WHAT WE CAN DO
MOVEMENT LAWYERING IN MOMENTS OF CRISIS
This week, grim videos of the police killings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile dominated social media. Alton, Philando, Delrawn Small in Brooklyn, Jay Anderson in Milwaukee, and Henry Green in Ohio are among the latest Black people killed by police in a daily and brutal pattern of anti-Black state violence. People took to the streets in communities across the country, but their calls for justice and accountability were interrupted by the actions of a lone gunman who took the lives of five Dallas police officers.
As we come to grips with the senseless events of this past week, we stand by families who are experiencing unimaginable grief, pain, confusion and exhaustion. We are grieving and angry too. That is why we must return to the work of radically transforming the systems that devalue life and focus their aggression on Black communities. The movement for Black liberation needs our support. As lawyers, law students and legal workers, we have to organize each other to show up for directly impacted communities, for Black organizers and Black-led organizations.
Movement lawyering means taking direction from directly impacted communities and from organizers, as opposed to imposing our leadership or expertise as legal advocates. It means building the power of the people, not the power of the law. Support is needed this weekend not only as people take to the streets and hold spaces to collectively heal, but also as we work over the long haul to dismantle systems of oppression including white supremacy, cis-heteropatriarchy, and capitalism in our country.
If you are seeking ways to get involved, here are some suggestions to do so in a way that is centered in the idea that real transformation comes from people’s struggle:
Show up in community spaces this weekend. You might legal observe through your local National Lawyers Guild office, provide legal advice to copwatch programs or organizers seeking input, or simply participate in a grieving space. Rising tensions historically have led to increased surveillance and state oppression, meaning legal support is needed now more than ever.
Build relationships with community organizers working towards transformative social change in your city. Movement lawyering is based on building relationships of trust with organizers. It requires patience and creativity. It requires being part of a team and following direction from organizers. Look up your local grassroots racial justice and human/civil rights organizations - Facebook is often a good tool. Show up. Go to meetings, listen, build with leaders. Ask how you can support the grassroots.
Connect with other lawyers, legal workers, and law students to assess collective capacity and build community. It can be isolating to work towards transforming the legal system within a profession that lends itself to maintaining the status quo. In this dynamic, it is important to find like-minded people looking to support people’s movements instead. Join or create a space for movement lawyering in your city or school. You might find those folks through Law for Black Lives, the National Lawyers Guild, National Conference for Black Lawyers, the Black Law Students Association, at your local legal aid, public defenders offices or your law firm. Get together and assess the skills you bring to the table, and the relationships you might already have to community organizers working for radical change and racial justice. If you are already an experienced movement lawyer, this is your time to hold space: call a meeting, bring people together.
Organize a reflection and grieving space at your law office or law school. This is a moment to bring people together to process, grieve, and reflect. Discuss how anti-Black state violence and the impunity that surrounds it is a core challenge to how we often think, talk and operate within the legal system. Acknowledge the emotional trauma of this moment for colleagues of color, particularly Black colleagues. How are we each part of the problem? How can we each be part of the solution? Treating ourselves and those closest to us with love and dignity is one of the most radical acts we can engage in.
Commit yourself to using law to build power for the people. Traditional approaches to lawyering, even public interest lawyering, often reinforce the status quo, rather than build for transformative change. What steps can you take in your own practice to change this? How can you lawyer as a way to build people power? To dismantle white supremacy? Are there opportunities to legal observe and advise on protest and civil disobedience? To plug into campaigns for change that might benefit from policy support whether in criminal justice, housing, or beyond? Can you offer meeting space, money, or food for local organizers? Read this and this--and if you’re still hungry this--as a way to reflect on your practice, and what it means to be a movement lawyer.
Stay connected and engaged with us. We are working to build trainings and ways for our network to gather and support the movement--but we need to hear from you about what you need. For most of us, movement lawyering is a different approach than what we grew up around or what we learned in law school. We think power and change comes from the grassroots not from the courts, and we encourage you to ground yourselves in your local contexts. But we also understand that lawyers working with organizers require a different ethos and sometimes different skills than traditional lawyering. We are in the process of developing trainings: let us know what kind of support you need and what kind of trainings you would like to see.
For more ideas about what you can do check out:
- 15 Things Your City Can Do Right Now to End Police Brutality by Zak Cheney Rice
- Someone Else Was Killed By The Police On My Timeline. What Can I Do? by Derecka Purnell
To read more about movement lawyering check out:
- Community Lawyering by Purvi Shah & Chuck Elsesser
- 20 Tools for Movement Lawyering by Bill Quigley
- Movement Lawyering Reading Guide
To learn what movement organizations are saying check out:
- In Defense of Black Rage & Black Resistance by BYP100
- The Black Lives Matter Network advocates for dignity, justice & respect. by Black Lives Matter
For resources on self-care check out: