Lawyers Guild and Fists Up Legal Collective Provide Legal Support to ‘Black Lives Matter’ Movement

Rachel Lederman
Chapter President

These last few months have been an electrifying time for all those seeking to end racism, and the Guild has a key role to play. We’re developing a campaign, with allied groups, around racist state violence – See No Justice, No Peace in this newsletter – and I’m writing on our local legal efforts to support the #blacklivesmatter movement.

Protest in Oakland, December 14, 2014. Photo by Annette Bernhardt.

Here in the Bay Area, NLG and Fists Up Legal Collective are coordinating legal defense for more than 600 arrestees and counting. The inspiring actions we have been supporting on a daily basis have included the large demonstrations which have taken over multiple major highways; the interruption of BART for four hours and 28 minutes by fourteen courageous Black activists, signifying the four hours the cops kept Michael Brown’s body on the ground in front of his family and neighbors plus 28 minutes for the State endorsed murder of a Black person every 28 hours; the four hour 28 minute OPD shutdown led by Black activists and allies, during which the OPD flag was replaced with one memorializing Oscar Grant, Eric Garner, Alex Nieto, Renisha McBride, and Michael Brown; the four hour 28 minute Third World Resistance action at the Oakland Federal Building involving activists from struggles for the liberation of Palestine, Haiti, the Philippines and black and brown communities in the U.S., standing together for liberation; the San Mateo Bridge shutdown by Stanford students in support of the Ferguson Action national demands; and lots more.

NLG Legal Observers have turned out for virtually all of these demonstrations, and Fists Up, an independent collective comprised of NLG members and activists who are working closely with the NLG and the Bay Area Anti Repression Committee, has mounted an amazing nonstop volunteer and organizing effort to maintain a legal hotline, track arrests, and provide legal, jail and court support for the more than 600 arrestees.

Alameda County and San Francisco District Attorneys have only filed criminal charges against a small percentage of these arrestees so far. Predictably, people of color and people with legal vulnerabilities are the ones singled out for serious charges. NLG lawyers have stepped up to provide pro bono representation. Meanwhile, the Alameda County DA is keeping most of the arrestees hanging, with no charging decisions. This is similar to what happened when large numbers of arrests were made related to Occupy Oakland and Justice for Oscar Grant protests, with most never prosecuted but a few charged as late as 364 days after the arrests.

One thing that has changed as a direct result of NLG legal work is the number of demo arrestees being held in jail in Alameda County. Our 2013 federal court settlement in Spalding et al. v. City of Oakland, a class action regarding the Nov. 2, 2010, mass arrest of Justice for Oscar Grant demonstrators, requires OPD to cite and release eligible misdemeanor arrestees at or near the site of the arrests, like a traffic ticket, and also requires ACSO to implement an expedited cite and release process for mass arrestees. Previously, when a large number of arrestees were brought to the jail, they would remain on buses and/or outdoors for long periods of time, without bathroom access, and then be squeezed into temporary holding cells, sometimes for several days, without beds or other basic provisions, even though they were ultimately cited out.

The companion settlements in Spalding and our NLG Occupy Oakland litigation, Campbell et al. v. City of Oakland, also renewed the court’s jurisdiction to enforce, and strengthened, the OPD Crowd Control Policy which was written by NLG and ACLU in 2004. The Policy severely restricts the use of so-called “less lethal” munitions and chemical agents and sets out clear guidelines for arrests at demonstrations and all other crowd events. Since these settlements were reached in July 2013, we have been working to enforce it on an ongoing basis, and (at least while we keep up a constant effort) we do see some greater restraint by OPD.

However, this area of work is far from done. CHP, which seems to operate with particular lack of accountability, shot at demonstrators with dangerous impact munitions from an overpass, and deployed masked undercover cops who brandished firearms in the midst of a crowd of demonstrators. The Berkeley Police responded to demonstrators with unlawful indiscriminate use of force, ranging from teargas to overhand baton strikes to impact munitions fire. We’re working with Berkeley Copwatch on a People’s Investigation of the BPD actions of December 6, 2014, and considering legal action to stop these practices. People who were abused or witnessed police misconduct on December 6 should contact carlos@nlgsf.org. We also need to hear about OPD abuses in order to continue enforcing and improving the Crowd Control Policy.

Of course, these reform efforts can only go so far -- what we really need is to disarm and defund the police. But as radical lawyers, legal workers, and students, we can push back against repression to help preserve the space for more and more people to be out on the streets demanding true justice and liberation, and to end impunity for police killings of Black people.