MOVEMENT LAWYERS: WHERE POWER MUST MEET KNOWLEDGE
Written by Nnennaya Amuchie
Power is the ability to do change something; to make decisions that affect the people, the environment, and the conditions around you. When you grow up feeling disenfranchised and silenced, you often seek out ways to feel powerful and heard. We think, as individuals, if only we had the power of a CEO, a judge, a president, a police officer, or even a lawyer that we could impact our communities in the ways we desire. If only we personally had all that power we want to actually do something with. So, we work so hard to become that figure with power, and we find out how constrained and limiting it is to effect change when you don’t have the collective community power to push for better policies and solutions.
When I think of power, I think of Ferguson activist, writer, and artist Ashley Yates’ recent interview on Colorlines, where she was asked about her meeting with President Obama in 2014, to which she responded: “He did listen, then he gave us this whole speech about voting as a way to create change, almost to say that if Mike Brown had voted he wouldn’t be dead, which was really insulting. He took us around his office and showed us his custom-made carpet with a quote from Martin Luther King Jr. on it. He gave us this spill about “the journey” and how he too was a community organizer. He never addressed Darren Wilson, though. This was two days before Eric Garner’s non-indictment. Here’s President Obama giving us a spill about being patient as the nation is burning, literally, in some instances.”
President Obama, a constitutional scholar, a lawyer, a father, a self-proclaimed “community organizer,” a president, could not readily respond to the needs and material conditions of the young Black organizers who organized for months to get him elected. People always reference Barack Obama’s two years as a community organizer, but ignore the fact that he left organizing behind, uninspired, looking for more power. In 2008 and 2010, Black youth voters outperformed all of their counterparts making it the highest youth turnout in history; Black youth organized for Barack Obama and all they got in return was paternalism. So what does it mean when one man has unlimited access and power, but his theory of change differs? How does one owe his presidential success to grassroots organizing, but shoot down the idea of grassroots organizing as a fundamental theory of change? What is the role of those of us who have access to degrees, money, and time? What is the role of someone like me who is a lawyer?
The role of the lawyer is always in the movement. Some lawyers are tasked with upholding the law, while others are tasked with challenging the law. However, a movement lawyer must leverage their skills to build the capacity and power to change the material conditions of the most vulnerable human beings. We must provide a pathway for new structures and new societies.
In April 1982, Len Holt, a SNCC member and civil rights movement attorney, delivered a speech titled “Legal Rights and Responsibilities” describing the role of a movement lawyer. He said, “Law and direct action, when practiced in tandem, held radical potential. Together, they could transform society. A different type of civil rights lawyer- a movement lawyer –could harness the energy of direct action movement and facilitate transformation. Driven by imperatives of grassroots activists, movement lawyers would deploy their professional skills to protect street fighters for racial justice from violence and legal peril.”
Holt fundamentally believed that a lawyer’s role was to be in service to the movement and to take the lead of the organizers. The legal system is elitist; it produces lawyers who believe they know what is best and have the skillset and intellectual capability to solve social problems. However, power and knowledge is not encapsulated in one human being, nor one subset of society. Like Holt, we must recognize the capacity to change societies through collective action and share knowledge and power.
As an organizer and a lawyer who believes in prison and police abolition, it is difficult to engage in a system that I seek to see destroyed. However, I recognize the value that lawyers employ by using the courtroom and the legislative chambers to carve out new rights, new infrastructure, and new money that meet people's lived realities and change their material conditions.
Luke Cole, a leader in environmental justice lawyering and founder of the Center on Race, Poverty, and Environment, would pose three questions to movement lawyers.
Does it educate?
Does it build the movement?
Does it get to the root of the problem?
If none of these answers are yes, then we have failed in our role as lawyers and we need not have all that power. With recent news of repeals to DACA, lack of protection for protesters, the current demonization of Antifa by both conservatives and liberals, and the magnitude of other legal attacks on black brown youth, especially young organizers, movement lawyers are needed now more than ever.