Legal Observers Preserve the Rights of Protestors

David Gespass
Legal Observers attend demonstrations, marches, rallies, and protests, not as participants, but as objective witnesses.

Legal Observers attend demonstrations, marches, rallies, and protests, not as participants, but as objective witnesses.

Ridofranz via iStock

National Lawyers Guild (NLG) Legal Observers (LOs) attend demonstrations, marches, rallies, and protests, not as participants, but as objective witnesses. They monitor police and document violations of protesters’ rights in the event of subsequent criminal or civil litigation. Their neon green hats are seen at protests everywhere but do not necessarily afford them protection from police abuse. LOs have been arrested, pepper-sprayed, hit with rubber bullets, and suffered the same injuries as the protesters they seek to protect.

NLG has won significant victories over the years due to the dedicated work of LOs. The media often focuses on arrests during a protest but fails to report the acquittals and settlements that come months or years later. Countless defendants won their trials or had charges dropped. Hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of dollars, have been paid out in civil cases alleging violations of the rights of protesters across the country. Sadly, there is no way to measure how many people choose not to exercise their rights out of fear of the consequences.

I have been practicing law in Birmingham since 1978, and Alabama has been home to some of the most egregious police behavior in the country. State troopers almost killed John Lewis and many others on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma. School children were attacked by dogs and sent flying down the street by fire hoses in Birmingham. State police protecting freedom riders abandoned their bus to the tender mercies of white mobs in Montgomery and Anniston.

In the past 40 years or so, protests and demonstrations here have generally not faced police misconduct. On the contrary, police have appeared to be doing all they could to avoid arrests, including blocking traffic to allow unpermitted marchers to pass. In Hoover—a large Birmingham suburb created to accommodate white flight—police persuaded the owner of a private mall, the Galleria, to allow a Black Lives Matter group to demonstrate inside the building. It is possible that this restraint is because the state and its municipalities are trying to live down their reputations from the civil rights era, and none of the protests were large or sustained enough to threaten the status quo.

In 2020, that is changing. The torture and murder of George Floyd brought huge numbers out into the streets, many of whom had never demonstrated before. The protests have been sustained for several months and still attract significant numbers and substantial support. There have been instances of civil disobedience, and police have become more aggressive, less tolerant, and quicker to arrest.

Hoover has been a focal point, in large part, because of recent history. On Thanksgiving night 2018, a young African-American man named E.J. Bradford was shot and killed by an officer in the Galleria. The Attorney General took over the investigation of the killing, found it justified, albeit “tragic,” and chose not to pursue charges or even present the case to a grand jury. Memories of E.J. Bradford were still fresh when George Floyd was killed, and more than 100 people were arrested in Hoover in subsequent weeks.

When I began working on this article, I was waiting at the Hoover city jail for 30 protesters who were arrested. Police arrested them without cause, and the booking and bonding-out process was painfully slow. More than four hours after the van carrying the arrestees arrived at the jail, only four had bonded out. It was clear that we need more people to serve as LOs to make sure protestors’ constitutional rights are protected.

You may read about protests in the news and wish you were in Minneapolis or Portland, but LOs are in demand everywhere that people gather to exercise their rights to speech and assembly. As protests mount, the NLG needs people across the country, including lawyers and law students, to don green hats and stand ready to defend protesters’ constitutional rights.

LO training lasts about a day, and once you arm yourself with a green hat, notepad, pen, and smartphone, you will be prepared to monitor and document protests. You can make a difference as a lawyer or law student. Even if you do not witness any abuse, your presence may serve as a deterrent to unconstitutional behavior by law enforcement. To sign up for LO training, go to nlg.org/legalobservers and find your local NLG chapter.

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David Gespass

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David Gespass is past president of the National Lawyers Guild and the longest-tenured member of the NLG Alabama Chapter. He served as general counsel to the Poor People’s Campaign in Alabama. His firm Gespass and Johnson handles police misconduct and prisoners’ rights litigation, defense of protestors, and personal injury.