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  • Protests against the police killing of Eric Garner.

    Protests against the police killing of Eric Garner. | Photo: Reuters

Published 7 January 2015
Solidarity is our boundless power to act collectively to protect each other and make change in society.

Police, acting for and independently of national and local governments throughout the United States and the world, have been increasing repressive measures in attempts to silence, criminalize and demobilize popular power. The people have not been deterred from the mass actions, sit ins, occupations and demonstrations that continue from Black Lives Matter in the US to massive mobilizations in Spain against the new law criminalizing protests. However, we have lagged in our collective legal organization and strategy. Not that there are not radical lawyers willing, and often organized, supporting the movements; there are, but what there is not is self-organized groups of activists and militants thinking about how to act in solidarity with one another in relationship to the law and courts. Solidarity has, and can be, a very powerful tool to protect ourselves and one another.

Solidarity is our boundless power to act collectively to protect each other and make change in society.

Every group and movement for social change has used different forms of solidarity. Solidarity has no bounds and is only limited by our imagination and fear. Strikes are an often-used example of solidarity, where we collectively withhold our labor, from walk outs to sit-down strikes, we act together so as to have the most powerful effect.

In the United States and around the world, dockworkers went on solidarity strikes with their sisters and brothers in the Congress of South African Trade Unionists (COSATU) to put pressure on the racist system of Apartheid, thus acting together locally to put pressure on a situation in a different location. Consumer boycotts can be another way to act in solidarity with others when one is not directly touched by the harm, such as the current BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions), which boycotts products made in Israel in solidarity with Palestine.

Under Nazi Germany the population of Denmark showed phenomenal solidarity when everyone wore the yellow star that identified Jews for targeting, and as a result no Jews were sent to concentration camps. The free speech campaigns of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) in the early 1990s in the US is a great example of acting together in solidarity for a legal result – legal solidarity.

As IWW participants were arrested in each town for speaking out against the system of exploitation, their comrades from around the region would flood the town and also speak out, together flooding the jails to the point where there were too many people for the jails to hold and all were released. Our power and safety comes from our collective action. Solidarity can work. Solidarity can take place anywhere or at anytime, there are no restrictions but imagination.  Solidarity has occurred on the street, in workplaces, in jails and in courts.

I am going to put forward the need for and a description of activist legal groups as a means to help facilitate legal solidarity – both in jail and in courts. We need to organize many more legal groups in conjunction with our political groupings and networks. Through activist legal groups we can think together about strategy in relating to the courts and jails if we are repressed or arrested, and can act in solidarity to protect, to the extent possible, those most vulnerable. This is not an exhaustive description, but an overview of the concepts and a few tools so as to intervene in the current political climate of increasing repression and attempts at the silencing of dissent.

Legal Solidarity

Legal solidarity is solidarity once people are in contact with the legal system and cannot just walk away – once a person has been detained or arrested by police on the street, in a police car, in jail or in a courtroom. Legal solidarity is relevant and useful until the very end – until one is no longer a part of the criminal justice system, including through probation or parole.

Jails and courts are designed to make people feel powerless, but through solidarity we gain more control over what happens to us, and thus find ways to help one another and ourselves. One of the ways this is done is by making decisions as a group, acting in unity with each other, and committing ourselves to safeguard each other. Legal Solidarity has been used effectively for decades in the Labor, Civil Rights, Peace, Anti-Nuke and Environmental movements and very recently and effectively with the Global Justice movement. I participated in activist legal groups in the Global Justice Movement as well as attempts to form collectives during the Occupy encampments and after.

Jail Solidarity

One can act in solidarity all of the time. The process of arrest itself is a tricky one, and one where people have often acted together in the streets so as to help others not get arrested. This is an area that some law enforcement might construe as “resisting arrest”, itself an arrestable charge, as bizarre as that sounds. In this gray area people have done such things as change their appearance if identified on the street by police; changing clothes with other activists who do not look like them, changing hairstyle, hat, etc.

Jails have been used throughout the history of private property to protect those with access to the system from those without such access. Jails are used to terrorize, demoralize and dehumanize us. Once in jail we need to protect each other, especially those most vulnerable to the system. To do this we may come together with demands that we want met by prison officials or legal representatives.

Three of countless examples of jail solidarity are:  Nelson Mandela, together with political and non-political prisoners acting together, using tactics from hunger strikes to other forms of non-compliance to gain better conditions for all prisoners. The Suffragette movement in the US, where women regularly refused to comply with the system while in jail, including going limp, or refusing to be moved or to eat until all women were released together. They regularly won.  In Washington DC, in April 2000, 150 people arrested in protests against the International Monetary Fund acted together, using the non-compliance tactic of refusing to provide identification, and with the support of the legal team on the outside, negotiated a plea bargain in which everyone’s misdemeanor charges were reduced to a $5 jaywalking ticket – no longer a misdemeanor.

