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January 11, 2021 HUMAN RIGHTS

Movement Lawyering in Moments of Crisis: Some Things White Allies (and Others) Can Do

by Law for Black Lives

Movement lawyering means taking direction from directly impacted communities and from organizers, as opposed to imposing our leadership or expertise as legal advocates. It means building the power of the people, not the power of the law. Support is needed as people take to the streets and hold spaces to collectively heal and as we work over the long haul to dismantle systems of oppression, including white supremacy, cis-heteropatriarchy, and capitalism in our country.

Movement lawyering means taking direction from directly impacted communities and from organizers.

Movement lawyering means taking direction from directly impacted communities and from organizers.


If you are seeking ways to get involved, here are some suggestions to do so in a way that is centered in the idea that real transformation comes from people’s struggle:

1. Show up in community spaces.

You might observe through your local National Lawyers Guild office, provide legal advice to copwatch programs or organizers seeking input, or simply participate in a grieving space. Rising tensions historically have led to increased surveillance and state oppression, meaning legal support is needed now more than ever.

2. Build relationships with community organizers working toward transformative social change in your city.

Movement lawyering is based on building relationships of trust with organizers. It requires patience and creativity. It requires being part of a team and following direction from organizers. Look up your local grassroots racial justice and human/civil rights organizations. Facebook is often a good tool. Show up. Go to meetings, listen, build with leaders. Ask how you can support the grassroots.

3. Connect with other lawyers, legal workers, and law students to assess collective capacity and build community.

It can be isolating to work toward transforming the legal system within a profession that lends itself to maintaining the status quo. In this dynamic, it is important to find like-minded people looking to support people’s movements instead. Join or create a space for movement lawyering in your city or school. You might find those folks through Law for Black Lives, the National Lawyers Guild, National Conference for Black Lawyers, the National Black Law Students Association, at your local legal aid, public defender’s offices, or your law firm. Get together and assess the skills you bring to the table and the relationships you might already have to community organizers working for radical change and racial justice. If you are already an experienced movement lawyer, this is your time to hold space: Call a meeting, bring people together.

4. Organize a reflection and grieving space at your law office or law school.

This is a moment to bring people together to process, grieve, and reflect. Discuss how anti-Black state violence and the impunity that surrounds it is a core challenge to how we often think, talk, and operate within the legal system. Acknowledge the emotional trauma for colleagues of color, particularly Black colleagues. How are we each part of the problem? How can we each be part of the solution? Treating ourselves and those closest to us with love and dignity is one of the most radical acts we can engage.

5. Commit yourself to using law to build power for the people.

Traditional approaches to lawyering, even public interest lawyering, often reinforce the status quo rather than build for transformative change. What steps can you take in your own practice to change this? How can you lawyer as a way to build people power? To dismantle white supremacy? Are there opportunities to legal observe and advise on protest and civil disobedience? To plug into campaigns for change that might benefit from policy support, whether in criminal justice, housing, or beyond? Can you offer meeting space, money, or food for local organizers?

6. Stay connected and engaged with us.

We are working to build trainings and ways for our network to gather and support the movement—but we need to hear from you about what you need. For most of us, movement lawyering is a different approach than what we grew up around or what we learned in law school. We think power and change come from the grassroots not from the courts, and we encourage you to ground yourselves in your local contexts. But we also understand that lawyers working with organizers require a different ethos and sometimes different skills than traditional lawyering. We are in the process of developing trainings: Let us know what kind of support you need and what kind of trainings you would like to see.

If you are interested in having Law for Black Lives and our partner organizations conduct a training for your organization, please email [email protected]. We will be in touch to follow up on details and additional resources for learning about how to be an ally.

This article was created in 2014 and is printed with permission from Law for Black Lives, a Black femme-led national network of nearly 4,000 radical lawyers and legal workers committed to building a responsive legal infrastructure for movement organizations and cultivating a community of legal advocates trained in movement lawyering.

The material contained herein should not be construed as the position of the ABA or Section of Civil Rights and Social Justice as neither the ABA House of Delegates nor the ABA Section of Civil Rights and Social Justice Council has not adopted it.

The material in all ABA publications is copyrighted and may be reprinted by permission only. Request reprint permission here.