Protests in Ferguson, Missouri after the killing of Michael Brown. Photographer Purvi Shah (2014).

Protests in Ferguson, Missouri after the killing of Michael Brown. Photographer Purvi Shah (2014).


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, shouting the names of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Tony McDade, Rayshard Brooks, and so many other Black people killed by police. The movement is absolutely clear that the reforms of recent years have done nothing to keep Black people safe. With demands to #DefundPolice and invest in much needed community resources, organizers are offering us a vision for true collective safety. From the summer of 2020 to this election season, there is more at stake than we could possibly list. Whether you are new to the struggle against government and corporate power or you are a veteran in these fights, 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. In other cities and towns too, the legal community has come forward in an outpouring of support. Lawyers, legal workers, and law students across the country, you may be asking yourself, what can I do? What is my role in this movement? How can I use law and advocacy to fight against anti-Black racism and for liberation and freedom?

As this disturbing election season looms, we are joining forces to build 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 itself is a battleground, armed white supremacist militias are a special concern, and the government’s arbitrary or unreasonable use of power to seize control looms on the horizon. Now is the time for lawyers to meet this moment.

We are here to tell you: we NEED you.

From the Civil Rights Movement of the past to the Movement for Black Lives of the present, lawyers throughout history have stood with courageous 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 movement leaders’ efforts, and ultimately done more harm than good. For lawyers, working productively alongside movements requires skill and clarity of purpose; it is no surprise that most lawyers are not afforded the acute training and skill needed to be effective in these moments. Law schools don’t teach us about social movements, organizing, or how to use law to support communities in resistance.

We therefore pen this letter to you, boldly and lovingly, to offer some insight. We seek to share with you what we do know, and what we have collectively learned over years of supporting movements. Whether you are new to lawyering or new to movement lawyering, here are eleven tips for getting involved while staying grounded in the understanding that real transformation comes from connecting law to social justice organizing.

1. Follow the leadership of movement organizers, especially Black-led grassroots organizations.

As movement lawyers, our commitment to truth, purpose, and integrity requires us to work alongside, and at the direction of, grassroots movements. Communities develop resistance strategies; it is the movement lawyer’s job to administer legal support to those strategies. Be humble. Listen to people from the most impacted communities — those who speak directly from lived experience. Do not parachute in and impose your own plans. Do not insert your own agenda or assume that your legal tactics are superior to those that grassroots organizers may use. Most importantly, provide support that is actually needed, respond to specific problems for which organized groups seek your help. Ask people what they need, deliver, repeat — over and over again.

Remember that people experiencing 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, movement lawyers must specifically 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 right now check out: Movement for Black Lives Electoral Justice Voter Fund and BLACK NOVEMBER — M4BL.

2. Build power, not dependency. Sustainable social change happens when people take collective action to transform power. As movement lawyers, 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. Do not “gatekeep” your power. Rather, transfer skills in a way that empowers communities. Ask: What would allow community members to more effectively take on the next fight? How can we execute legal tactics in a way that better elevates the leadership of directly impacted people? What additional skills, connections, and capacity will organizers have after our interaction? How can we ensure that if we are not around next time, people will have what they need?

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 in your community. 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. If there isn’t one of these organizations in your region, start one. Connect with other lawyers or law students who are committed to the people. Work in teams.

There are so many different ways you can meet the moment. Your help might be useful in coordinating and streamlining legal resources, creating/compiling tools to support organizations, or something entirely unique tailored to a specific problem a community is seeking to solve.

4. Track and Report Voter Suppression. Voter intimidation is rampant. This includes aggressively questioning voters about qualifications, falsely presenting as an elections official, and spreading misinformation. This misinformation includes robocall misstatements of voting times, false reports of police presence/immigration enforcement, and election “monitoring” by armed individuals. This election cycle, the presence of unauthorized private militia groups is of special concern. These paramilitary groups are not protected under the Second Amendment nor under the laws of any state.

To report voter intimidation, visit the Election Protection Homepage or call their hotline: 1–866-OUR VOTE / 1–888-VE-Y-VOTA (Español). State specific resources on voter suppression include: ArizonaFloridaGeorgiaMichiganNevadaPennsylvania, and Wisconsin. Help prevent cyber suppression by verifying information before sharing it.

5. Know the Line between Policing the Polls and Voter Protection. The president lacks the authority to deploy the U.S. military to interfere with the election. Similarly, he cannot send the Department of Homeland Security to monitor the election without violating the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Although the Department of Justice is allowed to observe elections for compliance with federal voting rights laws, it cannot send armed agents to the polls.

State and local law enforcement may be allowed at the polls, only when called upon by an election official to protect public safety. These officers are barred from interfering with the election and in many states it is a crime if they show up without being called.

