With the death of Mike Brown in Ferguson, the controversial issues of systematic racism and police brutality have captivated American citizens. In a time when the public outrage and qualms not only about police officers, but also the legal system that seems to protect those who fail to “protect and serve” citizens is at an all time high, people are calling for justice. Attorneys from across the nation have traveled to Ferguson, Missouri to take their place within the heated protests to provide legal assistance to protesters who have been arrested, to monitor and document police behavior, and to provide legal assistance to those who may not be able to afford representation. As citizens fight for justice surrounding the incidents in Ferguson, attorneys have been there on the ground to aid in the fight.
On August 9, 2014, 18-year-old Michael Brown was shot and killed by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri. Overnight, the small town in the suburbs of St. Louis became the focus of national attention as frustrated citizens took to the streets in protest. While the facts of the case have been the subject of debate, there is no question that the issue of police brutality in African American communities has once again shaken citizens’ trust of law enforcement, and they have had enough. That mistrust escalated on November 24, 2014, when the African American community, in Ferguson and across the nation, was devastated to find out that the grand jury decided not to indict the officer who killed Mike Brown. As public mistrust in the law increased, so did the protests. The increase in interaction between police officers and citizens created a circumstance where the protection of citizens’ rights has been at the forefront of the minds of the legal community.
Attorneys arrived in Ferguson to provide legal assistance by preparing to file lawsuits for civil rights violations. The Missouri branch of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has held training sessions for hundreds of legal observers following the shooting and after the grand jury decision. The ACLU has also fitted those attorneys and legal observers with video cameras, developed an app to upload video of police behavior, and been pivotal in getting police officers in Ferguson outfitted with body cameras. Lawyers have been in conversation with local organizations, such as the Don’t Shoot Coalition and Hands Up United, to work with police on ways for police to control violence and destruction of property, while still respecting the rights of the protestors afforded to them by the constitution. The nation has had its eyes on Ferguson, and there has been great concern on the militarized response and escalation of force used in Ferguson. Attorneys have been some of the strongest advocates for allowing citizens to express their frustration with law enforcement and the judicial system.
The National Lawyers Guild (NLG) is an organization that has been at the forefront of providing legal support in Ferguson. The NLG was a founding member of the Ferguson Legal Defense Committee that asked legal practitioners to volunteer as pro bono representatives for the public. In addition to lending their expertise, lawyers have been called on to donate to cover such costs as court fees and bail for protestors, housing for traveling attorneys, and funds to provide training equipment for legal observers. The NLG has also called on lawyers and law school students, asking them to be legal observers and document police activity. Many law school students are interested in protesting but are concerned about possibly being arrested and the affects that might have on their future career goals. As legal observers, law students are put in positions where the police know not to arrest them, and the students are trained to serve the efforts of justice without jeopardizing their standing.
The widespread protests across the country give attorneys an opportunity to protect protestors all across the nation. On July 17, 2014, Eric Garner was placed in a chokehold by a police officer and was killed in Long Island, New York. The video of Eric Garner’s death allowed the world to see the circumstances of his death. On December 3, 2014, the officer that killed Eric Garner was not indicted by a grand jury. This decision so close to the Ferguson decision has increased the tension between protestors and law enforcement. All across the country, from California to New York to Chicago to Washington, D.C., thousands have taken to the streets to protest what they believe is a system that does not provide justice for the lives of African Americans. The protests have mainly been peaceful. However, there have been consistent arrests of protestors in each march. Attorneys often do not have to travel to Ferguson, because there is a need for pro bono services in their backyard.
As the world continues to look at the United States due to the sweeping protests across the nation, attorneys have their focus squarely on justice. Wherever a person may stand on the issues of each case, whether they believe there should or should not have been an indictment in Ferguson or New York, the right to protest is an essential facet of American democracy. Joining the protestors, attorneys and bar associations have expressed distrust in the criminal justice system. In the interests of justice, attorneys have taken to the streets.
By Janissia Orgill
Photo by Freeside510 via Flickr