Solidarity tactics are used to protect people who are likely to be separated in jail and prosecuted more harshly in court.  Non-citizens, people of color, people who are seen as leaders, people who go limp or use more militant tactics, transgendered, gay, lesbian and others who might appear in such a way that would draw the negative attention of the police, those on probation or parole, and people with prior arrests or convictions are examples of vulnerable people. Historically and with great regularity the police and legal system trump up felony charges against one or a few activists to try and divide the group between “good” and “bad” protestor. Solidarity breaks down this divide, refusing to allow people to be treated differently.

Once in the hands of the legal system, having a legal group on the outside to help communicate collective actions is very useful for the success of the solidarity. This does not mean solidarity is not effective without a legal team, but groups should always be thinking about themselves as individuals and collectives so as to protect each individual.

One of the first things that helps in the facilitation of solidarity is getting to know those around you. If there is no pre-organized group on the street, then find a few people who know you and can look out for you. Then, if arrested, immediately meet those arrested with you – not sharing anything specific that you might or might not have done, but just get to know one another to build trust for collective support and action.

In most jail and court solidarity processes, people have used variations of the consensus decision-making process. A process that makes sure all people can speak and be heard and whatever discomfort with various proposals can be aired and resolved. It is crucial that everyone feel comfortable with collective action in a restricted and dangerous setting, such as a jail since the ramifications can be severe and are almost always collective. One role which helps make consensus or other participatory forms of decision making run smoothly is a strong facilitator. The facilitator aids the group in defining decisions that need to be made, helps them through the stages of reaching an agreement, keeps the meeting moving, focuses discussion as much as possible; makes sure everyone has the opportunity to participate, and formulates and tests to see if consensus has been reached. Facilitators help to direct the process of decision making, not its content. They do not make decisions for the group. If a facilitator feels she/he cannot be neutral it is important to then not facilitate. 

Court Solidarity

Court solidarity, as it sounds, is acting in solidarity once in the legal adjudication process. Collective decisions can be made with regard to everything from if and how people will go to trial rather than take plea bargain offers, to how to behave in court, what sort of press work to do, how to be represented etc.

The most successful example of legal solidarity that I participated in was the defense of over 420 people arrested at the 2000 Republican National Convention protests in Philadelphia. Hundreds of arrestees initially refused to give either their names or allow themselves to be fingerprinted, acting in solidarity with those with more serious charges. Over three dozen people were charged with felonies, ranging from riot and conspiracy to shut down the city to aggravated assault and attempted murder of a police officer. While in jail, facing violent and abusive conditions, hundreds of activists created an atmosphere of support, care and powerful solidarity – led by the women - arrestees sang, held assemblies, made demands, and met and protected one another as much as possible. While successful in many regards, the jail solidarity in this instance did not lead to equal adjudication, or even negotiations with the district attorney.

Since jail solidarity did not led to the results desired, tactics shifted to court solidarity. In the end, after many spent over two weeks in jail and then over a year involved in collective and individual court cases, almost all charges were dropped. No one was convicted of a single felony – the ultimate goal of the solidarity, with only 13 misdemeanor convictions. The victory in Philadelphia was not just the 98 percent non-conviction rate – though this was tremendous – but the ongoing acts of solidarity that continued for over a year. Those arrested were from all over the United States, and these hundreds of people found ways of functioning democratically and collectively so as to create the solidarity that led to the final equal adjudication of almost all of them.  The R2K legal group helped facilitate this process and victory.

Activist Legal Groups

Activist legal groups are key in helping to facilitate discussions as to what is possible before an action, as well as in helping to conduct solidarity trainings and sharing experiences of others in similar situations. This is different from the Know Your Rights trainings that are generally conducted by lawyers. Best is if an activist legal group is comprised of non-practicing lawyers. Too often, despite the good intentions of lawyers, activists defer to them and first ask what is legal rather than first discuss what they want to do and how it might be possible. Activist legal groups can also help with the broader legal team in keeping track of those people when arrested and making sure that if people arrested are acting together and have demands that those demands are heard and whatever sort of negotiation or process they desire – as much as possible – is facilitated. The activist legal team continues to organize once people face court cases, again facilitating discussions amongst those arrested to see if there is a desire to act together in court and if so, helping with the logistics of it as well as then the court process to follow.

Urgency Today

I fear as our protests continue to expand there will be more targeting of specific groups and individuals, and we must respond as collectively as we act. To do this will require organizing activist legal collectives and groups. Preparing ahead of time, having ongoing legal support networks of activists, lawyers and legal workers. It is work that is less glamorous and often goes under the radar of movements, a perspective that I hope will shift. Keeping people out of jail and unafraid is central to any movement and will be even more important to ours as we deepen our resistance and create alternatives to this system.

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