The people we choose to represent, and work with in solidarity, help define the Guild as an organization, setting us apart from any other bar association, and even many other human rights groups. Jennie Rhine, a member who recently passed away, embodied the Guild activist taking on the controversial and unpopular clients. Lynne Stewart is a very different person, yet she also fits this mold. We tend to align ourselves with groups who are oppressed and individuals being repressed, and that’s what draws the compassionate idealists to our ranks, and what burns out the shallow opportunists.
In 1973, an uprising at Wounded Knee began and the NLG jumped into action. There were criminal cases arising out of the Wounded Knee occupation, and many others arising out of related actions. Rhine, along with other Guild members, traveled to Sioux Falls to provide legal support. As Jeffrey Kupers wrote about this time:
What struck us far more forcefully than the cold climate was the intense, vehement hatred toward Indian people in South Dakota … [It] was a dangerous place to be at that time, and concern for the safety of the defendants and the defense team was always on our mind.
Rhine and others won a dismissal in their case by clearly demonstrating to the judge that their clients could not receive a fair trial anywhere in South Dakota. She went on to represent others fighting for their rights, and sometimes their lives.
Not simply a bar association, we are a political organization with the intent to change the world. That is why the nonmembers who we work with are just as important as the lawyers and legal workers in illuminating our organization’s identity.
I think back to last year’s convention in Puerto Rico, where we heard from, and cheered for, Rafael Cancel Miranda – an activist for Puerto Rican independence who, with others, entered the U.S. Capitol Building in 1954 with guns, firing several shots, and hitting 5 members of Congress. Guild members worked to defend him in court, but we were also in solidarity with him and the Puerto Rican independence movement.
Then there is Mumia Abu Jamal, who was wrongly convicted of killing a police officer in Philadelphia, and has been a jailhouse lawyer on our national board. And Rasmea Odeh, who is accused of lying on an immigration form about a past Israeli conviction related to a bombing from over 40 years ago; The Guild is calling on the Justice Department to end their immigration action against her. We also stand with war crimes whistleblower Chelsea Manning, and have joined a coalition marching in honor of Manning at this year’s San Francisco Pride Parade. Then there are the California Prison Hunger Strikers, the activists of all stripes (except the right-wing crowd) who take to the streets outside political conventions and centers of power, the Occupiers (as in Oscar Grant Plaza), and the occupied.
We have collaborated with people condemned by the justice system and those demonized or ridiculed by politicians and the corporate media. We even defend those accused of troubling, violent acts. First, because we know that accusations and even criminal convictions are hardly unassailable in our system of justice. Second, and more importantly, because we recognize the unfairness of our nation and our world – the economic inequality, racism, sexism, bigotry and power dynamics that make it easy for some people to get condemned and convicted while others seem untouchable, regardless of how many people they’ve harmed.
If you’re wondering whether the NLG is for you, ask yourself if you would want to be part of a democratic organization that takes this position and works for and with the people I’ve highlighted. Because that’s what we do; and the more members we have with similar commitments, the more effective we can be.