National Lawyers Guild chapter helps protesters raise their voice responsibly

Woman holds phone up to a bus window
While working as a Legal Observer on June 2, 2L McKenna Thayer collects names and information from protesters who were arrested.

The National Lawyers Guild (NLG) is the country’s oldest and largest progressive bar association, with a mission dedicated to human rights and protecting people over property interests. Founded in 1937, the Guild has a long history of progressive lawyering, civil rights activists, antiwar protesters and occupy demonstrators.

Today, the student chapter at Wayne State University Law School has almost 50 members who intern and clerk with progressive law offices including civil rights firms, legal aid organizations, nonprofits, criminal defense firms and public defender offices, and labor unions. Moreover, many of these NLG members — like second-year students and Law School chapter board members James Martines, Jeff Garland, Elizabeth Stapleton and McKenna Thayer — have become trained Legal Observers at protests.

“People who attend protests do not always have the knowledge on how to navigate the legal system, but they have the right to protest and make their voices heard,” said Martines. “One of the roles of the National Lawyers Guild is to help people navigate the legal system and ensure people are able to exercise their rights. Legal Observers can be an important part of that process.”

Legal Observers typically include law students, legal workers and lawyers who are sometimes licensed locally. They are trained and directed by practicing NLG attorneys, who often have established relationships with activist organizations or are in litigation challenging police tactics at mass assemblies.

As an added safety measure, Legal Observers attend protests in pairs, with new observers often joined by experienced observers to ensure a balance of knowledge. Legal Observers wear neon green hats to identify themselves, and they refrain from chanting or accepting literature; instead, they film video and take notes. Ultimately, they are tasked with documenting interactions between law enforcement and demonstrators for NLG lawyers who can, if warranted, pursue legal action to protect protesters’ rights.

“Uplifting the voices of those who have been silenced is the priority of my influence,” said Garland.

Meeting a movement

The world has seen a surge of political protests with a dedication to combatting existing policing methods and systemic racism. According to data collected from surveys analyzed by The New York Times, recent protests are part of the largest social movement in our nation’s history. The growing number of protests and attendance rates has increased the need for Legal Observers at civic demonstrations.

Garland described the protests he’s attended as a Legal Observer to be “energizing,” adding that this experience has reminded him of why he chose to go to law school.

Meanwhile, Martines says that every protest he has witnessed has been diverse and well attended.

“There is power in numbers — protests build a sense of community,” he said. “It is a great opportunity for people to come together to better understand one another and to show up in numbers. It goes to show that there are many people who want to live in a better world.”

Stapleton had similar thoughts, with the observation that the pandemic has forced people to pay more attention to issues that have been present for a long time.

Recognizing their responsibility

Martines, who is also a member of the Detroit and Michigan NLG board, is impressed by his peers’ response to the ongoing sociopolitical movement.

“We mobilized almost immediately,” he said. “My fellow students were ready to sign on in any capacity — even outside legal observing. Lots of people need assistance at this time, and our chapter members recognized their responsibility.”

Thayer believes that law students have special skills resulting from their legal knowledge that present a unique opportunity. Her personal goal is to normalize the idea of lawyers being allies, as law students sometimes feel limited by the potential risk they face if they were to be arrested or detained for any reason.

“It is equally as frustrating as it is exciting to be a Legal Observer at a protest,” she said.

Potential and purpose

Wayne Law’s NLG chapter provides an avenue for engagement that allows students to participate in protests and demonstrations indirectly as advocates for the activists. According to Martines, the NLG is the best way for law students to get involved because they are not practicing and cannot offer legal advice yet, but they can engage with the process of protecting people’s rights and giving back to the community.

Thayer, meanwhile, shared that her involvement in the NLG has given her access to a progressive group of people who want to make a difference in Detroit — a belief that’s also shared by Martines. 

“I didn’t go to law school for the prestigious title or the promise of money — I went so I could help people,” said Martines. “The Guild chapter at Wayne State is made up of future lawyers who want to help people, and I hope the energy of our chapter and the movement is sustained because we can initiate some serious change.”

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