NLG Mass Defense Committee – What a Year!

by Jeff Feuer

The NLG Mass Defense Committee (MDC) had an extremely busy year in 2011.  Prior to the beginning of October and the beginning of the 99% movement, much of our work was focused on foreclosure defense/eviction blockade actions.  Groups like City Life/Vida Urbana, Chelsea Collaborative, Springfield No One Leaves Project all sought the Guild’s assistance in conducting trainings for Legal Observers and Civil Disobedience issues.  The MDC successfully defended activists arrested at a number of eviction blockades in the Greater Boston area, with criminal charges being dismissed or converted to civil infractions upon payment of a small fine.

Guild member Steven Toff (left) serves as an NLG Legal Observer during October mass arrests at Occupy Boston. Photo by Tess Scheflan.

That work included the defense of 24 people arrested on Friday, September 30, 2011, at a large Right to the City Rally, March and Demonstration at the Bank of America in Boston.  The many Guild Legal Observers at the march helped reassure the demonstrators that their rights would be protected and that they had real visible legal support on their side.  Once the march of several thousand people reached the Bank of America headquarters in Boston’s financial district, 24 demonstrators were arrested in an act of civil disobedience by blocking the entrances to the bank building.  All were charged with trespass and many of them spent long hours at the police stations suffering through the booking process until they were released on bail.  The following Tuesday, all of the arrestees appeared in Boston Municipal Court to be arraigned on the criminal charge of trespass and volunteer attorneys from the MDC were there to represent them.

Fortunately, we had a very sympathetic chief D.A. in the BMC (Susan Terry), who understood what the demonstration was about and that she was not dealing with “criminals.”  As a result, we negotiated a very favorable resolution for all of the arrestees – 18 of them had their criminal charge of trespass converted into a civil infraction for which they were found “responsible” and received a fine of ZERO dollars!  The remaining six arrestees (each of whom had fairly recent arrests on their record, mostly for protest related activities) also had their criminal charges converted into a civil infraction for which they were found “responsible,” but only paid a fine of $50 each!  That meant that none of the arrestees wound up with a criminal charge, the cases were completely disposed of on Tuesday and there were no restrictions placed on the arrestees participating in any future protest activities.  This was an extremely successful outcome for one of the largest demonstrations in downtown Boston in recent years.

Beginning in early October, the MDC’s attention turned toward Occupy Boston (OB), which had begun the same day as the Right to the City demonstration.  Early on, the Guild began to provide legal support to OB through the on-site OB Legal Working Group, with Guild members Carl Williams, Chris Williams, Urszula Masny-Latos, and Mary Lu Mendonca becoming part of that team.  Then, the mass arrest of 140+ OB participants galvanized the rest of the MDC into action.  One of those arrested was Urszula who, along with about 20 other volunteers, was serving as an NLG Legal Observer at the site (no other LO’s were arrested).  When the arrestees were arraigned over the following three days in the BMC, MDC attorneys were there to represent the demonstrators and to negotiate resolution to the cases.  Most of the demonstrators were offered a very reasonable deal by the DA’s office and/or the court — either dismissal of the charges pre-arraignment or conversion of the criminal charges into a civil infraction, both contingent on payment of $50 court costs or a fine.  The vast majority of the 140+ OB arrestees took this deal, but a committed group of 20 people rejected the offer and have chosen to challenge their arrests by proceeding to trial.  A group of MDC attorneys will be representing the OB defendants.

Rebecca Amdemariam, 3L at Suffolk Law School, on Legal Observer duty at Occupy Boston. Photo by Tim Plenk.

Following the arrests, the MDC held an organizing meeting to determine how best to structure Guild legal support for the Occupy Movement in Massachusetts.  At the meeting, the MDC created seven different task groups, each of which has its own Coordinator(s).  Astrid afKlinteberg is the Coordinator for the NLG Legal Hotline, in which volunteer lawyers staff and answer legal questions for the Guild office during out-of-office hours and weekends via call forwarding from the Guild’s main phone number, during the duration of Occupy Boston.  Jeff Feuer is the Coordinator for Arraignments, with the Guild supplying volunteer attorneys to cover arraignments for people arrested at political demonstrations.  Carl Williams and Chris Williams are the Coordinators for Occupy Boston Legal Team, which works with the OB Legal Working Group to provide Guild LO, CD and Know Your Rights training and legal advice to OB participants on-site.  Melinda Drew is the Coordinator for Legal Observers, and is responsible for coordinating training of new legal observers and notifying legal observer volunteers of requests from OB and other political groups for legal observers.  Lee Goldstein is the Coordinator for CD Training, and is responsible for coordinating trainings for OB participants and other political groups on the legal aspects of civil disobedience.   Susan Church and Benjie Hiller are the Coordinators for Criminal Defense Cases, coordinating the criminal defense of people arrested at OB and other political demonstrations.  Myong Joun is the Coordinator for Civil Cases, coordinating civil cases for personal injury, property and civil rights damages that may arise out of illegal or excessive force arrests during political demonstrations, and working on obtaining injunctive relief to prevent future mass arrests of OB and other political demonstrators.  Jeff Feuer is also serving as the overall Coordinator of the MDC.

An Occupy Boston activist dispaying a placard with the NLG number. Photo by Justin McIntosh.

Since then, the MDC has been going full-steam ahead on OB projects.  Working closely with the ACLU, Guild attorney Howard Cooper has headed a team of attorneys who have drafted a complaint for injunctive and declaratory relief to protect the First Amendment rights of OB participants and to forestall any future mass arrests.  The Guild office hotline has been in use 24 hours a day fielding legal questions from OB participants and arranging for legal representation for political demonstrators arrested subsequent to the mass arrests.  Guild attorneys have been present for every arraignment of demonstrators arrested in both Boston and Worcester.  The Criminal Defense group is currently planning its trial strategy for the 20 OB demonstrators who have chosen to go to trial, with the involvement of almost a dozen defense lawyers.  Information and evidence is being gathered to prepare civil lawsuits on behalf of individual protestors who were injured (including a broken wrist) during arrests and a class action on behalf of all the demonstrators who had personal property destroyed by the police during the October 11th mass arrests.  Guild members are conducting on-going training and education workshops on-site at OB about people’s legal rights, how to be a legal observer, and how to assert those rights.  In addition, Guild members are providing legal assistance and support in meetings between OB participants and city officials, the Boston Police Department, and the Greenway Conservancy.

Jeff Feuer is the Coordinator of the NLG Mass Chapter’s Mass Defense Committee.  He is a law partner at Goldstein & Feuer in Cambridge.

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