Legal Aid stands up in solidarity

January 12, 2015

Lucy Herschel, a delegate in 1199SEIU and paralegal at the Legal Aid Society, reports from New York City, on protests by some of those on the front lines of the justice system.

UNION ATTORNEYS at the Legal Aid Society organized a walkout from the Brooklyn Criminal Courthouse on December 17 in protest of a criminal justice system that railroads poor people of color every day of the week—yet is incapable of indicting police officers.

Led by members of the Association of Legal Aid Attorneys, UAW Local 2325, the walkout involved public defenders from other agencies, as well as members of my union, 1199SEIU, which represents the support staff at Legal Aid.

In my 17 years at Legal Aid, I have never seen anything quite like this. From the courthouse, we marched through the streets to the Brooklyn House of Detention, chanting everything from "Black lives matter" to "Indict, convict, send those killer cops to jail. The whole damn system in guilty as hell!"

At the Brooklyn House, we staged a die-in in remembrance of Akai Gurley, the unarmed Brooklyn man who was shot and killed by a police officer conducting a vertical patrol in an unlit housing project stairwell. We then marched around to other courthouses, taking over the entire Manhattan-bound side of the road leading to the Brooklyn Bridge. One of our last stops was the Brooklyn district attorney's office, where we continued to chant our demands for indictment for police officers who brutalize and kill.

Legal aid workers are joining their voices with the Black Lives Matter movement
Legal aid workers are joining their voices with the Black Lives Matter movement (Association of Legal Aid Attorneys - UAW 2325)

As Anne Oredeko, one of the main organizers of the action, stated:

We had to do this action to show solidarity with the communities we represent. We do work in communities of color, especially poor communities of color where the police consistently brutalize them, consistently assault them, consistently cause physical harm and damage to individual members of the communities. So we had do this protest today to show solidarity with them, to demand an end to “Broken Windows” policing, to demand the end of police brutality, to demand an end to mass incarceration.

THE BROOKLYN action was part of an unprecedented wave of public defenders in several cities around the country holding protests and die-ins in December to denounce the bias of the criminal justice system in the wake of the Eric Garner and Mike Brown decisions.

On December 16, 250 lawyers, clients and supporters staged four-and-a-half minutes of silence on the courthouse steps in New Orleans. On December 17, die-ins were held at courthouses in Philadelphia and Los Angeles. On December 18, public defenders in five counties in the Bay Area held simultaneous lunchtime protests on the steps of their respective courthouses.

Public defenders are in a unique position of being in the front lines of the court system, able to see the overall picture of what kinds of cases are being prosecuted and how. Day in and day out, they see clients' lives turned upside down over petty offenses. Every day, they see their mostly poor, mostly Brown and Black clients railroaded on weak and conflicting evidence. And every day, they fight an uphill battle in a court system that systematically defers to the police and prosecutor.

As another organizer of the Brooklyn action, Bina Ahmad, said, much of what is being prosecuted are crimes of poverty, from turnstyle jumping to sleeping on subway cars. "I have a client who was recently indicted [in felony charges] for driving with a suspended license,” Ahmad said. “His license was suspended because he couldn't afford to pay all the fines and tickets he owed. So now he's going to jail."

She pointed out how the system is set up to profit off these arrests and to control poor populations. "I don't think the system is broken," she said. "I think it's working just the way it's supposed to."

As Oredeko sees it, there is a direct connection between this kind of over-policing and level of police brutality and killings. "When you designate a whole entire population as criminals,” she said, “then you see what we see here today, and that is police brutality reaching dramatic levels."

For many Legal Aid attorneys, this issue is not just about their clients, but about their own families and neighborhoods. As another coworker, Lisa Edwards, a 25-year veteran from the Harlem office, put it, "Our union has a history of mobilizing around issues like this. We have a duty to mobilize and take steps to address issues that affect our work and the people we serve. But I think this is even more compelling for people of color at Legal Aid."

She told me this was brought home to her when she took her family to the December 13 Millions March. Her 10-year-old son made a poster with a drawing a person videotaping a cop shooting someone in the head. They then spontaneously organized their own form of performance art, her son laying down on the street, Lisa outlining his body in chalk and her daughter writing "Who's next?" below. They did this about seven times through the march, including in front of lines of cops.

WHILE THERE are many like Lisa who have been involved in this kind of work for decades, there has undoubtedly been an increase for several years now of staff members being involved in broad activism around criminal justice issues: from fighting the horrifying conditions at the Rikers Island jails, to ending stop-and-frisk policing, to fighting around the case of Kyam Livingston, who died while waiting to be arraigned in the Brooklyn Courthouse, to other cases of police killings like Ramarley Graham and Shantel Davis.

In large part because of pressure exerted by the union and its attorneys of color caucus, Legal Aid has been more and more successful at recruiting and retaining attorneys of color, many of whom are leading these recent actions. In general, we have been impacted by an influx of new attorneys, both of color and white, with activist experience and inclinations.

More and more, union members appear to be looking to merge the work we do every day with a broader vision of activism and social justice. Union members have also begun to push management and Legal Aid as an institution to lead around these issues.

I believe we still have a lot of work to do in terms of merging this fight for social justice outside the workplace with a fight for justice on the job. Part of fighting for quality legal services means fighting for the kind of pay and working conditions that allow people to make a life and a career. However, unlike most public defenders offices, we are unionized, which at least gives us the building blocks for taking on that fight.

Meanwhile, organizing around police accountability continues. Staff members at the Staten Island Legal Aid office where Eric Garner was a client are now organizing for a protest and vigil at the 120th Precinct on January 15, Martin Luther King's birthday and the six-month anniversary of Garner's death.

Members in all five boroughs are meeting to prepare to mobilize. As organizers in Ferguson have emphasized, it is going to take a sustained struggle around the issues of police brutality, mass incarceration, racism and inequality to change things in this country. Public defense workers in New York and around the country have begun to throw their weight into this fight.

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