Black Lives Matter Clarion Call for Black-Led Legal Support: Is This a Turning Point for the NLG?

NLG and NCBL Legal Observers at RiseUpOctober in 2015. (Photo: Bruce Bentley)

NLG and NCBL Legal Observers at #RiseUpOctober in NYC, 2015. (Photo: Bruce Bentley)

By Dr. Jill Humphries, 2015 Legal Worker Honoree

Black Lives Matter (BLM) activists’ clarion call for Black-led legal support that is primarily provided by Black attorneys, legal workers, and community members is a critical moment for the National Lawyers Guild. The organic push by Black communities to organize governing coalitions to direct the type of legal support, if any, they want from progressive law associations offers the Guild new opportunities and challenges. There are many ways in which these partnerships can evolve depending on local actors, politics, culture, and available resources.

One such example in New York City in which I am actively involved is the National Conference of Black Lawyers-NY Legal Observer Project. This is an informal collaborative effort between the NLG-NYC Mass Defense Committee and NCBL-NY Chapters. The objectives are to establish a mutually beneficial working relationship between NLG and NCBL, to increase the presence of legal support on the streets by reinvigorating NCBL’s legal support program. Finally, the Project seeks to respond to BLM’s call for more Black attorneys and legal worker presence and support in the streets and in the courtrooms. The NLG-NYC-MDC’s support of NCBL’s right to build an independent Black law organization and reestablish a Legal Observer program is an act of solidarity. This is further illustrated by NLG-MDC’s willingness to share their Legal Observer best practices and implementation structure.

This initiative grew out of a NCBL member’s request for me to assist the chapter with reinvigorating their Legal Observer program. For the past 10 years, I have often been the sole Black female LO in the streets of New York City. I knew of historical political cleavages that existed between the two organizations that required a diplomatic approach. Historically, African American women have used their marginalized identities of being both Black and a woman to envision new ways of organizing across divergent spaces. Drawing from Ella Baker’s model of organizing the dual membership model was very useful in facilitating this process across law associations. As both a NLG and NCBL member, a senior NLG LO trainer and liaison between the organizations I worked in collaboration with Ben Meyers, Co-Chair of the NYC MDC and the NCBL LO team. Together we were able to effectively organize, build support, and work across organizations to implement the project.

These efforts mutually benefit the groups by: (1) establishing legal strategy and activist information networks between Guild and NCBL attorneys and Legal Observers; (2) developing cognitive awareness skills to understand how biases and stereotypes affect interactions with fellow LOs, demonstrators, and the police; and (3) further developing the cultural competency required to work more effectively with Black LOs and with a more diverse LO community.

One of the challenges we faced was how to train NCBL LOs to gain the necessary field experience while simultaneously establishing an LO implementation structure. We used a cross-training approach to train NCBL members who would be certified as both NLG and NCBL LOs, pairing them with experienced NLG LOs. Once the implementation structure is established, NCBL LOs will transition into their program. The success of this collaboration is based on interpersonal relationships, trust, respect and solidarity with Black-led organizations’ desire for self-determination. ■