On Accepting the Champion of Justice Award, NYC Chapter of the NLG on June 9, 2017

By Alan Levine

Alan Levine began his civil rights career representing activists in Mississippi and Alabama during the Freedom Summer of 1964. During his storied career he has represented Vietnam war protesters, Occupy movement activists, and countless others facing punishment for seeking a more humane and just society.

I am deeply honored to be recognized by this award from the city chapter of the Guild, whose relentless defense of political activists I have admired during all my years as a lawyer.

To accept this award in the presence of so many friends and colleagues and family is a great joy. My children—Emma, Alex, and Abby—thank you for being here. And thank you for being who you are.

To my wife, Donna—you have modelled for me a life of tremendous commitment, passion, integrity, and love that inspires me every day. I thank you for that, and much more. I am the luckiest.

Then there’s the pleasure of sharing this night with Lucy Billings, with whom I—and Gideon Oliver—had a memorable meeting one morning at 5am at an upper west side coffee shop in November 2011 when she signed a temporary restraining order barring the police from excluding protesters from Zuccotti Park. It’s nice to see you again, Judge Billings, particularly at such a civilized hour. And let me just say to those of your colleagues who are critical of what you did that early November morning— it bears remembering that the police had attacked a group of peaceful protesters aggressively and without warning. What you did took great courage, for which we are all grateful.

So, a few thoughts about what, after all these years, I have come to believe about radical and community lawyering.1

The first has to do with change and how change happens. I came to social justice lawyering in the 1960s. First in the south, working with civil rights workers during the freedom summer of 1964 and into 1965, then with the NYCLU in the 1970s.

Those were heady times politically, and lawyers were in the middle of a lot of it, winning some cases and believing that the law was an instrument— even the instrument—of social change. It was a fairly naïve view both of the law and of how change comes about. Ad my politics developed and as I worked alongside activists and organizers, I slowly came to a certain humility about the role of lawyering in the process of social change.

My “a-ha!” moment came during the two years Donna and I loved in Costa Rica and worked with an indigenous organization that was fighting the loss of Indian lands to white settlers. A Costa Rican anthropologist and I obtained funding for a legal project that seemed, at first, to be about a simple issue of land rights. It turned into something else entirely. The project worked with indigenous leaders to conduct a series of workshops, a process from which emerged a history that had largely been lost to the community. It was a history that revealed the connections between their loss of land and the dominant society’s imposition upon them of an alien form of governance. And so, despite what had at first seemed perfectly clear to me, the legal challenge turned from one about land rights to a claim under international law for the right of self-governance.

So that was my lesson about what it means to put my legal expertise in the service of a true collaboration with community-based activists. It’s a lesson that has informed my lawyering ever since.

Aside from working with communities and activists and doing the things we all do in court, there is one other role for us as radical lawyers that I want to talk about brie y. I believe our legal training gives us a particular capacity—and responsibility—to speak out against those forms of repression that are done in the name of the law. There are many examples.

One is the so-called “war against terror,” a war that is deeply Islamophobic—subjecting Muslims to flimsy prosecutions and imposing pervasive surveillance on the Muslim community. It is a war that demonizes Muslims and has not a shred of law enforcement justification.

In addition, this war has been transformed into a war on dissent. As we now know, assaults on the Occupy encampments across the country were led by the Department of Homeland Security, an agency created to combat terrorism.2 We learned while protecting the rights of protesters in the 2004 RNC Litigation of the NYPD’s concern about the “tripartite threat of terror- ism, violence, and protest.” 3 And just last weekend, at protest of the Israel Day Parade, the NYPD deployed its strategic response group,4 whose mission is both terrorist situations and protest control.5

A mindset that uses terrorism and protest in the same sentence is one that insures aggressive and hostile policing of dissent. There is a reason the First Amendment protects not only freedom of speech, but also the “right of the people to peaceably assemble.” Parades, marches, encampments, rallies—all impact public policy differently than other forms of speech. So in doing our important defense of protest cases, it is important that we speak out about the larger political forces that are at work.

A second example: the First Amendment has been getting lots of attention lately regarding episodes on college campuses where students have disrupted talks by spokespersons for various far-right causes. The criticism of the students in the media is about violating the speakers’ First Amendment rights.6 Whether you disagree with the students or not, the one thing that is not at issue when speech is curtailed by students is the First Amendment, which can only be abridged by the state.

Notably the ACLU, which knows a lot about the Constitution, has been largely silent about these incidents. On the other hand, an organization called The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), has been loudly and consistently critical of the students. FIRE, it turns out, is bankrolled by a group of right-wing donors, including the Koch brothers.7 Those donors know that what’s at stake in these controversies is not free speech, but rather preserving elite colleges’ legacies of white male privilege. The students know that, too.

