Chapter Members Provide Legal Support in Ferguson

Ferguson, MO – What does it mean to be the legal arm of the movement? Ferguson may provide the answer. The community, outraged by the police murder of Michael Brown, took to the streets—and the National Lawyers Guild mobilized to provide legal support.

The situation on the ground is complex, and before traveling to Missouri, NLG members coordinated with local group Missourians Organizing for Reform and Empowerment (MORE) to ensure that the NLG presence would be helpful. Once there, Guild members worked closely with MORE, who had already organized a jail support hotline. Legal observers from around the country traveled to the scene to document the rampant police violence happening on the street. And local and visiting Guild members trained dozens of new legal observers.

A legal observer watches as law enforcement makes an arrest in Ferguson, Missouri.

NLGSF board member Nadia Kayyali is among those who have traveled to Ferguson to help with legal support efforts there. Dan Gregor, a NLGSF member prior to recently taking over as interim executive director at the NLG national office in New York, spent time coordinating the Guild’s work in Ferguson. Legal worker Kris Hermes (also a NLGSF member who has recently relocated) is on the ground in Ferguson now working with Guild members Colleen Flynn and Sarah Coffey to form a local, standing legal collective to establish better ties between political organizers and the legal community. The collective is conducting Know Your Rights and Legal Observer trainings, and beginning to demystify the legal system in order for activists to better confront its injustice.

The Guild has decades of experience providing legal support to large-scale protests. This mass defense work has traditionally been done by Guild members, and has involved advanced planning — training legal observers and recruiting them for specific demonstrations, setting up a hotline, getting information from people planning to attend protests ahead of time in case they are arrested, and more. But as police violence reaches a boiling point, communities will stand up for themselves with spontaneous demonstrations. And the Guild has to be ready to respond. Ferguson is an example of how this could look.

Along with NLG’s traditional mass defense work, there is a move to provide copwatching skills and tools for residents to be able to assert their rights and document police interactions in their neighborhood. Residents of the Canfield Green apartment complex, where Michael Brown was killed, organized themselves for neighborhood security and are working with NLGSF legal worker and WeCopwatch founder Jacob Crawford to acquire and use micro video cameras to monitor police behavior.

“We’re educating residents of Ferguson so they know their rights,” said David Whitt, a Canfield Green resident who is one of the organizers of the Canfield Watchmen. “We’re also equipping residents with body cameras, and training them how to videotape police in order to better protect our community,” continued Whitt. “Filming police behavior is a form of self-defense for us.”

More than 200 cameras have been distributed to Canfield Green and other Ferguson residents, along with training, so far. The effort to raise funds for more cameras and know your rights materials is continuing (see http://www.gofundme.com/Copwatching-in-Ferguson). In September, Crawford returned to Canfield and trained over 100 residents on their right to observe and film the police and their rights in police encounters. He and Whitt are hoping that this project will serve as a model for similar copwatching self empowerment projects around the country in other communities targeted by police racism and violence.

While protests against the murder of Michael Brown are not as frequent as they were in the weeks following his death, they are just as intense and exemplify the residual frustration and resentment felt by residents of Ferguson. The Canfield Watchmen are calling for the arrest and indictment of Police Officer Darren Wilson, the appointment of a special prosecutor, the firing of Ferguson Police Chief Thomas Jackson, the dropping of charges against people protesting the murder of Michael Brown, and respect for the right to observe and document police behavior.

The grand jury considering the indictment of Darren Wilson has extended beyond its typical 6-month term to January 7th, disappointing Ferguson residents who are seeking some sort of justice for the murder of Michael Brown. A lack of action by the grand jury and minimal reforms from the Ferguson City Council has only served to alienate people who see a double-standard in the criminal legal system and has helped spur the formation of groups like the Canfield Watchmen to take responsibility for protecting their community.

“We are part of a larger movement that is unwilling to accept the status quo,” said Whitt. “We’re unwilling to accept police brutality and murder in our community, and we’re demanding accountability.”

In addition to mistreatment by the police, rampant abuse by the local courts has long been a serious issue affecting low income and people of color in St. Louis County. Ferguson and the other 89 municipalities in St. Louis County derive up to 40% of their annual revenue by collecting fines and fees for minor traffic tickets and a myriad of other petty municipal ordinance violations. When people can’t pay the fines, additional fines are added, and arrest warrants are issued which lead to jail time – yet jury trials are not provided, even though they are constitutionally required. Many of those arrested in the Ferguson protests are being charged with municipal ordinance violations, and Guild lawyers along with the ArchCity Defenders are taking this opportunity to demand jury trials in a large number of ordinance violation cases in the hope of bringing down this unjust system. St. Louis NLG attorney Maggie Ellinger-Locke, who is spearheading this effort, explained, “The St. Louis County municipal courts systemically perpetuate a cycle of poverty and violence. Guild lawyers are fighting to abolish this structure by demanding our currently denied right to jury trials, among other efforts.”

The Guild and the local organizations who are organizing legal support in Ferguson will provide legal representation for anyone arrested for Copwatching in Canfield, as well as those arrested in connection with ongoing protests and the large convergence scheduled for October 10-13. Until there is real change, people will remain on the streets, and the NLG will be there to back them up.

Written with contributions from Jacob Crawford, Kris Hermes, Nadia Kayyali, Rachel Lederman and Carlos Villarreal.