Mass Defense Committee Wraps Up 2019 With Strong Focus on Protest Support

by the MDC Steering Committee

The NLG Mass Defense Committee (MDC) had a busy year as resistance continued across the country and around the world. Whether the protests have been against pipelines and environment devastation, neofascism and white supremacy, police murders, ICE policies that are sending children and adults to concentration camps and destroying families, efforts to build a horrendous border wall, or any of the other myriad causes that sparked resistance this year, 2019 kept everyone involved in the NLG’s mass defense organizing in overdrive. Much of this work was focused on in-depth at the MDC meeting at the 2019 #Law4thePeople Convention in Durham, NC.

More than 60 members converged to focus on the successes of 2019 and to talk about what to expect in 2020–including the Democratic National Convention (in Milwaukee) and Republican National Convention (in Charlotte). We also discussed two notable legal support efforts: cases involving the necessity defense, and the multifaceted refugee support along the southern US border. For the necessity defense, the Washington State Supreme Court ruled that this defense can be used at trial, allowing a climate justice activist there to move on to his second re-trial, where he is anticipated to use this defense. The Minnesota State Supreme Court issued a similar ruling allowing the use of the necessity defense in the “valve-turner” cases.

The solidarity organizing along the US-Mexico border is an impressive and ongoing effort involving a range of organizations, activists, and community resources on both sides of the border as both countries’ policies are keeping tens of thousands of migrants and refugees from throughout Central America (and around the world) trapped in Mexico and, more recently, Guatemala. On-the-ground legal support has looked different than it often does in the US; for example, in Mexico, it’s illegal to record or photograph the police. NLG members and others created guidelines for border monitoring in Mexico, allowing organizers to collect and share information. They have also provided support to migrants they wind their way through the agonizingly slow and corrupt immigration bureaucracies of both countries. Earlier this year, an NLG delegation produced the report, Stranded: Forced Migration, Illegal Barriers to Asylum, and the Humanitarian Crisis in Tijuana. The urgent need for support and solidarity is expected to continue into 2020.
At the meeting, members also spent time connecting in break-out groups, focusing on two key questions: 1) “What can the MDC do to support and contribute to your mass defense work?”; and 2) “What are the recent trends in protest law and practices you think are relevant nationwide?” Members engaged in rich exchanges about the conditions members are facing in different regions, as well as opportunities to brainstorm how the MDC can support members in their work.

The MDC Steering Committee (SC) was also particularly excited to share a new version of the Legal Observer (LO) training manual with MDC members. A complete overhaul of this important training resource was years in the making and eagerly awaited by LO training programs nationwide. It was produced collectively by the Steering Committee and was professionally edited and formatted to help make it a strong internal resource for this important function of mass defense organizing. Expanding on previous training resources, it provides updated guidance on LO skills, particularly ones focused on keeping each other safe in the streets and maintaining focus on protesters’ rights in high-stress situations created by police. Additions to the manual include sections on dealing with primary and secondary trauma while LOing, challenging the privileges we bring to this work that can negatively affect other NLG members/volunteers and the communities we’re in solidarity with, and performing this crucial role in dangerous situations involving violent white supremacists. The LO manual was one of the top strategic priorities identified by members at the 2018 Convention (as well as training resources in general), and the MDC SC focused on it throughout the year to bring it about. Yet there are many more priorities that have yet to be met, and the MDC SC is still struggling to find the capacity it needs to tackle all these strategic priorities.

If you want to join us, new members are welcome at any point! To join the MDC Steering Committee, contact any current member of it, or reach out to the chair, Jude Ortiz, at