(Crystal A. Proxmire 2/13/2011)
There are times when public assembly and movement play an integrate role in the political process. Sit-ins, marches, picket lines, rallies and protests help bring attention to the wants and demands of the people involved. As people watch the news of unrest in other countries, it’s important to remember that even here in America sometimes demonstrations can turn ugly and people can have their rights violated.
The National Lawyers Guild, an organization of progressive law professionals, runs a program to train everyday citizens how to become Legal Observers. These are clearly-identified volunteers who go to public demonstrations, usually along with experienced attorneys, simply to observe and document any civil rights violations or crimes that might take place. Sometimes their presence serves as a deterrent – a reminder that someone is looking on and that mistreatment will be reported. And sometimes their notes, photographs and video recordings are used in proceedings against wrongdoers.
On Feb. 12, 2011 the NLG hosted a Legal Observer Training class at the Wayne State University Law School in Detroit. Law students and citizens from around SE Michigan, including several from Ferndale, learned the ins and outs of this important volunteer job.
“It was great,” said Ferndale law student Emily Krol. “I’m definitely going to sign up and be involved. Knowing that just being there can stop people’s rights from being abused, of course it’s a great thing to do. And a great way to see how the power of the people can make changes in the law when they speak up.”
“The most important element of a Legal Observer is to be an active observer,” Paris said. “We’re taught to be passive observers, the way we might watch TV or listen in a class. But for Legal Observers we need to see what is going on paying attention to details, and also being observant about what people might be doing so you can foresee problems.” He explained that a great way of being prepared is for Legal Observers to take note of who the police officers are on the scene when they first arrive, and introduce themselves if they feel comfortable doing so.
“I like to know who the supervisor is and keep an eye on them and try to notice what things they are looking at,” Coffey added. “You can tell by their hand movements or gestures where they are directing other police officers. Also if anything suspicious is happening where they are looking can help tell you where to look.”
Another important thing is to be objective. “We aren’t there to be police, or to interfere with what the police are doing. It is important to keep ourselves in the role of observer and not an activist. On a personal level, I tend to side with the people in the streets and not with ‘the system.’ But for Legal Observers to work its important not to let your views cloud what you’re doing.”
When they go on scene, Legal Observers wear clearly labeled green neon hats, and often stickers, t shirts, badges etc. to let both the crowd and the police know who they are. “When that hat is on you must let your personal feelings and work as an observer for the people – not an activist or protester,” Coffey said. Although volunteers are not barred from participating in protests or events when they are on their own time, even if it is an event they observed at.
NLG has provided Legal Observers for a variety of events, including The US Social Forum, environmental protests, civil rights marches, picketers and even events where Legal Observers may have personally disagreed with the views of the people they were there to observe for, like a Nazi rally. A recent example was a series of employee pickets at Andiamo Restaurant in Dearborn. On some nights as many as 100 employees were on hand to demand better working conditions, including overtime pay. “The workers protested every Friday for 13 months,” Paris said. “Cases like this are ones where social movements can be more effective tools for lawyers than just the law. Normally you’d think a lawyer could go in, sue and get back wages and that will be it. But it’s just one case that will go away. But if there is a movement behind it, and public support, you can stop that from happening at another place.”
Sometimes Legal Observers have had problems with police. Rarely is there an altercation or arrest, but it is possible, especially if the Observer steps out of their objective role. Observers have the right to ask questions, including the name and badge numbers of officers, why they are doing certain things, and who they are arresting. However, arguing with an officer can lead to arrest. Coffey said a more common occurrence than violence is having officers give false information on the scene. “I’ve had people give me the wrong badge numbers, the wrong business cards or had their badge numbers covered up,” she said. “If you are at a protest and you start to see police covering their numbers up it’s a good sign that something bad is about to go down.” That is why Legal Observers who feel comfortable talking with police should get the information at the beginning of an event before things become tense.
The NLG website gives examples of things Observers might record, including “any arrest, use of force, intimidating display of force, denial of access to public spaces like parks and sidewalks, and any other behavior on the part of law enforcement that appears to restrict demonstrators’ ability to express their political views.” It goes on to say, “This documentation needs to be done in a thorough and professional manner, so that lawyers representing arrestees or bringing an action against the police generally will be able to objectively evaluate the constitutionality of government conduct.” (http://www.justiceonline.org/site/DocServer/LO_Manual.pdf)
Becoming a Legal Observer is easy. Typically Legal Observers are law professionals or students, though it is not a requirement. They need to be able to work on a team, take good notes, and be available to testify in future court proceedings. They need to take a class and sign an agreement with the NLG, and be ready to show up when needed.
The NLG website recommends that Observers come prepared with notebook and pen, Legal Observer hat, identification and bar card if you have one, cell phone, area map if needed, police misconduct forms, police department phone numbers, audio recorder if they have one, and a camera. They recommend disposable cameras, but some Legal Observers use digital cameras with video recording capabilities.
They are asked to make note of the following details:
~What law enforcement agencies are present (city, county, state, federal, private
security) and any names and badge numbers you are able to see, especially of those
conducting an arrest
~ If you cannot see this kind of identifying information or if there is none, note down
physical descriptions as best you can
~Who is in charge
~Routes taken by demonstrators (streets and times)
~What media is present
~Names of people arrested and their conduct (walk, passive, resists)
~Officers’ conduct and any special circumstances (force used, injuries, sweeps, inability of demonstrators to disperse)
The notes and documentation can then be used to help people whose rights have been violated seek justice.
For more information on becoming a Legal Observer in the Detroit area, contact the National Lawyers Guild Detroit through their website at http://www.michigannlg.org/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=61&Itemid=65.