After grand juries declined to indict Ferguson, Missouri police officer Darren Wilson for the fatal shooting of Michael Brown, an unarmed black teen, and NYPD officer Daniel Panteleo for the chokehold death of Eric Garner, an unarmed black man, tens of thousands of demonstrators have flooded streets across the United States to participate in marches and “die-ins” to protest police brutality and racial profiling. Although the collective action of these protests can certainly be powerful, lawyers, law students and other legal professionals concerned about police misconduct and civil rights violations may have options to support activists other than by participating as a demonstrator.
For example, lawyers, law students and other legal professionals may wish to participate in the National Lawyers Guild Legal Observer® program. Following the antiwar protests and civil rights demonstrations in New York City in the late 1960’s, the Guild created the Legal Observer program to allow activists to express their political views without unconstitutional interference from police officers. Legal Observers attend demonstrations to document the activities of the police and the demonstrators for later use if demonstrators are arrested or wish to file a civil suit for the violations of their constitutional rights. Legal Observers write detailed notes, make video and audio recordings and take photographs of demonstrations and any interactions between police and activists. Essentially, Legal Observers are creating a record and collecting evidence that may be useful for attorneys who will later evaluate the significance of the government’s conduct to determine whether a civil rights violation occurred or to provide a defense to activists charged with crimes that allegedly occurred during the demonstration.
While Legal Observers may personally support the message of the demonstration, their purpose is to remain objective, recording the events and collecting facts for later use. They are not participating in the demonstration, they are documenting it. To remain distinct from demonstrators, Legal Observers often wear arm bands, badges and bright green hats. As such, Legal Observers are identifiable to both demonstrators and police, and their very presence may deter police from unlawfully obstructing the demonstrators’ right to express their political views.
Participating in the Guild’s Legal Observer program may be an opportunity for law students to learn more about the statutes and case law governing police conduct and to show a demonstrated interest in civil rights law. It may also be an excellent networking opportunity for students to meet lawyers who work in civil rights law and learn about internship and job opportunities. Lawyers who went to law school hoping to change the world, but who were forced to take a doc review job, or those feeling unfulfilled by the drudgery of their day jobs may also enjoy volunteering as a legal observer, not only to use their law degree in a meaningful way, but also for the opportunity to explore a different area of the law and make contacts if they wish to change career paths.
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