Building on 80 Years of Radical Lawyering in the Age of Trump

By Natasha Lycia Ora Bannan, NLG President

Eighty years from now, when future generations look back at the Trump candidacy and presidency and reflect on how institutions responded to the spread of neo-fascism and the attack on fundamental rights, I am confident that the Guild will stand out as a clear example of what social justice lawyering means. We will have stood with those who refused to be silent or complicit in state-sanctioned oppression. We have been doing this since our founding in 1937. For eight decades we have defended social justice movements and protected constitutional and human rights fearlessly in the face of tyranny and state violence. The advent of the Trump administration will only mean a rededication and continuation of our work—perhaps in ways we did not expect, but that we are prepared for.

The election of Donald J. Trump brought to light some tendencies in our national fabric many of us thought had been driven deep underground. For veteran Guild lawyers and activists, the 2016 election environment hearkened back to the days of McCarthyism, when constitutionally-protected speech questioning U.S. policies or expressing sympathy with groups and individuals targeted by the government could be branded as “un-American” and lead to prison. Others were reminded of the ’60s, when anti-war protestors and draft resisters refused to fight in an unjust war because they believed in peace and an alternative political model, while our government deemed them a threat to “democracy.” Each of these eras of repression from the last century were backed by our legal system.

As an anti-racist organization, we have long fought white supremacy and the laws and policies it engenders, regardless of who occupies the White House. We have called out the folly of trickle-down economics used as an excuse to eliminate social protections. We have fought against militarism, the expansion of empire, drone strikes, targeted assassinations, CIA black sites, and torture.  We have pushed back against the war on drugs and its destruc­tive effects on either side of the U.S.-Mexico border. We have challenged the surveillance and harassment of other countries’ socially progressive move­ments. We continue to challenge in the courts (and in the streets) the unlawful concentration of power into the executive branch of government.  In essence, we’ve been fighting Trumpism, before the term was coined, since 1937.

We see the structural racism Trump embraces and seeks to exacerbate in the widespread police occupation and violence against communities of color, in the detention of immigrant families, in the warrantless wiretapping and surveillance of Arab and Muslim communities, in the over-regulation of poor citizens and in the under-regulation of corporations. Economic and state violence has always operated in these communities, and we have always been ready to challenge the unregulated exercise of state and corporate power. And we are ready now.

The promise to “Make America Great Again” is the language of im­perialism and war.  It is language that sends chilling signals to who may be targeted by a Trump administration. Once we clearly identify the “us” against “them,” any variations on dictated behavior and conduct can lead to harassment, discrimination, abuse, torture and aggression against other nations and peoples. We will be called upon to defend these communities in the streets, courtrooms, schools, churches, homes, and community centers.

Trump’s actions and rhetoric foreshadow an effort to privatize public services and facilitate the corporate takeover of government.  The Guild has long recognized that neither democracy nor social justice is possible anywhere where dramatic economic stratification exists.  His threats to cut the social safety net for millions of people, to roll back labor protec­tions, and to make it harder to earn a living wage threaten democracy and violate core principles  of international human rights laws that the Guild has long supported.

The tactic of the Trump administration to rule based on fear, domination, power, and privilege is something we’ve seen before. We’ve fought against politicians, here and abroad, who have deemed themselves unaccountable to anyone but themselves. Challenging unchecked presidential power and its inevitable abuses is at the core of the Guild’s long history of international solidarity work, especially in countries and regions where the United States has intervened militarily and economically to prop up oppressive regimes, finance coups, and install dictators. We are familiar with the hand of the state in silencing dissenting voices and squashing opposition through the violent tactics of state repression, here and abroad. We’ve fought alongside the Occupy movement and #BlackLivesMatter. We’ve represented indepen­dentistas and freedom fighters in Puerto Rico and defended Water Protectors in Standing Rock, North Dakota.  We are prepared to work with our social justice allies around the world to challenge any efforts to reach beyond the constitutional limits of the Executive branch or use state resources to sup­press, repress, punish, isolate, humiliate, or torture those who refuse to stay silent in the face of a government hostile to the genuine democracy we seek to promote.

As unprecedented as this election is, the National Lawyers Guild has withstood 80 years of attempted repression, surveillance, wars, attacks on social services, state-sanctioned or -administered violence, imprisonment and political persecution.  Guild members have a deep history of resistance to draw upon. Many of our elders remain to guide us. The political and le­gal landscape may shift, but as movement lawyers, law students, and legal workers, we will not relent in our defense of fundamental rights nor in the pursuit of a righteous justice.

We will undoubtedly be called upon to think more expansively and cre­atively about our work.  But, whatever happens, this much is certain: we will be called upon and, as the people’s advocates, we will show up, as we always have.  There is no doubt that there are trying times ahead and our communities will be attacked in a myriad of ways. But we will prevail and we will do so under a united and expanded front.  As dif­ficult as the years ahead will be, ¡vencerémos! ■

For the complete version of this article which originally appeared in the NLG Review, visit

Photo:  US Marshals drag Arthur Kinoy out of a 1966 hearing on the House Un-American Activities Committee.