Our work is guided in all areas by the mission statement laid out in the Preamble of the NLG Constitution: “To use law for the people, uniting lawyers, law students, legal workers, and jailhouse lawyers to function as an effective force in the service of the people by valuing human rights and ecosystems over property interests.” For over 80 years, the NLG has acted as the legal arm of social movements and the conscience of the legal profession.
The NLG is dedicated to the need for basic change in the structure of our political and economic system. The NLG is anti-capitalist, anti-imperialist, and anti-racist and we strive to bring in anti-oppressive practices to all aspects of our organization. Each year, NLG members vote on organizational resolutions, which shape our priorities and areas of intervention. Through the national office, local and law school chapters, national committees, independent projects, and individual members, the Guild helps to support social justice movements on the ground as well as provide solidarity to international struggles.
Right to Protest
The Guild is best known for our work defending the rights of protesters through our Mass Defense and Legal Observer Programs, which have been providing legal support for movements for social justice for 50 years. Guild lawyers, law students, and legal workers observe police actions during protests, provide Know Your Rights trainings, track arrestees through the legal system, and provide free attorneys for protest-related cases.
The NLG has published many analyses on the right to dissent, including Punishing Protest: Government Tactics that Suppress Free Speech (2007), Policing of Political Speech (2010), and Developments in the Policing of National Special Security Events (2013). We have published articles on protest policing, anti-protest legislation and the conservative forces behind this trend, free speech debates at universities, legal support for anti-fascist actions, and surveillance of modern social movements.
We provide free Know Your Rights handbooks for encounters with law enforcement in English, Spanish, Arabic, Bengali and Urdu. The Guild has resolved to challenge FBI raids on activists and use of grand juries to punish political speech and affiliation. The NLG has worked in coalition with many other legal non-profits and social justice organizations to protect the right to protest. In response to the most recent wave of repression, we helped to create the coalition Protect Dissent and produced the webinar Anti Protest Legislation: Implications for Social Movements.
Through the work of our International Committee, the Guild seeks to change U.S. foreign policy that threatens, rather than engages, or is based on a model of domination rather than respect, and provides assistance and solidarity to social justice movements in the United States and abroad. Most recently, the NLG provided legal support at the U.S.-Mexico border to assist the series of migrant exoduses from Central America and created the webinar Why Do Refugee Caravans Exist? A Lesson in Geo-Political History of Central America.
The NLG IC plays an active role in international conferences and on-going projects that examine and seek to remedy conditions caused by illegal U.S. or corporate practices. By bringing an alternative perspective to multinational institutions, schools, community centers and congressional hearings, the IC and its members actively educate, litigate, and truth-seek toward the end of social justice. To this end, the NLG IC has sent delegations to Cuba, Haiti, Palestine, Honduras, Venezuela, Korea, the Middle East, the Philippines, Mexico, Puerto Rico, El Salvador, and other locations. The IC and National Office also produced the webinar Global Repression of Dissent: Palestine, Puerto Rico & the Philippines. The Guild is a founding member of the International Association of Democratic Lawyers.
The Guild’s membership has passed numerous resolutions on international issues, including Ending Puerto Rican Colonialism, Ending the Occupation in Gaza, Ending Interference in Haitian Elections, Supporting Normalization of US-Cuba Relations, Condemning US Funding to Destabilize Progressive Governments, Supporting Health Workers in the Philippines, and Boycott and Divestment from Israel.
The NLG is committed to the dismantling and abolition of all aspects of systems and institutions that support, condone, create, fill, or protect prisons, including jails, police lock ups, juvenile detention facilities, immigration detention centers, involuntary psychiatric treatment centers, and other institutional settings in which people are held against their will. We are committed to supporting grassroots organizing efforts, policy initiatives, and litigation that promotes or moves toward abolition, including: the rights and organizing of prisoners, the de-funding and closure of prisons and redirection of prison and policing budgets into social and human services as well as re-entry support; legalization of drug use and sex work; release of prisoners serving life without parole and other inhumane sentences, decreased use of solitary confinement, and efforts to prevent construction of new prisons.
The Guild has engaged in numerous initiatives to promote an end to mass incarceration nationally and locally. The NLG organizes an annual national Week Against Mass Incarceration (WAMI), supports political prisoners, and shares the voices of our jailhouse lawyer members in the Guild Notes column, “Beyond Bars: Voices from NLG Jailhouse Lawyers.” The Guild has critiqued the obstacles to legal resource prisoners face due to the Prison Ligation Reform Act and explored the role of bond funds in our webinar Bail Funds & Community-Based Strategies. The NLG National Immigration Project has been instrumental in challenging abuses at immigrant detention centers.
Local NLG initiatives include the NLG-NYC Parole Preparation Project, the NLG Bay Area Prisoner Advocacy Network, and the NLG NJ-DE Prisoner Legal Advocacy Network. NLG Mass Incarceration Committee and Prison Law Project volunteers respond to jailhouse lawyer members’ letters and send out our Jailhouse Lawyer Manual on an ongoing basis. NLG members are involved in various initiatives opposing policing, criminalization, solitary confinement, the drug war, capital punishment, and new prison construction. The Guild supported the 2016 and 2018 National Prison Strikes and has been working to investigate and challenge deplorable conditions in numerous Texas Department of Criminal Justice prison facilities in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey.
Labor and Employment
The NLG was founded in the 1930s by labor lawyers who helped organize the United Auto Workers (UAW) and the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO). Since then, workers’ struggles have been central to the Guild’s mission. The NLG Labor & Employment Committee includes lawyers, law students, legal workers, and worker representatives and serves as a liaison between the Guild and legal organizations that represent workers. It includes a student sub-committee and a mentorship program for newer attorneys and legal workers. The L&EC works directly with organized labor and other organizations that represent workers, including the Guild’s Sugar Law Center for the Economic and Social Justice, AFL-CIO Lawyers Coordinating Committee, and the National Employment Law Association.
