lab, a national organization with global programs; The Detroit Justice Center in Detroit, Michigan; the East Bay Community Law Center in Berkeley, California; and Georgetown University Law Center in Washington D.C.
While this letter is focused on the legal community, its insights transcend that component of today’s radical eco-system. The spirit and core of this collective message – which concludes with a call to “commit to the long arc of social change and get comfortable with being uncomfortable” – is a spur to action across fields, disciplines, and sectors.
The full text of “A Love Letter to Our Legal Community” is below.
A CALL TO ACTION AFTER THE 2020 ELECTIONS
Dear Legal Community,
This summer, we saw the largest mobilization of protest in U.S. history. Across the country, communities rose up in love and rage, for Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Tony McDade, Rayshard Brooks, and so many other Black people killed by police. The movement is clear that reforms of recent years have done nothing to keep Black people safe. With demands to #DefundPolice and invest in needed community resources, organizers offer us a vision for true collective safety. From the summer of 2020 to the elections and beyond, there is more at stake than we could possibly list. Whether you are new to the struggle or not, we invite you to join us in opposing repression, strengthening vital movements, and advancing a society that is truly democratic, fair, and free.
As tens of thousands of people have taken to the streets, lawyers have moved in to partner with them. In Detroit alone, more than 150 local attorneys have come forward to defend protestors. From coast to coast, the legal community has come forward in an outpouring of support.
Moving forward we are building on the wave of protests that erupted across the country this summer. We have witnessed the brutal crackdown on protesters, amidst the backdrop of the COVID-19 pandemic. Voter suppression, armed white supremacist militias, and threats about the government’s unjustified use of power to retain control persisted during the elections. The struggle continues and now is the time for lawyers to meet this moment.
Lawyers, legal workers, law students – you may ask yourself, what is my role in all of this? Are you wondering if there is a place for you in the fight against anti-Black racism and the struggles for freedom and liberation?
We are here to tell you: we NEED you.
From the Civil Rights Movement to the Movement for Black Lives, and throughout history, lawyers have stood with people working to change oppressive systems. Dozens of lawsuits have been filed nationwide challenging curfews and the use of tear gas. Teams of lawyers are behind the scenes drafting policies, advising on mutual aid efforts, organizing rapid response legal support, and showing lawmakers how to be a part of the solution, instead of the problem.
Unfortunately, history also reveals how lawyers have trampled on the radical energy of movements, worked at cross-purposes with the aims of movement leaders, and ultimately done more harm than good. Working productively with movements requires skill and clarity of purpose. Traditionally, law schools have not taught us about social movements, organizing, or leveraging law to support resistance.
From our collective experiences, we pen this letter to you, boldly and lovingly. Whether you are new to lawyering or new to movement lawyering, here are ten tips to start and stay grounded in connecting law with social justice organizing.
FOLLOW THE LEADERSHIP OF MOVEMENT ORGANIZERS
Tip No. 1: Follow the leadership of movement organizers, especially Black-led grassroots organizations. Our commitment to truth, purpose, and integrity requires us to work alongside and at the direction of grassroots movements. Listen to people from the most impacted communities – those who speak from direct lived experience. Do not parachute in with your own plans. Solve the problems that the grassroots actually need you to solve. Ask groups what they need, deliver, repeat. Over and over again.
People bearing the brunt of oppression possess the most acute understanding of what needs to change – and the best ideas for how to do that. To support this and be effective in building power, movement lawyers must listen to the leadership of Black-led organizations, especially those whose members and leaders hold intersectional marginalized identities (e.g., Black trans folks, Black migrants, Black disabled folks). To learn more about what Black-led grassroots groups are fighting for check out: THE MOVEMENT FOR BLACK LIVES.
Tip No. 2: Build power, not dependency. Sustainable social change stems from people taking collective action to transform power. We have dozens of opportunities each day to either build power or create dependency. The role of legal advocates is to make space for, bolster, protect, and build the power of organized people. Rather than “gatekeep” power, transfer skills, opportunities, and resources in ways that empower. Ask: How can we bolster the power of grassroots communities and better elevate the leadership of directly impacted people?
Tip No. 3: Justice is a team sport – join up with others. Support and join the Movement for Black Lives. Your local BLM chapter. Black Youth Project 100. Showing Up for Racial Justice. Attend an open meeting of a grassroots organization. Join formations of progressive lawyers, be it the local chapter of the National Conference of Black Lawyers, the National Lawyers Guild, or a local Law 4 Black Lives affiliate. Connect with other lawyers, legal workers, or law students who are committed to the people. Your help might be useful in coordinating legal resources, compiling tools to support organizations, or something tailored to a specific problem a community seeks to solve. There are so many ways you can meet the moment. Work in teams.
Tip No. 4: Policing the Polls is not Voter Protection. The president lacks the authority to use the U.S. military to interfere with the election. The Department of Justice may observe elections for compliance, yet may not send armed agents to the polls. In the 1980s, the Republican Party recruited off-duty officers to go to the polls armed and wearing official-looking uniforms to police the polls, targeting Black and Brown communities. In the context of Trump’s call to the Proud Boys, this has been a concern.
