Perhaps you’ve seen us at a march or rally, or wandering around the former Capitol Hill Occupied Protest (CHOP). You can’t miss the green hats; they’re the brightly colored beacons that let everyone know who we are and why we are there. Or perhaps you heard about us in the news after we, too, were subjected to the police’s use of blast balls and pepper spray.
We are National Lawyers Guild legal observers.
The National Lawyers Guild was founded in 1937 as a progressive bar association; one of the first bar associations in the country to be racially integrated. Our mission is “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 the rights of ecosystems over property interests.” NLG’s aim is to “… bring together all those who recognize the importance of safeguarding and extending the rights of workers, women, LGBTQ people, farmers, people with disabilities, and people of color, upon whom the welfare of the entire nation depends; who seek actively to eliminate racism; who work to maintain and protect our civil rights and liberties in the face of persistent attacks upon them; and who look upon the law as an instrument for the protection of the people, rather than for their repression.”
NLG advocates on many fronts, including environmental justice, progressive drug policy reform, prison abolition, labor movement support, international human rights work, and of course, protection of the right to protest. It is that protection that is the heart of our legal observer and mass defense programs. Our mass defense program includes legal observation on the ground, know your rights trainings, jail hotlines and jail support for those who are arrested during protests, and legal representation in protest cases.
The Role of the Legal Observer
We only provide legal observers for events that align with our mission and our values. As legal observers, we are there to document any interactions with police, especially those that could later have criminal or civil legal consequences. We do so by establishing an attorney-client relationship with the group we are observing for, so that our work can be protected by attorney-client privilege and work-product doctrines. In the Seattle chapter, we limit legal observer work to those who are law students, lawyers, or legal workers who understand the sensitive nature of the confidential relationship that is the basis for our work.
We are an all-volunteer organization. We seek to provide as much legal protection as possible for the protesters we are there to support. To maintain these legal boundaries, we cannot give legal advice on the ground while we’re observing, we cannot participate in the protest or the planning, and we must try to maintain some separation from the group during the event. We are not event security. We are not there to monitor or judge protesters’ actions or tactics, or pass judgment on “good protesters” or “bad protesters,” a distinction our chapter rejects. We do not work with police or law enforcement agencies or act as liaisons between them and the protesters.
What we do is document and observe police interactions. We try to get names, dates of birth, and contact information for arrestees so our mass defense team can connect them to bail funds, visit them in jail, make sure they have needed medications, or connect with friends and family to let them know where they are. We hope that our presence can be a deterrent to civil rights violations, and if violations occur we make sure we’ve documented those tactics for legal advocacy later. If necessary, our legal observers can be available to testify in court for civil or criminal defense matters.
Legal observers have not yet been called upon to testify in court on any of the most recent cases, but our mass defense team has provided affidavits and photographic and video evidence for recent ACLU lawsuits filed against the Seattle Police Department and the City of Seattle in connection with use of force against protesters. We are able, with client consent, to provide photos and testimony to media outlets, the Office of Police Accountability, and civil rights and human rights groups advocating for improvements to the treatment of protesters. Our work product could be called upon in the future in litigation over protesters’ injuries caused by police and to defend against criminal charges that arise. We use our experiences at these events to advocate with local politicians and civil rights groups as well.