Thursday, July 18, 2013

Organising mutual forms of legal support: in the street, at the police station and in court

Some examples from London and the US


The police, the courts and prison clearly play a crucial role in controlling and repressing working class and migrant communities. During the student movement in the UK in 2010 for example individuals taking part in demonstrations against the tripling of tuition fees (from £3000/year to £9000/year) and the scrapping of the Education Maintenance Allowance were subject to aggressive public order policing designed to intimidate people, create divisions in the movement and criminalizise protest. Pretty much everybody going on demonstrations was observed and filmed, stopped and searched, contained (‘kettled’) for hours in freezing temperatures without access to toilets and water, and many were assaulted by the police with batons and shields. Many people were arrested and charged with often very serious charges (eg 'violent disorder’). While in many cases these charges ended up not sticking in the courts simply being charged and having to deal with the court system is a terrifying experience for most. It is also a very useful way to keep activists busy over long periods of time and stop them from doing work.


But this type of policing is also found in more everyday situations of working class and migrant areas, on and around council estates (social housing) and public spaces. The police surveil communities, harass particularly young people on a daily basis by stopping and searching them on their way home or to school, and keep people off the streets and out of public areas by criminalizing their mere presence. During the Olympic Games in London in 2012 for example, public places in the neighbourhood where the main Olympic sites are, which is one of the poorest areas in London, were transformed into so-called 'dispersal order zones'. The police could stop people from hanging out in these spaces by ordering them to leave the area and to arrest and charge them with a conviction potentially leading to a maximum penalty of three months' imprisonment and/or a fine of £5000 [1] in case they didn't follow the order.

In the face of this activists and their allies (movement lawyers) have developed collective practices to empower movements and communities, hold police accountable and to take care of and support individuals wrapped up in the court and prison system.

Community legal observing


Community legal observing involves monitoring police behaviour and interaction with members of the public in communities. Perhaps the most well-known community legal observing programme was set up by the Black Panther Party for Self Defense (Black Liberation movement, US late 60s early 70s). The Black Panthers sought to protect the black community from and defend it against the racist state and its police force that brutalized and terrorised the community on a daily basis. They set up community patrols who walked the streets and watched the police. They knew that it was legal to do so from a certain distance and did so in an organised, confident manner. The Panthers famously visibly carried guns, which was legal at the time, which certainly helped them in creating the image of a powerful, rather than a submissive and fearful, community.


In the face of this activists and their allies (movement lawyers) have developed collective practices to empower movements and communities, hold police accountable and to take care of and support individuals wrapped up in the court and prison system.

Newham Monitoring Project (1980-ongoing, example of Olympics 2012)

Grassroots community organisation in East London that helps the community fight racism, discrimination and injustice. One particular project NMP ran was legal observing in the community during the Olympic Games in 2012. In the years leading up to the Olympic Games the neighbourhood had undergone massive redevelopment programmes which had displaced local community and during the Olympic Games itself the police imposed particular conditions on the public spaces of Stratford. Public squares where locals and particularly young people hang out were turned into 'Dispersal Order Zones’ - meaning the police could disperse people gathering there and order them not to return to the place for a certain period. So additionally to losing public and affordable space due to the gentrification process and to loosing facilities due to cuts to public spending, this kind of social sorting and controlling of public space was introduced, which was clearly linked to creating and protecting a 'cleaned up' neighbourhood. Working class people and youngsters out of sight of the tourists going to the Olympic sites. The police also intensified stop and searches in the area. In response to this Newham Monitoring Project launched a community legal observer programme. They trained members of the community in legal observing and set up a rota of legal observer teams who would patrol the area to monitor police interaction with the community, speak to locals to inform them about the issues, hand out Know Your Rights cards, and to find out from people what their experiences of policing were. Not surprisingly many young people reported that they were being stopped and searched on a daily basis, that they felt like they were being harassed and treated like criminals, etc. The response to the legal observer programme was very positive. The reaction by the police towards legal observers varied.

Similar initiatives were set up in the light of increasing stop and searches of working class neighbourhoods/areas to train local youth in legal observing and organising themselves. The reality that many young people describe is that when police search them they are in no position to challenge this individually. If they demand the officer to explain to them why they are being searched (giving this information is a legal requirement), or resist in any other way they risk being injured or arrested. So the idea, again, of these initiatives is to collectivize the resistance and make it visible and public.

