While following the media coverage of the civil unrest taking place in our country, I became aware of a legal organization I had never heard of before. The National Lawyers Guild (NLG) was founded in 1937 as an association of progressive lawyers who believed in using legal values to protect human rights. At the time, they were an alternative to the American Bar Association which was known to be much more conservative and did not accept African American members. The Guild was chosen by the American government to represent the US at the founding of the United Nations in 1945. There members helped draft the Declaration of Human Rights. They later helped to prosecute Nazis at Nuremberg and defended many accused of communist activities during the cold war which led to them for a time being labeled a subversive group. There are currently chapters of the NLG throughout the United States and in several other countries. Recently, they have been active in protesting immigration detention and advocating for homelessness assistance during the Covid-19 outbreak.
During the Civil Rights and anti-Vietnam War protests of the 1960s, members of the guild saw a need for a direct legal presence at demonstrations that were often ending up with arrests and violence. This led to the founding of the Legal Observers Program in New York City in 1968. Legal Observers are typically lawyers, law students, and other legal professionals and are trained and managed by volunteer Guild attorneys. Their stated goal is to “enable people to express their political views as fully as possible without unconstitutional disruption or interference by the police and with the fewest possible consequences from the criminal justice system.”
If you attended a demonstration in the last 50 years, there is a good chance Legal Observers were there too, usually invited ahead of time by event organizers. They wear lime green hats to announce their non-participation status and often stand on the side-lines observing police actions and collecting names of anyone arrested. They also sometimes provide criminal and civil legal representation to arrestees after the fact. The ACLU also has a similar though smaller legal observer program complete with orange hats.
In spite of their non-participation status, the role of a Legal Observer is not completely risk free. One observer recalled being arrested years ago when an officer felt she was too closely observing his arrest of a minor. Danny Garza, a Legal Observer at a demonstration on May 30th in Sacramento, was live-streaming to Facebook when he and several other protesters were shot in the head by rubber bullets. He was taken to the hospital with concussion symptoms and released later that evening.
As demonstrations are continuing to spread across the United States, Legal Observers have been involved from the very first days in Minneapolis and continue to observe the majority of demonstrations. Their clear adherence to a progressive belief system might not fit everyone but the Legal Observer Program does add the layer of security that an outside observer can provide and the National Lawyer’s Guild as a whole continues to effect law and policy after nearly 100 years.