In 2019 the Committee partnered with Working Families United to support union workers with Temporary Protected Status and train unions on workplace raid preparedness. The LE Committee submitted comments to the NLRB opposing their proposed rule changes on the Standard for Determining Joint Employer Status and issued a statement condemning the Supreme Court’s Janus decision.
The committee has led Research Delegations to Cuba for 20 years, and in 2019 Chair Dean Hubbard was honored at the International Labor Lawyers Conference.We have also supported labor protests and boycotts both in the US and abroad. In 2018 the committee endorsed the Farm Labor Organizing Committee boycott of Circle K & WaWa in support of farm workers demanding better working and living conditions. And in 2019 the LEC signed on our support for the LA Teachers Strike.
The L&E committee has an annual breakfast panel at the LCC Conference and regularly hosts panels at the NLG Convention. Most recently, the committee presented conversations on the recent teacher strikes and how unions are confronting racism and sexism in the labor movement. Guild members have voted through organizational resolutions to support workers through our organizational practices such as only using union products and venues.
Unlike many bar associations, the NLG allows current law students to become full members of the organization. We have over 120 law school chapters across the country and students are a vibrant part of our membership. Because the law school experience is often difficult for students with a social justice orientation, the Guild has resolved to change the practice and policies of legal education designed to discourage critical political thinking and to isolate law students from social movements.
The Guild has created a number of resources to assist students through their law school experience. Every year we send out thousands of copies of our Disorientation Manual to new law students and help our student chapters organize Disorientation events at their schools. Through our NLG Scholars program, we help students find speakers for their events who can bring a critical legal perspective. Many of our student chapters organize on their campuses and run critical thinking workshops at their law schools. In order to highlight the work of law students and to contextualize the law school experience, the Guild created the Radical Law Student Project. Topics covered include the dominant legal career narrative, the psychological effects of law school, teaching and grading practices, barriers to legal education, tuition increases, law student debt, radical faculty and curriculum, contemplation and the law, starting and reviving NLG chapters, and advice for life as a new lawyer.
The Guild also runs a fellowship program for our students called the Haywood Burns Memorial Fellowship for Social and Economic Justice, which is designed to place law students in summer internships that allow them to start practicing people’s lawyering. These fellowship positions help students provide legal, political, and educational support to important progressive movements. Through our written resources, ongoing student campaigns, mentoring opportunities, and fellowship program, the Guild strives to provide a political home for our law student members.
In 2018, the NLG membership voted to add the “rights of ecosystems” to our mission statement, in recognition of the long history of the Guild’s work with environmental movements. The NLG Environmental Justice Committee is dedicated to providing assistance to impoverished communities and communities of color, which are exposed to the disproportionate impacts of environmental hazards. Guild members are also exploring the relationship between environmental pollution and mass incarceration as they intersect in toxic prisons. The NLG 2017 Weinglass Fellow Emily Posner has been challenging the Bureau of Prison’s proposal to build a new maximum security prison on a former coal mining site. In addition to “Greening the Guild” by limiting our use of resources, the NLG membership has resolved to divest from fossil fuels and to support a sustainable economy.
The Guild has provided legal support for environmental and animal rights movements for decades. When the FBI began investigating these activists in the late 1990s, the NLG provided lawyers, created the Know Your Rights resource Operation Backfire, and set up a national Green Scare hotline. Our legal support for environmental activism continued through the many years of resistance to the Keystone XL pipeline, as well as from the earliest days of the #NoDAPL demonstrations at Standing Rock. Guild members traveled to North Dakota to assist Water Protectors and Indigenous legal workers, eventually forming the Water Protector Legal Collective. NLG members have also been actively involved in the resistance to oil and gas pipelines across the country, including Louisiana, Minnesota, North Dakota, Virginia, West Virginia, and Pennsylvania.
The Guild is a member of Protect the Protest, a coalition of environmental and legal organizations dedicated to challenging the repressive tactics used against environmental movements, specifically Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation (SLAPPs). We have analyzed the legal trends in environmental struggles, both those that repress these movements and the strategies used by movements to address climate change.
The NLG has long been opposed to the War on Drugs and the dramatic increase in incarceration it has produced. Since 2004, the Guild has argued that “the War on Drugs has been applied in a highly disproportionate way with people of color experiencing the brunt of arrests and incarcerations.” Our members have called for an end to drug prohibition and the NLG Drug Policy Committee has demanded that the federal government end its unnecessary, harmful, and imperialistic war against people who use drugs, mainly people of color and low income communities.
In 2013, the Guild National Office released a report titled “High Crimes, Strategies to Further Marijuana Legalization Initiatives.” The report explores the role of civil asset forfeiture by police and the private prison industry in the continued War on Drugs, and calls for 1) re-framing drug use as social and public health issue rather than a criminal justice problem, 2) revising international drug treaties, 3) re-classifying marijuana from a Schedule 1 substance, 4) legalizing of adult use recreational marijuana, 5) ending the practice of civil asset forfeiture, and 6) abolishing the for-profit prison industry. We also call for the decriminalization of all drugs and the release of non-violent drug offenders currently incarcerated.
In 2019, we dedicated the annual Week Against Mass Incarceration to an analysis of the links between the war on drugs and the prison industrial complex. We shared an analysis of the racial dynamics of current trends in drug policy and culture, including marijuana legalization, psychedelic therapies, and the opioid crisis.