The National Guard has units under both federal and state command. Like the military, the federal units cannot lawfully be deployed to monitor the polls. While most states have similar laws, even in those without, these units are still subject to state voting rights and anti-discrimination laws. Lastly, while off-duty members of the various law enforcement branches are allowed to vote in person and serve as poll workers, they are subject to the same laws as the general public. In the 1980s, the Republican Party recruited off-duty police officers to show up to the polls armed and wearing official-looking uniforms to police the polls. This “monitoring” targeted Black and Brown communities. While this is a heightened concern this election, especially in the context of Trump’s call to the Proud Boys in August, this sort of “monitoring” is illegal under both federal and state laws.

6. Defend protestors. In the coming weeks and months, we may experience a rising tide of repression. This, alongside the vast uncertainty surrounding this election season and what potential transitions of power will look like, may result in people taking to the streets. Mass arrests may erupt at polling places, in front of government buildings, and in cities across the U.S. Although we do not have a crystal ball, what we do know is that when the people make their voices heard through protest — the state almost always unleashes police force to silence political speech.

History and experience tell us that protests result in folks needing jail support, bail, legal representation, and beyond. Beyond protest defense, you may be answering calls on a jail support hotline, conducting jail visits, helping post bail, or receiving arrestees as they are released. If a legal support/jail support formation exists, find out how you can best support it. If the infrastructure 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 because release strengthens a person’s ability to fight a case and because during this COVID-19 pandemic, pretrial detention may result in life-threatening exposure to the virus.

Responsibly share Election Organizing Know-Your-Rights Information. It is no secret that Black and undocumented people face heavier risks for exercising civil rights — be mindful of this. Read the Cop/ICE Watch Guide and this Toolkit for the Movement.

Provide zealous representation. Protesters will need representation in arraignments, bond hearings, and through a trial process. 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 not already seasoned). Contact the local coordinator of mass defense or the National Lawyers Guild Mass Defense Program. Watch this webinar presented by Martin Stolar, through the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (NACDL) on Representing Protesters. 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.

7. Respect the work of organizers and understand how direct action fits into broader efforts for social change. This year’s protests have been visible expressions of movement work — but direct action (protests, marches, rallies, vigils, civil disobedience) is one small part of ongoing organizing work. This moment and these demands have been long in the making. 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. The protests fit into a longer arc of non-stop movement work — it’s the unglamorous work of building relationships, building alternatives, coalition building, political education, power mapping, researching problems, and more. As a lawyer, rather than trying to “direct” the energy of protests, listen and learn from leaders and grassroots voices. Use your privilege to protect people.

8. Support local campaigns and grassroots, community demands. Grassroots efforts are effective. We have seen the power of grassroots efforts 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. Organizers across the country have effectively blocked new police union contracts, kicked police out of schools and parks, rewritten city charters to dissolve police departments, and fought for and secured investments in housing, restorative justice, and more. Start volunteering before the next crisis moment and learn about police spending in your city, join local grassroots efforts, and take action in support of community demands. Ask organizers what their strategies are and how lawyers might assist.

9. Learn about corporate law and how expanding corporate power leads to collective suffering. For those of you currently working in the corporate sector, or those that are interested in the corporate sector (to pay off loans or otherwise), or those who have close friends or relatives in that sector, you have work to do, too. Is there a mutual aid network starting in your community? See where offering to combine your corporate governance skills with anti-oppressive practices like healing and restorative and transformative justice can be useful for building structures that don’t replicate the harms of traditional corporate governance systems. Do not dictate to folks, but translate, the ways in which 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 foreign 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 people feel — whether they know it or not. Learn antitrust law, mergers & acquisitions law, corporate governance and tax law and study alternative economic models — e.g., how to form worker cooperatives — and help folks think through the linkages between capitalism and our courts, corporate consolidation and COVID-19, policing Black and brown bodies and protecting white- and elite-owned property, and abolition and alternative economies.

10. Challenge yourself to be accountable to outcomes. When you hear that voice inside you asking quietly: “Am I really making things better?” Or asking, “Is the legal work I’m involved in truly radical?” Pay attention to these critical questions. Ask yourself: Am I fundamentally helping transform power relations, or does my legal work simply tinker at the margins by treating the symptoms of injustice instead of the root causes? When this voice rises up inside you — don’t shut it down.

Deepen your inquiry. Challenge yourself to go beyond mere good intentions, and instead work toward transformative outcomes. To do this effectively, find your people, work through these questions with them, and tend to those relationships.

We are living in times where each day brings a new set of threats and challenges. Election season alone is rife with uncertainty — we may all need to work to fight back against repression for days, weeks, or months. Be practical about COVID-19 safety — bring masks for yourself and extras for anyone else who might need one. Regardless of the current need, communities will need legal support for their organizing efforts over the long-term. Power is not transformed overnight. Practice self-care and collective care. Sing, create, relax, meditate, garden, make art, laugh, dream — engage in practices that nurture your creativity, because we are going to need it.

11. 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. Be creative. Engage your radical imagination. The way we have always done things will not work. We have no choice but to think of new ways to use law to support our communities. Be nimble enough to 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.

In struggle,

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