By Jude Ortiz, Mass Defense Committee Chair and King Downing, NLG Mass Defense Director
Mass defense work has continued vigorously in support of the protests against the Trump administration and counter-protests against the far right/white supremacists trying to take the streets. In August, MDC members—NLG legal observers, lawyers, and legal workers—were on the ground in Charlottesville when counter-protesters took the streets in response to the “Unite the Right” rally organized by several high-profile white supremacists and Neo-Nazis. In the debrief that followed, the team shared tears, hugs, and emotional support. Since Charlottesville, new protocols, including security and well-being are being developed.
We offer condolences to the family, friends, and fellow activists of Heather Heyer, whose life was taken in the car attack, and to the people injured.
NLG MDC and other members were on the ground in St. Louis for protests in response to the acquittal of ex-cop Jason Stockley, who got away with murdering Anthony Lamar Smith in 2011. They provided legal observing and training, jail support, and criminal defense. Guild and other lawyers were locked out of jail visits, in retaliation, after rallies were held, outside the jail, against brutal arrests during a mall demonstration.
NLG teamed with Arch City Defenders and The Mound City Bar Association to represent protesters, and the National Conference of Black Lawyers was part of the legal observer ground coordinating team.
NLG and/or MDC members are still active in criminal cases out of Standing Rock pipeline protests, serving as criminal and civil lawyers, and often doubling as Water Protector Legal Collective board members. Of the 835 arrests, nearly 300 cases have been dismissed, with about 300 awaiting trial—including a handful of federal felony cases with potential life sentences.
The NLG was active in the unsuccessful petition by North Dakota judges to rescind the state supreme court’s order relaxing pro hac vice rules for out-of-state lawyers. The change allowed lawyers, in the face of an extreme shortage, to represent Water Protectors. The NLG had originally sent a letter to the court in favor of the relaxed rules, and filed a second letter against rescission.
In the J20 conspiracy cases, approximately 230 people were arrested on inauguration day in DC. Most initially faced a handful of counts carrying 10 years in prison, but in April the prosecutor issued a superseding indictment with at least eight felony counts for each defendant, making them face 75 years in prison. Over 190 defendants are still fighting their charges (all plea agreements so far are non-cooperating; some charges have been dismissed). The first trial began November 15.
NLG legal workers are working with the defendants’ political defense committee and some NLG lawyers are involved in legal defense team support as well. NLG is also part of the team that filed FOIA requests for procedural and financial information related to the Inauguration. According to released documents, the DC Metropolitan Police Department spent $300,000 on weapons, ammunition and other military equipment.
In August, MDC members participated in panels, workshops, and a committee meeting at the 80th anniversary NLG convention in DC. Panel topics included: political prisoners, movement lawyering, antifascism and responding to its attacks, NLG organizing, strengthening movements through criminal defense, and training legal observer trainers. At the committee meeting, around 50 members engaged in productive discussions of the work we anticipate over the next year, and how we need to operate as a Guild committee to show solidarity with the communities we support. ■