DEFEND AND SUPPORT PROTESTORS
Tip No. 5: Defend and support protestors. History tells us that when people protest, the state unleashes the police force to silence political speech. Mass arrests result in a mass need for jail support, bail, and legal representation. If a legal/jail support formation exists, support it. If it does not exist, build it in conjunction with community needs and movement aims.
Money makes a difference. Pretrial incarceration is a function of systemic injustice, not least of which is poverty and the inability to afford bail. Helping post bail is critical; release strengthens a person’s ability to fight a case and in this COVID-19 pandemic, pretrial detention may result in life-threatening exposure to the virus.
It is no secret that Black and undocumented people face heavier risks for exercising civil rights – be mindful of this. If your client is not a U.S. citizen, advise them effectively about consequences they may face. Responsibly share materials such as Cop/ICE Watch Guide. Nothing here constitutes legal advice.
Provide zealous representation. Protesters will need counsel in arraignments, bond hearings, through a trial process, and possibly on appeal. Representing someone against criminal charges is an important responsibility, and whether the case is a misdemeanor or a felony, the stakes are high. Prepare, investigate, seek advice, and become trained. If you are already seasoned, consider mentoring someone who is not. Contact the NLG Mass Defense Program and learn more through the NACDL — First Amendment Strike Force and Mass Defense Unit. Political speech is protected speech and protest defense involves special considerations. Be cognizant of the whole picture of your client’s life and relentless in your pursuit to get your client free.
Collaborate with your client. Fight like hell.
Tip No. 6: Respect the work of organizers and understand how direct action fits into broader efforts for social change. Direct action (civil disobedience such as protests, rallies, sit-ins) is part of ongoing organizing work. For decades, local organizations have been working toward racial justice — fighting for affordable and accessible housing, creating restorative justice infrastructure, building mutual aid networks, fighting for water as a human right, shutting down jails, working on participatory budgeting, and more. Protests fit into a longer arc of non-stop movement efforts — the unglamorous work of building relationships, forming coalitions, strategizing, and more. Use your privilege to protect people.
Tip No. 7: Support local campaigns and grassroots, community demands. Grassroots efforts are effective. This is evident in the wave of national uprisings — for example, after ten years of organizing and advocacy, Black Organizing Project (BOP) successfully defunded the Oakland School Police Department. Nationwide, organizers have blocked new police union contracts, kicked police out of schools and parks, rewritten city charters to dissolve police departments, and secured hard-won investments in housing, restorative justice, and more. Start volunteering before the next crisis moment. Learn about police spending in your city. Join local efforts. Ask organizers how lawyers, legal workers, or law students might assist.
Tip No. 8: Learn about corporate law and how corporate power leads to collective suffering. For those of you working in the corporate sector (to pay off loans or otherwise) you too have work to do. Is there a mutual aid network starting in your community? Explore combining your corporate governance skills with anti-oppressive practices like healing and restorative and transformative justice. Help build structures that don’t replicate traditional corporate harms. Do not dictate, but translate, how corporations structure our daily lives toward never-ending suffering.
Whether it’s the manipulation of global supply chains that led to PPE being hyper-centralized in a handful of countries, phone makers spying on our conversations to subsequently sell us ads, the largest companies in dozens of industries buying up their competition, or multinationals exploiting labor and centering shareholders, corporate actors behave in insidious ways that few people fully understand but all feel – whether they know it or not. Learn antitrust law, mergers & acquisitions law, corporate governance and tax law. Study alternative economic models – e.g., how to form worker cooperatives – and help folks think through the links between capitalism and our courts, corporate consolidation in an era of COVID-19, policing Black/brown bodies while protecting white elite-owned property, and abolition with alternative economies.
Tip No. 9: Challenge yourself to be accountable to outcomes. When you hear that voice inside you asking critical questions, pay attention. Ask yourself: Am I fundamentally helping transform power relations? Do my daily choices “gatekeep” or build power? Do I treat symptoms or root causes of injustice? Challenge yourself to go beyond good intentions, and work toward transformative outcomes.
We are living in times where each day brings a new set of threats and challenges. Be practical about COVID-19 safety – bring masks for yourself and extras for anyone else who might need one. Communities need legal support for their organizing efforts over the long-term. Power is not transformed overnight.
Tip No. 10: Commit to the long arc of social change and get comfortable with being uncomfortable. We all have a role to play in movement work. Changing systems and cultures requires all kinds of skills. Be beholden to communities, not legal tactics. Practice self-care. Be creative. Engage your radical imagination. Be nimble. Pivot your tactics and strategies when communities and the moment so demand. Cultivate your capacity to make mistakes, fail, self-reflect, and learn from those moments.
Amanda Alexander, Detroit Justice Center
Purvi Shah, Movement Law Lab
Bahar Mirhosseni, Movement Law Lab
Seema N. Patel, East Bay Community Law Center & Berkeley Law
Julian M. Hill, Georgetown University Law Center
Ruby-Beth Buitekant, Movement Law Lab