Anti-Raids Network (2011-ongoing)

“London-wide network formed of London-based groups, including the Latin American Workers’ Association (LAWAS), No Borders London, Precarious Workers Brigade, The Prisma, Stop Deportation, South London SolFed, People’s Republic of Southwark, and unaffiliated individuals – with and without papers. We are ordinary people resisting and challenging immigration checks and raids through principles of solidarity and mutual aid. The constant use of street-based immigration checks on suspected foreigners; of brutal dawn raids on the homes of asylum seeker families; and of UK Border Agency purges of takeaways, factories and car washes staffed with a multi-ethnic workforce: all serve to spread the fear that keeps undocumented people underground. As we write in July 2012, anecdotal evidence suggests street-based immigration checks are on the rise.  Legally, the UK Border Agency and police can only stop and question individuals about their immigration status on the basis of reasonable suspicion, yet they rely largely on racial profiling. Although this is blatantly unlawful, these practices have ultimately led to the arrest and deportation of many undocumented migrants.” [2]

The network does call-outs for community legal observers whenever a raid is reported and has organised workshops in community centers that use Augusto Boal’s Theatre of the Oppressed to role play typical scenarios and possible acts of individual and communal resistance in them. The workshops have proven to be important in building confidence, informing individuals of their rights, practicing how this could be put into action, and in helping those not directly affected in thinking through ways of being in solidarity in concrete situations.

The legal Observer role on protests

Similar to community legal observers, legal observers on protests witness the behaviour of the police and act as a deterrent. In the US legal observers are provided by the National Lawyers Guild and are trained lawyers, lawyers in training or legal workers. The Legal Observer program "was established in 1968 in New York City in response to protests at Columbia University and city-wide antiwar and civil rights demonstrations. That same year, Guild students organized for the defense of people swept up in mass arrests at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago.”[3]. In other places legal observers are ordinary people who are skilled up by grassroots legal support groups. There are various such groups who have produced documents on the role of the legal observer and how to set up legal support groups, for example the Activists' Legal Project, Green and Black Cross, LDGM in the UK. These documents are updated and re-issued to be of relevance for the context and form the basis for Legal Observer workshops for activists before demonstrations or actions.

Legal Observing
On demonstrations legal observers gather evidence on specific instances of police mis/behaviour, or find others who may have witnessed incidences. Legal observer or bystanders' statements can be used in court as witness statements for the defense or in civil cases against the police.

Legal Advise

Apart from seasoned activists, most individuals attending demonstrations and actions are unfamiliar with the law and protest. Some of the most commonly used sections of public order law are explained to people by legal support groups in 'Know Your Rights' briefings prior to demonstrations, and on 'bust cards' that are handed out by legal observers on the ground. Knowing the law can empower people. Police behaviour and orders can be challenged by activists on the ground. Again, there are limitations to using the law, as mentioned above.

Legal Observers are there to witness arrests and try to make sure that detainees have a bust-card with the basic legal advise and numbers of law firms and the support group on them. It is not uncommon that legal observers are able to get to individuals even if they have already been detained behind police lines or at least are able to communicate with them by shouting. Where legal observers are not present to witness arrests themselves they gather information on arrests from bystanders, so that arrestees don't drop off the radar and everyone is accounted for, and so that medical and legal support can be sent to them.

LDMG Bustcard

Police station support

Police station support consists of volunteers meeting arrestees at the police station they are held at. Volunteers show solidarity with arrestees and give emotional support after what for most people is a traumatising and brutal experience. Arrestees often report of sexist or racist verbal abuse or generally intimidating behaviour by officers. Often police station supporters bring food, cash for the journey home or go for a coffee with arrestees. Police station volunteers also give arrestees information on what happens next. Not all arrestees are in a state of mind to process information and many are weary as to who these volunteers are. With this in mind volunteers make sure that arrestees know where to find information or who to contact in case they have questions or want support at a later point. Some legal support groups run 24/7 hotlines that people can call or set up defendants meetings.
Volunteers also talk to solicitors to get information on what happens next, when the first court date is, what the charge is etc to be able to support people through the process.

