King Downing (left), a New York-based attorney who traveled to Ferguson this week. (Photo courtesy of King Downing)
Clashes between protesters and police in Ferguson, Mo., subsided late last week, but the work for lawyers is far from over.
Criminal cases against arrested protesters could take months or even years to resolve. At least four civil lawsuits have been filed since Aug. 14 in county and federal courts seeking law enforcement records and challenging police tactics. Additional civil rights and police brutality lawsuits are expected.
Dozens of lawyers, law students and legal support staff from Missouri and across the country have traveled to Ferguson in the past two weeks. Many worked as legal observers of the protests — “the eyes and ears of those who protect and guarantee civil rights,” said King Downing, a New York-based attorney who served as an observer during protests last week.
Others represented arrested protesters, handed out pamphlets explaining residents’ First Amendment rights and provided additional legal services. The situation on the ground appeared to calm down at the end of last week, but there is still a need for lawyers, said Dan Gregor, interim director of the National Lawyers Guild, a network of civil rights lawyers. “When we’re out of the acute situation, then we can sort of step back a little bit and breathe and consider more of the ongoing legal work,” said Gregor, who was one of several lawyers to report being tear-gassed while in Ferguson. Gregor said he planned to return after a brief trip back to his office in New York.
MORE WORK AHEAD
Demonstrations flared in Ferguson after police shot to death an unarmed black 18-year-old, Michael Brown, on Aug. 9. His death is still under investigation by local and federal authorities.
As civil rights groups consider bringing additional lawsuits, evidence collected by legal observers during the protests could be an important component, said Tony Rothert, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Missouri.
“Someday we may want to deconstruct what happened — especially how, I think, some civil liberties were made the enemy of public safety, perhaps unnecessarily,” he said.
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That evidence could also be used to defend criminal charges against protesters, Gregor said. He said the guild has a designated coordinator collecting information from observers, who are asked to flag anything that might be ­important, such as a particular confrontation between police and demonstrators.
The guild is also fielding requests from lawyers volunteering their services and trying to direct them to work that suits their skills — setting up a criminal defense lawyer with an arrested protester, for instance. “We definitely do need lawyers to help,” Gregor said.
Lawyers described the demonstrations in Ferguson as a hybrid of traditional mass protests, like rallies at political conventions, and less-organized, open-­ended events like the Occupy movement, which involved monthslong demonstrations in cities across the country. The mix can make coordinating legal work tricky, Rothert said.
“Most mass demonstrations, we know when they’re going to end. They are a specific event that has a beginning and an end,” he said. “What makes this unusual is we don’t know — there’s no obvious end in sight. Occupy was like that.”
Several civil lawsuits are already underway. On Aug. 14, the American Civil Liberties Union brought a challenge in federal district court to alleged police interference with efforts to record police-protester interactions. The two sides reached an agreement in writing the following day respecting the right to record. On Aug. 18, the ACLU filed a challenge in the same court to police orders prohibiting individuals from standing for more than five seconds in a public place. A judge refused to grant a temporary restraining order.
The ACLU and the National Bar Association — the nation’s largest association of African-American lawyers and judges — filed lawsuits in St. Louis County Circuit Court seeking records in the Brown shooting.
FROM ACROSS THE COUNTRY
Lawyers came to Ferguson from all over the United States, including Atlanta, Chicago, Detroit, New Orleans, New York and San Francisco, according to attorneys on the ground.
Mawuli Davis of the Davis Bozeman Law Firm traveled from Atlanta with three other lawyers and a legal assistant in answer to a call from the National Conference of Black Lawyers. He said he attended several demonstrations, sporting a yellow T-shirt identifying himself as a legal observer. “Our hope was our presence would reduce the likelihood of the police doing something illegal and arresting people without probable cause,” he said.
Davis captured video footage of police “moving in aggressively” against protesters as well as the arrest of a National Lawyers Guild observer, he said. The observer, Max Suchan, is a law student at DePaul University College of Law, according to the guild.
National Bar Association president Pamela Meanes, a partner at St. Louis-based Thompson Coburn, said educating the community was a big piece of the work lawyers were doing in Ferguson. The association helped sponsor gatherings aimed at making sure local residents and demonstrators understood their rights.
Lawyers handed out small cards explaining what people should do and say if approached by a police officer. Meanes said a number of lawyers insisted on wearing suits to the discussions — what they considered their uniforms. Just as police officers wear a uniform, “there were those who wanted to be identified in their uniform to say, ‘We stand united for justice.’ “
The St. Louis-based Mound City Bar Association, one of the oldest African-American bar associations west of the Mississippi River, was working to organize a voter registration drive and helped witnesses to the Brown shooting turn over information to federal investigators. Members mobilized to distribute material about the First Amendment and perform other legal services, according to member Chalana Oliver.
Also present were members of the National Police Accountability Project, a project of the National Lawyers Guild; and ArchCity Defenders, a St. Louis legal services organization. Media lawyers were on hand to assist with the heavy reporting presence. Mickey Osterreicher, general counsel to the National Press Photographers Association, advised working reporters.
Benjamin Lipman, a media lawyer at Lewis, Rice & Fingersh in St. Louis, said colleagues worked with the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and with news organizations. “Most of what we’re doing is trying to maintain a dialogue with the authorities, to explain to them the rights that the media has and the breathing space they need to have so they can communicate this story to the public,” he said.
Rothert said the ACLU was “overwhelmed” with offers of help from other lawyers around the United States. “That feels good,” he said.