Farewell! Though I’m Not Going Anywhere

A message from our executive director.

Carlos Villarreal at the Capp Street building in 2004.

I’ve been the Executive Director of the Bay Area chapter since the fall of 2004. Now, I’m moving on to a job with the City of San Francisco and the chapter will soon begin the search for new staff. I feel incredibly lucky to have stumbled upon the opportunity of working for the NLG. Imagine getting paid to work for the organization you’ve already been putting tons of energy into. Plus, I moved here from Texas (as a life-long resident) for the job, so it was not just an employment opportunity, but also a life-changing opportunity to live in the Bay Area.

When I arrived, George W. Bush was president and was soon re-elected without the help of the Supreme Court. We were over a year into America’s war in Iraq, and well past the moment U.S. soldiers were supposed to be praised as liberators. The stories of torture were coming out and Guantanamo prison was still being filled. For our part we continued to support anti-war protesters, but we also took on the Bush lawyers.

Two of them ended up in the Bay Area and we fought for accountability. We demanded that UC Berkeley investigate John Yoo and that the State Bar investigate William Haynes. We organized law students and other legal organizations to call for accountability, but neither institution would budge. We nonetheless forced the institutions and individuals to answer media questions; and we kept the heat on Yoo and Haynes long after their tenures in Washington. I still think the victims of torture will get justice in the future, and our work will have contributed.

My move to the Bay Area and a paid position with the NLG coincided with a new movement within the Guild. The United People of Color Caucus (TUPOCC) grew out of a meeting at a national conference where people of color attendees, including myself, numbered in the single digits. Since then the membership, and our conventions, have started to diversify in a number of ways. TUPOCC’s emergence brought with it people of color, but also more queer people, and radical ideas about international solidarity, prisons, and food justice. Within the last few years, an organized, local TUPOCC presence has been integral to changes in our chapter’s membership, our major fundraising events, and more.

We’ve kept up our crucial demonstrations work throughout my tenure. I’ve probably trained a few hundred legal observers over the years. I remember back in 2005 serving as a legal observer at a protest against the G8 in the Mission District. A police officer was seriously injured in that protest and we immediately had to think about protecting the evidence we’d collected. Eventually a photojournalist was subpoenaed to testify before a federal grand jury. The chapter defended him in public, and Guild attorneys defended him in court. He did go to jail for some time, but never did have to testify. The campaign combined our demonstrations support work with our work against grand juries, which have long been used as tools against activists and political radicals.

During my time here, we have also been at the center of the growing movement for police accountability. Locally, outrage over police impunity exploded when Oscar Grant was killed by a BART police officer on New Years Day in 2009. We continued to call for accountability, but also put a lot more of our resources towards defending and empowering communities fighting for it in the streets. This continued as the killings continued and as the movement spread throughout the country. I feel that we are now in a critical place – involved with policy but also with community movements that are often more radical, and at a time that the nation is increasingly open to changes in police practices. We should continue that critical work.

Throughout much of my time here, we were also fighting for Lynne Stewart. Someone everyone in the Guild knew if they were involved long enough, and someone who epitomized what it meant to be a radical lawyer. In fact she was attacked because she was a radical lawyer, and that made the Guild’s fight to keep her out of prison a fight for the Guild itself. And we won; maybe not in keeping her out entirely, but in getting her out much sooner than prosecutors wanted.

We have also been involved in the struggle over immigrant rights. As legislation was debated in Congress to vastly increase enforcement, and as border vigilantes began to rally, activists on the ground started to organize. We played a role in countering anti-immigrant media coverage in the San Francisco Chronicle and working with our allies to provide Know Your Rights information. We also provided legal support to political actions, including one of the largest protests I’ve ever been a part of – May Day in 2006 when shops stayed closed, people skipped work and school, and an estimated one hundred thousand people crowded onto Market Street. Ultimately, it was massive protest, not posturing behind the scenes with politicians, that beat back much of the proposed anti-immigrant laws.

The last twelve years have also been a time of drastically shifting politics around LGBTQI justice. The Guild has been fortunate to carry on the legacy of Thomas Steel most summers – hosting a law student intern to focus on LGBTQI issues. As a cis-gendered gay man, I was passionate about the issue, but also had much to learn; which I did a lot of when partnering with organizations like the Transgender Gender-variant Intersex Justice Project (TGIJP).

Finally, while we’ve always worked on prison issues, including our work with TGIJP and activism that pre-dates my birth, we’ve only recently started a committee to focus on criminal justice issues. And, we’ve launched a Prisoner Advocacy Network (PAN) just within the last few months. In a nation that incarcerates as many people as we do, it is critical that we provide legal support not just to activists on the street, but also to activists within our jails and prisons. I hope the PAN, which remains a shoestring project relying heavily on volunteers, prospers and succeeds in meeting its goals.

There is a lot more to mention about my time here. There was a financial collapse in the middle of my tenure, for example, that hurt our bottom line, but also accentuated class animosity as expressed by the Occupy Movement – a movement to which the Guild was incredibly relevant. There have also been a number of international issues that we’ve played some role in, particularly increasing activity in solidarity with Palestine that I think will begin to yield tangible results within the next decade.

There was also a fair amount of controversy. But if there is one thing I’ve learned in my time here, it’s that we cannot avoid internal debate in a political organization made up of legal workers and lawyers. It is inevitable, and usually a healthy process for an organization like ours. We have adapted and evolved throughout our history, as has “the left” in general, and we should continue to do so. The fact that we are as democratic as we are can be very challenging, but it is also a strength. When I arrived in 2004, the chapter had just gone through a tumultuous period that culminated in a bitter board election with competing slates of candidates. After all of that, the chapter was resilient enough to survive and prosper, and I am sure it will continue to do so for years to come.

And I’ll be around to take a side or help build consensus. I was a member of the NLG before I took this job and I’ll continue to be one after I leave.

In Solidarity,
Carlos Villarreal