Court Support

Court support involves monitoring cases and emotional support for defendants and families. A case may take over a year to be resolved, and many defendants experience depression and anxiety because they have to live with the uncertainty of the result. Volunteers are organised to attend court on the day of a hearing/trial, offer information, support and monitor the development of the case. The experience of attending court often also has a politicising effect on volunteers.

Defendants meetings: putting defendants in touch with each other to build a support group. Creating a community against the individualised, isolating and traumatizing experience of state repression, the boredom of the experience in the courts, the alienating legal language and court room theatre. Defendants have found it useful to sit in on each others trials, as it prepares them for their own trial, shows solidarity, and to exchange messages of hope, frustration and gratitude with each other (in person, at meetings, via mailing list). The collective reflections on the experiences are also moments of politicisation and the development of analysis.
Clark Stoeckley “The United States vs PFC Bradley Manning - a graphic novel”

Legal defense: Recommending sympathetic lawyers with experience of civil liberties and public order law to achieve good results in the courts. Notes from trials are passed on to lawyers handling similar cases. In theory solicitors can obtain court transcripts, but lawyers gain less and less fees to prepare for trial so are more unlikely to do so. In the US, the National Lawyers Guild has organised "legal research assistance for attorneys with Occupy Wall Street cases, matching attorneys in need of assistance with law students, law graduates, legal workers, and lawyers eager to contribute to the mass defense effort. Some of the topics researched include the legality of the occupation presence in Liberty Park, the right of arrestees to refuse non-mandatory iris scans at arraignment, and legal arguments to resist the district attorney’s subpoena of a defendant’s Twitter account. Additionally, we’ve organized trial preparation teams dedicated to the large mass arrest cases stemming from actions in Union Square, the Brooklyn Bridge, Times Square, and Liberty Park on eviction day." [4]
Defense funds: help mobilize solidarity and fundraise to help cover legal fees.

Prison support

Groups like ABC and Defend the Right to Protest have set up prison support, which often includes providing practical information on the prison system to individuals, their partners and families and communicating with people in custody through letter writing projects. They often also organise solidarity actions like noise protests outside of prisons and forms of group support for people, eg groups waiting outside of prisons when individuals are released, or support groups for those recently released.

Campaigning

- Campaigns around trials eg Black Panther Party organised rallies outside court houses, mobilising the black community to come out in support, to make public the political nature of the trials. In the UK recently Defend the Right to Protest organised rallies in support of student protesters outside court houses to bring to light the excessive policing and criminalization of protestors. Another recent example is the campaign by environmental activists No Dash for Gas. They had occupied a power station and were taken to court by the energy corporation. The campaign set up around the case brought massive publicity to the practices of the corporation, the way the corporation goes after those questioning and disrupting their practices and fostered public support for the activists, boycotts of the corporation and criticism of the government programme the corporation had benefited from.

Free Huey rally, Almeida Court House, Oakland, 1968


- Legal Challenges
Some campaign groups attempt to challenge public order policing in the courts. The practice of 'kettling' (where large crowds are held in an area for lengthy periods without being allowed to leave, which has been criticised as a  form of collective punishment), and the attempt by police to gain the personal details of those held in the kettle for example have been challenged in the courts up to EU level. The latter, which was challenged by a legal observer, has just now been successfully ruled to be unlawful.[5]




References

[1] http://www.nmp.org.uk/2012/05/police-announce-olympic-dispersal-zone.html
[2] https://network23.org/antiraids/
[3] http://www.nlg.org/legal-observer%C2%AE-program
[4] Guild Notes, Spring 2012, p4. http://www.nlg.org/resource/guild-notes/spring-2012
[5] http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2013/jun/18/police-unlawful-cuts-protest-kettling

Websites of Legal Support Groups

LDMG (UK): http://ldmg.org.uk/
GBC (UK): http://greenandblackcross.org/
Activists’s Legal Project (UK): http://activistslegalproject.org.uk/
National Lawyers Guild (US): http://www.nlg.org/
Anarchist Black Cross (UK): https://network23.org/londonabc/

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