Demonstrations Committee Provides Support to Diverse Movements Engaged In Civil Disobedience

Eric Petry
Law for the People Intern

The Bay Area has had no shortage of issues to protest these last few months. From the Trayvon Martin trial, to the Keystone XL pipeline, to the Prison Hunger Strike, and everything in-between, activists from all across the Bay Area have come to together to show their support for these movements through public demonstration and civil disobedience. The range of tactics used by activists, sometimes but not always planned, varies widely. The National Lawyers Guild, through its Demonstrations Committee, provides legal support to activists and navigates the sometimes tricky terrain of supporting and defending protests that may involve violations of the law.

“Legal support is a vital component of movements,” says Guild member, Carey Lamprecht, “because it helps keep our communities safer…legal support means having our community’s back.”

The Guild provides support in a number of ways, from monitoring police responses, to providing Know Your Rights trainings, to supporting folks when they are sitting in jail. Critical to the Guild’s support are its demonstrations hotline and its legal observers. Lamprecht calls the hotline workers “the silent backbone during protests” and the legal observers “the eyes and ears.” Together, these volunteers work together to protect demonstrators, making them feel safe and confident during protests.

Having our legal observers out on the street is particularly critical when civil disobedience comes into play. It is the most likely form of protest to bring on a police response, it is increasingly part of protests, and it is often an effective tactic.

Take the Keystone pipeline issue. In 2011, Keystone XL was a little known project that forecasters universally predicted to be a shoe-in for approval. In the fall of that year, however, the organization Tar Sands Action organized a mass sit-in at the White House lasting 15-days. People from all walks of life – doctors, lawyers, students, grandparents, World War II veterans, and environmentalists – participated in the civil disobedience, during which more than 1,200 people were arrested.

Matt Leonard of 350.org credits the sit-in as being a turning point for the climate change movement because “it forced the Keystone pipeline and climate change in general to become a top-tier issue in America and a big part of the 2012 Presidential election.” Through civil disobedience and commitment to the cause, those that participated in the White House sit-in of 2011 achieved their goals of increasing awareness about environment concerns and making the Keystone pipeline a national issue.

That kind of well organized, large-scale protest model doesn’t always translate well to every kind of movement, however, for many reasons. The individuals most likely to organize around police accountability, for example, may be working class or poor, may be mostly people of color, and may engage in more spontaneous actions. As Guild attorney John Viola notes, “the climate change movement lends itself well to civil disobedience that involves voluntary arrests. Movements like Oscar Grant and Trayvon Martin don’t. That’s just the nature of the different protests.”

Despite the different types of civil disobedience, historically, effective movements have almost always relied on the same basic principles. According to Guild attorney Dennis Cunningham, the key to a successful movement is getting the message out to as many people as possible and keeping the focus on that message. The best way to do that, he says, “is to disrupt business as usual. The more disruptive you are, the more attention the movement’s message will get.” He does warn, however, that certain kinds of disruptive acts may drown out the message and believes it is critical to be strategic.

The Lawyers Guild doesn’t judge protesters by their alleged actions when providing legal support for a number of reasons, including: allegations against protesters may be false; individuals targeted by police may not be the same as those engaged in property destruction; activists may have been provoked; and there may have been an excessive response from police in proportion to the alleged acts of activists.

At the end of the day, it is important that people recognize the huge role that they play in the march towards progress when they participate in these movements, whether it is actually engaging in the civil disobedience, answering hotlines calls late into the night, or representing arrested demonstrators in court. As busy as the summer was, there will again be no shortage of opportunities to get involved this fall. With the government supposedly preparing to make a decision on the Keystone issue later this year, 350.org and Keystone Pledge of Resistance are preparing for more demonstrations. Protests also continue in solidarity with the Prison Hunger Strike and, unfortunately, there will probably be more issues involving police misconduct. None of these movements would be as successful without the support the Guild provides.