NLG-Chicago Legal Observers: Ready at the Drop of a (Neon Green) Hat

by Betsy Merbitz, NLG-Chicago Chapter Administrator

NLG Chicago Legal Observers (LOs) have been out in the streets at action after action since the uprising began, facing the challenge of remaining calm and focused on their role even when being beaten, pepper sprayed, pushed or threatened by police. In some cases, police actively prevented LOs from getting arrestees’ names, as Legal Observer Nico Coronado describes. “[The police] trying to isolate the Legal Observers from everybody was very apparent to me. It was very obvious… The cops saw us and they were like, we don’t want these people trying to help them. The less they [protesters] know about their rights is really the mentality [of the police].” Other LOs reported witnessing police preventing both LOs and medics from reaching protesters.

Legal Observers described long, tiring, actions that ended in sudden unexpected escalation of police violence and arrests, and the high pressure of getting last-minute calls to go into unpredictable situations. Our administrators estimate that LOs have put in more than 1,000 person-hours of Legal Observing since May 30th. “We have observed more actions since the uprising began than in all of 2019,” said LO administrator Joe DiCola. “The sustained energy of the organizers and the people out there—it’s inspiring and it makes you WANT to be ready. That energy wouldn’t be there if it wasn’t already there and sustained by the people in the movement,” said LO Coordinator Becky Clough.

Many LOs said the uprising has been characterized by police violence in Chicago being even more sudden and unpredictable than other times, starting on May 30th. “Arrests, pepper spray and use of force on that day were coming faster than we could even record it,” said LO coordinator Nell Taylor. Legal Observers have been pepper sprayed along with protesters without any warning or notice to disperse. One LO described it as the “sucker punch equivalent of pepper spray, absolutely unprovoked.” LOs saw police drive cars through crowds, resulting in serious injuries, and bloody head wounds from batons. “[It’s] so much riskier for us to be out there but also so important. There’s so many violations of people’s rights” said LO coordinator Jackie Spreadbury.

Legal Observers were struck by the difference between the peaceful crowds wearing shorts and T-shirts and the weapons and armor of the police. “A giant line of riot cops for some 19-year-olds blowing bubbles and dancing in the streets. The contrast really speaks for itself,” said LO coordinator Nell Tayor. Legal Observer Nora Snyder describes the Freedom Square anniversary action, “People grilling food, music, beautiful gathering. Across the street cops have their riot shields and their batons.”

Many other Chicago MDC attorneys described the critical role of the Legal Observers in making the rest of MDC support possible. The work the Legal Observers do, being on the ground at actions and getting names of arrestees, ultimately makes it possible for the rest of Chicago MDC to do the work of the hotline, jail support liaisons, and coordinating representation. In several instances the only way hotline and jail support volunteers were able to track detained people at police stations was because Legal Observers were able to get the names on-scene of people being arrested.

During the uprising, many Legal Observers have gone above and beyond their standard roles, such as offering physical and emotional support for people who got pepper sprayed and helping injured protesters get to the hospital. LOs see themselves as one role within the community support networks, where organizers ensure protesters have medics, water, food and other resources. Legal Observer Elena Gormley described it as “a whole ecosystem providing crowd safety.” She said it was inspiring, “how everyone is playing these different roles and seeing how people are cared for. Seeing how we’re part of that.”