These colleges, with their history of discriminatory admissions and hiring policies, buildings named after racists, indifference to sexual assaults and racist abuse, courses and programs that fail to challenge foundational principles of white male supremacy, have utterly failed in their obligation to insure that their increasingly diverse student bodies live on a campus that affords them dignity, respects and honors their differences, and reinforces, rather than undermines, their self-worth.8 Read the students’ demands.9 That’s what these controversies are about. I think it’s important that we, as lawyers, say so.

Finally, Palestine and Israel. My involvement is both as a lawyer and an activist. Before I say why I think the legal issues should compel our attention, let me say that, for me, the struggle of the Palestinian people for justice is one of the great moral issues of our time. This is true for a number of reasons: As a citizen of the U.S., because my government funds Israel’s apartheid regime and blocks international action against its human rights abuses; as a resident of New York City, whose police department collaborates with Israeli security forces10 and thereby facilitates their violent and daily oppression of Palestinians; as a Jew in whose name Israel purports to act when it does all these things.

As for the legal issues, Israel and its supporters have imposed their power to pervert justice, suppress speech, and endanger people’s lives and jobs. Then there are the various state laws and orders penalizing those who support the peaceful, constitutionally protected boycott of Israel.11 The Center for Constitutional Rights and Palestine Legal devote their time and energy working tirelessly with activists to protect their rights. It is an issue on which we lawyers have a particular capacity to be heard.

Your award calls me a champion of Justice. In truth it is the political activists, including so many of my clients, who have been the most remarkable champions of justice. I have been greatly privileged to represent and to have learned so deeply from them. It is in that spirit—as a lawyer for champions of justice—that I gratefully accept your award.



  1. These remarks were revised for publication.
  2. Matt Sledge, Homeland Security Tracked Occupy Wall Street ‘Peaceful Activist Demonstrations,’ huffpoST (Apr. 2, 2013, 8:58 PM), http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/04/02/homeland-security-occupy-wall-street_n_3002445.html.
  3. See Statement, RNC Plaintiffs’ Attorneys, 1800 People Arrested During 2004 Republican National Convention Settle Lawsuits Against NYPD (Jan. 15, 2014), available at http://nlgnyc.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/01/PressStatement-RNC-FINAL.pdf.
  4. No Apartheid In Our Name: LGBT Jewish Groups Block “Celebrate Israel” Parade, ChaNgeNewS, http://changenews.tk/news/No-Apartheid-in-Our-Name:-LGBT-Jewish-Groups-Block-%22Celebrate-Israel%22-Parade (last visited July 19, 2017).
  5. Dean Meminger, Heavily Armed Police Unit, Focused on Terror Attacks, Fans Out Across All Boroughs, SPECTRUM NEWS NY1 (Dec. 22, 2015, 7:01 PM), http://www.ny1.com/nyc/all-boroughs/criminal-justice/2015/12/22/heavily-armed-police-unit-focused- on-terror-attacks-fans-out-across-all-bouroughs.html
  6. Brooke Singman, College Students Testify: Free Speech Under Assault on Campuses, FOX NEWS (June 20, 2017), http://www.foxnews.com/politics/2017/06/20/college-students-testify-free-speech-under-assault-on-campuses.html.
  7. Cecilia Capuzzi Simon, Fighting for Free Speech on America’s Campuses, N.Y. TIMES (Aug. 1, 2016), https://www.nytimes.com/2016/08/07/education/edlife/fire-first- amendment-on-campus-free-speech.html.
  8. See Wendy Leo Moore & Joyce M. Bell, The Right to Be Racist in College: Racist Speech, White Institutional Space, and the First Amendment, 39 LAW & POL’Y 99 (2017).
  9. See WeTheProtesters, Campus Demands, THE DEMANDS, http://www.thedemands.org (last visited Aug. 1, 2017).
  10. Ali Winston, S. Police Get Antiterror Training in Israel on Privately Funded Trips, ALTERNET (Sept. 23, 2014, 6:38 AM), http://www.alternet.org/civil-liberties/ us-police-get-antiterror-training-israel-privately-funded-trips.
  11. CCR, National Lawyers Guild, and Palestine Legal Urge California Legislators to Oppose Anti-Boycott Bills, CTR. FOR CONSTITUTIONAL RIGHTS (Feb. 10, 2016), https://ccrjustice.org/ccr-national-lawyers-guild-and-palestine-legal-urge-california-legislators- oppose-anti-boycott-bills.