FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
December 12, 2016
NEW YORK—Last month’s arrest of Amy Mei Willis, a member of the National Lawyers Guild (NLG) Georgia Chapter and Legal Observer (LO) during a #FightFor15 demonstration in Atlanta has again called attention to LOs and the reasons why law enforcement target them. The NLG calls on law enforcement to respect the constitutionally-protected rights of demonstrators and LOs.
Since 1968, the NLG has deployed LOs to demonstrations at the request of organizers. They serve to “protect the people’s right to protest, not to participate in the action ourselves,” as Willis explained. In addition, LOs document police activity and potential misconduct, track arrests and alert jail support volunteers and defense attorneys about arrests.
LOs constitute a crucial component of our Mass Defense program, a comprehensive system of legal support designed to enable people to express their political views as fully as possible without unconstitutional disruption or interference by the police. As part of the legal team representing protesters, their arrests can cause serious interference to the jail support process–information that could help their cases may be lost or never gathered.
Last month, two LOs were arrested monitoring a demonstration at Standing Rock in ND against the Dakota Access Pipeline. In September, LO Denise Heberle was arrested in Charlotte, NC during protests following the police killing of Philando Castile: “This was an ambush of the last few people involved in a long evening of peaceful protest. Legal Observers were targeted along with protesters. The police removed the only people who were present solely to bear witness,” said Heberle. Last year, NLG Executive Director Pooja Gehi was one of many LOs arrested in Ferguson, MO during a peaceful vigil marking the one-year anniversary of Michael Brown’s death.
Still, the treatment of LOs while in custody reflects a privilege largely not afforded to the activists who are arrested: “My most pressing thought is how stark the treatment of us was versus the treatment of everyone else in jail,” Willis noted upon release.
“The rights of LOs and protesters must be protected, and violations challenged,” said King Downing, NLG Mass Defense Director.
The National Lawyers Guild, whose membership includes lawyers, legal workers, jailhouse lawyers, and law students, was formed in 1937 as the United States’ first racially-integrated bar association to advocate for the protection of constitutional, human and civil rights.
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