The Work

October 18, 2011 3:59 PM

Meet The Lawyers Keeping an Eye on Occupy Wall Street

Posted by Claire Zillman

"Someone needs to get over to Bank of America."

The shout—aimed at a handful of National Lawyers Guild members gathered around a folding table—came from a group of some 200 people bunched together in lower Manhattan's Zuccotti Park, a grassless plaza that is the headquarters of the month-old anticorporate demonstration known as Occupy Wall Street.

"I'll go," says Zainab Akbar.

Clad in a gray pantsuit and neon-green baseball cap emblazoned with the words "Legal Observer: National Lawyers Guild," Akbar hustled toward the intersection of Liberty Street and Broadway, where dozens of chanting, placard-waving protesters lined the sidewalk in front of the bank branch. A pack of New York City police officers stood nearby. As more demonstrators joined the throng, the number of police officers on the scene also increased. 

By the time Akbar, an unemployed lawyer who recently completed a fellowship with an American Civil Liberties Union chapter in Michigan, crossed the busy intersection, the marchers had begun to disperse and make their way back to the park. What might have turned into a tense standoff had ended before ever really starting.

"Whenever there’s interaction between police and protesters," she says, "we need to see what's going on."

Akbar is one of about 200 National Lawyers Guild members volunteering as legal observers on the scene at Occupy Wall Street. A national nonprofit composed of lawyers, legal workers, and law students, the guild is encouraging its members to monitor events at the Zuccotti Park encampment and to trail protesters when they march to locations elsewhere in the city.

The guild's mission, says Gideon Oliver, a solo practitioner and member of the executive committee of the group's New York City chapter, is to ensure that demonstrators are able to exercise their First Amendment rights.

Guild observers attempt to identify everyone who is arrested, record the arresting officer's badge number, and obtain contact information for potential witnesses. Following those steps makes it easier to coordinate jail support services and legal representation, says Jane Moison, a guild member and associate at criminal defense and civil rights firm Rankin & Taylor.

The observers' presence is especially important, Oliver says, when police make arrests in bunches.

"When arrests happen on a large scale, you need to get the names of people arrested to make sure they get through the system and out of police custody," he says. And when tensions flare between police and protesters, the presence of guild observers provides a cooling effect, adds Martin Stolar, a New York City solo practitioner and former guild president: "Once protesters and police see the green hats, they know someone's watching."

Many of the guild members are volunteering as observers and providing legal advice to demonstrators while maintaining full-time practices. Moison, for instance, says she returns to her office for a few hours of work after doing a 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. shift in Zuccotti Park.

"Some people want to show their support and solidarity for the protests," Stolar says. "This is a way lawyers can do that."

The guild's "office" in the encampment is a table stocked with fact sheets on arrest procedures and intake forms that those arrested can use to provide the guild with information about themselves and their cases. The table—marked with a green sign and located between the protest's outreach station and its makeshift barbershop—has also become of legal forum of sorts, as passersby ask questions about various laws related to aspects of the protest.

"They want to know what force police are able to use, when police can use batons and pepper spray, and when they can be photographed by police," says Margaret Ratner Kunstler, a guild member and the widow of famed civil rights attorney William Kunstler.

Guild lawyers make their presence known via announcements during the protest's nightly general assembly meetings. On the night of October 11, the guild's phone number flashed across a homemade projection screen—a white sheet duct-taped to two wooden sticks. Andy Izenson, a third-year student at New York Law School and guild volunteer, explains that she walks around the park advising protesters to write the guild's phone number in ink on their arms and ankles. "Most people here already have it written on their bodies somewhere," she said. "They're happy to have our help."

For those so inclined, there is plenty to do. By the guild's count, as of Monday, police had arrested roughly 1,000 Occupy Wall Street protesters, and the guild had managed to identify nearly all of them. The guild says that about 700 of the arrests occurred on October 1, after protesters allegedly refused to follow police orders to vacate the roadway of the Brooklyn Bridge.

Most of those arrests have resulted in desk appearance tickets for such violations as obstruction of government administration and disorderly conduct, Moison says. Guild members had appeared at about 90 arraignments as of Monday, and most defendants have been released on their own recognizance, according to Stolar.

Stolar says he has told authorities that the Occupy Wall Street arrests will clog the Manhattan criminal courts for months. Upcoming court appearances for those arrested in connection with the demonstration already stretch into early January and could drag on longer, Stolar says, because many protesters facing charges won't accept anything less than a dismissal because they believe they've done nothing wrong.

On Monday, Stolar asked prosecutors from the Manhattan district attorney's office to dismiss all disorderly conduct charges stemming from the mass arrests on the Brooklyn Bridge and a separate march to Union Square. That would drop charges against some 760 people, said Stolar. Prosecutors are considering the proposal, he says.

Erin Duggan, a spokesman for Manhattan district attorney Cyrus Vance, Jr., says, "Every arrest that comes into the D.A.'s office is assessed individually, and charging decisions are based on the evidence and circumstances unique to each case and defendant." By her office's count, police have arrested about 500 Occupy Wall Street protesters, including 267 on the Brooklyn Bridge. That tally does not include protesters who were issued summonses. The New York City Police Department did not respond to a request for its arrest total. 

(Sibling publication New York Law Journal has more on Monday's meeting between guild members and prosecutors.)

Though guild members are on the scene to protect the rights of individuals and to provide legal aid to those who need it, the volunteers have on occasion provided more general advice. For example, several volunteers represented Occupy Wall Street's Sanitation Working Group last Thursday by writing a letter to the park's owner, Brookfield Properties, aimed at discouraging the company from executing—with the city's help—a cleanup plan that would have forced the protesters to vacate the park. In the letter, the guild members argued that Brookfield's plan was unconstitutional and unlawful. Though the company did not respond directly to the letter, it wound up canceling the cleanup.

Prior to learning that the cleanup had been called off, the guild beefed up its presence in the park Friday morning. "We were unsure of how the situation would play out," Oliver said. "We're always watching to see what role police will play."

Friday afternoon, guild observers were watching when one of their own, law student Ari Douglas, appeared to be struck and then have his leg run over by a police officer on a motorcycle.

A video posted online shows Douglas, who was arrested at the scene, kicking at the motorcycle in an apparent bid to free his leg. Police charged him with resisting arrest and a felony count of criminal mischief in the third degree (for allegedly damaging the motorcycle by kicking it). Douglas was arraigned over the weekend and released on his own recognizance, according to Stolar, who adds that prosecutors said they plan to bring the case against Douglas before a grand jury. The video, Stolar says, "completely refutes" the allegations against Douglas.

To guild members, the incident is just one example of why their presence at Zuccotti Park is important—and why they plan to stick around as long as the protesters do.

"We're here for the long haul," says Moison. "I've never seen anything like it."

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