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Originally published in The Village Voice.


The Watchers

Protesting at the GOP convention? Legal observers have your back

There are a few things to know when planning a protest in New York City. An archaic state law forbids multiple protesters from wearing identical masks at an event. Signs carried on sticks or poles are considered potential weapons and will be confiscated. And if you didn’t know these facts already, you should at least get acquainted with the volunteer corps of legal observers. They do know the rules, and they’re an essential element in preserving your right to free speech and assembly.

Armed with neon-green hats, video cameras, and a knowledge of the law, legal observers were witness to more than 2,000 arrests—some peaceful, some not—at New York City demonstrations in 2003. This past March, Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau predicted in a City Council hearing that there would be up to 1,000 arrests a day during the upcoming Republican National Convention. To prepare for this likelihood, the progressive National Lawyers Guild is recruiting over 250 volunteers to observe rallies and marches, and is bringing in a bevy of lawyers to handle, pro bono, any civil rights cases that arise.

The guild has drafted an $80,000 budget for legal outreach during the convention. The group will also keep a database of arrests and arraignments, but won’t stop there. “A lot of what we do is not only the protection of people’s rights, but providing emotional support,” said Bruce Bentley, who’s coordinating convention work for the guild’s Mass Defense Committee. “When someone is waiting for 12, 24, or even 36 hours to be arraigned, their friends and family members will often call us to find out more about their arrest.”

While at protests legal observers often act as liaisons, passing along police warnings or conveying demonstrators’ concerns, their primary responsibility is to document police activity, gather contact information and witnesses during arrests, and then head to the precinct to determine when the detainees will be released. The information they collect can be instrumental in preparing a defense.

“You’re not a protester. You may not even agree with the cause,” said Jeff Senter, a legal observer who has attended more than a dozen protests in New York City in the past year. “But the Bill of Rights, dead as it may seem, is a constant issue of contention. And in instances of police misbehavior, legal observers are an integral part of the protection of those basic rights.”

Legal observing began as an outreach program of the National Lawyers Guild, which was established in 1937 to use the law to promote social change. Its members worked to create labor unions and support the efforts of the civil rights movement, but soon decided they needed to take a proactive approach to protecting the public’s rights.

“I became involved in mass defense work following the Columbia riots in 1968,” said Martin Stolar, president of the New York City chapter. “Back then, legal observing was not quite so institutionalized. We decided that we had to do something else between the arraignments and the cases, and started being there to watch the cops and develop evidence. People started to trust us and began giving us advance information, and from there we created a Mass Defense Committee.”

There are currently about 100 legal observers who make up the standing New York City’s Mass Defense Committee. They are on call, responding to requests to witness everything from anti-war rallies and labor disputes to neighborhood fights for community gardens. Such protests happen daily in New York City, and most are relatively calm, with little police presence or cause for concern. But now the committee is preparing for what they expect will be tense encounters between protesters and police.

“The biggest risk is that the police will create an atmosphere that chills First Amendment rights and results in a public misconception that demonizes the protesters,” said chief negotiator Leslie Ann Brody, who works to secure demonstration permits for groups throughout the city. “Within every crowd, there are a small percentage of things that will go wrong. But as a whole the protests will be a spirited, creative, and important discussion of vital issues. In times like these, we have to uphold the basic principles of freedom of expression.”

The groups organizing the protests and the legal observers who monitor them certainly have reason to worry. Police have stepped up surveillance of their activities, and there has been a rash of police misconduct at protests. During a free-trade summit in Miami this past November, police used a combination of batons, pepper spray, and rubber bullets against some of the 15,000 assembled protesters. They arrested 250, including a few media representatives and legal observers, who are typically exempted. And during a February 15, 2003, protest against the impending invasion of Iraq, more than 300 protesters were arrested in Manhattan. In depositions conducted by the guild, the arrested testified that they were detained between 16 and 24 hours and were interrogated about their political beliefs.

“The bottom line for the police is control,” said Bentley. “So long as they believe they are controlling a situation, their response to people who are protesting will be more measured. When they perceive they are losing control, they’re going to move in and act physically. That’s where you get a lot of problems.”

Legal observers say heavy-handed treatment and prolonged detentions have had a chilling effect on dissenters, causing some to tone down their actions and others to avoid protests entirely. “I’m concerned about security too,” said Joel Kupferman, a public interest lawyer who attends an average of one protest a week in New York City. “But there’s no clash between security and allowing people to exercise their First Amendment rights. That’s what makes America different.”

At “Know Your Rights” training sessions, given by members of the National Lawyers Guild, protesters can learn the legal ramifications of their activities, how best to deal with the police, and how to proceed if their case goes to trial. (See for information about upcoming classes.)

Activists view the work of legal observers as integral to their efforts. “Legal observers are an arm’s length from protest activity and play an important role in police accountability and ensuring our rights,” said Bill Dobbs, spokesman for United for Peace and Justice, one of the groups planning a large-scale demonstration during the convention. “They observe the events as they unfold on the street, and provide invaluable legal advice right on the spot.”

Though most legal observers acknowledge that their own politics tend to align them closer to the activists than to police, they pride themselves on their neutrality during events.

“I’d be willing to be a legal observer for the Ku Klux Klan,” said Benjamin Bernard, a student at New York Law School. “Whether I agree personally or not, I’d go to protect their constitutional rights.”

Those rights, as simple as the First Amendment may sound, are not so easily secured.

“Just being present puts the police on notice that there are people there watching how they conduct themselves,” said Bentley. “There is a long history in this country of progressive political activism, and I think that if we can play a role that helps people to safely and orderly express themselves, then that’s a good thing.”

This article originally appeared in the August 11-17, 2004, issue of The Village Voice.

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